1990s >> 1998 >> no-1125-may-1998

Technology for People, not Profit

We hear a lot these days about technology–it is often seen as either the salvation or the scourge of humankind. At the outset it should be made clear that socialists do not have an agreed attitude to technology, which, strictly speaking, is only a means to an end. Some of us incline to be technophiles and others technosceptics. Some of us love looking at screens and are adept at handling electronic mice; others refuse to be parted from our faithful (and to us highly efficient) typewriters–or even just biros.

Technology, like everything else, has a political dimension. What we have today are machines and processes that have been developed largely in the service of the profit system. Most computing and other electronic gadgetry is for business, war or leisure industry purposes. If a new technology is used to save lives or improve health, it is largely a by-product. Even computer-based “leisure” products are often teaching children and adults to zap the baddies and conquer aliens, activities that sit comfortably with the competition and aggression that is such a large part of the culture of capitalism.

A few years ago Theodor Roszak, in a book on The Cult of Information, wrote critically of technophilia, our love affair with the machines in our lives, the current fascination with the computer and its principal product, information. Socialists, of course, do not decry information, and anything which helps to spread information more widely. But we are concerned with what kind of information. In the present capitalist world most information and communication is controlled by multinational corporations and national governments that favour information which promotes capitalist values of competition, marketing and private property. In a socialist world information and communication will be oriented directly to meeting human need, to facilitate production and distribution and education, not class domination, privilege and exploitation.

An exponent of new and futuristic technology may reasonably ask: do you want the good news first or the bad? The good news is mostly about the marvels that are likely to result from ongoing and future telecoms development. Stephen Hoare, writing in the Times (17 November), promises “Telephone today, telebrooch tomorrow.” Apparently, 30 years from now the phone could look like a watch, a shirt button, or a brooch, an immensely powerful voice-activated PC based on an evolved microchip. There will be no distinction between phones, computers, television sets, calculators or any electronic machine you care to name. The developing technology will be cheap, readily available and (so it is claimed) incredibly easy to use.

Now for the bad news. Writing in the same issue of the Times, Annie Turner suggests that the communications revolution has simply replaced one unsatisfactory regime with another. The spread of electronic mail, fax, voice mail and mobile phones, added to post, pagers and the phone, is producing a morass of messages. An excess of information is not only strangling “business” but also causing “human resources” (as they now call workers) to suffer mental anguish and physical illness. There is much time-wasting, stress, job dissatisfaction, and even breakdown of personal relationships. One pathetic example of profit-seeking technology is that children are being encouraged to adopt screen-based “cyberpets” instead of real live animals. Sometimes they even abandon their real pets to spend time vicariously “looking after” their synthetic pets.

The technology of money has a much-discussed future within capitalism. Hoare believes that “money–or rather cash transactions–will be fading away”. The head of BT’s research is quoted as saying “When I want a shirt I will go into a shop and pick one off the rack. When I walk out the chip in my phone will identify me and deduct cash from my account. Money will be reduced to digits on a database.” An interesting prospect. Will the databases that we shall all presumably wear like watches also act as virtual employers, telling us when, where and how we can earn digits? Will a privileged section of the community (multinational corporations?) own and control the master databases?

The further technological development of capitalism is something which supporters of that system can devote their time and energies to. Socialists have a different agenda. We can put two of our digits up to the profit system and use the rest of them to organise for production solely for use. Some of us may be technophiles, some may be technosceptics, and others a bit of both. But we shall all use machines and processes, engage in relationships and procedures, to enhance our lives and the world we live in, not to exploit or be exploited, not to buy or sell, least of all ourselves, as most of us have to do now.


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