Book Review: Shoshana Zuboff. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Profile Books 2019
For Shoshana Zuboff, to be human involves using one’s will to shape one’s own future. In this respect she draws on the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt analysed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and saw the frustration of the will of each person to shape their future as crucial to her analysis of totalitarianism. For Arendt the will is “the organ for the future.” In Chapter Eleven Zuboff uses the writing of her book – or her commitment to write it – as an example of what it means “to have a claim to the future tense”.
“Just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain.”….with freedom of will we undertake action that is entirely contingent on our determination to see our project through. These are acts that we could have left undone but for our commitment. “A will that is not free”, Arendt concludes, “is a contradiction in terms.”.
Zuboff adds: “The freedom of will is the existential bone structure that carries the moral flesh of every promise and my insistence on its integrity is not an indulgence in nostalgia or a random privileging of the pre digital human story as somehow more truly human. This is the only kind of freedom that we can guarantee ourselves, no matter what the weight of entropy or inertia….These bones are the necessary condition for the possibility of civilisation as a ‘moral milieu’ that favours the dignity of the individual and respects the distinctively human capacities for dialogue and problem solving. Any person, idea or practice that breaks these bones and tears this flesh robs us of a self authored and we-authored future” (p331)
But is it true, as the Zuboff claims, that the “freedom of action” to undertake our choices to shape the future are “entirely contingent on our determination to see our project through”? Is it not a little more complicated than that? This may be true of the will of an academic who has decided to write a book – and makes a commitment to see the writing project through. But none of us have “freedom of action” to do just anything that we want merely because we will it. The project that we envisage in advance and then commit to construct in the future must be wisely chosen if it is not to risk being more destructive in its effects than it justifies, it must be feasible to us and our associates and we must have the resources to achieve it.
History is littered with the repeated story of megalomaniacs whose will is to shape a future which is destructive but beyond their power to achieve – leading to catastrophe. This is the other side of the story of totalitarianism. The mass movements that they bring into existence ultimately fail because the “we-authored” futures are hubristic and overestimate the power of the leaders and their armies and movements to achieve them.
The AA prayer expresses the issue succinctly when it asks for the psychological strength to change the things that the addict can change, the strength to endure the things that he or she cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference. Without that wisdom – a will that overestimates its power to shape the future, that has no concept of its own limits, meets the wrath of the goddess Nemesis. The point about Nemesis is that she is not so much a goddess of vengeance as a preserver of limits and proportionality.
My reason for lapsing into an explanation of ancient Greek myth at this point is to demonstrate that in the history of humanity this story of catastrophe brought about by overestimating one’s power has been repeated again and again.
In the today’s world one form of trying to shape the future beyond an appropriate scale is described by environmentalists with the words “overshoot and collapse”. Overshoot is the hubris of using a huge volume of resources with an unsustainable impact on the planet’s ecological carrying capacity – eventually leading to a collapse, which is an ecological and societal “Nemesis”.
Zuboff appears to be almost entirely oblivious to the fact that the context of the surveillance capitalism drama is being played out just as the global economy has reached and overshot the bio-physical limits of the carrying capacity of the planet.
It is not that Zuboff is unaware that there is an ecological crisis. She compares the social and human crisis of surveillance capitalism to the ecological crisis. There is, she acknowledges, a sixth extinction going on in a crisis of nature – and what she is describing is for her a parallel crisis for human nature.
But these are not parallel crises that are unconnected. Surveillance capitalism is embodied and embedded in a developing technical infrastructure that guzzles energy, most of it leads to carbon emissions which exacerbate the climate crisis even as it depletes the sources of coal, oil and gas – and now lithium, cobalt, nickel and other minerals. These are becoming more expensive to extract – thus undermining the sustainable development of the techno-infrastructure on which the economy increasingly depends.
That’s not all – the operation of surveillance capitalism not only damages processes of psychological development and incubates market personalities – it also permeates the environment with radio frequency electromagnetic fields to the detriment of plants, animals and human health. Consider a recent article in the Planetary Health Supplement of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. In an article by Priyanka Bandara and David O Carpenter we can read:
“Due to the exponential increase in the use of wireless personal communication devices (eg, mobile or cordless phones and WiFi or Bluetooth-enabled devices) and the infrastructure facilitating them, levels of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation around the 1 GHz frequency band, which is mostly used for modern wireless communications, have increased from extremely low natural levels by about 1018 times. Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation is also used for radar, security scanners, smart meters, and medical equipment (MRI, diathermy, and radiofrequency ablation). It is plausibly the most rapidly increasing anthropogenic environmental exposure since the mid-20th century, and levels will surge considerably again, as technologies like the Internet of Things and 5G add millions more radiofrequency transmitters around us…
Unprecedented human exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic radiation from conception until death has been occurring in the past two decades. Evidence of its effects on the CNS, including altered neurodevelopment and increased risk of some neurodegenerative diseases, is a major concern considering the steady increase in their incidence. Evidence exists for an association between neurodevelopmental or behavioural disorders in children and exposure to wireless devices, and experimental evidence, such as the Yale finding, shows that prenatal exposure could cause structural and functional changes in the brain associated with ADHD-like behaviour. These findings deserve urgent attention.
At the Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Association, an independent scientific organisation, volunteering scientists have constructed the world’s largest categorised online database of peer-reviewed studies on radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation and other man-made electromagnetic fields of lower frequencies. A recent evaluation of 2266 studies (including in-vitro and in-vivo studies in human, animal, and plant experimental systems and population studies) found that most studies (n=1546, 68·2%) have demonstrated significant biological or health effects associated with exposure to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields.” (Literature references for evidence can be found in the original article).
The same source indicates wider environmental threats:
“Evidence also exists of the effects of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation on flora and fauna. For example, the reported global reduction in bees and other insects is plausibly linked to the increased radio frequency electromagnetic radiation in the environment. Honeybees are among the species that use magnetoreception, which is sensitive to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields, for navigation.” ( Taye RR, Deka MK, Rahman A, Bathari M “Effect of electromagnetic radiation of cell phone tower on foraging behaviour of Asiatic honey bee, Apis cerana F”. (Hymenoptera: Apidae). J Entomol Zool Stud. 2017; 5: 1527-1529 )
The Unavoidable RF Electro-magnetic field from one trillion objects
With 5G the pervasiveness of the RF fields would eventually be orders of magnitude greater than current mobile technologies. The fields will not be avoidable – emanating from millions of antennas/ transmitters connecting mobiles and also a mass of sensors that will make up the so called “smart city”. The antennas/transmitters will track energy, environment, transport, health and other connections. According to sources documented on the 5G Appeal, a website calling attention to the dangers of a 5G roll out:
“In addition to millions of new 5G base stations on Earth and 20,000 new satellites in space, 200 billion transmitting objects, according to estimates, will be part of the Internet of Things by 2020, and one trillion objects a few years later.”
Accordingly 5G will increase exposure 10 to 100 times compared to current levels and “If the telecommunications industry’s plans for 5G come to fruition, no person, no animal, no bird, no insect and no plant on Earth will be able to avoid exposure, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to levels of RF radiation that are tens to hundreds of times greater than what exists today, without any possibility of escape anywhere on the planet.”
This is very reminiscent of the way government and fracking industry told communities that there was nothing to worry about – at the same time that peer reviewed academic studies began to show up which suggested the opposite. If ever there was a case for applying the precautionary principle then this is it. Yet that’s not how things work when corporations drive the policy making. They will not want to risk the money that they have invested and damn your health – you will be damned as “fearmongering”.
“Innovation” – hurrah words from the business schools used to bamboozle and attack the need for precaution
In her book Zuboff shows how scandals and alarms about the threat to privacy by the surveillance capitalist companies have happened repeatedly and a pattern has emerged. The companies respond to intense public pressure with apologies and the appearance of contrition. They make cosmetic adjustments until attention wanes and basically they sit out the waves of opposition. Then development continues as before. Her point is that they CANNOT change fundamentally because their business model depends on the rendition of ever more private data and a relentless drive to find out more about us individually and collectively and turn that into ways to covertly modify our behaviour.
There is now a long list of technologies where early indications that they might be harmful were ignored and downplayed. A vested business interest fought for decades to prevent the truth coming out – with the cost of their duplicity being borne in ill health. Tobacco, asbestos, acid rain, hormones used as growth promoters and climate implications of the fossil fuel industry are examples.
Factory Inspectors suspected the health dangers of asbestos 100 years before it was eventually banned in the UK. The rearguard action to downplay the dangers of tobacco has been going on for years. Two studies titled “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” document why regulation fails to protect in great detail. It is assumed that regulations, protective measures and regulatory measures will work as they are supposed to – yet they usually don’t. It is assumed that technologies will work as they are supposed to and operators will stick to the rules. They don’t. It is assumed that best practice will apply – but actual practice is very different and cover-ups are common.
Again and again regulators are overseen by politicians who are friends to very well resourced industry lobbies – and also ready dupes of the ideology that nothing must put a brake on “innovation” and “science”. These are what philosophers call “hurrah words” and companies use them when they make self-serving claims, counterposed to the “precautionary principle”, that the tobacco industry, the pesticide manufacturers and fossil fuel industries must be allowed to take risks with other people’s health and that people who think otherwise are “scaremongering”. The people that run the surveillance and behaviour modification companies are therefore travelling along a well worn path of decades of suffering, bitter experience, corporate cynicism and policy vandalism.
Smart cities that are hollowed out by the “Retail Apocalypse” as Department stores lose out on retail sales
Zuboff’s analysis is impressive but fails to consider the macro-economic context. What most of us can spend depends on our available purchasing power. Our income can be supplemented by what we can borrow but only up to a point. Snooping on us to figure what makes us tick and trying to nudge us to spend more will not be very successful if our incomes are stagnant or falling. Smart technologies cannot solve that.
What they can do of course, is get us to switch our purchases from department stores and shops to Amazon or to other on-line sales sources. This is a phenomenon that is claimed to be leading to the so called “retail apocalypse” – the closure of shops and stores that is impoverishing town centres.
The reason for dwindling purchasing power to spend, either in the shops or in Amazon, has not been caused by surveillance capitalism. However it does effect the conditions in which surveillance capitalism is developing. To explain what the problem is it is necessary to make a short digression.
The Limits to Economic Growth are twofold: depletion of energy and essential resources, and pollution.
The first leads to progressively less favourable sources of energy and materials having to be tapped to do what was done before but now more expensively. (eg from smaller oil and gas fields, in more out of the way locations, using methods that are more difficult and expensive.)
The second means less polluting means of production must be found. These are more expensive and inconvenient to organise (eg using intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar).
Failure to to act sufficiently on pollution (eg greenhouse gas emissions) has negative impacts: crop failures, sea level rise, more frequent catastrophic weather events.
Both kinds of growth limits – depletion and pollution – manifest as rising costs to produce food, shelter, water, manufactured goods. Of course there are technological responses to depletion and pollution. What was previously produced is now still available but at a higher cost. People find their purchasing power does not go as far.
Energy is required to access energy – what is left over after the powering of the energy sector powers the rest of the economy, including the surveillance infrastructure
Almost every economic activity entails operations by equipment, machines, vehicles, infrastructures, robots and appliances – and they are all powered. Even the smartest forms of artificial intelligence are switched on and can be switched off – they do not function in the absence of an energy source.
The sustainability of the energy source is therefore crucial to the surveillance economy and to any form of economy. To acquire energy to power all the clever machines the energy sector itself needs energy. It must power its mechanical shovels in the open cast pits. Something must power the drilling and and the frack pumps for the oil and gas wells. Energy in many forms is required to build the pipelines and refineries. It needs energy to build power stations, solar panels and wind turbines, to connect them to the grid and then to maintain them.
It is the surplus energy left over after the energy required to acquire energy that is available to power the rest of the economy – including the powering of the computers, the sensors and transmitters, the 3, 4 and 5G towers, “the data centres in the cloud” and the artificial intelligence.
This means that if the energy required to acquire energy – the energy cost of energy – is rising it matters to the future of the rest of the economy, including the future of the surveillance capitalist part of the economy.
According to the calculations of Dr Tim Morgan who has compiled a Surplus Energy Economics Data System, the depletion of fossil fuels and the resort to renewables is more expensive and it is leading to increasing energy and material input costs. In the 1960s the global energy cost of energy was less than 2%. By the end of the century it was 3.5% and now it is about 8%. This has real world effects. When this proportion goes up from less than 2% to 8% then the energy delivered to the rest of the economy falls from 98% to 92%…..and counting.
The Surveillance Economy will be expensive and not very ecological either
This brings us to a key issue. A “surveillance capitalist” economy will be expensive. We have to ask how it could possibly be made affordable? Depletion raises costs and finding ways of to cope with the instability of intermittent energy supplies, generated by wind and solar, will be expensive too. Switching appliances on and off by using “smart” systems is unlikely to be very convenient and the smart systems will cost money too. These expenses will take purchasing power out of peoples’ pockets which they cannot then spend on other things. If and when people realise that other “smart” objects around them are being used to manipulate them to buy, at the very time that they can afford to buy less, the worm may turn.
We may then have what could be the basis for an anti-consumerist backlash – with people opposing 5G and reverting to technologies and “dumb” objects that are low tech. The point about “dumb objects” is that many have a track record going back centuries. They work and can often be mended, require less energy, are actually simple and functional. The motivation for such a cultural economic revolution would be even more powerful if large numbers of people become ill because of radio frequency electro-magnetic fields which the corporations plus state have failed to make safe.
Surveillance technology is not green technology either
The “green argument” for smart cities is that smart grids and smart mobility will complement and enable renewable energy systems and electrified and self driving vehicles. It is an argument that the intermittency of solar and wind energy will be better managed by systems that will enable switching on power use when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining so that energy is flowing in the system. Or again, smart grids will enable household producers of solar power to better manage their energy use and the power generated from the panels on their roofs. Such people will sometimes take additional power from the grid and at other times sell surplus power to neighbours when the energy generated in one house is surplus to need and a neighbour wants to buy it. At other times smart systems will take surplus energy and put it into batteries and other storage devices and then, later drain the energy from storage when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. With stories like this “smart technologies” are to be sold to “green consumers”.
Or that is the theory – the trouble is the theory is not likely to be a good description of reality. In countries like the UK, Northern Europe and most of the USA no smart grid is going to solve the problem of a prevailing mismatch between demand and supply for electricity. Here the problem is that when power is needed most – eg for heating – it is not in the same season when most power is generated by wind and solar. In these circumstances the chief role for “smart grids” will be switching off the power source – including often just when it is needed. This will be because there will be no cheap way of storing substantial amounts of energy between seasons. Even the biggest and cheapest energy storage solutions – compressed air or pumped hydro – cannot store more than a few hours’ supply and computer systems are irrelevant to that. Using US data author Alice Friedmann shows why energy storage between seasons is a non starter:
“A lithium-ion battery designed to store just one day of U.S. electricity generation (11 TWh) to balance solar and wind power would be huge. Using data from the Department of Energy (DOE/EPRI 2013) energy storage handbook, I calculated that the cost of a utility-scale lithium ion battery capable of storing 24 hours of electricity generation in the United States would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles, and weigh 74 million tons.
At least 6 weeks of energy storage is needed to keep the grid up during times when there’s no sun or wind. This storage has to come mainly from batteries, because there’s very few places to put Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES), Pumped Hydro energy storage (PHS) (and also because it has a very low energy density), or Concentrated Solar Power with Thermal Energy Storage. Currently natural gas is the main energy storage, always available to quickly step in when the wind dies and sun goes down, as well as provide power around the clock with help from coal, nuclear, and hydropower.”
The monster carbon footprint of surveillance capitalism
In addition to destroying privacy, surveillance capitalism has a monster carbon footprint. The fact that components like microprocessors are very small can give the misleading impression that the energy used in creating the infrastructure and processing the materials to create those components is small. The contrary is the case – to create and control the manufacturing environment in which precision micro components can be produced and assembled requires a great deal of energy. Many materials for this and complex parts also have to be assembled from all over the world with a further huge energy usage in transport, communications and logistics. When you take all of this together the energy consumption is enormous. One study found that the internet consumed 1,815 TWh of electricity in 2012 – which corresponded to 8% of global electricity production in that year.
Time was when computers were connected to the internet by copper and then fibre optics. However mobiles and smart phones have changed all that. As Wi Fi is superceded by 3G and 4G for smart phones the energy usage has risen considerably. Wireless traffic through 3G uses 15 times more energy than WiFi, while 4G consumes 23 times more…and now along comes proposals for 5G.
5G will likely use more energy than 4G. According to an article by Dexter Johnson in IEEE Spectrum “A lurking threat behind the promise of 5G delivering up to 1,000 times as much data as today’s networks is that 5G could also consume up to 1,000 times as much energy. Concerns over energy efficiency are beginning to show up at conferences about 5G deployments, where methods for reducing energy consumption have become a hot topic.”
It is true that some studies claim that computer communications replace travel and thereby save a lot of energy. However we have to remember the rebound effect. Whenever a technique saves energy it also saves the money that would be spent on the energy and that money then gets spent on something else – which again involves energy use, albeit in a different form.
Similar points are found in recent article in the Guardian by Ben Tarnoff who argues that putting computers everywhere is bad for people and planet. He gives machine learning by digital computers as an example. It is absolutely central to the technologies used by the surveillance companies but uses colossal amounts of energy and carbon. For example to learn to recognise a face computers must look at millions of pictures. According to Tarnoff
“This is a demanding process. It takes place inside the data centers we call the cloud, and much of the electricity that powers the cloud is generated by burning fossil fuels. As a result, ML has a large carbon footprint. In a recent paper that made waves in the Machine Learning community, a team at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that training a model for natural-language processing – the field that helps “virtual assistants” like Alexa understand what you’re saying – can emit as much as 626,155lb of carbon dioxide. That’s about the same amount produced by flying roundtrip between New York and Beijing 125 times.
Training models isn’t the only way ML contributes to the cooking of our planet. It has also stimulated a hunger for data that is probably the single biggest driver of the digitization of everything. Corporations and governments now have an incentive to acquire as much data as possible, because that data, with the help of ML, might yield valuable patterns. It might tell them who to fire, who to arrest, when to perform maintenance on a machine or how to promote a new product.
One of the best ways to make more data is to put small connected computers everywhere: Cisco predicts there will be 28.5bn networked devices by 2022. Aside from the energy required to manufacture and maintain those devices, the data they produce will live in the carbon-intensive cloud. Data centers currently consume 200 terawatt hours per year – roughly the same amount as South Africa. Anders Andrae, a widely cited researcher at Huawei, tells me that number is likely to grow 4-5 times by 2030. This would put the cloud on par with Japan, the fourth-biggest energy consumer on the planet.”
In Conclusion – A Future of Political Surveillance?
In conclusion Shoshana Zuboff has written a huge book packed full of detail and insight. It gives us a picture of a massive threat. Nevertheless it is an incomplete picture because it lacks a description of the the bio-physical dimensions of surveillance capitalism and how these additional dimensions are intertwined with the limits to economic growth. What she calls surveillance capitalism is a massive call on energy resources in an era of dwindling and unreliable energy. Despite the claims of “smart technologies” to address the ecological crisis their net contribution will be negative. To the extent that they do get developed the technologies will also likely make plants, animals and humans sick directly due to electrosmog. Surveillance capitalism is therefore not a parallel process to the 6th extinction event it is an integral part of it.
Despite the claims of the ideologists of surveillance capitalism that it will help create a world of greater certainty and security it will do the opposite – accelerating climate change, undermining the economy and undermining the possibility of a sustainable society.
Two alternative and contrasting scenarios of the future describe what is happening. One scenario is of increased political surveillance because of the conflicts and discontent that will arise. The other scenario is of an increasing number of people being driven out of the consumer economy with a proportion of these rejecting the intrusive and ineffectual authority structures and institutions in disgust and developing an anti-consumerist counter culture.
We are already seeing the evolution of the first scenario. Around the world there is increasing discontent. There has been a growth of populism of the right and left as economic difficulties and declining prosperity lead to increased conflict internally – as well as between nations and global corporations in what are often thinly disguised grabs for resources.
It is not surprising that there has been therefore increased political surveillance, manipulation of mass media agendas, and persecution of people who do not interpret the world in the way that the elite want. A great deal of effort and resources is and will be put into the manufacture of consent in these circumstances. It is always possible for situations to be interpreted another way – or upside down. For example, instead of seeing growing conflict as the result of economic difficulties, economic difficulties can be interpreted as being the result of growing conflict and the disruptions that they bring. For those in the police and security services the problems of the world may look like the fact that not enough people are honest and that they do not do as they are told by people in authority.
Zuboff’s book has comparatively little about political surveillance though she describes how state security agencies in the USA have seized the opportunities to learn from, and enter into collaborative relationships with the likes of google and facebook. How far this process of the military industrial complex spying on the population has gone has been revealed by people like Edward Snowden who had to flee and seek asylum abroad as a result.
Zuboff’s book also does have a discussion of the Chinese surveillance system which, although state driven is perhaps not so much different from that in “capitalist democracies”.
“Chinese users are rendered, classified, and queued up for prediction with every digital touch, and so are we. We are ranked on Uber, on eBay, on Facebook, and on many other web businesses and those are only the rankings that we see. Chinese users are assigned a “character” score whereas the US government urges the tech companies to train their algorithms for a “radicalism” score…..Oxford University China scholar Rogier Creemers, who translated some of the first documents on the social credit system, observes that the “trend towards social engineering and ‘nudging’ individuals towards ‘better’ behaviour is also part of the Silicon Valley approach that holds that human problems can be solved once and for all through the disruptive power of technology…In that sense, perhaps, the most shocking part of the story is not the Chinese government agenda, but how similar it is that the path technology is taking elsewhere.” (p393)
As already mentioned this trend to greater surveillance is sold with a claim that it makes things safer as if the chief problem faced by society is criminality and terrorism. When millions of people wonder who to trust there is perhaps some reason for this. However “incentivising” good behaviour will not work. It will make the “trust problem” even worse because people will seek to game the system. They will not be guided by ethical judgements but by how to get a higher score which is not at all the same thing. This is a system that encourages “market personalities” to chase extrinsic goals. As is usual in games played with the computer gurus one is left playing without access to their rules. Franz Kafka already described what happens when you have this kind of system in operation.
One early credit rating scheme in China, the Sesame Credit system, went further than collecting data about whether you paid your bills on time with algorithms about holistic ratings of character including the quantity and quality of “friends”. “Users are left to guess how to improve their scores including shedding friends with low scores and bulking up on high scoring individuals who, some believe, can boost one’s own rank”. (p 390)
As argued, this will not increase trustworthiness; it will decompose the social system further. The idea that there is a technological fix for making communities safer is laughable. At the time of writing the Wuhan virus is spreading around the world at a very rapid pace. Wuhan is ahead of most countries in the world in the installation of 5G communications but that did not stop a novel coronavirus incubating there. Even though Chinese scientists were able rapidly to analyse the new disease it was soon running out of control – probably partly because political insiders made a decision early on to clamp down on public information and deny the problem – the worse thing that could be done.
Surveillance does not make communities safe while the global economy is degrading the ecological system. The dangers are mounting all the time. In recent years less attention is being paid to sustainability – a lost cause and an empty slogan – and more on resilience – whether communities will have the ability to bounce back or be crushed by the problems ahead. A resilient city is a safer city – but a city that depends on computer telecommunications cannot be resilient and cannot be safe. A power cut will paralyse it – and with intermittent renewable energy we can probably expect plenty of power cuts.
A public health crisis can also paralyse a city if enough people are affected and quarantined while they should be running essential services. Of course a public health crisis can lead to power cuts and vice versa. A generalised banking crisis will paralyse communities too. Nor are communities safe if they are dependent on global supply chains which can break – leaving them without food or medicine. The point here is that communities are not resilient when not self-sufficient in essential functions and supplies. In a globalised world almost none are.
So why are the politicians and officials of state so keen on surveillance? It is because it reassures them that they can control and overwhelm their critics and master the social turmoil that their disastrous growth model is conjuring up….
….which leaves us with the alternative – as far as possible to reject and opt out of the failing high tech economy that wants to sell us more products than we can afford – products that will be used to spy on us and manipulate us. Instead we need the means to pioneer degrowth as a grass roots movement of community gardens and farms, community kitchens, community energy support, community repair workshops using low tech and “dumb” technologies, places to recycle, mend and repair and to support each other.
2nd February 2020
Very nice. I would think from reading this that you are familiar with Nate Hagens who teaches us about many of the concepts you have put forward such as ER/EI of energy and nonrenewable resources constraining our receding horizons due to reduced societal surplus. Also concepts of ecological economics which realize that we currently place almost no price signal to the future on resources and only pay for the cost of extraction. And we pay almost nothing for the costs to sink the wastes. Nate has a new academic paper that will interest you. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919310067 You already seem to know most of this but he has also thrown together a slide show lecture on his synthesis understanding of energy/ economy/ ecology-resource depletion/ human behavior. Here is the 1 hour course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbbfqyJ9elY&list=PLdHV4AV3ixB2GIi8SyuCANgMmBKYRtyJS And the 7 hour version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbbfqyJ9elY&list=PLdHV4AV3ixB2GIi8SyuCANgMmBKYRtyJS
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Kia ora Brian, and thank you for all your research for this post, which makes the point so well. It is not a matter of IF things will come to an unfortunate end, but when, and how. Other writers on the subject I have found useful are James Bridle (New Dark Age) and Alf Hornborg (Global Magic). They also deal with the very material nature of digital technology, and the expropriation of the human and natural energies required to power it. I am doing my best to live the ‘dumbest’ possible lifestyle, but recently have been finding it harder to avoid digital intrusions, of which the worst is digital money, with banks and retailers requiring you to own an expensive ‘device’ (and know how to use it) to pay what you once paid easily with free ‘coin of the realm’ or at worst a cheap piece of paper aka a cheque. I once hoped this nonsense would pass in my lifetime (I’m now 68) but I am now not so sanguine.
Bart Hawkins Kreps
Many thanks for this thought-provoking, very well presented post.
I am reminded of the energy-sucking surveillance monster every time I visit a major media website with my nine-year-old computer. If I look closely at the browser activity bar, I see dozens of strange website addresses flashing by while I wait for actual news to appear on the screen – the addresses of all the surveillance apps that are now being loaded into every webpage, and the addresses of surveillance monetizers who are receiving data about which articles I read, how long I linger, how far down I scroll, which ads I click on and which I ignore. My old computer still operates as fast as ever for processing offline info, but for simple tasks like rendering a news article webpage, it can barely keep up with the exponentially expanding surveillance demands. As a result, I may soon be nudged to upgrade to a new computer, with a new operating system, that will swell my electricity bill while I am being surveilled more effectively.
Like you, I am confident this whole economic edifice will crumble – that which is not sustainable will not be sustained – but it might do immense damage to the web of life in the meantime.