On Human Behavior Towards Technology and Ambivalence as Intervention

May 30, 2022 10:32 pm || By

On Human Behavior Towards Technology and Ambivalence as Intervention

Author : Alfredo Putrawidjoyo
Editor  : Anisa Pratita Mantovani

            Richard Brautigan was an American poet who, in 1967, wrote All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. A poem, written while being a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology.[1] It goes along the lines of:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computer
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

            Readers all around would say that Brautigan envisage a future of glorious cooperation—mutually programming!—between technology and nature. The Indian poet, Vijay Nambisan, wrote on how moving this poem is, “It is too childlike, too innocent,” and a “vision of a harmony which includes love.”[3] This endearing poem speculatively prefigures a solarpunk vision. As opposed to cyberpunk dystopias, where the world is under tyranny of technology and corporation, solarpunk utopias favors an egalitarian vision of an egalitarian structure and cultures of economy, social, as well as political life between humans and non-humans.[4]

            But, as it is often the case in visions of solarpunk future(s), there are many worlds in one. For one Nuno Marques, Brautigan’s world is one of ecological dystopia. Marques points to the ironic tendency in each of the three stanzas’ opening, emphasized by their punctuation marks.[5] The tonality of Brautigan’s seemingly impatience and speculation, for Marques, obliques the poem’s skepticism towards the over-technologized world. Hence a dystopian reading in which, rather than the mutualistic symbiosis of technology and nature, a human-machine dominated nature is transformed beyond recognition and repair.

            This double reading is frequently found in the arts of literature (read: poetry). The ambivalence where a text is can be read in either a prescriptive or as a cautionary tale. In times of rapid technological advancement, both in rhetoric and actually existing development, a critical reading of how technology can be applied, where they are applied, and to what purpose is sorely needed.

            On the one hand, techno-optimists believe that advancements in industrial and consumer technology can bring about the much-needed change to rid the world of its sorrows. Problems in fields such as health, transportation, and manufacturing are being introduced to the digital applications, platforms, and automation to make their processes more efficient and effective. For consumers, the promise is that innovation and disruption—if they can adapt—can make their lives easier.[6]

            On the other hand, techno-pessimists attempts rebuke such notions as naïve. Rampant surveillance, breaches of privacy, exploitation of gig workers, and the digital divide all, for techno-pessimists, presents a wall from which proponents of techno-optimists cannot climb out of. Rather than presenting a new field where novel opportunities and power imbalances of the physical world are foregone, the digital world extrapolates, or even accelerate, inequalities.[7]

            Both camps present relentless critique of each other. Such debates can be productive, but not if they are dogmatic and are talking past each other rather than at each other. Both camps do have valid points. Take for example in the field of work or labor. Machines can take over demeaning and dangerous work, such as those that deal with nuclear isotopes. Realizing that potential, we can still acknowledge the immediate consequences of digital application gamifying division of labor or even outright replacing the workforce when the population have yet adapted to such disruption. As such fear and optimism on how technology may affect society must be read with ambivalence.

            Like Brautigan’s poem, technology and its facets can and must be met with ambivalence. Where the rationale and cognitive faculties may fall short, they can be compensated with affective faculties developed in the arts of poetry. Then, the responsibility is to take such ambivalence from emotion to political strategy.

            Once again taking the example from the issue of labor. Hizkia Yosie Polimpung, a researcher on labor issues, opines that academic, workers, corporations, and the government should not be lulled with the gimmicks of technology, but should also not be reactionary in rejecting technology outright.[8] For Polimpung, “(human) workers being replaced by machines is a constant feature of history” and that fear of losing work is due to our “lack of imagination on what to do outside of work.” The work is then twofold. First, to learn the science and social theory behind the technology so as not be lulled by the fancy rhetoric. Second, create a concrete political agenda on how the technology may be applied while keeping it inline with the worker’s interests.

            Finally, on the lack of imagination, that is where poetry comes in. Works such as All Over by Machines of Loving Grace can be used as an example on the ambivalence of human perception of technology. On the consequences and possibilities of the marriage between technology, humans, and non-human nature. The goal is then the culmination: from each human according to their ability, to each machine according to their ability.

[1] Watson, I. (2012) ‘Machines of Loving Grace’, in Watson, I., The Universal Machine. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 285–306. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-28102-0_13.

[2] Brautigan, R. (1989) Richard Brautigan’s Trout fishing in America ; The pill versus the Springhill mine disaster ; and, In watermelon sugar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.

[3] Nambisan, V. (2018) Pines and cybernetics, The Hindu. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20180404202754/http://www.thehindu.com/2000/06/03/stories/1303110d.htm (Accessed: 8 March 2022).

[4] Solarpunk Anarchist (2016) ‘What is Solarpunk?’, Solarpunk Anarchist, 27 May. Available at: https://solarpunkanarchists.com/2016/05/27/what-is-solarpunk/ (Accessed: 21 March 2022).

[5] Marques, N. (2016) ‘Poetry and Science Fiction : – Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” as an ecological dystopia’, Messengers From The Stars [Preprint], (1). Available at: http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-298474 (Accessed: 8 March 2022).

[6] Polimpung, H. (2018) Teknopolitika Kemudahan Hidup, IndoPROGRESS. Available at: https://indoprogress.com/2018/06/teknopolitika-kemudahan-hidup/ (Accessed: 3 July 2021).

[7] Madrigal, A.C. (2013) Toward a Complex, Realistic, and Moral Tech Criticism, The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/toward-a-complex-realistic-and-moral-tech-criticism/273996/ (Accessed: 23 March 2022); Lehmann, C. (2016) Forget Techno-Optimism: We Can’t Innovate Our Way Out of Inequality, In These Times. Available at: https://inthesetimes.com/article/alec-ross-techno-optimism (Accessed: 23 March 2022).

[8] Intan, N., Fadhilah, M., and Deatry (2018) ‘Hizkia Yosie: Indonesia Miskin Imajinasi Mengenai Dunia tanpa Kerja’, Balairungpress, 17 November. Available at: https://www.balairungpress.com/2018/11/hizkia-yosie-indonesia-miskin-imajinasi-mengenai-dunia-tanpa-kerja/ (Accessed: 7 March 2022).