Over the last few days I have been engaged in a wonderful comment conversation with Darren, from Island Notes, in response to the podcast episode Thriving During Challenging Times with Cam Mather. After reading what he wrote in his last response I felt like there was a large(r) topic worth exploring in the format of a blog post. I’ll include one paragraph of his entry below as starting point, but encourage you to read the entire thread of comments for context. The Illich his quote references is Ivan Illich and his essay Energy and Equity in particular. I’d rightly agree with his perception of our conversation as a dialectic “between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue” as the Wikipedia definition of dialectic suggests.
Still, I’ve got to take issue with your premise that “for all intents and purposes” that renewable energy is limitless, and if we only adopt fairness, everything will be groovy (paraphrased for sure). Equity (fairness) in society is much more that equally consuming energy. The very hierarchy IS generated from the radical monopolies that necessarily result from energy capitalism, if you will. Don’t know if you’ve noticed but the technophillic embrace of information, and the industry behind it, brews up similar social inequity whereby genuine human (unplugged) interaction essentially becomes the biggest threat to information capitalist agenda. When you see that in education, from cradle to grave, it’s pretty spooky. For Illich, at least at that time, he posited politically enacted limits to energy inputs as an approach to tweakage. While it’s hard to imagine that in our current climate, nature has a way of casting its own sublime vote.
There are many elements of truth to his position that the industry behind information creates social inequity where interaction is a threat to a capitalist agenda. Not everyone involved in the diverse group of organizations that make up the industry share that agenda to be sure, but you can see it in television stations that propagate 30 second and out of context sound bites and fear-monger. In newspapers that offer material which blurs the lines of journalism with concepts like advertorials. In social networks who are constantly searching for new ways to profit from people trying to interact through what tools and technologies are presented to them. In the podcast episode Civilizations Control Panel author Douglas Rushkoff summarized many of the issues that come along with accepting such technologies without understanding the intent and impact of their use / distribution.
The unfortunate truth for such “radical monopolies” is that their continued search for better ways to create better things to sell to a constantly evolving community of citizens is that they are sowing the seeds of their own demise with every next new greatest product or process. Staying strictly within the realm of information for this exploration, the desire to efficiently distribute the one-to-many technologies has built up entire industries that have gone on to provide printers, microphones, cameras and video cameras to the masses in form factors that can fit in your pocket. This has given authors, orators, journalists, artists and everyone the ability to capture and create a wide variety of alternative media. Mixed with computers and the potentially democratizing force of a network architecture of the Internet, now anyone with a computer or smart phone can receive, re-mix and respond to the thoughts and topics of someone on the other side of the planet as easily as they can converse with a friend across a table. The power of such electronic platforms is that an individual now has almost equal opportunity to share their thoughts as the largest corporations.
Or as my guest on episode #0003 – Philosophy of Open Source – Matt Mullenweg put it, “Technology is closing the gap between what one can imagine and what one can do and as a result the equality of opportunity is unmatched in human history.” So today, those who share an information capitalist agenda are forced to sell their “propaganda” to and against an army of citizen wearing many hats (bloggers, podcasters, journalists,etc). The coverage of the arab spring and now american autumn show that, as Adbusters spin it, there is “a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society”.
As much as Darren was identifying the issues with information and technology, his larger concerns were with the equity of energy. Supposing, as Darren and Ivan Illich do, that “radical monopolies” come about from surpassing thresholds of energy that would suggest that anything which can be done to distribute the means to produce power could be considered an act of democratization. The more people who can create energy means more sources to acquire it for those unable to produce it themselves. Increasing the overall supply of power should – if the most basic of economic concepts does have any truth to it – reduce the cost to satisfy the demand for power.
This is an interesting nexus between energy and information worth exploring. In the late 20th century, the information architecture of the world was facing many of the same challenges that energy industries are trying to solve today. It was highly institutionalized using highly centralized technology and a relative few were able to control what messages flowed through their medium. A few decades later and information generally flows much more freely across the internet which has its’ origins as a, “military command and control systems research project”. This blog is as much a testament to that as anything else. Though it should be said that nation-states still have or want the ability to turn it off at a moments notice. Solar power production is getting smaller, cheaper and faster by the day. If the decentralizing effects of the Internet can challenge such stalwart industries as print, music and movies, imagine how much potential for change decentralizing the production of power has for the rest of the world.
Such topics are ones I quite enjoy stepping off the edge to think about. In one form or another most episodes of the podcast touch on this narrative. So if that supposition that energy limits equality has any truth, I think my concluding comment would be that we are steadily heading towards a tomorrow where that is less and less likely to be the case. We are seeing countless examples come up which enable more people to achieve an equal quality of life with less impact on our environment or others. We are also seeing more people share more information in hopes of growing the potential for equality of life in all environments. Episodes #0006 – Innovation on the Ocean – and #0007 – A Contour Crafting Conversation – stand out in my mind as examples in this regard. The Seasteading Institute is an organization which believes more people should have the opportunity to organize themselves as a community without interference from the largest of monopolies in nation-states. Contour Crafting is researching ways to reduce the material cost, production time, and environmental impact of building energy efficient homes. Both are examples of people striving to use forms to technology to achieve goals that will help humanity live in harmony with their habitat and I think speak well of our place on the path towards technological maturity.
Which leads me to the quite eloquent way that Illich concludes his essay discussing technological maturity. I do not know which road is less traveled, but can say that being aware of our surroundings, sharing knowledge, philosophies and perspectives with others about the process of living a good life as we walk these proverbial roads can make all the difference.
There are two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the center of the world is where he stands, walks, and lives.