Ridding Anarchism of Technophobia: A Matter of Exposing Irony
By Jay Upryse
Since the beginning of humanity, people have utilized tools to accomplish feats incapable if left to just the human body. From the invention of rubbing two sticks together quickly in order to spark a fire to mass transportation systems, the basis of technology lies in its development by humanity out of curiosity and need. Without technology, and, more importantly, the ability and will to create it, it is questionable that human civilization would have survived or even developed.
Wishing to go beyond the mere survival of humanity, revolutionary anarchism sees the existence of classes, patriarchy, white supremacy, oppression and exploitation of any form as unnecessary evils that need to be buried underneath a new world. Such a rupture with the current order will not occur without the use of technology, albeit using it in the interests of humanity and not the oppressors. But there are those who see technology as antithetical to a free society. They have often equated technology with oppression. To have technology, particularly “high-technology” like that abundant in imperialist nations to oppressed and oppressor alike, is to own a part of your own and the world’s oppression.
John Zerzan, the infamous theoretician behind much of this anti-technology un-ideology has called technology “the sum of mediations between us and the natural world and the sum of those separations mediating us from each other” that aids the division of labor and is the “texture and the form of domination at any given stage of hierarchy and commodification.”1 There are numerous anarcho-primitivists and neo-Luddittes2 that agree with such proclamations. In fact, the role and entire existence of technology (along with language, culture, and civilization itself) have been indicted for crimes against humanity because of its supposed ability to create “super-alienation” and exaggerate exploitation of people and the environment. But what the primitivist/anti-technology camp fails to see is how neutral technology as a whole can be, how the question is not the use of it but who is in control of it and for whose interests it serves. The anti-technology forces have got it all wrong.
If technology is the sum of anything it is the sum of the amazing ability of humanity to innovate and create, to assess and solve problems, to think of seemingly wild solutions and implement them in concrete ways. Technology, in its most basic sense, has nothing to do with the separation of humanity from the environment. Humans use technology to adapt to their environment or to adapt their environment to them. This does not require separation like Zerzan and others have claimed. Separation may occur through the use of technology but it is not inherent with in technology. The question is who controls technology, not whether it should exist.
Nor is technology a cause of the development of class-stratified society. Technology, like clay, takes the shape of its molder. Both the oppressed and oppressor can mold technology into what is in their own interests. Technology is a nuclear warhead with the ability to destroy the world and humanity, and it is the simple sling-shot used by Palestinian youth to fight Israelis tanks. It is simultaneously the polluting coal-burning facilities kept in place by the bourgeoisie to avoid losing profit, and the solar-power panels used to power Zapatista radio stations in the heart of La Realidad. It is both the machines that take the jobs of the proletariat while also being the machines that make their job easier, safer, and more productive. It can be the same camera used by the FBI in COINTELPRO-like spying that indigenous people of El Salvador use to document the attacks of U.S.-backed death squads. Technology can be made to either hurt or help, to kill or save, to make profit or make resistance. It has no allegiance but to its creator.
Some say that while the use of technology in a techno-drowned world makes sense in order to bring about the day of liberation in our lifetimes, the world they are fighting for is free of technology. They argue that the only use of technology is in building for its destruction. They may use cars to drive to protests against pollution. They might create websites to promote the un-ideology of smashing technology along with the state and capitalism. They insist that this use of technology is not hypocritical because it furthers the day that technology is a mere memory in the minds of the liberated people of the world. They decry any attempt to criticize them for the use of technology in this way because it is doing something positive for the world. Regardless of whether things like http://www.primitivism.com are irony at its best, their insistence that technology can in fact be used for the advancement of humanity instead of its demise is the ultimate defect in their utterly flawed position.
Technology has been and will always be used by humanity. The line of development from the first wheel to the first bus, from the first human-started fire to the first furnace, from the first telephone to email is not one free of disastrous and scary machines. The atomic bombs and the scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a gross testament to technology’s ability to destroy. But the problem is not, nor has it ever been, the development of new, easier, safer or better ways of doing things by way of technological advancement. Rather the problem has always been who is the one determining what needs changed and in whose interests. The assertion that technology somehow possesses a character of its own is a crucial question for revolutionary anarchists to take up and understand. Revolutionary anarchism, if it is to make a significant mark on the liberation of humanity from the chains of oppression and exploitation, must break with the un-ideology of anarcho-primitivism and its rejection of technology.
J. Upryse is part of the Burning River Revolutionary Anarchist Collective in northeast Ohio.
1. Zerzan, http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/zerzan/sp001184.txt
2. Luddittes being an anti-technology worker’s movement that existed in Europe at the dawn of the industrial revolution.