Monday, August 1, 2016

Radical Technology Revisited

In the early 1970s there appeared a magazine called Undercurrents: The journal of radical science and people’s technology. It challenged the directions and uses of technology in modern societies, suggesting alternative, more humane pathways. In 1976 it spun off a book, Radical Technology, describing radical approaches to shelter, energy, food, materials, communications, autonomy and other perspectives. It inspired many people and many of the ideas have entered the mainstream. Energy was a key issue, with wind mills, biogas and solar power much to the fore, but it was clearly not the only one.

Forty years on, are any of those ideas still relevant today? The Radical Technology 2.0 conference in Bristol, September 2nd-4th, will revisit Radical Technology, asking where it was right, where wrong, and what can be learned from its successes and failures. It looks like being an interesting event, ranging widely as might be expected and opening up many issues.

The1976 Radical Technology argued for radical decentralisation, small and simple local technologies, dispersed populations and cooperative communities. But are these decentral approaches still appropriate? Many of the original authors and practitioners of radical technology appear to have moved to embrace the need for some engagement with large-scale, sophisticated technologies. However, is ‘technology’ still a useful focus? Or should the focus now be on political change and social technologies? Why is innovation predominantly used to expand consumption, rather than to solve urgent problems? Was trying to ‘keep it simple’ a lost cause? Can ‘alternatives’ only survive in ghettoes and protected niches? Can we go ‘Back’? Or are technological ‘progress’ and economic growth the only options?

That’s certainly the high tech, high growth eco-moderniser’s view, contrasting strongly with  the ‘deep green’ stable-state decentralists view, with both usually saying the other view won’t deliver. Though not many of the former are likely to be at the event! Most people may well want something in the middle, although the issue then is will that be radical enough to deal with the various eco and energy crises, with the nuclear issue being a likely stumbling block.... For detail of the RT 2.0 event:

‘Radical Alternatives’ were not just a fringe environmental concern or the preserve of communes and local co-ops. There was also the Lucas Aerospace workers Alternative Plan, with its 40th anniversary gathering coming up in Birmingham in November. That gathering, organized by the Breaking the Frame New Luddite group, aims to link the experience of radical trade union groups then, trying to redirect the technology focus of their companies to create sustainable, socially useful work, with similar current campaigns: 

That follows on from the recent launch at the TUC of a new edition of Mike Cooley’s influential 1970’s book, ‘Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology’. Cooley was leading member of the Lucas workers campaign. Frances O’Grady, the current TUC General Secretary, in her new introduction to the book, asks ‘How do we maximise the upsides and minimise the downsides of technological change? How do we make sure rapid scientific advances empower rather than enslave working people? And how do we mould this progress towards socially useful purposes such as the fight against climate change, or public services tailored towards the needs of disadvantaged groups? Ultimately, how do we win the political and industrial battle for control?’

The world has of course moved on since the 1970s, with many of the technology ideas that emerged then now commonplace, but as that quote suggests, the issue are still the same. So looking back at these early initiatives may still be valuable. The mood then was very hopeful, with old structures breaking up and new ideas spreading. But it’s not that different now: progressive movements are still enthusiastic about the possibilities of change and the changes that have occurred since the 1970s, for example in the energy area, would  have amazed the activists then. Wind and solar power were just dreams, now both are major energy suppliers globally. The political battles however are much the same. And now the word ‘radical’ has new less appealing associations, implying the imposition of narrow fundamentalist views.  But, in all areas, there are non-dogmatic challenges to the status quo and, as ever, resistance to that.

The challenge is thus both technological and political. As Lund emphasized in his book Renewable Energy Systems (Elsevier 2104), what is needed is not is just a technological change, it also involves a social choice process, without which the technical side will flounder or be side tracked. He looks at how to enhance ‘choice awareness’, moving beyond the paralyzing status quo view that ‘there are no choices’– or only one choice. He notes that ‘existing organizations will often seek to create the perception that the radical change in technologies is not an option and that society has no choice but to implement a solution involving the technologies that will save and constitute existing positions’.     

Even if we limit ourselves to just energy issues, as Miller et al put it, ‘the key choices involved in energy transitions are not so much between different fuels but between different forms of social, economic, and political arrangements built in combination with new energy technologies’: 

Of course, energy is only one issue, linked to many larger ones, such as economic growth and social equity. And as deep greens often say, technology is not the key thing: we need social and political change first. Although others say it has to be a coevolution process: technical change can help social change and vice versa.  Then again, some say that technology can potentially be liberatory, undermining capitalism:

All of which, still begs the question of who make the changes? Unless that is you think the process will be automatic, as technology evolves.  Plenty to debate at the 40th anniversaries!

*The newsletter I edit, Renew, is also approaching its fortieth anniversary- although there’s still some way to go. It started life as as the Newsletter of the NATTA network, which was set up in 1976. But the first issue didn’t emerge until 1979. Though it has come out bimonthly in various formats ever since:

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