By Charles Eisenstein
Jul 6, 2016
Whereas technology once promised a grand future of leisure and security, today we need intensifying doses of it merely to keep the world from falling apart. A pattern of diminishing marginal returns seems to have infiltrated all areas of technology, whether material or social. Early in the twentieth century, modest expenditures in medical research brought enormous improvements in lifespan; today vast outlays barely succeed in maintaining present standards. In agriculture, small amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides once brought huge increases in crop yields; today, ever-greater chemical input can hardly prevent yields from falling, despite “improved” varieties. In daily life, inventions such as cellular phones, personal digital assistants, convenience foods, and the Internet barely enable us to keep pace with the ever-quickening pace of modern life.
Recently I had a conversation with a long-time Washington D.C. native who was recalling the building of the Beltway back in the 1960s. Everyone was excited because you’d be able to circumnavigate the whole city in just an hour. D.C. was starting to have traffic jams, and the Beltway would usher in a new era of ease and convenience. Well, everyone knows what happened. The new road facilitated new real estate development and encouraged people to use cars rather than public transport. Soon the beltway was jammed. The solution? Make it wider and add even more roads. Of course that caused even more development and congestion. The immediate engineering solution—more roads to accommodate an excessive car-to-road ratio—worsens the problem in the long run. That is a classic example of a technological fix. Technology usually has unintended consequences, often including, as in this case, a worsening of the problem the technology was supposed to solve. Generally speaking, unintended consequences are not the result of sloppy engineering, lazy planning, or lack of diligence; they cannot be eliminated through tighter control; rather, they are built in to the very attempt at control.
By now this pattern of escalating dosage for a diminishing effect may remind you of another meaning of the word “fix”—a drug fix. Our dependency on technology shares many features in common with drug addiction. Returning to the example of agriculture, once we’ve killed the natural predators, lost the topsoil, depleted the minerals and so on, we really cannot grow crops at all without repeated applications of more and more technology. Each fix brings some temporary improvement, but then crop yields start falling and we need another fix. At this point we’re hooked: if we go back to zero fertilizer, crop yields fall way below the original pre-fertilizer level. Eventually, the soil is so damaged that no amount of fertilizer can coax life from it. The parallel with the course of addiction is uncanny: escalating dosage to get a less and less intense high, followed ultimately by complete desolation.
The history of life expectancy related above is another example. The “dosage” of technology must go up and up, at a greater and greater expense to the rest of life, in order to achieve diminishing returns. Eventually, addicts tell us, huge doses of the drug are needed to even feel just normal. In parallel, huge medical expenditures are needed even to keep people functioning at all. Half of American adults take some form of prescription medication; the average senior citizen takes between two and seven per day.
In the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s dark science-fiction film Brazil, the main character’s aunt has gotten some minor plastic surgery to fix a blemish on her face. We see her with a little bandage. The next time we see her there are two or three larger bandages, because there were complications from the initial surgery. The next time, bandages cover most of her face, because she had new surgery to fix the complications of the second surgery, which was to fix the complications of the first. By the end her whole head is swaddled in bandages. Each time she says something like, “It’s almost perfect” or, “The doctors tell me it will just be a matter of one or two more procedures.” A series of incremental improvements ends up in total ruin.
Why is the technological fix so attractive? Because from the short-term perspective, it really does work. The first digging stick really did make it easier to obtain roots. A cup of coffee really does make us feel energized. A good stiff drink really does make the pain go away. Air conditioning makes us feel cooler on a hot day. Cars get us there faster. Fertilizer boosts the yield. With each stage of construction, the Tower rises higher. See, it’s working! We’re getting closer to the sky.
Invisible at first is the fact that the fix is a trap. At the end of the day, the coffee exhausts our adrenal glands and makes us more tired, not less. The air conditioning habituates us to a narrow range of comfort, trapping us indoors. Cars inevitably bring more roads, more cars, and more time in transit, not less. Food production technology brings population increases, and eventually less security and more anxiety.
Ultimately, even the immediate efficacy of the fix diminishes. The problems it once ameliorated grow to overwhelming proportions. Today, new technology can barely keep pace with the acceleration of modern life, the proliferation of new threats, new diseases, and new uncertainties. Eventually, the alcoholic becomes so sick that each drink causes more pain than it removes.
The principle of diminishing marginal returns that characterizes the technological fix was explored by archaeologist Joseph Tainter in his classic work, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter says that a society’s investments in complexity bring fewer and fewer benefits, until its maintenance alone consumes all resources. Bureaucracies, legal systems, technological systems, and complex divisions of labor solve a society’s immediate problems and achieve dramatic initial returns, but come with hidden costs. These costs may be exported into the future, delayed in their manifestation through growth and conquest. Eventually, though, in a pattern that has repeated itself from ancient Sumer to Rome and now to the American Empire, the society collapses under the weight of the structure it has erected. First the burden grows heavy; then one crisis after another is barely averted. Wars over resources break out, the leadership degenerates into corruption, the environment deteriorates, and finally one or another crisis—something the civilization could have easily overcome in its youth—deals the final blow. The society “collapses” to a state of much diminished complexity.
I find in the Babel story an allegory for this process. The organizational overhead required to manage an increasingly complex project manifests as a growing confusion, an inability to communicate across the vast range of specializations and subsystems that need to be coordinated. In the Bible story, the builders find themselves speaking different languages, unable to communicate, unable to unite in a common task—a situation eerily prescient of the specialized jargon that separates each scientific and professional field and stalls meaningful progress. In the story, the Tower is eventually abandoned. In my mind’s eye I picture its abandonment preceded by frantic attempts to shore it up, to repair the proliferation of cracks and cave-ins that foretell its ultimate collapse. After the initial rapid progress slows and eventually stalls, the ambition of reaching the sky becomes a mere dogma, an ideology that no one believes. Such is our attitude toward the technological utopia I describe in section one. No one believes it anymore. Indeed, it consumes all of our effort to even maintain the Tower at its present height. Even as we make an addition here and there, other parts crumble, and a spreading infirmity undermines its very foundations.
The parallel to the life of an addict is uncanny. Easy to maintain at the beginning, the addiction soon demands increasingly complex structures to support it. The addict sacrifices long-term for short-term benefits, establishes webs of deceit that must eventually fail, and devotes more and more resources to maintaining the addiction. Get my fix today, deal with the consequences tomorrow. The consequences build and build, the burden on life grows, and eventually the whole fragile structure collapses. Just as the immediate cause of the collapse varies from person to person, so we must look beyond the proximate causes for the collapse of civilizations as well. On one level, yes, it will be the energy crisis, or an economic depression, or a military defeat, or an environmental crisis, or a combination of these, or something totally different that will end our civilization. The immediate cause is impossible to predict, but the end result is inescapable.
While hints of the built-in failure of the Technological Program have been nagging civilization for thousands of years, it is only in the present era that they are becoming undeniable and inescapable. In the past, for instance, the effects of ecological destruction were localized: the rich and the lucky could always move somewhere else (which is, in itself, a kind of temporary fix as well). Today, as ecosystem collapse becomes global, there is no longer a “somewhere else”. There is nowhere to go. Even when people retreat into a fortress mentality, our systemic social and environmental problems find a way in.
In any addiction, the fix appears to work beautifully at first: a servant of life, an easer of pain, coming at a manageable cost. At first the sacrifices seem worth it, cast into some corner to be dealt with later. But sooner or later the cost grows to such proportions as to engulf the whole of life, even as its power to numb the pain diminishes.
The technological fix puts off the problem to the future, just as a drinking binge puts off until tomorrow the problems of life. No longer. The future is now, and it will not be put off much longer. “The future” of the Technological Program is one where all the problems are solved once and for all; here and now, though, we are waking up to another kind of future, and with a hangover to boot: vomit on the floor, the apartment trashed, the world a mess.
Just as any personal addiction inexorably unravels the fabric of the addict’s family, friendships, work and indeed all relationships to the world, so also has our technological addiction slowly destroyed our natural and social environment. And as with other addictions, before technology’s glittering promise began to fade, such destruction was easy to ignore. The appalling pollution of the 19th century was actually more destructive to human quality of life (though more localized) than pollution today, but was easily dismissed as a temporary problem, a cost of progress that would inevitably be solved through more technology. Today for many of us the effects of pollution are more distant, more subtle, and certainly less easily attributable to a single specific cause, but also more systemic and more a threat to the whole of the planet. From ozone layer destruction to global warming down to the PCBs in every living cell, the destruction today is pervasive, inescapable.
The inescapability of the present crises is demolishing the fundamental illusion beneath the course of separation. As long as we believe ourselves to be discrete beings fundamentally separate from the environment, then in principle there is no limit to our ability to insulate ourselves from the degeneration of the social and natural environment. The world is an Other, and its suffering has nothing to do with me, provided I am skillful enough in insulating myself. Today, as the wreckage proliferates, its effects become increasingly difficult to manage. The habitual response is to try harder: to invent new technology to clean up the problems of the old. To insulate ourselves still more skillfully from the mess. But as this becomes impossible, as burgeoning crises overwhelm us, another possibility emerges: to abandon the program of insulation and control, and the conception of the separate self on which it rests.
The process of addiction recovery described by the Twelve Steps program offers an interesting parallel. The first three steps boil down to something like this: “We realized that we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable. Therefore we made a decision to give our lives and our will over to a higher power.” In the context of technology, the first sentence above amounts to an admission of the failure of the Technological Program. It is the realization that the more we try to manage and control nature, the more unmanageable and uncontrollable our problems become. The second sentence is a statement of surrender to and trust in that which is beyond ourselves. The religious content of the twelve-steps testimony translates in this context to a transcendence of the limiting and delusionary conception of self implicit in our physics and biology, economics and politics, philosophy and religion.
The way we relate to the world is written into our most basic mythos, our cosmology, our ontology—belief systems that underlie the superstructures of science and religion. It is our fundamental beliefs about who we are and about the nature of the universe that have generated human life as we know it, and the world as we experience it. If these beliefs remain unchanged, then unchanged as well will be the direction they take us. Our despair, then, is justified. Technology as we know it, and with it the program of control, will never fulfill the promise of the ascent of humanity. But herein also lies a great hope, because from despair comes surrender, and from surrender comes an opening to new beliefs, a new conception of self and world. From this might come a new way of relating to the world; that is, a new mode of technology no longer dedicated to the objectification, control, and eventual transcendence of nature.
The collapse we are facing is of more than “our civilization” but of civilization itself—civilization as we know it. It is a collapse of a whole way of relating to the world, a whole way of being, a whole definition of self. For at the root of the technological addiction is our own off-separation from the universe, our self-conception as discrete and separate beings that goads us toward control. Historical civilizations’ disintegration were a preview of the archetypal collapse that is overtaking us today, diffracted back onto history.
What drives our addiction to technology? Underneath all addictions there is an authentic need that the addiction promises to meet. The narcotic says, “I will kill the pain.” But of course, the promise is a lie that leaves the true need unmet. The same goes for technology, driven by the imperative to control nature, which itself comes as well from an unmet need. It is a need that we all feel in different ways: as an anxiety endemic to modern life, as a near-universal feeling of meaninglessness, as a relentless ennui from which we can only ever be temporarily distracted, as a pervasive superficiality and phoniness. It is a feeling that something is missing. Some people call it a hole in the soul. What we are seeking in our technological addiction is nothing less than our lost wholeness, and its recovery is what lies on the other side of the imminent collapse of the regime of separation.
This text is an excerpt from the book "The Ascent of Humanity" by Charles Eisenstein which you can read in full here.