Imagining Alternative Presents: On Alternative History and the Politics of Technology

Earlier this year, Amazon’s streaming service released a pilot for a TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel. The Man in the High Castle. It takes place during the 1960s after an Axis victory in the Second World War, and the subsequent occupation of most of the United States by the Germans and Japanese. You can watch the pilot for free, and you should, because it’s amazing

By now, the movie-going, book-reading, video-game-playing public is pretty familiar with alternative history. Over the last few years, it has gone from being a niche genre just a few years ago, limited to obscure web forums and a few niche novelists like Harry Turtledove, to something that is commonly featured in mainstream pop culture. Video games, as a medium, are a bit ahead of the curve, and have been using alternative histories as settings for players to shoot up for some time now. There are even strategy games which allow players to shape their own alternative history through the game pla;. The Civilization and Total War series, to take two examples, are incredibly detailed global history simulators.

I think that this is a good trend. It’s useful, for a number of reasons, to have an understanding and a discussion about what might have been. Of course you can’t predict exactly what a Nazified America or a Europe conquered by Ögedei Khan might have looked like, but that’s besides the point. The point, as stated by Noam Chomsky, is that “there is nothing inevitable in history“. It is a politically salient fact that things could have turned out differently. We need to understand that many of the problems we currently experience can be traced back to specific decisions in the past, rather than in the inevitable unfolding of a pre-ordained modern world. Furthermore, many of the good things we enjoy today were the result of very concerted efforts, or just lucky occurrences, in the past. If we are aware of this, then we are more motivated to try and bring about a better future. Inevitability breeds complacency.

You might wonder why I’m going on about this on a technology blog. The reason is this: For all its popularity and all its appeal, the alternative history genre is pretty terrible when it comes to questions of technology. Generally, alternative histories simply have slightly different versions of the same technologies that existed in that time and place in our own timeline. In the pilot of The Man in the High Castle, for example, a jet airliner looking distinctively like the Concorde ferries a Nazi delegation from occupied New York to meet with their counterparts in Japanese-occupied San Francisco. In reality, the development of such planes was far from inevitable, and the first jet airliners in the late 1940s were in fact the outcome of a very specific commercial struggle between the United Kingdom and the United States. Would the Nazis have developed their own high-speed civilian jetliners had they won the war? Maybe. But there is no reason to assume it. The uses of jet aircraft in that timeline could have turned out completely differently from what we now take for-granted.

Strategy video games make this technological determinism more explicit. through the well-known game mechanic of the “Technology tree”. For those who do not play strategy games, a technology tree is a set of branching paths which link up different technologies in a series of consequential relationships. In Civilization V, for example, researching steam power and dynamite allows you to develop the first railroads. Railroads, in turn, are prerequisites for research on combustion. The Total War series, Europa Universalis, and other similar strategy games use the same approach.

An example of a tech tree from Civilization V. From civfanatics.com.

There is some wiggle room in these tech trees. Generally the player gets to choose which technology to research next; a choice that has strategic consequences. But, as pointed out by video game scholar Turr Ghys, there are no genuinely branching paths. Choosing to research ironclads rather than fertilizer might influence your strategy, but ultimately you or somebody else on the map will wind up researching fertilizer, and you will inevitably be using chemical fertilizers that were in fact very historically contingent in the real world. The implicit message that you can rewrite the political and military history of a continent or the entire world to your heart’s content, but technologies are set in stone.

I think that this is a big gaping hole in the project of alternative history, because it suggests that technological development follows an inevitable path, when in fact it is political and subject to all the same struggles and uncertainties of any other element of society. Technological determinism implies that the environmental problems caused by, and power relations embodied in, our current set of technologies were simply an inevitable outgrowth of history. This undermines the sense that our technological systems are amenable to change, which in turn makes people less likely to try and change them. That’s bad.

The first thing I woudl like to see, then, is more variation in the technology we see in alternative histories in pop culture. What if a German victory in the First World War led to a global transport system based primarily on airships? What if worker movements had curtailed the development of containerisation, fundamentally changing the way goods are moved today? What if the Luddites had won, and brought in a completely different set of social, economic, and political relations around production technology? What if there had been no First World War, which gave cars a major boost while undermining competing technologies such as the railroads?

In the casse of video games. I would like to see a a reinvention of the technology tree. Suppose you are given the choice at one point between researching heavier-than-air aircraft or airships, and at another point you rare given the choice between a transportation system based on railways or highways? Each of these choices would open up a completely different set of capabilities and future technologies to research, and, if you were the first player to reach that junction in the tech tree, your choice would partially determine the choice of other players. (No nation is an island, technologically speaking, so perhaps they would incur a penalty for choosing a different branch on the tech tree than you did.)

You’d have to ask people like my friend Jedrzej if such a game would be feasible and if it would be fun. Video games, however, are a legitimate art form, and so, like TV shows and Philip K. Dick novels, they can do more than merely entertain us. Entertainment is political, and technology is political, and the past and future are both political. So entertainment about the past and future is…you get the idea. From that perspective, I think it’s clear that if we are to foster an understanding of the reality that technology is a political act, we should promote stories about the capacity to act differently. That means games, TV shows, movies, books, and all other forms of entertainment that show technology as a series of forks in the road, and that which one we choose is far from pre-tetermined.

On Entrepreneurs and Activists

If there’s one core message that I have wanted to convey in this blog, it is that. Not just in the sense that there is politics that takes place over technology, but also in the sense that technology is a way to do politics.
Let’s take an example from the news recently: Elon Musk has promised that Tesla will market partially autonomous vehicles in the United States as early as this summer. This is  major political moment in addition to being a technological one. As this article  points out, Musk’s plan opens up a lot of legal questions. There will be court cases about the political struggles over the legality of self-driving cars. The same thing happened during the early history of electricity: Proponents of alternating and direct current went to extraordinary measures to get support for their own system, even to the point of pushing the electric chair as a method of execution.

There will be the huge questions about labour Uber has already made substantive plans to introduce self-driving cars into its service. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other people who are threatened by this, will also be watching this, for obvious reason, and will probably find themselves in some kind of legal or political struggle with Tesla and Uber before too long. There will be studies and counter-studies, and the question of whether or not Tesla’s cars are legal will become a referendum on the career prospects of everybody who drives a car for a living.

The account I just gave isn’t very novel. There are others who have thought of all this before me. But it focuses too much on the single question of whether or not we should have self-driving vehicles? There’s no discussion of exactly what form the self-driving vehicles might take. That, it is assumed, is the business of engineers and other people working in large and impenetrable technology companies, who are ultimately accountable to capital. If you make this assumption, then it seems pretty obvious that self-driving cars will take a form, and be implemented in a way, that is most useful for private capital intersts, and most destructive for workers.

What if, however, this was not the case? What if activists had just as much involvement in the development of technology as capitalists did, and could influence the actual form of new technologies to be more conducive to social, economic, and environmental justice? It would certainly change the discussion around self-driving cars. Rather than simply making it a yes-or-no debate, we might ask what degree of autonomy is acceptable. We might ask questions about who should own and control the self-driving units: Individual drivers, or scummy companies like Uber. We might ask what kinds of ethics your self-driving car should implement on your behalf. We don’t have these conversations right now because we assume that those who develop our technologies will always and only pay attention to the needs of their investors to turn a profit.

Here’s the thing, though: Any company pushing a new kind of technology is already a bit like an activist group. No new technology fits into society perfectly, and often the people whose interests are aligned with that new technology have reason to try and make changes to laws, or social practices, or infrastructures in order to be successful. That’s why car lobbyists re-defined the street as a place for cars during the 1920s. It’s why Tesla has had to fight a bunch of legal battles, not just over self-driving cars, but over its business model. The first railroads could not be built without a revolution in British property law which allowed the government to force landowners to accept the fact that trains would be running across their land.

This provides an opportunity for cooperation. Entrepreneurs pushing new technologies could use activists as allies, because activists can help them make the changes they need in order to better embed their technology into society. In return, the activists can make some demands about the form the technology will take, and the way it will be implemented.

So here’s my proposal: Let’s have activist groups get involved with entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs get involved with activist groups. For example, a coalition of environmentalists and labour unions could offer their support to Tesla in the upcoming fight over self-driving cars, but only if the cars are a) sustainable, and designed to be used in a way that minimizes vehicle-miles travelled; and b) licensed to companies that give a fair deal to cab drivers. This could be important for new start-ups, which are often desperate for publicity and support. If, say, Greenpeace started endorsing kickstarters for new technologies that promise to reduce our carbon footprints, it would be very good both for the people developing those technologies, and for Greenpeace’s goal.

There’s a lot of vagueness in the model I’ve proposed. That’s intentional. I don’t run any activist groups, and there are people who are better qualified than me to turn this vague idea into a specific program. Either way, though, it’s better than how we do the politics of technology right now. Currently, when we see a new technology on the horizon whose implications we don’t like the best response we can muster is a resounding ‘no’. Unfortunately, that is only effective if anybody cares what we think. Often, they do not. Automation, to take the most frightening example, will be a big deal in the next few decades. No amount of protest is going to make the robots go away. It’s much better, then, to try and direct technological change, and *manage* form the robots, and other new technologies will take. To do that, we need to see technology not just as something that politics acts on, but as an act of politics in and of itself; just one part of the same tool-kit that is currently limited to petitions, marches, and the odd city council meeting.

Challenging our High-Carbon Narratives

It has become trendy among climate activists to focus their efforts on the production, rather than just the consumption, of fossil fuels. This has a pretty solid rationale: If we take oil out of the ground, then somebody is going to burn it. If we want to save the global climate, then we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The implications of this are radical, but hard to deny: Most major fossil fuel extraction projects have to be phased out, and we should absolutely not be initiating any new ones such as fracking or drilling in the Arctic. This is not an idle proposition, either; it has motivated a worldwide divestment campaign, as well as some very brave protesters taking on the fossil fuel industry wherever they try to frack some shale gas, dig up some bitumen, or build a new pipeline. These people deserve your support.

We can’t afford to completely forget about fossil fuel consumption, however. Consumption and extraction are very closely linked. Just as somebody is going to find a use for all that surplus oil we’re digging up; if we don’t address high rates of fossil fuel consumption then we can also expect a massive backlash from people who are still dependent on fossil fuels to threaten our progress at keeping oil in the ground. We need both approaches.

Beyond its immediate usefulness, the “leave the oil in the ground” also contains a broader philosophical and strategic implication that we should consider; namely that on any environmental issue, we should resist the temptation to focus on proximate causes, such as people heating their homes, and make sure to take account of the root causes, such as fossil fuel production and the lack of renewable home-heating infrastructure. There are social, economic, and political drivers for every environmentally destructive practice from littering on city streets to nuclear weapons testing. The actual act that harms the environment is often merely the last step in a chain of events that was set in motion in some disparate time and place. Often it would be better to tackle the first link in the chain, rather than the last one.

It gets a bit more complicated than that, because fossil-fuel extraction is not the only thing thing that sets in motion a chain of events leading to fossil-fuel combustion. Another one, which I want to address here, is our narratives of consumption. Think about the last major purchase you bought. Were your reasons for making that purchase completely rational? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not a Vulcan, then the answer is probably ‘no’. Our lifestyle choices are, at least on some level, performative. We do things, spend money, and, yes, emit carbon, because doing so allows us to align ourselves with certain cultural story-lines. One of my favourite examples of this is travel. If you’ve any kind of overseas backpacking holiday, then I would wager that you did so at least partly because you bought into story-line that says that such travel experiences will change your life. Unfortunately, they also emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I don’t mean to shame anybody with this post. The fact that we base our life choices on cultural narratives is perfectly okay, and is probably a fundamental part of how culture and society works. My point here is a more positive one: The fact that these narratives can be a major driver of carbon emissions gives climate activists an in. Because these stories are always at least a little bit arbitrary. Particular narrative exist for a reason, of course-each one is probably a complex combination of historical and psychological factors, but there is more than one potentially compelling cultural story-line about any given thing. In other words: Our high-carbon narratives, like fossil fuel extraction, are just one of the many root-causes that we can tackle.

At this point, I have to turn to British Comedian David Mitchell’s rant about climate change:

The basic point of Mitchell’s rant is that we should stop pretending that climate mitigation will be fun, because we will never be able to compete with people like Jeremy Clarkson if that is our strategy. But I’m not so sure. To take one of Mitchell’s examples, who says driving a 4×4 to the North Pole while drinking gin is actually that much fun? To me, it sounds cold, dangerous, hangover-inducing, and mostly monotonous once you’ve been doing it for a day or so. Of course, very few of us actually drunk-drive large vehicles to the planet’s polar regions. But we can similarly re-frame the discussion around more everyday driving. Our myths about driving tell us that it is the ultimate freedom, because it allows us to go wherever we want completely autonomously.

I don’t deny that there are some specific cases in which driving fits this description. Despite my frequent anti-motorist killjoying, I am in fact familiar of the sense of freedom and fun that comes with a good road-trip with friends. But that’s a tiny subset of the driving that people do. Lots of things about driving are the opposite of freedom. Drivers are saddled with the responsibility to find parking spots and feed the meter, to fret over the price of gas at the nearby station versus the one in the next town over, and to ensure they remain sober enough to get themselves home safely and legally. As a non-car-driver, by comparsion, I am perfectly free to jump on a train to the other end of the country whenever I want. Once I have arrived, I can step right off the train into a city centre with no need to look for parking, and I can go to the pub without worrying about whether I will get a DUI on the way home. I enjoy a similar freedom in local travel: My bicycle can be locked up almost anywhere, and can be safely left there overnight if I decide to take the bus home instead. So while you can tell a story in which driving is something that gives you the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule; you can tell a different one in which driving imposes a whole set of extra responsibilities on you that severely restrict how you can live your everyday life.

The choice between the two narratives I just presented is somewhat arbitrary. There is no scientific experiment or logical argument that could actually determine whether cars embody freedom. Furthermore, the freedom I experience as a non-driver is contingent on having public transit options and cycle infrastructure available to me. The point I want to make, though, that there is a cultural battle here that climate activists should be fighting. It is, thankfully, already being fought in a few places. And not just in terms of transportation, either. Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, in particular, is doing a great job dismantling some of the myths driving consumption, and replacing them with a very appealing narrative about frugality and a life of leisure and autonomy. We should do more of this. We should be challenging the adventure narratives that make people carbon-intensive holidays to other continents, the personal fulfilment narratives that make people buy a bunch of useless and environmentally-destructive stuff, and the health and fitness narratives that make people feel like they have to eat meat every single day of the week. Because ultimately, asking people to live more sustainably while continuing to perpetuate myths of conspicuous consumption is about as sensible as digging up a bunch of fossil fuels and asking people not to burn them.

Be afraid, be very afraid: The robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods!

This box is the seventeenth-century equivalent of a quadrotor drone. From spacebridges.com

In 1642, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal built a little brass box, with a handful of dials sticking out of it. Each dial would select a number, and by a clever mechanism, another dial would display the sum or the difference of all the numbers selected. Pascal had invented the world’s first calculator. This freaked people out. Math, at that time, was synonymous with reason, which was the main qulality separating human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. Pascal had taught minerals, which were lower than any animal, to reason. Pascal’s contemporaries anxiously asked what place would be left for humans in a world where metal could think.

We never really got over this anxiety. We’re all familiar with the Hollywood flims in which robotic exterminators with the faces of Arnold Schwarzenneger or Hugo Weaving hunt down humans in various robot-dominated post-apocalyptic wastelands. Lately, our science fiction robots are a bit friendlier. Think TARS from Interstellar, or the protagonist of Pixar’s latest, Big Hero 6. Friendly or not, however, the robots are still threatening our place in the world. The friendliness of helper-robots almost makes them scarier than the Terminator, because it is that very quality which is increasingly threatening our ability to earn a living.

This is a topic that terrifies me, but also makes me a little bit hopeful. So last night I took a train to London to see an Intelligence Squared debate on the subject. The proposition was appropriately ominous: “Be afraid, be very afraid: The robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods.” What follows is an account of that debate.

The first speaker, Andrew Keen, is a bit of a contrairian about the internet. The moderator, journalist Zainab Badawi, called him “The Antichrist of Silicon Valley”, his latest books are titled “The Cult of the Amateur”, and “The Internet is Not the Answer”. I wonder what he would think of me, an amateur who uses the internet to write optimistic things about technology. Keen’s opening statement, in any case, set up the debate quite well. He introduced the Morovich paradox: Computers tend to be very bad at simple tasks, like welding and folding clothing, but quite good at complicated ones, like analysing market data. This means bad news for the various educated professionals in the audience, he argued. Robots are diagnosing illnesses, marking essays, and doing research for law firms. And, as I’ve pointed out, they will also be supplanting human taxi and delivery drivers in short order. That means that we face an unsavoury future with even worse economic inequality than we have today: There will be a small upper class of programmers and entrepreneurs, a huge underclass, and nothing in between.

The first speaker against the motion was Walter Isaacson, who has written a biography of Steve Jobs, among a few other things. He started off with the rather unfortunate statement that “the industrial revolution wasn’t that bad”. One wonders if he has ever seen Oliver Twist. His argument that the total number of textile workers increased during the industrial revolution might be accurate in a strictly factual sense, but does not account for the quality or geographic distribution of the new jobs. That’s why the luddites (with whom he naturally compared his opponents) were so concerned about technology: There might have been jobs in cotton mills, but they didn’t provide the same quality of life that the cottage textile industry had.

The second speaker against the motion was Pippa Malmgren; a former economic advisor to President Bush. I must confess that a bit of a pigeonhole started to form when I heard that, and that it rapidly began filling up with pigeons when she started rattling out cliched platitudes about how “most innovationis coming from small groups of a few people working out of a garage somewhere”, and how anyone willing to pull themself up by their bootstraps can be one of those people. Alternatively, she said, people can become welders, because apparently there will also be a shortage of skilled tradespeople. “In my experience”, she said, as she waved a quadrotor drone in the air, “robots create jobs”. As with Isaacson, there was little discussion about the details: How many jobs, exactly, will the robots create?

The best speaker by far was the second speaker in favour of the motion: economist George Magnus. His argument hinged on one fact: That while the automation of the industrial revolution was largely about replacing human muscle power, the coming revolution will replace human brainpower. The difference, he argued, is crucial. Now that we have robots that can mimic our mental capacities, we are unlikely to have very much left to do.

There was a bit of wrangling over the details of Magnus’ argument. The speakers against the motion made a few vague and unconvincing arguments about creativity and interpersonal skills. Isaacson made a good point that it’s a lot harder to teach a robot to do some tasks than it is to teach a human, but he neglected missed the fact that you only have to teach one robot, after which point its expertise can be replicated indefinitely. And robots are already painting and composing music. In the question and answer period, Malmgren made some clichéd arguments about the power and promise of technology, which elicited an applause from some of the audience. Magnus’ blunt but honest reply, which got a much bigger applause, was that “that’s a very romantic view, which I would applaud as well, but I just don’t think it’s true”.

In the end, I think, the question of whether the robots will take our jobs comes down to a few pretty basic questions:
1) What will there be left for humans to do?
2) How many such jobs will there be?
3) What wages and working conditions will the majority of these jobs offer?

The answers, I regret to say, seem to be as follows: Not much; not very many; and bad. The speakers against the motion had every opportunity to disabuse me of this view, but consistently failed to do so. Repeated assertions that automation has always created more jobs in the past simply miss the fact that history does not necessarily repeat itself, and we count on it to do so at our own peril. Even if things will work out in the long run, that won’t necessarily help the next few generations. As George Magnus said, quoting John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run, we’ll all be dead.” If Walter Isaacson and Pippa Malmgren were really making the best case that could be made for our economic security, then I’m afraid to say that our jobs are probably doomed.

I’m not letting Keen and Magnus entirely off the hook. Their solutions to the problem sucked. Magnus proposed various band-aid measures such as wider use of labour-intensive construction. Try selling that one to a property developer. Keen, when asked by an audience member whether this meant we should rethink the purpose of work, replied with a pithy response of “We need jobs to earn a living!” This, of course, entirely missed the point of the question, which was presumably that we should find a way to arrange our economy so that we don’t need jobs to earn a living. Both of the speakers supporting the motion saw the fear in automation, and skilfully dismantled the opposition’s arguments, but they failed to produce any hope. Maybe I’m just naive, but as I argued yesterday, automation could be good news if we can manage it right.

At the end of the debate, the speakers against the motion had 52% of the audience in agreement, but the speakers for it had won over more people to their side, so they were declared the winners. I think the real verdict appeared during the question period, when a mother or teacher who had brought five schoolboys to the debate asked the speakers what career they should be working towards. Isaacson and Malmgren said they should follow their dreams and get working on their own entrepreneurial projects in their backyard shed (or become welders), while the speakers in favour were more pessimistic: Magnus pointed out that tech firms today only hire very few people, while Keen argued forcefully that they should NOT follow the entrpreneurial dream, because that would be like staking their future financial security on a lottery ticket.

I’m inclined to agree with Keen. Because if our only hope for the future is to become successful entrepreneurs, then most of us are doomed. You can’t have an economy where everybody is a tech entrepreneur. Malmgren and Isaacson’s insistences otherwise are dangerous, because they offer an appealing palliative for those 5 boys and their classmates. Kids of that generation will soon have a fight on their hands over the structure of an increasingly automated economy. I hope for their sake that we are not taken in by vague and illusory promises that we can all be the next Steve Jobs. Nice though that might sound, ultimately it stops us from getting down to the tough business of adapting our society to a world in which robots are increasingly sophisticated, and there is less and less for humans to do.

Technological Momentum, Automation and the Cooperative Movement

I found this while looking for a picture for this post, and I just couldn’t help myself. Created by Zort. Go upvote this design so that the good folks at Queertee will put it on a T-shirt!

There’s a concept in my field of study called technological momentum. It’s a nice compromise between the overly simplistic positions that technology shapes society, or that society shapes technology. According to historian and theorist Thomas Hughes, technologies in their earliest stage of development are a bit like a ball that has just been nudged off a ledge: It’s only starting to speed up, and it’s comparatively easy to stop it or redirect it, as often happens. Technologies in a later stage of development, however, have begun to amass a collection of related technologies, infrastructures, policies, consumer habits, and cultural connections. They are like a ball at the bottom of a slope: It is moving much faster, and is thus much more difficult to stop or redirect, and can in fact knock into other things and move them around. What this means, in a nutshell, is that in the early history of an important technology, its development is influenced by society; while in the latter stages, society is influenced by the technology.

This has interesting implications for techno-utopians like myself: If we want new technologies to be a force for good in the world, then we have to get at them early, when we have a better chance of influencing the form and path that they will eventually take. It means that activist groups wanting to use technology as a political strategy need to get out ahead of it, adopt it, and consciously shape it into something that can have a positive social influence once it gathers more momentum. Imagine, for example, what might have happened if the Luddites, rather than breaking the new industrial machines, instead adapted them for their own purposes could use so that they, rather than wealthy capitalists, could benefit from the increased productivity. It might not have been possible, but had they pulled it off, the last two centuries of history might be a lot less miserable.

With that thought-experiment in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the subject of cooperative grocery stores. Personally, I’m a big fan of them. I am an enthusiastic customer of Unicorn Grocery-a very middle-class organic grocery shop in my part of Manchester. It’s a bargain compared to most other organic grocers, and it’s generally a much more pleasant place to do one’s shopping than in a gigantic supermarket. Plus the produce is fantastic, and they’re the only place I’ve found where I can buy tempeh.

Don’t worry: I haven’t been captured by Big Grocery Cooperative, and this is not going to be a 1000-word glowing review of an organic grocer in South-West Manchester. But I had to introduce them because I’m interested in here is the conspicuous lack of technology that has become nearly ubiquitous in British grocery stores: automated checkout machines.

The phrase “automated checkout machine” might give you a bit of a shudder. The machines are still pretty flawed, to the point that the sentence, “unexpected item in the bagging area” has become a minor internet meme. So I don’t really miss the presence of checkout robots at Unicorn. The opportunity to talk to a human cashier is generally worth the slight loss of convenience. And of course, eliminating jobs through automation doesn’t exactly fulfil the mandate of a worker’s cooperative very well.

But sometimes when I’m waiting in the queue to pay for my groceries, I find myself wondering what Unicorn’s end-game is on this matter. The big supermarket chains, and indeed most businesses, are going to be pursuing more and more automation in the coming decades. Other businesses, such as fast food will probably follow. It’s not implausible that cashiers could be phased out altogether in some places. The rage-inducing problems with the checkout machines will eventually be ironed out, the machines will look more and more like a time and money saver, and less and less like a malfunctioning nuisance. Customers will adjust their habits accordingly, and come to expect to interact with a robot when they buy their groceries. They might even become uncomfortable with the idea of a human cashier. In other words: Automated checkouts are about to gain a whole lot more technological momentum.

This prediction might make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But while it’s not guaranteed (I’ve never claimed to be a technological oracle), it’s definitely plausible. If it does come to pass, what will become of the grocery workers’ coops that have thus far eschewed automation? They might be able to hold on to enough of their old customers to stay in business. I personally don’t expect to be wooed away from Unicorn by automated checkout machines. A growing mass of consumers, however, who are becoming more and more more accustomed to the automated approach, will start to become more hesitant to use cooperative grocers. This will make it hard for the cooperative movement to grow, which would be fine if the goal of the movement was to establish a few sustainably and cooperatively run grocers in local neighbourhoods. Cooperatives, however, are often presented as a model for a kinder and more just economy, and this can only be the case if the movement expands its appeal. Can we expect that to happen if these businesses intentionally keep themselves behind the technological curve?

There’s a pretty compelling counterargument to what I’ve just said, of course. What good will it be for the cooperative movement to gain the world but lose its soul? We can’t continue to see cooperatives as ethical businesses if they start firing their staff wholesale in order to embrace automation. My answer to this is that automation does not necessarily have to be a destroyer of livelihoods. That’s where technological momentum comes in. The people who have shaped automation technologies in the past have typically been aggressive capitalists, with no interest in the welfare of the workers that their technologies displace. But what if somebody else, with more of a conscience, took a more proactive role in deciding what automation looks like and how it is used? Could there be a different outcome?

Suppose, for example, grocery workers’ cooperatives introduced a few automated checkout machines into their stores, but did not lay off any employees. Instead, with some workers freed up from the need to man the till, they could use the same number of employees to do less work. That means easier work for the same pay. The time savings, meanwhile, could attract more customers into the store, resulting in more dividends for the workers as well as a little extra boost for the cooperative movement. I’m not an economist, and I’ve never worked in a cooperative, much less managed one, so there are probably serious flaws in the plan I’ve proposed above. Coming up with a real, socially just plan for automation has to be a job for people with more business and technological expertise than me. What I’m saying is that it’s not a discussion we’re having, and that needs to change. The best business minds of the cooperative movement should be thinking about this question. Maybe I’m wrong, and automation is inherently bad for workers. If that’s the case, I’d like to see a detailed argument as to why.

It’s actually quite a bizarre thing that our society is so skeptical of automation. If we lived in small communities based on local economies and cooperation, then any way to automate our daily tasks would be hailed as great news, heralding less work and more stuff. It is only because of the social and economic institution of employment, in particular the view that it is necessary as a precondition for survival, that makes us want the business of running our society to consume more person-hours, rather than less. If, as I have argued previously, the very idea of jobs is going obsolete, then we might be able, once again, to see automation as good news. We just have to find the right way to implement it. Automation isn’t going to go away. Too many powerful people are actively pursuing ways to eliminate more and more human workers for that to happen. If, however, we can find a way to make automation happen on our terms, then it could actually be good news.

Mapping the Politics of Technology

Some left-wing criticism of technological disruption. By Jen Sorensen, over at The Nib.

It’s trendy among internet politicos to cast aspersions on the traditional left-right political spectrum. There is good reason for this. It is a huge oversimplification to suggest that one group of people that guns, fossil fuels, and CEOs while another entirely distinct group likes biodiversity, taxes, and abortions. One popular solution to this is the political compass, which brings the spectrum from 1-D into 2-D space, to incorporate both the liberal/conservative economic outlook, and the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum. So libertarians, for example, can be either conservative Randians or progressive anarchists. Some have further complicated this, by adding a third axis for social issues, such as cosmopolitanism versus nationalism.

I am very sympathetic to criticisms of the left-right divide, and I enjoy efforts to refine the political spectrum into something with a bit more descriptive power. But critics of the spectrum are wrong, I think, to discount it altogether, because the left-right political spectrum can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you first figure out your political outlook, you are likely to look for people who agree with views you already have on certain issues. Having found them, you are then likely to also absorb their views on other issues, and believe them when they tell you that the people you disagree with on your favourite issues are also wrong about other things. Any political movement, furthermore, will make itself stronger by forming coalitions with other movements, even if the two have very little in common. That’s why we see free market economists teaming up with evangelical preachers, and environmentalists teaming up with LGBTQ groups. It pays to have friends. And so after a bit of consolidation, you can wind up with two big alliances of different interest groups.

However valid the left-right political spectrum is, however, it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to easily map onto the left-right political spectrum. Liberals, for example, can sometimes be surprisingly conservative about technological change if it threatens labour interests. Conservatives, meanwhile, can actually be quite liberal when it comes to supporting radical new technologies. So I’d like to propose that, in addition to the traditional left-right political distinction, we can also make a separate distinction on peoples’ enthusiasm towards technological change. In addition to liberals and conservatives, there are also futurists, people who want to keep the status quo, and neo-primitives. When you put this on one axis and political outlook on the other axis, you get six categories, each of which I think we see reflected in existing debates about technology. I’ve listed them below.

My (very rough) sketch of a compass outlining the politics of technology.

Techno-Utopians are left-wing and futurist. They believe that radical technological change can bring about a changed economic and social order that will benefit the underprivileged by democratising the means of production. Examples of these include some 3D printing and self-driving car enthusiasts.

Liberal techno-conservatives are left-wing supporters of the status quo. They see new technologies as a threat to existing labour relations, but a threat which will harm workers more than managers, and they are therefore skeptical of new technologies. We have seen a lot of this view in recent criticisms of tech companies like Uber and Facebook, as well as the sharing economy.

Liberal neo-primitivists believe that current technology has already gone too far, by creating a hostile and alienating industrial order. They don’t necessarily want to turn back the technological clock, but they are inspired by older technological systems, and often experiment with incorporating these into their lifestyles. Many environmentalists fit into this group, particularly the Deep Ecology and permaculture movements.

Techno-Libertarians are conservatives who celebrate technology’s disruptive potential. They see new technologies as a way to escape the oversight of the state, and are often highly critical of government regulation of new technological systems. Boosters of things like Uber and Bitcoin often fit into this category, and this is the basic philosophy espoused in Atlas Shrugged.

Neoliberal Techno-Conservatives support both the economic and technological status quo. They believe that existing technological and economic systems, working together, have brought great benefits for humanity, but not by overturning existing relations. Instead, they see moderate technological development as part of the proverbial tide that lifts all boats. They will often point to technological development as an example of what makes capitalist societies superior to socialist or communist ones. Most neoliberal think tanks take this view; here’s an example of this philosophy in action from the Cato Institute.

Conservative neo-primitivists see some forms of technology as a morally corrupting influence. Like liberal neo-primitivists, they want to go back to a simpler time, but they want to do so in a way that largely keeps existing labour relations intact. Honestly, I can’t really think of very many good examples of this viewpoint. It might be embodied in some of the paranoia and social shaming around things like selfies, or it might simply be a view espoused by people who don’t use the internet very much. Some forms of survivalism might fit into this category. The most intriguing possibility is that it doesn’t actually exist very much in the real world, meaning that conservatives are actually very rarely conservative about technology. Comment if you have any ideas about this one!

Exercises like this are always going to be clumsy oversimplifications, and what I’ve done here is no exception, as shown by some of the extremely awkward terminology I have used to describe the different philosophies. But for better or worse, the way most people talk about political differences is based on the political spectrum. That means that if you want to politicize something, you will eventually have to locate it on that spectrum in order to situate the discussion. Since I think that our political discourse about technology is underdeveloped, this seemed like a worthwhile bit of speculation. We need to find better ways to map out the state of the political argument about technology if we want that argument to be more productive.

A few thoughts about Elon Musk

CEOs are being explicitly compared to comic book characters. So it’s probably safe to say that we live in a period of technological enthusiasm.

We’re living in a period in which what might be called “moonshot thinking”, or a general enthusiasm for new futuristic technologies, is very popular. In the last few years, we have seen Google promise both artificial intelligence and radically expanded human life-spans, we have seen proposals for asteroid mining , and we now have a list of 100 finalists to be the first human residents of Mars. If you asked anybody who pays attention to this stuff to name one person they would most associate with it, they almost certainly mention Elon Musk. A few others, such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, and (shudder) Mark Zuckerberg might be mentioned, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of ambitious projects Musk has proposed and is currently working on. The guy is a kind of a big deal.

Tempting though it may be, we need to be careful not to fawn too much over people like Musk. First of all, because Musk’s perception as a selfless innovator who is interested in technical challenges and public service, is probably at least partly a PR creation. I’m inclined to believe that Musk probably is a decent human being, but we should still remember that he is a powerful billionaire, and therefore any discussion of him comes with a duty to be critical. Musk didn’t get to where he is by not earning a profit, after all. The other thing we have to keep in mind is that Musk didn’t get where he is without help. Tesla employs 10,000 people. SpaceX employs around 3,000. SolarCity employs more than 6,000 more. And many of those people are doing the hard research and design work for which Musk soaks up a lot of the credit. Musk is still almost certainly a clever guy, but the development of new technologies has been a large-scale team effort since at least Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

But people like Musk, Schmidt, Ford, and Edison are still a fascinating element of technological culture, because of the enthusiasm they seem to be able to generate for their ideas. If I proposed the hyperloop, nobody would listen and I would probably lose some professional credibility. But because Elon Musk has a reputation for building cool stuff, he can make international news by publishing a 58 page report on the same idea. And the tech media covers virtually everything he says. Why is this the case? One obvious answer is that, as I argued at the top of the page, we are in an era where moonshot thinking predominates, and as the progenitor of a bunch of moonshot projects, Musk is somebody who people want to pay attention to. But just as an experiment, let’s consider it the other way around. What if people like Musk (rather than merely the things they create) are the reason that we are currently so convinced that our immediate future looks like a science fiction movie.

At first glance, this theory goes against everything that science and technology scholars have been saying for the last few decades. Technology, they tell us, is not created by heroic individuals. Some trace the myth of the lone inventor to an obscure Victorian dispute about patent law. Scientists have long acknowledged that they see far by standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is probably time that engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs be willing to make the same admission. Tesla would be nowhere, for example, without the hard work of thousands of people working over the past few decades on better batteries for laptops and smartphones, to say nothing of the legions of people who mine the raw materials for these things, manufacture them, transport them, and sell them.

But what if we look beyond the technology itself, and pay a bit more attention to its public context and popular support? Could prominent, charismatic, and fascinating individuals make us more likely to give our endorsement to new technological ideas that would otherwise sound crazy? I think it’s plausible, mainly because we, as a species, seem to love colourful personalities. That’s why it makes national news when Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift. It’s why celebrities are paid exorbitant sums to endorse products. It’s why most history is understood in terms of big political and cultural personalities, form Louis Armstrong to Winston Churchill. And it’s why websites like Perez Hilton exist. We like to embody our ideas about the world in the form of people. That’s why we remember most of the big technological changes of the past by remembering the people who embodied them. Cars are represented by Henry Ford. Electrical infrastructure is represented by Thomas Edison. Computers are represented by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And so on. We find it much harder to relate to technology, which at the end of the day is a thing, than we do relating to people.

So, according to the hypothesis I’m developing here, sometimes an inventor or entrepreneur catches the public eye for one reason or another. By either an accident or a conscious effort, they cultivate their public image until they have a substantial media following. This becomes a major business asset, allowing them to generate major publicity for virtually any new idea they have. Because of their past successes, the public and media establishment are willing to consider proposals from them that they would reject out of hand if they were voiced by anybody less prominent. The result of this media coverage is that these ideas get financial and political support, as well as motivating research on the idea and perhaps an early market niche from technological enthusiasts. This in turn makes the success of the idea more viable. The result is that people like Elon Musk can serve as standard bearers, playing a big role in shaping future technology regardless of their role in actually developing it.

While I would like to do some detailed research on this idea one day, it remains just a hypothesis at this stage. But as a hypothesis, it has some interesting and important implications. Most important, perhaps, is that it suggests that prominent entrepreneurs and inventors can be extremely powerful people. Politicians come and go and most powerful business leaders are restricted by regulations and market forces. But if people like Elon Musk truly do have this kind of influence over the direction of technological development, then it could be that a small handful of people, most of whom are white men, have a very large role to play in shaping the future of human societies. It’s hard to vote down a transportation system that already has infrastructure in place, regardless of whether your votes come in the form of ballots or dollars. That means that we need to be very critical of these kinds of people and the ideas they propose. We need to really get to grips with their motivations, and be willing to think seriously not just about the viability of their proposals, but also about their long-term social, political, economic, and environmental effects.

But the news isn’t all bad. The power of technological standard bearers can also be a force for good, if we find ways to influence the kinds of people who we give this technological credibility to. We need big technological changes to solve a whole host of very scary social, economic and environmental problems, and if it is possible for one prominent person to play a big role in pushing those kinds of changes, then so much the better. We should, of course, fight the tendency to put people on pedestals. But maybe there is a role for social activists in helping societies think critically about the people to whom they give technological power. And maybe if we can help boost the public exposure of the right kinds of people, then we can help push the kinds of technological change that will make the world a better place rather than a worse one.

How to respond to the anti-vaccination movement

Apparently the anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon. From historyofvaccines.org.

For the last few years, the medical community has been warning us about the public health threat posed by the increasing number of parents who, out of misguided fear of (nonexistent) side effects, refuse to have their children vaccinated. Now, apparently, their warnings have come true: There is now an outbreak of measles in the United States. The public reaction to this has been very well-justified and entirely predictable outrage. There is now a proliferation of articles responding to the anti-vaccination crowd. Many take a tone that is frustrated, if not outright angry. For the record, these articles are absolutely correct. If you have kids, you should vaccinate them. To not do so is to not only to risk their lives, but also to put at risk countless other people who for one reason or another cannot be vaccinated.

That being said, however, I don’t think we, the pro-science public, are responding to this in exactly the right way. It’s perfectly understandable to be outraged by people whose ignorance causes them put others, including their own children, at risk. And it is very tempting to mock these people. But what exactly does mockery accomplish, beyond proving our own intellectual and moral superiority? In this post, I start from the premise that the goal of our response to the vaccination crisis should be to convince as many people as possible to vaccinate their children. Mockery and outrage at the actions of the anti-vaxxers are likely to have exactly the opposite effect, by pushing them further away from the medical establishment, creating an insular community that could jeopardize public health for generations to come.

An alternative to mockery is to simply provide good scientific information about vaccines, in order to counter the myths about them. But this approach also has its problems. The deficit model of science communication has some very serious problems. Anti-vaxxers already have plenty of access to scientific information about vaccines, and they might well have read more of it than you have. The problem is not that they don’t have the information, but that they don’t trust it.

The last strategy you see a lot of is harsh moral condemnation. “Your actions are jeopardising thousands of children!” is the rough message you hear from some in the pro-vaccine camp. The thing is that we have tried this strategy with climate change, and it doesn’t work too well either. When confronted with the absolute worst consequences of their actions, people often go into a reflexive state of denial. Disaster narratives are good for attracting attention, and not much else.

So what we really need to ask ourselves is this: Why has a large group of people living in prosperous first-world countries chosen to reject the institutions of modern medicine? Why is there such a deficit of trust? And how can we address it and get these people to trust doctors and public health professionals once more? Curious about these questions, I had a look at two anti-vaccination Facebook groups to see what kinds of narratives they use to justify themselves. Here are a few revealing quotes:

“…vaccines are a method of population reduction. So is “health care,” which more and more people are becoming aware is more of a “sick care” system that actually harms more people than it helps. Perhaps that’s the whole point of it. Given that vaccines technology help almost no one from a scientific point of view it raises the question: For what purpose are vaccines being so heavily pushed in the first place? Bill Gates seems to be saying that one of the primary purposes is to reduce the global population as a mechanism by which we can reduce CO2 emissions.”

[Responding to a walking dead meme about vaccines] “These idiots obviously have not seen zombie movies. Have they considered that it may be a vaccine that caused the apocalypse in the universe of The Walking Dead, just like other movies where doctors come up with cures for cancer only to result in a global catastrophe.”

“Easy to blame others than actually realise your government lie to you over vaccines.”

What these quotes reveal is not just a basic distrust in vaccines or even medicine, but also in experts more generally. They are appealing to the classic cultural myth of the incompetent or malevolent experts. This story appears not just in conspiracy theories, but also in perfectly mainstream pop culture. How many movies have you seen in which government or scientific authorities who the public trusts to resolve a crisis, instead make the situation worse, either through incompetence or recklessness. Virtually every zombie movie I’ve ever watched comes to mind, as do most other movies about global calamity. We like this story. And so it shouldn’t be too surprising when some people try to look for examples of it in the real world.

This story has, in fact, been played out in the real world. We live in a technocracy, where our everyday lives are increasingly governed by experts. That’s just part of the price we pay for living in a society with nice things like international transportation systems, mass-production of consumer goods, and, yes, vaccines. But these experts are people, and sometimes they screw up. Even worse: Sometimes they get themselves tangled up in self-reinforcing institutions that perpetuate the screwing up almost constantly. We saw a lot of this during the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the early environmental movement was a reaction to this. The government response to the crisis at Love Canal, for example, was completely incompetent.

We still see this kind of thing today, often from the medical community. Doctors are notorious for taking a very paternalistic attitude towards their patients, in which they know best and the patient should just listen. I once had a very frustrating conversation with a doctor about whether or not I should come off a course of medication I was on. The medicine seemed to have done its job, and I was aware that the only risk from coming off it was a relapse of the fairly minor condition that I had taken it to prevent. The medication, meanwhile, had major side-effects and restrictions on what I could do in my day-to-day life. So I wanted an honest appraisal of my chances of relapse, so that I could weigh that against the inconvenience of continuing to take the drug. But all I could get out of the doctor was “You shouldn’t stop taking it. You could have a relapse”. While it is probably just a minority of doctors who act like this, there are enough of them that the profession’s reputation has suffered a little bit.

Distrust of experts, and of the products they oversee, is not just limited to fringe groups like the anti-vaccination movement, either. How do you feel about adding monosodium glutamate to your food? Because it turns out that it’s actually completely safe. So is the artificial sweetener aspartame, though I personally have been distrustful of it in the past. Nobody completely trusts the collection scientific and technological institutions that run much of our world, and that is a good thing, because nobody should completely trust any institution. A healthy scepticism is an important element of citizenship. If you don’t have it, then you wind up buying stuff like radium water.

As with most things, however, balance is key. Too much trust in science and medicine allows imperfect experts to get away without any criticism, while too little results in people not vaccinating their children. So how do we ensure that we have a healthy but reasonable culture of critique for our scientific institutions? I can think of two suggestions. Firstly, robust critique of the experts should happen out in the open, and be featured in mainstream and responsible media outlets. That means that people who are hesitant to trust the experts don’t get driven into echo chambers in little-known blogs and facebook groups. The medical establishment and other institutions like it should be critiqued by people who actually understand the science they deal with, and who can separate the genuine concerns from the conspiracy theories. And secondly, experts should be willing to engage with this kind of criticism. Not with ridicule or paternalistic information campaigns, but with a genuine understanding of the concerns people have. Experts should know that they only have that status by public consent, and that that consent is sometimes precarious.

Mocking and shaming anti-vaxxers might do wonders for our egos, but it won’t do much at all for the health of children. If we really want to inoculate society against these kinds of pernicious conspiracy theories, then we have to be willing to really think about where they come from. That might be uncomfortable, but much like vaccinations themselves, the benefits are well worth it.

Is environmentalism middle-class?

A particularly egregious example of a middle-class ethical consumption from my local supermarket. (via Buzzfeed)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the phrase “middle class” has become a kind of soft epithet in in the United Kingdom. Here’s a Buzzfeed list of things, most of which are food for some reason, that are perceived to be “middle-class”. It’s certainly not the most devastating insult. In fact, it’s more likely to be used in a self-deprecating way than in any serious attempt to offend somebody. Still, it confuses me a little bit. I can understand criticizing and mocking members of the middle-class who fail to check their class privilege, but surely if an class is in and of itself is something worthy of mocking, then the mockery should be mainly directed at the upper-classes. They are, after all, far more ridiculous.

Of course, this isn’t a very big deal. It’s just another one of those aspects of British class dynamics that eludes my sometimes tragically North-American sensibililties. And little bit of gentle class-based ribbing is hardly something to get up in arms about. But there is one application of this phrase that bothers me: According to some commentators, enviornmentalism is middle-classTake this recent comment on the Green Party by the Guardian’s Suzan Moore, for example:

“The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative. As much as I would like to see a Ukip of the left, I am not convinced the Greens are it. Rather, they are a strange coalition, part eco-warrior, part middle-class do-gooder…What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanics of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of the Green Party of Canada. But this post is not going to be a partisan defence of the Greens. Perhaps they do need to take class more into account. But first of all Moore shouldn’t be so quick to shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss theories of plants: People of all classes have a very strong vested interest in the well-being of plants, so long as they enjoy eating. And of course the struggle against climate change is one that should be fought first and foremost for the poorest of the world, who will feel the changing climate more acutely than anybody else. A theory of class analysis is useful, but it shouldn’t be the only thing in our conceptual toolbox. Theories of natural systems should also be pretty important, given that we will be dependent on such systems regardless of what our class dynamics look like.

Of course, Moore seems more interested in gestures and practices than theories. The phrase “middle-class do-gooder” carries pretty clear dismissive connotations of smug suburban consumers who believe that filling their canvas shopping bag with overpriced organic vegetables is all they need to do to save the world. There is some value to this critique, as any proposed consumer actions to address the environmental crisis tend to be expensive and thus mainly accessible to the middle classes.

The flaw with this view is that it sees those expensive hallmarks middle-class sustainability purely in terms of how they exist in the present day. And sure: Farmer’s markets in the here and now are more an example of conspicuous consumption than a serious sustainability strategy.

But when you consider the future of some of these practices and products, then the picture changes a bit. This argument hinges on the idea of a niche: A protected incubator space for a new technology or business structure. Most changes to the rampantly unsustainable economy and society that we currently live in will have to go through this phase. And early experiments in sustainable production and consumption are going to be very imperfect. They will likely be both more expensive and less convenient than their less sustainable alternatives. Compare the price and availability of fuelling infrastructure for a Tesla car to that of a conventional petroleum driven car and you’ll see what I mean.

This means that in order to succeed, any sustainable innovation is going to need an initial market that is willing to put up with these flaws early on. That’s why early adopters tend to be people with both money and time on their hands. In other words: The middle and upper classes. So middle-class conspicuous consumption happens to be a very effective creator of niches for new technologies and practices, which we are going to need in order to tackle climate change and other environmental problems.

This might all seem a bit esoteric, so let’s take the concrete example of vegetable boxes, which happen to be one of my favourite examples of middle-class do-gooding. Currently, they’re expensive compared to what you would pay for the same quantity of vegetables at a supermarket. But the basic business model of a vegetable box scheme can benefits a great deal from a solid community of early adopters. More recipents of vegetable boxes means lower delivery costs, while a stable customer base can give the vegetable box providers an opportunity to work out the kinks in their business model and make the whole scheme cheaper. Eventually, it’s possible that vegetable box schemes could become cheap enough to be a viable option for the working classes. That means time savings, and healthier food for consumers, as well as reducing the importance of a carbon-intensive retail sector that encourages urban sprawl and lots of single-occupancy cars. A very similar process can be traced out for other environmental innovations such as electric cars, micro-generation of electricity, and sustainable housing. It would be impossible for any of these to succeed in the long-term without a community of early adopters willing to spend the time and money on an imperfect technology.

As a self-conscious middle-classer, I hope that this doesn’t sound self-congratulatory. Beneficial though some of these practices may be, they are still a form of conspicuous consumption and that needs to be critically examined. But I think it’s perfectly fair to encourage people who can afford it to try and spend the extra money and time to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s really the least they can do.

On Conservationism and Living Close to Nature

Motor News of 1966 was a decidedly conservationist publication.

The title page of a magazine I recently surveyed for my research includes a depiction of what might be a classic environmentalist fable. In it, a group of woodland creatures, including deer, squirrels and chipmunks, a rabbit, and a fox, look on in horror as a procession of logging equipment moves along a half-constructed road towards their forest. The caption for this title page, displayed on the inside front-cover of the magazine explains that: “Ever advancing man causes consternation to the forest folk whose board of directors seem vitally concerned with the inroads to their domain…”

Can you guess what magazine this is? Perhaps a 1970s-era environmental publication, such as Alternatives Journal? OMaybe a more generalist left-wing publication that decided to make an environmentally-themed cover? Or perhaps a children’s magazine, something like National Geographic World, trying to teach kids about the environment using *Fern Gully* style storytelling?

Nope. None of the above. The picture is from the May, 1966 issue of the Michigan edition of Motor News; a publication that the American Automobile Association sent to all their members. I was somewhat surprised to discover that during the 1960s, Motor News was a bona fide environmentalist magazine. In addition to its cover pages, which frequently featured wilderness imagery, the magazine published a monthly “Conservation Corner” column, which talked at length about the natural world in Michigan, and the things that threatened it.

It is a bit weird that Motor News was doing this. After all, at the same time they were eagerly promoting the construction of more and more interstate highways across the United States. But this makes the mistake of seeing Motor News through a present-day lens, where we know the threat that cars pose to the environment. In its historical context, however, an association of conservationism with road-building actually makes a lot of sense. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the construction of a highway through California’s redwoods, on the grounds that if more people could see the trees, then they could pressure the logging industry to stop cutting them down. After all, if you love the wilderness, then you have to get there somehow. Henry Ford himself described his love of birds in his autobiography:

Birds are the best of companions. We need them for their beauty and their companionship, and also we need them for the strictly economic reason that they destroy harmful insects. The only time I ever used the Ford organization to influence legislation was on behalf of the birds, and I think the end justified the means. The Weeks−McLean Bird Bill, providing for bird sanctuaries for our migratory birds, had been hanging in Congress with every likelihood of dying a natural death. Its immediate sponsors could not arouse much interest among the Congressmen. Birds do not vote. We got behind that bill and we asked each of our six thousand dealers to wire to his representative in Congress. It began to become apparent that birds might have votes; the bill went through.

Don’t think that this perspective is extinct, either. Watch a few car commercials, and you’re guaranteed to see at least one family or young couple park in a scenic natural location and eagerly fling open the trunk to pull out some camping, hiking, or mountain-biking equipment.

Have environmentalists matured beyond this? Do we now know better than to embrace ecologically destructive technologies and practices simply because they give us a better view of the nature we want to protect? Maybe. But we should be cautious before we make that assumption. This little case study tells us something very important about the environment: being in nature and protecting nature are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes, in fact, they can be directly opposed. Nature doesn’t always want us around.

This, however, is a fundamental challenge to a lot of environmental movements that are based on the ideal of a direct contact with the natural world. Consider, for example, the eco-village movement, as described by ecovillage.org:

“For millenia, people have lived in communities close to nature, and with supportive social structures. Many of these communities, or “ecovillages”, exist to this day and are struggling for survival. Ecovillages are now being created intentionally, so people can once more live in communities that are connected to the Earth in a way that ensures the well-being of all life-forms into the indefinite future.”

It sounds great. And it would be very hard to argue that the ecovillages’ residents’ hearts are not in the right place. But we need to critically analyze whether “communities close to nature” is not just a modern-day, environmentally-friendly retelling of the narratives that gave birth to suburbia a century ago. Can the eco-village and earthship movements really provide a model that allows everyone to live close to nature without inadvertently crowding nature out? And if not, then what is the benefit of developing a radically sustainable lifestyle that is only sustainable if practiced by a comparatively small group of people?

I’m not saying there aren’t good answers for these questions. I’m not very familiar with the ecovillage or earthship movements, and so I’d be doing them a disservice to assume they haven’t thought of this problem. But any movement that promises to save nature in part by moving more people closer to it, needs to consider the fact that Motor News once had a conservation column, along with all that implies.

Living close to nature inevitably means lower-density living. That means we’re more likely to be dependent on motorized transport, as well as on less efficient food and energy systems. Plus, human existence has a definite spatial footprint that will inevitably have some effect on the nature around it. In order to accommodate the human race in spaces that are both just and sustainable, the environmental movement should be strongly concerned with promoting human land use patterns that are efficient. For most of us, that means multi-story buildings in cities. Our experience of nature will have to be limited to comparatively short, low-impact trips. The sooner we get used to that, the better.