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Bleeding Edge

Bleeding Edge

Why technology turns toxic in an unequal world

Capitalism likes us to believe in the steady, inevitable march of progress, from the abacus to the iPad. But the historical record tells of innumerable roads not taken, all of which could have led to better worlds, and still can.


It's hammered into us from birth that 'all good things come at a price’. Today, that price looks apocalyptic, with wars, exploitation and environmental collapse in every part of the globe. Some suggest that the carnage is "a price worth paying" for technological progress. No pain, no gain.

But technology is precisely the business of minimising the costs and impacts of existence… and by whole orders of magnitude. By now, all human beings should be leading creative, leisure-filled lives in a pristine world of burgeoning diversity. So how did it go so wrong? In a word, inequality. In The Bleeding Edge, Bob Hughes argues that unequal societies are incapable of using new technologies well. Wherever elites exist, self-preservation decrees that they must take control of new technologies to protect and entrench their status, rather than satisfy people’s needs.

Bob pursues the latest discoveries about the effects of social inequality on human health, into the field of human environmental impact, and traces today’s ecological crisis back to the rise of the world’s first elites, 5,000 years ago. He argues that new technologies have never emerged from elites or from the clash of competitive forces, but from largely voluntary, egalitarian collaborations of the kind that produced the world’s first working computers.

He shows how inequality drastically reduces our technological options, and turns successful inventions into their own ‘evil twins’. From the medieval water mill to the cellphone, elegant ideas have been turned into engines of destruction - their greater economy of means perversely magnifying their human and ecological impact. A trend that can only escalate until we grasp the nettle and call time on social inequality. Any political programme that tries to arrest climate change while tolerating inequality is as doomed as trying to climb Mount Everest by the downhill route.

Finally, Bob shows that an egalitarian world is not ‘pie in the sky but our evolutionary homeland, the glue that holds societies together, and the “cradle of invention” from which all our best ideas emerge. For a sustainable world, we must stop pleading, as it were, for “a bit less rape”, and put all social domination beyond the social pale. The book concludes: ‘Let’s assume that the commitment to human equality that’s written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means exactly what it says, and take it from there.’

Foreword by Danny Dorling 


1 Technofatalism and the future – is a world without Foxconn even possible? 
Two paradoxes about new technology
Humanity began with technology
Technology emerges from egalitarian knowledge economies
The myth of creative competition
Why capitalism inhibits innovation
Capitalism didn't make computers… but took computing down the wrong path

2 From water mills to iPhones: why technology and inequality do not mix
Egalitarian hopes for computing
The return of medieval economics
The first modern environmental crisis
An unequal society is a dangerous place for powerful ideas
Water mills, and how new technology can be a curse
Firearms take a European turn

3 What inequality does to people
Inequality reduces life expectancy
Equality and the Soviet Union
Autonomy and solidarity: the essential nutrients
Inequality makes people shorter
Today’s inequality will damage future generations

4 The environmental cost of human inequality 
Are the rich destroying the earth?
Inequality turns humans into a geological force
Malthus’s mistake: not too many babies, but too much debt
Ehrlich’s last gasp: technology and 'eye-pat’
The power to choose a low-impact life

5 Ever greater impact, ever less benefit: high-tech capital’s mysterious lack of growth
‘Keep your nerve’ or ‘tough it out’
Why computers have grown nothing but themselves
Inequality: the elephant in the room

6 The invisible foot: why inequality increases impact
Technology plus inequality equals meltdown
‘Positionality’ and ‘human nature’
Traffic waves and why faster is slower
Computers and the positional economy: obsolescence gone mad
The rise of financial services, trailed by women in old cars
Putting a girl on the moon: the cost of education
How ‘e-learning’ rebounded on the poor

7 Enclosure in the computer age: the magic of control
The supernatural enters everyday life: the magic of commodities
Power over the future: the magic of intellectual property
Computers and the making of money
The world gets smaller and hotter
Closing the technological frontier (or trying to)
Other routines are possible!

8 Sales effort: from the automobile to the microchip
The all-steel automobile as an energy sump
How the sales effort shaped the chip
Moore’s self-fulfilling prophecy: chips with everything
Dictating the future
The visionary turn
Embracing carnage: faith in disruption

9 Technoptimism hits the buffers
The toxic demands of purity
Obsolescence and e-waste: a total system
Displacing the problem to Africa
Entropy: measuring what’s possible
Maxwell’s demon: the spoiler in the green growth dream
Puncturing the weightless economists

10 The data explosion: how the cloud became a juggernaut
Forced migration: corporate flight into the cloud
How the web became an entropy pump
The cost of the dotcom bubble and Web 2.0

11 ‘The least efficient machine humans have ever built’: how capitalism drove the computer down a dead end 
The buried world of analog computing
Clocks: why today’s computers mostly do nothing, but very
Soviet computing: diversity under scarcity and bureaucracy
Time-sharing: another abandoned road
Competitive pressure narrows all options

12 Planning by whom and for what? The battle for control from the Soviet Union to Walmart
The benefits and dangers of centralized planning
Electrification of the Soviet Union: heteronomous planning becomes the global norm
Linear programming, with and without computers
The curious incident of the capitalist calculation debate
Connection-making and the ecology movement
Operational Research and cybernetics
Variety engineering: the difference between amplification and shouting

13 A socialist computer: Chile, 1970-1973
A global crisis of inequality
The Unidad Popular: a moderately egalitarian program
Stafford Beer and ‘cybernetic socialism’
How much computer hardware does a viable society need?
Cheap, radical technology
‘War’ is declared

14 Utopia or bust
Envisioning Utopia: the world turned right way up
Utopian practicalities: food and work
Beauty and lower impact, from the bottom up
Shrinking roads, expanding diversity
Putting babies and children at the heart of the economy
Shared work: Utopia’s powerhouses
Community is stronger than we think: ‘Disaster Utopias’
The Right knows the power of solidarity, even if the Left doesn’t
Equality, truth and the experience of being believed
The ‘apparatus of justification’

13.80 x 21.60cm
UK Publication Date: 
Friday, 16 September, 2016

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