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Why we should all be techne-optimists: How we think about technology (III/IV)

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By Nathan Kinch

· 5 min read

This is part four of a five-part series on techno-optimism. You can find part one here, part two here, and part four here

As with every other section, this is worth many doctorates. We draw inspiration from folks like Heidegger, Latour, and Haraway, who arguably have quite uncommon or non-traditional (more all-encompassing) views about technology’s nature.

Our views are of course not limited to those three thinkers. We also draw inspiration from indigenous knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems sometimes thought of as Traditional Ecological Knowledge or ‘TEK’ in this context, essentially the collective body of knowledge about ecological relationships and the ways in which this is held, shared, learned, and applied. In Australia, First Nations peoples have Songlines, a way for storing knowledge in memory by adapting song, art, and most importantly, Country, into people's lives. Close to home for Nate and Mat, AbdillaPoelinaYunkaporta and Kelleher, and many other first nations people’s work has influenced how we attempt to relate to Country, which of course impacts our work in sociotechnology ethics. We have also drawn influence from varying philosophical traditions outside the typical western purview (Ubuntu, Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, phenomenology of aidagara i.e. “betweenness” etc.), postmodernist perspectives such as Gilligan’s work on care, and many other sources (such as ‘nature’ itself).

As a brief introduction, we will suggest that (noting, of course, this has metaphysical flavouring to it. Told ya we’d make some of this explicit!):

  1. Humans are not just part of nature, we are nature. In fact, we cannot actually be separated from it, no matter how hard we try.

  2. The technologies we design are a reflection and extension (not just augmentation) of us.

  3. The technologies we design have various feedback loops that in turn massively impact who we are, how we relate to one another, and how we exist together in this life.

  4. The technologies we design are not abstractions but can be thought of as being ‘real’, in something like the way we are. They are made from fairly similar building blocks. As a result, they massively impact biospheric systems (due to their material flows and everything that follows). One could go so far as to suggest that technology is also nature.

  5. If the universe is relational, and we exist not as ‘things’ but as some kind of ‘process’, then technology is a part of that living process. It has been for hundreds of thousands of years in varying forms.

Our philosophy of technology can therefore be thought of as one of deep entanglement; us to ‘it’, it to us, us and it to Gaia (noting of course, we are all Gaia) to us to it… You get the picture.

Screenshot 2023 12 26 142151Indy Johar and the Dark Matter Labs team write beautifully about similar perspectives here. The images above, from that article, are hopefully a useful 2 dimensional approximation for what we’re trying to get at.

This, as with all we discuss in this essay, is a taste at most. Regardless, we hope it begins animating some of our positioning, mostly in service of showing how it seems to radically differ from our friends in Menlo Park.

Evaluating ‘net good’

Given our view of the past, present and possible futures, and considering our briefly summarised philosophy of technology, let’s discuss why we feel something like a bio-psycho-social-cultural-economic-techne optimism is a useful model.

Think of this as the belief that, overall, things can get better. We believe this can result from wise and deliberate effort, based on a much larger ‘circumference of care’, a significant shift in how we relate, and the incredible power of deep connection, purposeful collaboration and effective coordination across macro, meso and micro scales.

It’s worth noting here that this comes into tension with traditional ideas about optimism. We are not saying things will be good or better. We are saying they can be good or better.

This is due to the fact that we, first and foremost, do not know. We cannot know. This is where that epistemic humility comes into play. But it’s also because of our facts premise. The trajectory that the preponderance of empirical evidence suggests we are on is scary AF. It suggests life, due to planetary instability (and potentially many other factors), is likely to get much worse if we continue with anything close to business as usual.

Therefore, our specific flavour of bio-psycho-social-cultural-economic-techne optimism is based on the belief that we have the capacity to radically transform how we relate to one another and life itself. Through this process we can support one another through some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced, and perhaps, just perhaps, come out the other side in better shape than ever before.

The idea of a useful model is really a way to describe an orientation that actually makes sense, that might directly contribute to making things better.

Unfounded beliefs about magical technology and free markets won’t help, mostly because it encourages us to double down on so much shit that isn’t working. Yet completely throwing the baby out with the bathwater (getting rid of ‘technology’, or hardcore authoritarian regulation, or whatever other flavour this might take) might be equally unwise.

We need to dance with complexity and avoid the dogma.

Onto the evaluation. Drumroll…

Guess what? We can’t evaluate based on Danaher’s framework. Why? Because that framework and its framing defines technology as something that is separate from us, just like ‘nature’ in the modern story of separation.

Instead, what we can say (broken record alert!) is that we believe in the possibility of better. We believe in our collective capacity to ‘transcend the paradigm’, biodegrade the harmful, bridge divides and support one another through difficulty, destruction and despair. To do this we must actively exist in relation. Our relationality, deep care, love, and action-oriented existential hopefulness is the recipe for different conditions that give rise to new and more ‘positive’ forms of emergence. All of this is our way to a better world.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Nathan Kinch is a specialist in sociotechnology ethics, action research, and social entrepreneurship, who has spent his career designing trustworthy organisations. He's the co-founder of Tethix, a social venture helping people (re)imagine and create technology that enables human and planetary flourishing.

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