As it turns out, technology is not inherently neutral. All technologies have certain affordances, certain features that cause them to enable certain usages better than others and, this is the key, these usages may be political in nature. So for example, the entirety of firearms technology is suited uniquely to murdering people. And just as the affordances of firearms technology make it inherently evil so too other affordances make certain technologies either inherently oppressive or inherently liberating. And while it is possible to force an oppressive technology to be neutral or to turn a tool of the rich and powerful into a tool of the masses, the inherent natures of the technologies remains unchanged.
With this in mind, we turn to the important question. What is it that makes a technology a tool of the rich and powerful? A technology is such if its cost is high. Conversely, a technology is a tool of the masses if its cost is low. The reason why this is so is simple. Because capitalism is dysfunctional, producers are perpetually at the mercy of customers unless truly extraordinary measures are taken by government to protect producers.
As a consequence, when the customers of any given technology are the poor, the titular owners of the technology are at the mercy of the poor even if they themselves are rich. This is so in the case of phone technology. The converse also holds true, as is demonstrated in the case of fashion designers, butlers and other servants.
Note that customers aren't the same as consumers. The consumers of newspapers are their readers (the poor), but their customers are advertisers (the rich).
Newspapers are tools of the rich and powerful because a daily costs $2-$3 x 365 days = $730-$1095 a year (the price of a daily covers but a fraction of its cost). That's the price of a computer nowadays, and a computer can easily last up to 3 years without becoming obsolete. For $2190-$3300, you'll get an excellent computer and between one and three years of broadband. In addition, computers get you much more information than a single daily, in an infinitely more accessible, convenient, and anonymous manner. So for the cost of a single daily, you get a networked computer that can also deliver music, movies, games and applications. The economics of newspapers simply do not make any sense, except of course as vehicles for state and elite propaganda. We would be talking about what people euphemistically label 'respected opinion' and 'advertising' respectively.
Robert McChesney explains that once newspapers were inexpensive and took on the heavily "biased" flavor that we see with today's blogs -- owners wore their biases on their sleeves. At some point, they became more expensive to create, and choice dwindled to the point where a city might have only a couple dailies. Since such bias stank when there was little competition, journalism schools were created where "professional journalism" was taught. This carried an ideological bias in favor of "official sources" like politicians and businessmen; and journalists would be accused of injecting bias whenever they attempted to provide context along with their reporting. (There do exist useful ideas from professional journalism, but it has very damaging effects which keep the press from fulfilling the role of effective watchdogs. Many have noted that democracy requires an effective watchdog press.)
Public transit is a tool of the masses because it costs between $1000-1500 a year, or $2 per hour, including subsidies and capital construction. In contrast, an automobile costs $5500-7000 a year in direct costs and a further $7700-10,000 in indirect costs. Now, the $2 per hour is probably only operating costs so with other costs that brings it up to $3-$4, but the per-hour costs of an automobile is $40 assuming an average speed of 33 mph. That makes car usage a cool 10x more expensive than mass transit which is itself a cool 10x more expensive than bicycling. And bicycling has the advantages of being much more available, more accessible and vastly healthier. This is exactly why automobiles are tools of the rich. Additionally, automobiles serve as an obscure and overcomplicated means for the rich to literally suck lifetime from the poor.
The internet itself is a powerful tool for organization, for CHEAP organization. The rich and the powerful have never had any trouble organizing themselves, all it requires is manpower & money. Well, there's no shortage of craven power worshippers and eager sellouts hypnotized by the lure of the filthy lucre. The number of people that obediently chant Heil Mein Fuhrer when Dubya commands "go forth and murder" is testimony to this. Cheap organization is something new. This has very important implications.
The most important consequence is that it is becoming impossible to marginalize a majority of the population by disorganizing them. So the traditional organs of the rich, the media, the management, and the sell-out unions, will become increasingly less effective, possibly disappearing entirely. Another consequence is that otherwise completely marginal groups can organize into small but effective groups. All the hoopla about the long tail of market distributionis about exactly this; organizing otherwise completely marginal groups.
We can also observe the Rupert Murdochs figuring out how to extend their media monopolies to the net.
Some argue the Murdochs fantasies' aren't the same thing as reality. There is a very long history of various agencies trying to push through totalitarian control of the internet, with consistent failures and equally consistent bewilderment among the totalitarians about why they are resisted.
Why Has Nuclear Power Not Liberated Us?
As people should know, nuclear energy is the most affordable of all energy sources. And at 5000 USD for a lifetimes' supply of electric power, it is indeed very cheap. Cheap enough to be a tool of liberation. So why has nuclear energy not liberated us?
Aha, it is because there is a complication due to the high upfront cost of nuclear power which makes it crucially dependent on financing. As it happens, there are various technologies available to provide financing. In order of increasing cost:
- Self-financing under a negative interest currency regime (declared illegal by the rich)
- Sovereign debt
- Capital markets
Another reason probably lies in the entrenched coal industries of many countries. The coal industry in Germany is powerful enough to have secured for itself billions in subsidies and license to construct coal power plants to replace the nuclear power plants Germany is planning to shut down. With this kind of power in the hands of the coal industry, it is difficult to believe they did not have a hand in the downfall of the would-be coal-killer.
Yet another reason seems to be that the internet is new. The cost of organizing a million people to finance the construction of a nuclear power plant is low enough with the internet. But such massive organizing has no precedent. And in any case, (the American people despise all things collective( future link). Also, positive interest currency strongly discourages self-financing by artificially making it more expensive.
On Technological Progress
Finally, note that technological progress per se is not a tool of liberation. A technology is a tool of liberation only when it becomes cheap enough to be used by everyone. But it's a tool of oppression when it becomes cheap enough (from infinity) to be used by the rich. So when technology first intrudes into a new sphere of human life (such as information processing or surveillance or military hardware) then it is oppressive. But there is reason to believe that (technological progress will make the price of all technologies fall down towards zero (future link).
- condoms: $0.50 to $1.00 each, for < $500 / year
- drugs: $2000 + doctors + reduced lifespan + intensive care + other social costs
- pay the social costs
Long-distance passenger transport
- (trains(future link)
Long-distance cargo transport
- digital cameras & editing software
- video cameras
- film cameras
- private companies (eg, HMOs)
- negative interest (illegal)
- positive interest
- worker self-management (Soviets, Syndicates, Shoras)
- white collar totalitarianism (Capitalism, Bolshevism)
- class warfare
- class warfare (pigs and jarheads)
- agrarian land reform
- Structural Adjustment Plan
- Community Land Trust: eliminates speculation, disinvestment and overinvestment
- private capitalist market: kicks out working blacks in favour of white yuppies who can plonk down a million dollars (5-10x) for a property
- the web
- electronic journals $5 per journal
- paper journals: $2000 per journal
- shifting demand to off-peak hours
- nuclear, hydro
- oil, gas; the global warming costs of past usage may easily climb into the tens of trillion USD range
This essay first appeared:
- http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2007/1/26/9333/73167 (contains further elaboration of this essay in the comments, especially with regards to killing technologies)
Will be followed by:
- Death of Capitalism
- the American people despise all things collective