Open Access Launch of Deleting Dystopia

Deleting Dystopia: Reasserting Human Priorities in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The IT revolution has brought many surprises.

Among them is the fact that intensive surveillance and the related abuse of personal data have fallen into the hands of powerful digital oligarchies. Accounts of the increasingly repressive uses of advanced technologies and the subsequent ‘dumbing down’ of entire populations cast dark shadows over our future prospects that are beginning to look increasingly dystopian.

Deleting Dystopia confirms that these existential threats are real. But, in place of apathy and fatalism, Slaughter explores ways of understanding them, conceptualising solutions and identifying viable strategies. Taken seriously and widely applied, he suggests that the latter can help us avoid the worst of digital authoritarian futures in favour of those founded on humanly viable values and practices.

Access the book here.

The author discusses the new book with Luke van der Laan here.

The artwork in the book, which was created by Samara Hoffmann, can be accessed and reused under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial ShareAlike licence.  The cover is by Tara Mann.

Five Steps to Recovery

Part Three: Technology is Not the Answer

Humanity and technology have been intertwined from the earliest times. Many will recall how this evolving relationship was brilliantly portrayed at the beginning of Kubrick’s film, 2001, when an ape-like hominid threw a weaponised bone up into the air that dissolved into an elegantly turning space station. Popular histories often associate successive waves of new tech as evidence of ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’ Similarly, it’s often said that technology is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ but capable of being used either way. Such views, however, don’t get us very far in part because they fail to engage with the default triumphalist myth of human development. Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence to show that technologies exert shaping influences upon their inventors and users, often in unexpected and unusual ways. It may be more helpful to think of these processes as cultural journeys that evoke an unfolding series of questions. —> Continue reading…

Five Steps to Recovery

Parts One and Two: The Great Acceleration / Time Frames

Amongst the devastation of Covid-19 and while many people are still fighting for their lives, others are developing proposals for ‘doing things differently’ when the present threat has passed. Issues concerning health, well-being and preparedness for future viral outbreaks are commonly cited. Yet many more will not be taken seriously, let alone implemented. Those in positions of wealth, power and influence are already working to return things to as close to ‘normal’ as possible. They may not entirely succeed but we can be sure that a vast number of well-intentioned proposals for constructive change will simply be forgotten. At the same time, it’s clear that ‘business as usual’ is no more than a convenient fantasy. Continue reading…

New Year’s Eve 2020 Fires at Malua Bay

The following piece by Valerie Braithwaite echoes the theme of the previous News post. It is a moving personal account of the upheaval that occurred in a small coastal town in NSW when confronted with devastating bushfires. It was written immediately afterwards and powerfully conveys something of the trauma and upheaval being experienced in Australia as this unprecedented emergency continues. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Yesterday I was one of the thousands who left the NSW south coast via Bega and Cooma, heading home to Canberra. Like many privileged boomers, as our 30-something children call us, we have retreated to Mosquito Bay to enjoy the climate, marvel at the natural wonder around us, and feel connected to community and place. We have dolphins, stingrays, a sea-eagle, birds of all kinds in our small, over-crowded patch of native trees. No mosquitos, well not too many. The bay takes its name from the little boats that transferred logs from the forest to the ships offshore bound for Sydney. Decades on we have surfboard riders, divers spearfishing, others snorkelling and exploring the wonders below the sea, and the odd swimmer who impresses by going from one side of the bay to the other and back again. Read more…

A Great Reversal?

Bushfires are commonplace in Australia and have been for many years. But they’ve recently reached new levels of intensity. They started early this year and become widespread long before the official ‘fire season’ was supposed to arrive. This time, however, the impacts and implications are no longer confined to the bush. Only last week, after long periods of darkened skies, dozens of smoke alarms in Sydney’s CBD were triggered. Dense smoke from multiple nearby fires set off the very devices intended to keep people safe. But, in this instance, office workers and others were turfed out of their air-conditioned high-rise buildings into far more dangerous levels of toxic smoke outside. Further afield farmers have been struggling with drought for several years. Many are desperate and close to giving up a way of life that had lasted for generations. At the same time, many smaller country towns have run, or are running, out of water. Some are fortunate enough to have supplies brought in via tankers, albeit at enormous cost. Others are simply being evacuated. The levels of suffering and dislocation from drought, fire and record-breaking temperatures are incalculable. Meanwhile the PM who thinks that the ‘firies’ (volunteer fire fighters) are doing just fine, has taken his family overseas for a short, pre-Christmas, holiday. What is going on?

From a foresight perspective this is a classic and yet deeply troubling example of ‘learning by social experience.’ In general, this tends to occur when critical ‘signals of change’ have been missed, mis-interpreted or merely denied. But this is not just about events per se. It has even more to do with worldviews, their associated values and the institutions and practices that became ‘normalised’ during the most abnormal period in human history. It’s now almost five decades since the first Limits to Growth (LtG) report was issued by the Club of Rome back in 1972. It’s common knowledge that the report was pilloried by establishment figures and economists who wanted none of what they insisted were ‘doom and gloom’ predictions. Leaving aside the fact that such descriptors were entirely false it’s worth considering a view of an ‘alternative past.’ That is, one in which the core discipline that helped to order and direct human societies was not that of economics but ecology. The crucial difference between that vanished past and what actually occurred is that economics was about regulating human to human and social to social exchanges in a kind of vacuum whereas ecology considers the interactions between humanity and the wider world of life, energy and matter. We think of that now as ‘the environment’ and ecology has expanded to embrace a still wider view known as Earth System Science (ESS).

But what fires, drought and the deadly acceleration of global heating demonstrate is that economics in its broadest sense is still calling the shots. How otherwise to explain the constant putting-down of ESS in favour of business-as-usual? Two brief examples may be helpful here. One is the failure of the Madrid climate conference to get all parties to agree on radical and necessary action to rein in global heating. The other is the decision of the Saudi ruling class to float part of Amoco, the world’s largest oil company, on the open market. This represents another direct collision between the limited interests of hyper-affluence and the well-being of humanity: future money vs future devastation. Foresight seems to play little or no part in these examples. Or, rather, it is overwhelmed and by the power of embedded economic interests. Don’t Saudis have children too? Works such as James Hanson’s Storms of My Grandchildren (2009) that address these issues very directly and backed up with formidable evidence just don’t cut through.

And that’s partly why ‘learning by experience’ occurs. Besides the need for dealing actively and sympathetically with the human, social and environmental damage, what matters most at this time is what will be learned from this experience and what will be ignored. Disaster can bring hope and recovery in its wake but only if a process of real and relevant learning has ensued. Will the current crisis pass and business-as-usual be re-established? It’s possible – that is until the next one occurs that would likely be heavier, deeper and yet more damaging. Or is it possible to conceive that the age of rampant growth and expansion in this country is finally over? If so, then the present time may come to be known as that of ‘the great reversal.’ A time when worldviews, values and practices at all levels underwent a systemic change so that life could continue, albeit at a slower place and within more limited bounds?

When people start suffering en masse; that is, when the costs of fighting monster blazes, carrying water over long distances or contemplating vast acreages of devastated landscape all come together, even the most hardened cynics are challenged to explain why. It is then that the pull of other ways of thinking and operating can arise. A host of more helpful innovations have available been for a long time. Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics (2017) has been widely praised for the way it re-connects human affairs with the way the planet actually works. Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (2017) explores a new paradigm for sustainable agriculture. The New Economic Network Australia(NENA) puts many of different aspects of applied sustainability together through an active network of pioneers and practitioners. All these are helpful but they won’t get far without audacious action on a meaningful scale. A good example of this is Green M.P. Michael Berkman’s recent announcement of a plan to raise $1 billion from fossil fuel companies to fund:

  • 1,400 new paid firefighters
  • An extra $75 million for the volunteer Rural Fire service
  • A permanent aerial firefighting fleet, and
  • 200 new indigenous rangers to help manage country (Berkman, 2019).

One thing is certain: if the most useful and appropriate lessons are not derived from painful social learning experiences they will certainly recur. If there is a key idea from Futures Studies and Applied Foresight it is that you don’t have to experience the full impact of disaster and devastation if you take them, and alternatives to them, seriously. Or as Bertrand de Jouvenel put it over 60 years ago, the failure of foresight involves “falling into the empire of necessity.”

Which is not a great place to be on a rapidly heating planet.

References

Berkman, M. (2019) Greens M.P. for Maiwar, Brisbane, Newsletter. December 18.

Hansen, J. (2009). Storms of My Grandchildren. New York: Bloomsbury.

Massey, C. (2017) Call of the Reed Warbler. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Meadows, D. (et al) (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

New Economic Network Australia.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics. London: Random House.

 

The Great Disconnect

Have you ever felt that at some level you’re ‘out of sync’ with the mainstream? By that I mean you’re aware of the aridity of the political scene, the shrinking of the public sphere to entertainment, consumption and sport, the never-ending din from commercial interests and the way that the central issues facing humankind are constantly evaded and denied. If so then you may also have felt some degree of perplexity about why so many people and organisations, so much money and talent remain devoted to denying the reality of the global emergency, the huge question mark over humanity’s entire future. In that case, and should you feel the need for nourishment and inspiration, you may like to consider Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. Read more…

Clarity v Denial in Difficult Times

I’ve recently been clearing out old files and discarding redundant material. Our recycling bin has seldom been so full of old paper. Yet I’ve also rediscovered valuable items that had fallen out of sight. They include letters from old colleagues and friends, short items I’d written for now-forgotten publications and the occasional gem of an article. Among the latter was a piece written by Ted Trainer in 2007. I’d never met him but was aware that he and I were distant colleagues working toward broadly similar ends. Like myself, he’d found what one interviewer called ‘a home of sorts’ in academia. One thing I believe we both understood was that underlying the deceptively smooth surface of everyday life was a chasm of uncertainty and hazard that was routinely ignored by most people, media and mainstream institutions.

While I’d built a career (of sorts) as a Futurist / foresight practitioner, Trainer had focused more on alternative ways of living and the quest for sustainability. The article I rediscovered was published in Arena Magazine under the heading ‘Greenhouse: Refusing to grasp its significance’. Reading it again some 12 years later was like looking right into a time capsule. But in this case one that hardly differed at all from the present. In fact what was striking was how current and up-to-date his reasoning and conclusions were. Here are some of the key points he made in that article about defining ‘the problem’:

The recent surge of interest in greenhouse and energy problems provides a powerful illustration of the capacity humans have to ignore what they do not want to recognise.

(If it is accepted that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere need to be limited to around 400-450 ppm then) our fossil fuel budget would be around 3 per cent of the present per capita average. In other words we would have to almost entirely cease our use of fossil fuels within a few decades.

(There is, however) no possibility of getting the emissions down to the necessary levels without extreme system change away from any kind of consumer society.

(The futility of economic growth shows up in the multiples necessary to sustain it. So) how can you make sustainable a society in which the volume of production and consumption and the GDP must increase at 3 per cent per annum forever? (To imagine this continuing to 2050 means that) Australia would be churning out four times as much each year as it does now…but on 5% of the present fossil energy use… Such multiples totally rule out any faith that technical advance will eliminate the problems while we all go on merrily pursuing affluence and growth. The point is that a consumer capitalist society cannot be made sustainable. 

What, then, is the answer? The point is that there isn’t one… Yet there is a highly workable and attractive way out, well described as ‘the simpler way.’

The rest of the article describes some of the aspects of that ‘simpler way’ that, in essence, have been broadly understood for many years but which remain ‘news’ for the vast majority who’ve still never encountered them – at least not in any detail. Instead, huge efforts continue to be exerted each day by the usual interests (social, economic, political) to actively persuade currently affluent populations that present ways of life still make sense and, despite a few problems here and there, are sustainable. We have known for some time that this is a deception perpetuated on a compliant, dependent population on a truly vast scale. But the science, as they say, is well and truly ‘in’. We know what is happening and we know why. Over the last century, and particularly over the decades since WWII, humanity has been on the receiving end of a growing crescendo of what foresight practitioners refer to as ‘signals’ from the global system. These unambiguously show exactly how that system is being destabilised by ever more disruptive human activity. The changes may not be obvious as first since natural systems tend to be resilient – but only up to a point. When they begin to shift under constant and continuing pressure they respond – glacially at first, but then with unstoppable momentum and overwhelming force. Having ignored the early signs that all was not well, this is where humanity stands at the present time, confronted by multiple crises across many domains. Even seasoned observers are beginning to wonder if it is already too late to prevent some sort of gigantic civilisational collapse.

In this context most people seem to prefer recourse to common strategies of psychological comfort – distraction, avoidance, denial – rather than face up to the fact that the underpinnings of human civilisation are shifting beneath them and, in some cases, disappearing altogether. Trainer and myself are two among many workers who’ve attempted to draw attention to the actual human predicament and engage with others in seeking viable ways forward. This is not particularly easy since, by definition, such work tends to confine one to working ‘at the edges’ rather than in the mainstream where, in any balanced view, we should be welcomed and hence able to be far more active and effective. We are sometimes tolerated by mainstream organisations but seldom encouraged. Behind our personal stories, however, a vast and diffuse symbolic battle going on about what can be considered ‘right’ or ‘legitimate’ during this time of upheaval and hazard. The politics of the day are widely regarded as disappointing. They can barely acknowledge anything much about the broad process of global deterioration we have caused and are living through. They seem fixated on present business in a here-and-now environment in which the future effectively vanishes from view. So what can be done?

One way to frame our collective dilemma is as a choice between clarity and denial. I’d argue that while seeking the former certainly requires time, effort and a certain amount of dedication, the pay-offs are bountiful. At the very least you can say ‘goodbye’ to depression and actually get on with something useful. The big weakness of denial is that it solves nothing and merely defers what is feared or avoided to a later date – by which time one’s autonomy of action and response will have been significantly degraded. Don’t we all know this? A stitch in time saves nine; forewarned is forearmed etc? Of course we do. But we’re so practiced at allowing ourselves to be reassured and persuaded that it’s OK to avoid reality, ‘it’s not our problem’, ‘she’ll be right’. Except we can’t in the end avoid reality, it is our problem and, no, she won’t be alright unless we learn to respond more fully to the challenges ahead.

This is not the place to set out even a fraction of the strategies and creative options available within a realistic and informed forward view. But I will mention just one. What if we acknowledged that social collapse has happened before and could very easily happen again – but this time on a global scale? One consequence could be that we’d stop being scared stiff about ‘the problem’ and shift our attention toward strategies of conscious descent. Descent, that is, from the peak of over-growth and environmental decline. What I will do, however, is draw attention to several sources that provide multiple insights into what can be done, how and by whom.

Alexander, S. & Gleeson, B. 2019, Degrowth in the Suburbs. Singapore, Palgrave.

Re-imagines the suburbs in a post-growth future. Considers issues such as an energy descent future, ‘unlearning abundance’ and ‘prosperity’ under energy and resource constrained conditions. This is an original and inspiring work, hence highly recommended.

Gidley, J.M. 2017, The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, OUP.

Exactly what the title says. Provides a lucid account of the grounding of ‘the future’ in history and an excellent overview of how the field developed in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Provides a useful and succinct summary of different approaches to futures and futures work. Concludes with an outline of ‘grand global challenges’ and list of resources. https://foresightinternational.com.au/review/gidley-m-the-future-a-very-short-introduction/

Slaughter, R. 2015, Beyond the global emergency: Integral futures and the search for clarity. World Future Review 7, 2-3, 239-252

Argues against technology-led views of futures as espoused by, e.g. Silicon Valley, in favour of a more balanced assessment of interior and exterior factors. Suggests how Integral methods can open up new or renewed strategies that can be seen as ‘proto-solutions’ to pressing global issues. https://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Integral_Futs_Clarity_WFR_pp_239-252_2015.pdf

Slaughter, R. 2014, The denial of limits and interior aspects of descent, Foresight 16, 6, 527-549.

Examines denialism in the context of the much-abused Limits to Growth study. Uses Integral criteria to characterise aspects of ‘the denial machine’ and addresses some of the under-appreciated interior aspects of descent (as opposed to collapse). https://foresightinternational.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Denial_of_Limits_Final_230315.pdf

Trainer, T. 2007, Greenhouse: Refusing to grasp its significance, Arena Magazine, December-January 2007-8, 13-15.

On re-reading Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders

Of all the ideas put forward by Karl Marx one that has always resonated with me is his view that people are ‘authors’ of their society yet have forgotten their authorship. In one sense this is unexceptional. Not everyone has the time, opportunity or breadth of mind to appreciate the social construction of reality, the uses of legitimation and the many ways that powerful interests favour themselves above others. On the other hand there’s something increasingly bizarre about the way that entire populations in the rich West have been sold a notion of ‘the good life’ based on a 20th century invention known as affluent consumerism. For if one thing has become clear it’s the undeniable fact that this way of life has been on a collision course with planetary systems for some time. As Sam Alexander puts it:

Capitalism wants or needs what it cannot have: that is, limitless growth on a finite planet. This ecological predicament is the defining contradiction of capitalism in the 21st century, insofar as growth is now causing the problems that growth was supposed to be solving (Alexander, 2018).

While browsing recently in a small bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, I came across a Penguin paperback of Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1956. It’s perhaps 50 years since I first read it but it left a strong impression. It’s almost certainly one of the underlying reasons I’ve never accepted full-on commercial advertising as anything other than what Donella Meadows called ‘an unwanted tax on humanity’. (She also said that ‘you only have to spend millions on promoting something if its worth is in doubt.’) Continue reading…

A Story to Inspire the World

The rescue of twelve boys and their football coach from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand provided welcome relief from the usual run of distressing news. On this occasion almost everything went right. The one exception was the death of a courageous Thai soldier who ran out of oxygen while distributing air tanks along the submerged rescue route. The remainder of the story ran as an unfolding series of near-miraculous achievements.

For a while the boys were merely lost their nearby cycles providing mute evidence of the fact. No one knew where they were or even if they were still alive. Everything that happened from that point on could easily have gone the other way. A multiple tragedy was always the most likely outcome. The first miracle occurred when two British divers penetrated deep into the flooded cave system and found the boys on a slanting muddy platform a long way from the entrance. Joy at the discovery, however, soon turned to anxiety. How could a dozen inexperienced youngsters make it back out through these dangerously flooded caverns, past deep sumps and restricted spaces that were challenging even for the experts?

The international news media were soon camped right at the site and eagerly reported every scrap of information. But the real ‘action’ remained hidden. The crux of the whole operation was the way that the Thai authorities and teams of divers from around the world came together and worked as a skilful and efficient team. The full story is yet to be written. What is clear, however, is that this level of cooperation occurred under extreme conditions. Since the Monsoon rains had already started time pressures were intense and always going to raise the stakes.

While pumps were installed to reduce the water levels in parts of the system, divers distributed air tanks, supplies and hope to the boys. An Australian doctor from Adelaide monitored their condition and three Thai Navy Seals made the courageous decision to stay with them. With further heavy rain expected it was decided that the boys would be extracted at the earliest possible time. At this point it was unclear to outsiders how this might be achieved. But it was later revealed that the divers had been practicing their technique in nearby pools. It turned out that the boys were carefully sedated, fitted with a facemask and connected to an air supply. Each was carefully placed in a light ‘package’ with an experienced diver in front and behind. This difficult and very dangerous procedure was repeated thirteen times, in groups of four, four and five. Somehow the divers managed to manoeuvre each child (plus coach) through the dark underwater environment without a hitch. As each group emerged those nearby shook their heads in stunned amazement. Onlookers sighed in relief and many of the boys’ parents shed tears of joy. When the last ones, including doctor and Seals emerged, the news broke and a heartfelt wave of euphoria swept around the world.

Some have suggested that the rescue of the Thai football team is already yesterday’s news and so will quickly fade and be forgotten. But I disagree. I like to think that this event is perhaps no less significant than others that ripple through the years and, for good or ill, become part of the shared human story. Within the US, for example, September 11, 2001, will always be remembered as a day of infamy when a determined and merciless foe not only levelled two iconic buildings killing many innocent people in the process, but also punctured for ever the notion of that country as either innocent or untouchable. If that terrible event reminds us of the costs of hegemony, the ultimate futility of vast military power, the penalties of weak political decisions, why should a different truth not be found here in this coming together of members of the very same species to value and preserve life? Is it so hard to believe that beneath all exterior differences we are simply one vast and diverse family? That everyone in that family matters? That one life is as valuable and as unique as any other?

For a brief time Thailand as a nation became something much more than an exotic holiday destination. As the world watched and waited only the heartless could fail to respond to the determination of the rescuers, the deeply felt and shifting emotions of the parents. They could have been, and for a moment perhaps were, any and all of us. As for the youngsters themselves, and those who supported them though those literally dark and dangerous days, how did they get through it if not by drawing on their own sources of compassion and fortitude and those that that permeate Thai culture? Seldom have Buddhist practices seemed more helpful and life sustaining. Where else might a football coach be capable of helping his charges practice the mindfulness needed to endure such appalling conditions? Finally we should recognise the way that the boys apologised to their parents for having deceived them about their plans for that afternoon. Here, as in other aspects of the case, we seen how an underlying respect for all involved prepared the space for reconciliation and healing.

This is not to suggest that Thailand lacks the usual faults and failings common to our species. But on this occasion the country, the people, the international team of divers and helpers all came together to achieve something extraordinary. So the story is worthy of being remembered and emulated. It provides a reference point and a reminder that humanity can indeed act together for the common good. There are many people around the world who are also lost in the darkness of despair and privation. They need us to remember this and to act accordingly.

What Joy Lofthouse and Other Women Did in the 1940s

Most people will recall having one of those brief moments from time to time when an unexpected insight suddenly appears and the world changes. It happened recently when I read an obituary for Joy Lofthouse who’d passed away in the UK at age 94. Back in 1943, when she was working as a 20-year-old bank cashier, she’d responded to an advertisement in the Aeroplane magazine. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for women to train for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Despite fierce competition her application was successful and she went on to become one of 164 female pilots during the Second World War who undertook the vital task of ferrying military planes around the UK from one air base to another. Here’s a direct quote from the piece:

Alongside workaday aircraft she also flew more spectacular machines. There were Hawker Tempest Vs, North American Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires, all 400mph fighters. She flew a total of 18 types of aircraft – relying on a map and the view out of the cockpit for navigation – and the Spitfire was her enduring favourite. (Fountain, 2017).

All well and good you might say. But take a moment to reflect on those words in the last sentence: ‘relying on a map and a view out of the cockpit for navigation.’ Several thoughts arise: at 400mph? How did she get away with it? Would it be acceptable practice now? More significant, how many people these days would be capable of routinely performing similar feats of navigation and endurance? True, a few highly accomplished pilots might perhaps do so under ideal flying conditions. Yet it’s clear most people would be completely out of their depth. Why?

One answer can be found in a spate of reports during mid-2017 about a significant number of hapless motorists in New South Wales who believed they were headed for a beauty spot in the Blue Mountains but found themselves in a dead end lane a long way from their intended destination. Pictures appeared in local papers of stranded motorists standing around looking lost. One of the inhabitants was moved to put up a sign saying ‘this is not the Blue Mountains’! Following this train of thought leads to many similar stories where travellers have lost their bearings and landed up in embarrassing places such as lakes and rivers. Nearly everyone who has used a GPS device for navigation will have experienced some form of cognitive dissonance when the real world and an electronic simulacrum fail to match up – which they often do. What then?

Well, a certain amount of common sense is useful. If there’s a canal or a wall ahead when the GPS says it’s a road you’d be well advised to stop. But beyond any variety of common sense there’s a larger issue concerning awareness. Obviously the latter takes many forms but in this context the issue is about spatial awareness – how one’s immediate location relates to wider spaces, structures and landforms. The broad set of skills that allow us to know and appreciate our location in space is part of our human inheritance from the earliest times. But they are fading under early 21st Century conditions because machines are now taking over many of these tasks. The point is that the rise of portable devices such as GPS navigators and mobile phones means that the skills and capacities they are replacing are declining through lack of use. How many people actually remember phone numbers these days? If this remains a strong trend then many people risk becoming pale reflections of their forebears who honed their navigation skills through constant application over millennia. Which would leave humans that much weaker and under-equipped for the rigours that most certainly lie ahead.

So it’s not surprising that people are waking up to the fact that active steps are needed to rein in technical excesses. A short article for the Age David Brooks outlines a rationale supported by what he calls the ‘three main critiques of big tech.’

  1. It is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
  2. It is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops.”… News feeds are structured as “bottomless bowls” so that one page view leads down to another and another and so on forever.
  3. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users and impose unfair conditions on content creators and smaller competitors (Brooks, 2017).

So if we want to get beyond the present ‘wild IT’ or ‘anything goes’ phase we collectively need to decide on how and where to set limits. In Brooks’ view, online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection. … Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. (Brooks, 2017)

By contrast he suggests that ‘we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.’ So rather than accept the current myth that high tech offers us ‘the best’ in life we could take it down a notch or two. Perhaps it merely provides what he calls ‘efficiency devices.’ The point is not to eliminate high tech but to reduce its current over-dominance, to decide where it fits best in the wider frame of human life and culture. Active engagement with the world involves getting offline and putting away the both the GPS and the mobile phone.

If Joy Lofthouse could do without them while flying powerful fighting machines through the English weather at all times of the year during wartime, we can certainly do so ourselves. Perhaps more motorists would then rediscover how to find the Blue Mountains by using their own in-built navigation system.

Brooks, D. (2017). How evil is tech? Age, November 29.

Fountain, N. (2017). Joy Lofthouse (Obituary). Guardian, December 3.