The shadow of Human Nature is cast by its materiality, a materiality which now, as in antiquity, must be won by mechanical processes. These processes have been shrunk and disappeared into the hardware, but they still cast a shadow, which follows us around, calling us to seek out and explore their human industrial legacy. Here we may see the merciless Bataille-ian economy of excess of which we are an infinitesimal part, and address, with Flusser and Crichton, the justification for techno-ethics.
How can we create a digital Utopia based on hardware made under unfair conditions? Bernard Stiegler claims that our age is not properly called post.modern, or post-industrial, but rather hyper-industrial and hyper-modern, all our advanced knowledge still relies on hardware which functions fundamentally mechanically. . Its shadow reminds us that knowledge has its excess, unknown, incomplete, unspeakable, opaque, taboo. This paper will address the apparent incompatibility between faith in science as the guiding light of humanity, and the intractable problem of the persistence of unfair and unjust material human conditions under which the instruments predicating such a scientific Utopia would emerge.
Can we see in the predilections of our hardware the concretion of certain social priorities?
Can such social priorities be said to invoke ethical models?
And if both of these questions can be taken, can we then infer that ethical values are inscribed in our hardware?
If the response to the last question is positive, as I would like to argue, we have a situation where the highly miniaturized, multiplied automated processes of the hardware that make today’s industrial reality run are perpetuating certain overarching ethical values, and that these values deserve our acknowledgement and analysis.
The materiality of our contemporary environment is the product of large, to varying degrees global processes involving the collaboration of myriad people; excavating, smelting, soldering, thinking, planning, moving the materials around until they have settled in the forms we can observe here today. Whatever moves upon the surface is the result of this massive human interaction.
The production of the contemporary surface is always a project which requires collusion, as Bruno Latour put it “An object cannot come into existence if the ranges of interests around the project do not intersect.”(1) these overlapping ranges of interests constitute society. Latour was speaking of the realisation of complex projects like the VAL suburban rail system in Lille but it can be applied to the spontaneous collaboration between myriad disparate companies comprehended in any contemporary technical product.
There is a sociology, and an anthropology of the technological present. Furthermore I claim the physical reality of contemporary objects are materially inscribed with the social processes by which they were generated. Therefore there is an archaeology or an anarcheology of the contemporary surface which reveals social networks and their mores, what Pierre Lemonnier calls “Material Culture”.
The human technological product is the site of a battle for ideological hegemony, and claims of its neutrality are politically spurious. We could, from today, have a very different world of technical effects and objects, engendering different world-views and sociabilities, if, or course, the “ranges of interests” of enough people involved would intersect to support enough divergent projects.
Instead, we today live in a symbiosis of liberationist techno-optimism and conservative techno-pragmatism. Take for example the utopian rhetoric surrounding mobile technologies. The shadow cast by the gleaming LED faces of digital images are in the short- or narrow-sighted design errors which have caused the deaths of (according to the US Congress)(2)(3) over six million people.
A holocaust broke out in the late nineties when engineers at Apple, Nokia, and other electronics manufacturers determined to use tantalum in their circuit boards. Tantalum’s unique heat-resistant and high-conducting properties allowed the next generation smartphones, games and laptops to be designed thinner and lighter. Nobody asked where these materials would come from. Wars broke out for control of mines in DRC and Zambia, and millions were killed. This was patently a design decision which went wrong. Is the design neutral? As neutral as slaughter.
In 2002 the European community decided to ban the use of lead in solder. The project was called ROHS, it came into full effect in 2006. Other, safer alternatives to poisonous lead, such as tin, were available, which would protect tens of thousands of electronics assemblers around the world. No-one asked about where the tin would come from.
World-wide transition to non-lead solder for electronics meant that massive and inexpensive new sources of tin would suddenly have to be found(4). Suddenly a civil war sprung up in eastern Congo over cassiterite (tine ore) mines(5), hundreds of thousands were raped and murdered as militias, and sections of national armies, often supported by multinational mining corporations battled for control of the mines. There will be no Nürnberg for the inadvertent bureaucratic criminals, who simply though ignorance generated mass slaughter.
Since the earliest days of our 200-year industrial revolution, and before, back through to our philosophical ancestors in the greeks and Egyptians, we can observe tolerance for collateral damage, human exploitation, slavery, indentured labour, excused by progressive rhetoric. We need to see that cruelty as part of the pedigree of our technological and scientific accomplishments.
We cannot plan, or even conceive of a technical utopia, a ‘better world thought technology’ when this would have to be predicated on hardware created under unacceptable conditions. Or we can, but it is pure vanity. I disparage the cultural pedigree of this vanity. I deny the neutrality of hardware as I assert its persistence as a record, an archive of the social conditions of its emergence. As Garcia & Sandler concluded in their article about whether human technological enhancement could help resolve social justice problems “We must fix social injustice, the technologies will not do it for us”.(6)
1. Latour, Bruno, “Ethnography of a “High-Tech” Case”, in Lemonnier, Pierre, ed. Technological Choices, p.391
2. 3.5 million people died between 1998-2001 according to U.S. House Sub- Committee on International Operations and Human Rights, “Congressional Testimony of Les Roberts, Director of Health Policy at the International Rescue Committee,” 107th Cong., 2nd sess., 7 May 2001, 2.
3. By 2009, over 6 million are said to have died directly due to the conflict minerals trade: as recorded in U.S. House of Representatives Bill bill H. R. 4128 To improve transparency and reduce trade in conflict minerals, and for other purposes. 111th CONGRESS, 1st Session, November 19, 2009
5. CONNECTING COMPONENTS, DIVIDING COMMUNITIES Tin Production for Consumer Electronics in the DR Congo and Indonesia FinnWatch / FANC December 2007
6. Garcia, T & Sandler, R. Enhancing Justice, in Nanoethics (2008) 2, 286, Springer, Dodrecht, 2008