Anarchism and the Neutrality of Technology

15/02/2020

The more varying anarchist literature and essays I read (which is, admittedly, not even that much overall), the more I realise that, beyond the central theme of “opposing” all forms of authority and hierarchy, anarchism only has one other uniting feature – it can’t really decide or agree on much more than that. One such field is that of technology, with anarcho-primitivists and crypto-anarchists essentially being on opposite ends of that particular spectrum.

I have made up for my general lack of reading so far this year by attempting to charge through Changing Anarchism: Anarchist Theory and Practice in a Global Age, a collation of essays on different issues through an “anarchist” lens. Quotations are due to the fact that even some of the authors admit their conclusions or ideas don’t necessarily fit the “pure” definition of anarchism – which, in my opinion, does not (and cannot) feasibly exist. Can you guess that my own writing blurs that same line?

One of the chapters was about technology, specifically the views of the collective the Fifth Estate on the “megamachine”. They took what is very much an anarcho-primitivist stance, calling for a push back to pre-Industrial or older “technology”, hence the primitive labelling. This was mainly, from what I could gather, due to the fact that technology was intricately tied with the capitalist system and was, in itself, an oppressive force against humanity. It was not a neutral tool, but an integral part of authoritarian structures that needed to be cast aside.

There was a fun reference to their disgust when they were forced to adopt a PC to write their journal if they wished to remain in print.

That piece of trivia should, I hope, bring some temporal context and requires a couple of points to explain my approach to their ideas and my own. Changing Anarchism was published in 2003, and the work of the Fifth Estate being analysed was formed from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. Even in the 17 years from 2003, technology has exploded so exponentially that it could be argued that such discussions are entirely redundant at this stage – with technology permeating pretty much every aspect of our lives in some way, how can an anarcho-primitivist lifestyle or system even be conceived?

Interestingly, another of the authors also seems to dismiss anarcho-primitivism, saying that it was something only those privileged enough to fall back on could take advantage of, and even then their reliance on certain forms of technology could never be abolished (it is worth noting at this point that by technology, it doesn’t just mean IT related items, but every type of technological advancement). Reality for most people was not congruent with anarcho-primitivist theory, and today such a concept would have you (I hesitantly would say justifiably) laughed out of any room you preached it to.

That isn’t to say I disagree with everything anarcho-primitivism entails, and some of the critiques of technology and how it has been used match up closely with a number of positions I held well before I stumbled onto anarchism, namely the corporate control over fundamental technologies (particularly in the internet era). Government and corporate surveillance, and the monopolisation of vital internet infrastructure like suppliers, browsers, cloud computing, social media, etc. etc. should have everyone concerned, but anarcho-primitivists of old would probably die of shock knowing the state of current technology in modern life.

And they aren’t wrong. As it stands right now, technology is intricately tied with the capitalist systems of exploitation and control, with the erosion of privacy and spread of misinformation being thrown on top for good measure. In its current form and through its current uses, it is everything they feared, perhaps more so.

However, this is where I diverge from them, in no small part, it must be said, because obviously back then they would have had no concept of the technologies we have developed today (from here I will mostly be referring to IT related technologies, seeing as it is arguably the most invasive and dominating). I have also grown up with many of the benefits such technology has provided and studied IT at university. Whether they might be considered biases or not, they obviously have played a major role in my opinion regarding modern technology.

While I concede that the technology of the day is always, to whatever extent, tied up with whatever systems and structures are in place, I do see it as a separate entity to the political sphere as well. Technology is a tool to be used, in my view, and the potential it has in countless aspects of our lives is staggering – if it were used correctly. I don’t claim to have a blueprint for what is “correct”, but a good starting point is calling out what is incorrect and working to include liberation into our technologies’ core purposes.

This is where I turn to my favourite technology of promise: blockchain. It’s also where I would probably find agreement with crypto-anarchists, those who strive for digital anonymity through avenues like the Tor browser, Dark Web, and now blockchain. As an added bonus, one could frame it as the perfect example to prove that technology is neutral and that it’s how they’re used that creates the perception of “good” or “evil”.

The decentralised nature of blockchain (in its most common form at this time), the anonymity and control it can provide users, and the revolutionary possibilities in the future of work and global supply chains place it in the spotlight to achieving a number of worthy goals. Ironically, this does prove one accusation of the Fifth Estate correct – that the answer to the woes of technology is more technology. While they intended that to be a sneer at the self-preservation of technology, it may just be that technology has (potentially) reached a point where their sarcastic observation might hold true.

Potentially is the key word, however. My main exposure to blockchain technology was in a very corporate context, and already there are blockchain spaces being overrun by corporate interests that are completely bastardising the original intent of platforms like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Instead of decentralisation, private networks can be developed that limit what users are able to do while other actors have full control. The transparency of global supply chains could be shrouded whilst the efficiency of extortionate practices reaches new heights. Rather than protecting the privacy of users, access to services could be predicated on their level of willingness to give up personal information.

Sounds pretty damn bleak when shown in this light, but, as I’ve written before, if blockchain were implemented in good faith even in a capitalist system, as Don and Alex Tapscott promote, the benefits for average people could be incredible. Taking it a step further in a purely decentralised, non-capitalist system, it could be the almost perfect technology to tap into many of anarchism’s supposed goals.

While blockchain is indeed a technology that will undoubtedly have a major impact in the coming years, it is just one of endless technologies out there that, if handled carefully, offer immense benefits to the future of humanity and the planet. Strides in renewable energy and battery storage technology will phase out fossil fuels for the betterment of the environment (another case of technology attempting to fix the cons of outdated technology). Improved agricultural and water management technologies could provide food and clean water to communities across the globe. The list goes on.

These technologies, while right now entwined with capitalist structures, can occupy a space beyond ideological battlefields. A community and humanitarian approach would have them improve the lives of the global population, helping to further liberate struggling peoples who are reliant on the existing oppressive systems, and fostering creativity and innovation.

Imagining a world without technology may be an interesting academic discussion, but historically it had little bearing, and especially in modern times the reality of our global world makes it, in practice, a negligible position. There is, however, grand scope for the use of technology in ways that see us flying forwards. That does mean we have to work hard to pry control away from corporate and State powers and spread it to the people. Not an easy task, but one I cautiously remain optimistic for.

 

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