issue 162 - August 1986
Economic and political power, rather than scientific innovation determine the directions that technology takes. Peter Stalker reports.
'AHA a few more of my little friends,' says Sean pointing to a couple of green worms crawling along the top of a leaf. 'If the worm eats a sprayed part of the leaf it turns into a sort of black cheese and falls off. Works by paralysing the stomach.'
I know how it feels. It's a baking hot Sunday morning on the Pacific coastal plain of Nicaragua. This is the Santa Clara cotton plantation. And the heat is enough to turn anyone to cheese.
But the battle in the fields goes on. The enemy is the 'army worm' which munches away at the cotton crop. And the assault this morning is a pincer movement. Bright yellow single-engined planes scream past overhead spewing clouds of methyl parathion and other noxious substances onto nearby fields. These are the big guns, blasting at everybody and everything in sight. Nicaragua is one of the heaviest users of chemical pesticides in the world. And the victims are not just the worms. Any human beings caught in this kind of fallout are likely to go much the same way - pesticide poisoning is at sickening levels here.
But the workers in this field are experimenting with an alternative approach. Guillermo Gonzalez, a research worker at the University of Leon, is busily tying plastic coffee cups to the cotton plants. Each cup contains what looks like a piece of sandpaper but the 'sand' is actually hundreds of tiny eggs of the trichogramma wasp. The heat will cause the eggs to hatch, the wasps will buzz out and head straight for the larvae of another pest, heliothus zea, and do them mortal damage.
It's a gory scene down there on the cotton leaves. Nature it seems will control pests on its own - given a bit of encouragement. And giving this kind of nudge is called 'biological control': the releasing of natural predators who will do the fighting for you.
Poison is a second line of attack here, though this time it's a natural bacterium: bacillus thuringiensis. This is what turns army worms into black cheese. Like the chemical pesticides this is sprayed on top of the leaves, but unlike them it will disappear naturally over time.
Techniques like these fire the enthusiasm of Sean Swezey, an energetic American biologist. He's foraging round the field (in his 'Citizens Against Toxic Sprays' T-shirt) to see how many of the worms - his 'little friends' survived the last dosage. He's an advocate of 'Integrated Pest Management' using a battery of small-scale techniques - in addition to some pesticides. The idea is to keep up cotton production with as little 'pesticide insult' as possible.
But it is hard work. Much more complex than coating the fields with chemicals. 'This is the application of brain power, rather than just the big bang,' says Swezey. And finding the right combination of timing, wasps, bacillus and pesticide can be a tricky business. It's worked out back in the laboratory with the help of IBM personal computers - ploughing through quantities of information that would be impracticable with human labour.
The biological control advocates are persuading the Nicaraguan government to jump off the pesticide treadmill. Before the Revolution some 30 per cent of the revenues from cotton were having to be spent on importing chemicals. That figure has now been reduced substantially and some chemicals like DDT and Dieldrin have been banned altogether.
This is 'political' science. Scientists are making a political choice in favour of the farm workers and the rivers and the lakes and the soil - and are developing the techniques that minimise the ecological and human damage.
The corporate scientists developing the pesticides are similarly making a political choice. Though in Central America, as elsewhere in the world, this is usually expressed in terms of profitability. Indeed we are all of us exposed to technology that exists not because it is the pinnacle of scientific achievement but because someone wants to sell it to us.
Take your humble household refrigerator. Chances are it runs on electricity. But there was nothing inevitable about this. At the time when refrigeration was being developed in the US in the 1920s the two different sources of power, electricity and gas, were running neck and neck.1
In the electric refrigerator the cooling liquid is moved around periodically by an electric pump - hence the familiar hum. The gas-powered version looked like being more energy-efficient and virtually silent. Why did the electric fridge triumph? Because the giant US corporation General Electric and the privately owned power companies wanted to sell more electricity. They thus invested millions of dollars in making all the tiny changes which were needed to perfect an efficient and relatively inexpensive refrigerator and beat the gas men to the marketplace. Meanwhile the small companies developing gas fridges struggled on or went quietly bust.
This might seem obvious enough. Companies will develop and sell products that will make money. But the argument goes further than this: the products themselves then carry a political punch. Pesticides, for example, are developed in countries where profitable agricultural production takes precedence over concern for the pollution of rivers and lakes - and even human beings. And their availability and effectiveness encourage their use - and the spread of these same values elsewhere. Sacks of pesticides will carry these ideas wherever they travel.2
Nuclear power offers an even more extreme example of this. Nuclear power stations are only feasible within political systems where a highly disciplined form of management control is encouraged. Even under optimal conditions the material is dangerous; carelessness leads to disaster. This has been known and accepted from the start. We know that for generations into the future we will have to surround nuclear power plants and their waste products with a panoply of secrecy, high security and armed guards that will taint the societies in which we live. Political consequences are locked into the technology.
To say that technology changes the way we live however, is to put the cart before the horse. The world, as always, is making the technology in its own image. It is developing the goods and equipment which respond to the prevailing distribution of power and money. Technology is not 'neutral'.
But the newest technology - based on the microchip - does seem to have acquired an almost mystical life of its own. How often do we hear that it is 'changing the world'? The microchip is driving people out of work. It is reducing many of those still at work to mindless automatons enslaved to the green screen. It is creating sinister databases which we must desperately try to control.
The non-scientists - and most of us fall into this category - are encouraged to feel numb and powerless in the face of its mysterious onward march. We watch with interest, even fascination, from the sidelines as ever more complex machines move to the centre of the stage.
Micro-technology did not come from nowhere. Most of the most significant research funded with almost limitless budgets arose out of the needs of the US military to gain greater control over their weapons and of the battlefield.
And it is the issue of control (masked by technological 'neutrality') that lies at the heart of all the arguments around this new technology, as it spills out from the military bases into business and industry, and right on into the home.
It is control which industrialists are looking for with tame robots which never go on strike. It is control which police and security forces look for when they build up massive personal databases. It is control which repressive governments are looking for when they aim to develop the artificial intelligence systems which will monitor telephone lines for suspect conversations. And it is control too in which fascinated individuals can revel while toying with their machines or playing computer games.
Some technologies have patterns of control so intricately woven into them that they should be rejected out of hand - in the same way as we would reject the ideologies that spawn them. Nuclear power, it could be argued, is so intractably structured around the idea of the authoritarian state that outright opposition is the only sane attitude. And a similar case is put later in this magazine that the notion of artificial intelligence is so profoundly anti-human that research on many aspects of it should be discontinued.
But the issues are rarely so clear cut. Indeed many technologies, whatever their genesis, do represent a part of the lifestyle that most of us embrace and accept. Just because the telegraph was originally a military invention designed to link parts of distant battlefields does not mean that it cannot be used for more benign purposes. And even where the technology itself has in-built violence this can often be turned against its inventors; many of the guns that guerilla groups have used to overthrow violent dictatorships have usually been captured from the enemy.
Most applications of micro-technology - the word processor, the chip that runs the automatic washing machines, the digital watch, the terminal in the travel agents that books your holiday - have no particularly malign purpose. True, they represent control - but no more control than (rightly or wrongly) many of us would want to exert on the world around us.
The enthusiasm for control through personal computers can be traced back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in the 1970s.3 Up till then the computers had been IBM giants locked away and operated by officials in white coats - and if you gave it a problem you had to hand it in and wait in the queue for the answer. But the original eccentric computer freaks, the 'hackers', realised that the same chips that were being used to drive these 'mainframes' and run the NATO defence systems could be used to power much smaller machines that would respond instantly to their questions at a keyboard - and put an intoxicating kind of power into their own hands. Something every schoolboy now playing Space Invaders or Way of the Exploding Fist will readily testify to.
Now that this power is available, in whose hands should it lie and how should it be used? The danger is that, by default, it is being exploited in very narrow directions.
There are several ways around this. The most obvious is purely political. Power over computer technology along with everything else can be arrived at using the conventional (and unconventional) processes of political change.
But technology itself can also become the medium through which change takes place. Just as biologists making natural forms of pest control available will widen the 'political' choices of Nicaraguan farmers, so the development of alternative forms of micro-technology can change the social and political environment in which such equipment is used. And the key to this form of change is to recognise that micro-technology is not a scientific frontier that is moving forward of its own momentum but a flexible chameleon that can be made to take on the shape and colour it is given.
In business and industry, for example, it is assumed that there is only one way to introduce the technology - the way the management would like. They usually argue that modernisation is inevitable and that the need to cut costs is forcing its introduction. And thus far they may be right. What they do not say is that the form of technology they are choosing to introduce will allow greater management control over the workforce.
It may even involve surveillance of the workers. Telephone operators are particularly vulnerable to this. In Bell Canada, for example, each keystroke they make is timed and recorded, so that the management can instantly call up 76 different pieces of data on the operator's performance.4 The human effects on the workers of such tight monitoring can be very damaging - and lead to high levels of stress. But there is no great need to have the monitoring focussed with such precision. Workers might reasonably get together to ask, for example, that they be given the information themselves first - and that they have corresponding information on their supervisors and management.
In manufacturing too, however compelling the industrial logic may seem for a particular process, there can be much more acceptable alternatives. Robots and computerised machine tools can either be made to reduce workers to the level of bored machine minders or can enhance and amplify their skills. Many people, however, see the technology itself as fixed and unchangeable and confine negotiations around whether to use it at all. Understandable and justifiable as this might be, it is a sure way to come off second best - for the power of the management will already have been frozen in the machine.
Some unions have successfully negotiated technical change agreements. In Australia, for example, the telecommunications engineers successfully made job design proposals to Telecom to ensure that the majority of their members did not finish up with unskilled jobs. Negotiating in this way is not easy. It implies that the workforce in factories and the offices, and the trade unions that represent them, become at least as adept at analysing the technology as they are at reading the small print in contracts of employment. But it can be done.
In Leeds in the United Kingdom, for example, the bus workers unhappy with new timetables engaged the help of a friendly programmer to develop schedules which were just as efficient but took their needs (and those of the passengers) more fully into account.
So it is possible for working people to defend themselves to some extent against the use of new technology to infringe their liberties.5 But it is also possible for them, and for radical groups in general, to use the micro-technology in a much more active sense. In many case the tools will be very similar whoever uses them. Computers analysing data on biological control in Nicaragua will be the same as those reckoning up the sales figures in the headquarters of the pesticide companies. And environmental groups in Europe and North America are now seizing the opportunities (thus far the prerogative of large corporations) to communicate rapidly through computers. Greenpeace for example has used electronic mail to co-ordinate its activities. It has also been able to monitor the output of the international news agencies - and issue corrections to misleading stories about Greenpeace before the papers have had a chance to print the original story.
Photo: Les Wilson / Camera Press
This will demand, initially at least, some technological know-how. Such knowledge is easy for the wealthier organisations to buy - but not available readily to the rest of us. Fortunately there are many individuals within the computer community who are more than willing to help - indeed are probably waiting to be asked. 'There are a lot of people anxious to offer their services - and community workers apprehensive about the technology. We just have to bring them together,' says Peter Rowan of Britain's Community Computing Network.6
But micro-technology can offer much more than merely putting business tools to work for community activities. It could also providing new decentralised forms of communication. This is as yet in its infancy but many groups are now experimenting with communications through electronic 'bulletin boards' at both an international and local level. In Berkeley, California, for example, a 'Community Memory' project is being pioneered. Coin-operated terminals in public places allow people to pass on opinions and information in ways which only the computer makes possible. It is as the organisers say: 'A community filing cabinet, a continuously available conversation on any topic whatsoever, a place for people with common interests to find each other, a tool for collective thinking, planning, organising and fantasising'.7
The new technology will, if we allow it, only be used by those in power to amplify their authority. The challenge to the rest of us is to recognise this and to oppose it: refusing to accept any proposal whose sole justification is that it represents 'technology, progress and the future'.
But we should not be blind either to the positive opportunities that technology offers to support diversity - whether it be in the environment, politics or the workplace.
Micro-electronic technology, like any other technology, will follow the pattern we impose on it.
1 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, Basic Books 1983. Also in Mackenzie & Walcman (see p25).
2 Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conapirscy, Doubleday 1978 and Prism PresajUK).
3 Steven Levy. Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Books, 1984.
4 Andrew Clement, Electronic Management. The New Technology of Workplace Surveillance. Department of Computer Science, York University, North York, Ontario MB5 2R7.
5 For examples in Scandinavia, for example, see Colin Gill, Work Unemployment end the New Technology. Polity Press, 1985.
6 See the list of Action Groups on p. 25
7 Further information is available from: The Community Memory Project, 2817 San Pablo Avenue. Berkeley CA 94702 - for $1 they'll send you their newsletter.
This special report appeared in the patterns of control - the human shape of technology issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.