Alternative paths for technologies

When we talk about technology we tend to think of flashy computers and complex, automated machinery like 3D printers or robotic arms. However, technology is much more than sophisticated tools. It is the ways humans interact with and transform the physical world. Technology is the simplest tool used to till the earth. It is the processes used to cook and ferment foods, cure materials to give them new properties and even create new materials. It is also the knowledge around these processes and tools. All the information and know-how regarding the manufacturing, use, maintenance and eventual disposal of a certain piece of technology. Technology is all around us and it affects us in profound ways, so it is rather peculiar that it is often neglected in discussions around politics, the economy and wicked social issues when, in fact, it cuts through all of them.

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One of the reasons this happens is because in the minds of most people, technology follows its own path. It is there for us to discover, not to create. So whatever shape it takes, we simply have to deal with it and adapt. Multiple studies in the field of technology theory, however, explain that this is not the case. They show that technology is socially constructed. Meaning that technology is shaped by the various social groups, structures and institutions in society to serve certain purposes.

Open vs closed technologies

With this in mind, we can see that the vast majority of the technologies employed in modern societies have been shaped by the dominant socio-economic system: Capitalism. And these technologies reflect how humans view nature and each other through Capitalism. They are born out of the need to maximise profits and efficiency (albeit in strict economic terms) and solidify power imbalances to secure dominance of certain social groups over others. As such, technology is fenced by strict intellectual property rights and very often does not suit the needs of its users. Instead the users are required to adjust their needs around it.

Such technologies are typically energy intensive, overuse raw materials and have a negative impact on the environment. In the name of profit, the making of these technologies very often involve inhumane work conditions and exploitation, like for example the extraction of rare minerals in African countries required for the smart phones we all use in our daily lives. They are also highly complex, prone to malfunctions (often enough purposely designed that way to ensure further sales of “newer and better” versions), and difficult to maintain or repair. In fact, users are not allowed to repair them when the need arises even if they have the skills to do so. Instead they are required to employ the services of certified experts which further ensures the developer’s control over the user. Smartphones are a pretty good example here too. Their performance and battery lives drop at a convenient time for consumers to buy the next version available every two years. Should someone try and swap the battery themselves they are immediately void of warranty.

Luckily, there are other types of technologies too. Open source technologies, an umbrella term which covers all technological artefacts made available without intellectual property restrictions, have always existed in the fringes of the dominant “closed” ones. The design, know-how and fabrication instructions of such technologies constitute a form of digital commons. Unlike physical commons, like water and air, the digital ones are abundant and easily accessible across the globe. The only thing required is an internet connection. Lack of restrictions means that technologies may be adapted to meet the exact needs of the users. They are also designed to last and be easily maintained as they do not serve specific business models. Overall, open technologies place control at the hands of their users, rather than those select social groups which design and promote their closed counterparts.

As a result, open source technologies enable diverse communities and initiatives to appropriate and adapt them into serving their needs. Open source software and hardware for IT applications; farming tools, medical and research equipment; small scale fabrication tools. Those are some of the examples of appropriate and adaptable uses of open technology that provide solutions for those that either cannot afford market alternatives or those alternatives do not exist. A final example might provide some clarity for all this.

Large agribusiness corporations typically provide technologies that support a very specific type of intensive and large-scale farming. Farmers are forced to adjust or fend for themselves. A few years ago, John Deere tractors caused a mini media frenzy in the US when the company asked farmers to sign a license agreement forbidding repairs and modifications to equipment. The software embedded in the tractor made it nearly impossible to do so as well. This meant that when the tractor would break down, the farmers could only as authorised technicians for repairs and not perform any of their own. If the technician was not available during peak season then it would mean massive damages for the farmers whilst any modifications which would make the machine more compatible with a farmer’s situation was out of the question. This led into a wave of hacking in the software and a large legal battle around the users’ right to repair. As opposed to this closed technology, open alternatives shed all restrictions. Communities of farmers, engineers and activists across the globe produce farming equipment which is suitable to all kinds of farming approaches and the way to produce them is made available to everyone through the internet. They invite all feedback and modification proposals in an attempt to create a diverse ecosystem of collaboration and coproduction.

Cosmolocalism and technology

Considering what we’ve discussed so far, we can assume that different socio-economic systems can produce different types of technological development. The current system, capitalism, has facilitated economic and technological growth which have led to a watershed moment for the human species. Extreme social inequality and environmental degradation can no longer be sweeped under the carpet and left for future generations to deal with. Radical action is required at a systemic level.

Cosmolocalism is an emerging system inspired by those initiatives that create alternative organisational and productive capacities whose priority is social equity and environmental justice. It places the commons at its centre and expands on the ethos of open source. In other words, cosmolocalism promotes the logic of freely accessible information about technological artefacts while providing the blueprints and protocols to apply it in organisational and production structures/institutions. As the name hints, cosmolocalism operates in two levels. The immaterial - information - knowledge becomes global. A digital commons, which can be accessed without restrictions and enriched by all corners of the world. The material or manufacturing activity, on the other hand, is local. It taps into the global commons, drawing and adapting designs/know-how/insight according to local needs and specificities. In turn, the knowledge of these local adaptations becomes part of the global pool providing further diversity and resilience.

The commons-oriented technologies provide the foundation as well as the umbrella under which new institutions and practices in society may find a common ethos and goals, away from the current unsustainable way of doing things. The term “institutions” here does not only refer to formal structures, laws or public bodies. Rather it refers to new possibilities, new ways of doing around work, organization and arrangement of life affairs; eventually new visions for meaning and civilization.

Practically speaking, cosmolocalism may take multiple forms depending on the local context and global connections. Drawing from emerging initiatives and networks however, we can surmise that it could entail some exemplary basic elements like the following:

1) Globally accessible repositories of open information and idea exchange like the Farm Hack tool library, which allows everyone to search agricultural tools they might need, upload their own or even make a request for collaboration/assistance. Such repositories can provide detailed instructions for technologies and practices like, to continue with the farming examples, the blueprints available from the French initiative L’atelier paysan. These blueprints have been designed and developed in collaboration with farmers and are regularly updated to feature new versions and variations.

2) Openly available local manufacturing facilities, also known as makerspaces or fab labs or hackerspaces, which allow the fabrication of the aforementioned technologies and the experimentation of new ones. Like for example the Tzoumakers rural makerspace in the Epirus region of Greece (again a farming reference). Tzoumakers is open to the local communities to develop farming solutions and more to local needs. It also forms a local meeting hub to coordinate collaborative activities that extend beyond the fabrication of tools.

3) Collaborative networks across multiple localities and sectors. The aforementioned farming oriented initiatives have established connections amongst themselves and others sharing the same ethos. This allows them to exchange insight, expertise and provide from each according to their specific strengths and to each according to their specific needs.

This is only a small fraction of the cosmolocal practices observed as they emerge within the dominant production system. Still in seed form, there is a long way until they may be able to provide a genuine alternative. However, considering the current uncertainty around social and environmental issues, it is now the time to recognise those seeds and help them spread. Technology will indeed help us in our current predicament, but we need to be mindful of the types of technology which may do so, as the techno solutionism currently being advocated globally is unfortunately prone to the same ailments that have brought us here in the first place.