The Lightning Imprisoned in the Wire: Technology and Freedom

By Tim Hardy

Conservatives use the word “freedom” to describe removing anything that stands in the way of maximizing profits. This is a position that leads them to label environmental protection legislation and workers rights “red tape” as though both were simply examples of outdated, bureaucratic inefficiency that need sweeping away. But freedom does not lie in the increased efficiency of the markets. Real freedom is freedom from the markets.

Nearly a century ago, historian and anthropologist Aby Warburg saw “the culture of the machine age” as destroying a more natural relation with the world:

The lightning imprisoned in the wire – captured electricity – has produced a culture with no use for paganism. What has replaced it? Natural forces are no longer seen in their biomorphic guise, but rather as infinite waves obedient to the human touch. With these waves the culture of the machine age destroys what the natural sciences born of myth so arduously achieved: the space for devotion, which evolved in turn into the space required for reflection.

A similar distrust makes the idea that machines might liberate us as unimaginable to many on the left as the idea that there is anything outside the markets is to the right.

Technology is resisted as artificial. A prelapsarian myth of a more natural existence without complicated tools haunts the dreams of humanity. This is magical thinking.

Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as a means of genetic survival: “We are part of an intricate network that comes from the original bateriological takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.” Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins.

John Gray

Technology is part of us. As the mechanical extension of our wills, it is the tool of our potential liberation – or of our enslavement.

A rise in productivity has not led to significantly shorter working hours or higher wages for those on the shop floor but instead to a dizzying increase in inequality and a world in which even an employee’s most intimate bodily functions are regulated. No wonder those striving for a better world are suspicious.

Outside of workplace surveillance, technology too often increases our alienation. It powers the electronic opiates with which we distract ourselves from the real conditions under which we live. Bewitched by our shiny, new new toys, searching, tweeting, blogging, linking, liking, we skim over the surface of things, endlessly dissatisfied, in a compulsive quest for novelty and distraction like addicts who never quite hit rock bottom. Distracted, we content ourselves to leave the important decisions to a minority who rarely even bother to pretend that they have our best interests at heart.

But while most technologies have been informed by the political cultures in which they have been developed, there is nothing inherently alienating about technology.

Imagine a world in which our technological genius as a species was directed towards the satisfaction of our shared vital needs not the profits of a few. Imagine a world where basic food, shelter and clothing were provided to all for free, one in which each person is liberated from the need to work for things they do not need, choosing instead to make of their own time what they desire. Such a world might come: not out of commerce but from the open source community that co-exists with but works against the grain of profit-driven industry.

From modest beginnings, the free software movement has grown exponentially. Today, open source software is used in most global corporations even though the idea behind it – that software should be free to use, free to copy, free to modify and redistribute – stands in direct and radical opposition to the draconian and quixotic intellectual property laws with which many of these companies attempt to defend their market dominance. Significantly, the spirit of open source is not limited to the liberation of ideas instantiated in digital logic.

Around the world, like-minded people find one another online and come together in person to pool resources and skills, inspired not by profit but by intellectual curiosity, a love of solving worthwhile problems and a love of making things. Some form hackspaces. Others form collectives with more specific goals.

Open Source Ecology  is one such group, a network of farmers and engineers that have come together to use open hardware technology to transcend artificial scarcity. They have designed and begun to build an open source, low-cost, high performance technological platform that enables industrial productivity on a small scale. They call it the Global Village Construction Set.

We have had the means to feed and clothe the poor of the world for a century yet millions still starve while billions of others endure lives of quiet desperation so that a few can enjoy lives of unimaginable luxury. We are told that this is the price of freedom. Open source hardware projects like the Global Village Construction Set undermine that lie and show ways in which real freedom might finally be possible.

(Thanks to Matt Gaffen and Sam Carlisle who are working on a related open hardware project to be announced later this year.)

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