The Ultimate Heresy: Technology Can't Fix What's Broken

Technology can’t fix what’s broken, because what’s broken is our entire system..

The ultimate heresy in today’s world isn’t religious or political: it’s refusing to believe that technology can not only solve all our problems, it will do so painlessly and without any sacrifice. Anyone who dares to question this orthodoxy is instantly declared an anti-progress (gasp!) Luddite, i.e. a heretic in league with the Devil.

Even worse, if that’s possible, is declaring that technology is making our lives worse rather than better. There’s an entire industry devoted to cherry-picking data to support the One True Faith of Technology: a new miracle drug (never mind the side-effects or the fact that the drug only works on a relative handful of patients), a new energy source that will generate nearly free energy in near-infinite quantities (thorium reactors, though there is not yet a single one that’s operational), and the marketing of convenience: this new marketing gimmick will change your life–you can try on clothing in virtual reality, no need to go to the mall! Wow! Borrow more, buy more, throw more into the landfill–isn’t technology wonderful?

Meanwhile, back in reality, the previous “miracle drug,” statins, turn out to be useless in reducing heart disease and actively reduce health via a vast array of negative side effects: Do statins really work? Who benefits? Who has the power to cover up the side effects? ( Will You Be Richer or ... Smith, Charles Hugh Best Price: $10.99 Buy New $11.55 (as of 05:55 EST - Details)

Heavily promoted “miracle drugs” make billions of dollars for the corporate owners, whether they actually improve health in the long-term or not. But the tech-will-fix-everything cheerleaders never get around to examining the spectacular failures of Big Pharma, or the catastrophic consequences of smartphone addiction (see chart below), or the impossibility of scaling technology without consuming vast amounts of resources which are already scarce.

This excerpt from my new book explains the absurdity of the tech faithful’s belief system: (The book is Will You Be Richer or Poorer? Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World.)

The belief in the ultimate goodness and inevitability of technological advances is often presented as a binary choice: one either believes that technology will eventually solve every human problem, or one is anti-technology and anti-progress.

Suggesting there are limits on technology is thus heretical: for believers, there are no limits.

Let’s set aside the false binary choice and ask: are there intrinsic limits to technology, and if so, are we approaching any of these limits?

Technology cannot change the priorities and incentives of those who own it. Technology is only a tool, and people will use the tool to maximize their gain and optimize whatever incentives are embedded in the system. If chopping down irreplaceable tropical hardwood forests is optimized by the incentives to maximize profits, then that’s how technology will be applied.

Technology cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics. Taking a pencil and extending the declining cost of solar panels to zero doesn’t negate the physical costs of mining and smelting the ore, shipping the metal to a factory, fabricating the photovoltaic cells, assembling and testing the panels, transporting them to the installation site on vehicles that are expensive to manufacture and maintain, installing the panels, wiring them to inverters and other equipment, testing the system onsite, and returning to perform maintenance and possibly repairs. Since the expected life of the installed panels is 20 to 25 years, the entire expense must be repeated, plus the additional expense of removing and recycling the worn out panels. Money and Work Unchained Charles Hugh Smith Best Price: $11.00 Buy New $1.99 (as of 10:55 EST - Details)

The cost of manufacturing, installing, maintaining, repairing and replacing the panels will never be close to zero due to the intrinsic costs in mining, smelting, refining, milling, transporting, assembling, testing, installing, maintaining and repairing the panels–not to mention getting rid of the toxic components when the panels must be replaced.

Even if robots perform all the work, robots are themselves resource- and energy-intensive. Robots are less like a computer chip (with declining marginal costs), and more like a car, an immensely complex and costly assembly of intrinsically resource-intensive components, electronics, computer chips and millions of lines of software coding.

Autos cost more than they did a generation ago for all these reasons. As cheap-to-access resources such as metals and minerals are depleted, the remaining ores are more costly to extract; regulations require additional safety features, and extremely complex software is increasingly prone to unanticipated errors.

All of these realities apply to autos, robots and every other complex, resource-intensive machinery.

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