(To the tune of Monty Python’s “Spam Song”): Tech, Tech, Tech, Tech…
How our obsession with technological quick-fixes results in misguided and ruinously expensive endeavors
As the old adage goes, “To a hammer, every problem is a nail.”
We live in a world of hi-tech hammers. Automobiles cause pollution and release greenhouse gasses? All Hail the Electric Vehicle!
Overwhelmed by the number of apps on your smartphone? Download an app-management app!
Suffering side-effects from the obesity-related medications you’re on? Take more medicines to mask your side-effects!
We’re all consuming vast amounts of energy to little purpose? Switch to renewables!
These are just a handful of examples; every reader will doubtless be able to think of some of their own.
The question is: why do we relentlessly look for quick-fix technology-oriented solutions to problems that have far better and far easier ways to mitigate them? Why are we consistently blind to the obvious and drawn instead to embrace the hugely expensive and largely unnecessary?
Partly it’s because of marketing. The average Westerner these days is exposed to more than 10,000 ad impressions per day and most so-called “news” is actually just free advertising under a different guise. Whether it’s an excited puff-piece about Tesla in an online magazine or an account of some fantastic new anti-obesity medication medication (e.g. a medication that reduces the side-effects from the anti-obesity medication) in a supposedly reputable newspaper, the fact is we live in a world of constant boosterism in which expensive solutions are reliably touted as the only way forward.
Behind all this hype are billions of dollars poured into startups by naïve investors who desperately want to make good returns on their money. And if it takes an extra-large dose of spurious nonsense to get them there, all well and good. After all, it’s not like anyone is actually going to think about things, do the research, and come to alternative conclusions. Everyone’s too busy drinking their super-caffeinated beverages and then zoning out to streamed video entertainments.
The other reason we’re such suckers is because our brains are tiny and whenever possible we avoid using them to attempt thinking. Being told some whizzy new technology is “the solution” saves us from having to engage neurons that are permanently asleep. We’re hardwired to accept assertions from purported authority figures, so we do.
But if we were to pause a moment and consider the various problems we face, it would become apparent that we’re missing the best solutions to many of those problems.
Let’s start with EVs. The argument for EVs is that they are less harmful to the environment than oil-burning vehicles. Although hybrids are predictably dire (the latest research shows they create only about 20% less CO2 than conventional automobiles but their total lifecycle cost is more energy-intensive and environmentally harmful due to all the lithium mining and refining) the claim is that EVs will eventually be much more efficient and much cleaner. Provided the electricity used to charge them is generated not by today’s dirty coal-fired power stations but by renewables, these claims will one day be true.
But so what? For ordinary people, up to 70% of their vehicle’s usage is for commuting to and from work. What if, instead of looking for supremely expensive ways to produce less CO2, we simply stopped commuting? It’s estimated that at least 75% of all white-collar jobs can be done just as well (and often better) from home. Imagine the impact of a 75% reduction in commuting. In the USA alone this would instantly cut more than 6 million barrels a day from domestic consumption, leading to a reduction of more than 2.5 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each day. Worldwide the reduction could be three or four times that level.
All by simply leveraging the Internet to enable work-from-home, just as we’ve been doing recently thanks to the mass hysteria over SARS-CoV2.
Much easier, much less costly, and much less environmentally harmful than commuting in EVS. You thought mining lithium and smelting ore obtained by child labor in the Congo to obtain cobalt was green? Oh dear…
The same simple reasoning can be applied to homes and offices. We waste phenomenal amounts of energy heating and cooling buildings that seemingly were designed to be as energy-inefficient as possible. Yet we don’t have to be such muppets. We know how to build energy-efficient buildings and we know how to retro-fit existing buildings to reduce their appalling wastefulness.
If we were to spend a fraction of the money being wasted on whizzy EVs, we could reduce our energy consumption from buildings by at least 25%. While everyone’s getting all self-righteously worked up over the tiny contribution to greenhouse gasses made by aviation, the harsh reality is that our buildings burn through 70% of our total electricity consumption. Today most of that electricity is generated by burning coal or natural gas, which pumps hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.
So let’s take stock: by insulating our buildings, decommissioning pointless office blocks, and working from home, we could reduce our CO2 emissions by a far greater amount than even the most ambitious targets announced anywhere (and remember: targets are easy to announce; hitting them is rarely accomplished).
But instead we’re all jumping up and down like excitable children in the middle of a sugar rush because we’ve all been told that Tesla will save the planet.
It would be funny were it not so sad and so dysfunctional.
Solutions to our other examples cited at the beginning of this article are equally obvious. If you feel overwhelmed by the apps on your phone, delete them. Better yet, turn your phone off and put it into a drawer and go for a walk or talk to friends or just spend time relaxing in a nice warm bath. The solution to too much tech is not even more tech.
As for the seventeen different kinds of medication taken by the average US fifty-year-old, maybe it would be much, much better to stop cramming McSlop down our throats and spending 22 hours per day slouched in a chair, slumped in a sofa, or flat in bed. Maybe eating healthy foods and taking daily meaningful exercise is a far better strategy than hoping that pills will magically compensate for abysmal lifestyle choices.
When we start thinking about systemic solutions we can wean ourselves off the tech-for-everything mentality and stop pretending that tech is always the best possible answer for every problem we face.
When we start thinking about systemic solutions we can begin to see the dysfunctional ways in which our world operates simply because few of us have ever bothered to try to re-think our fundamental problems.
When we start thinking about systemic solutions we can perform proper cost-benefit analyses and come up with much faster and much less error-prone ways to reduce the harm we’re doing to our environment and to ourselves with our profoundly dysfunctional and deeply unhealthy mode of living.
In short, it’s time to wake up and stop imagining that technology is always the answer to everything. Technology, for the most part, merely amplifies the impact of our inherent folly.
So the real solution to our many problems is: let’s try to be a little more thoughtful about how to achieve our most important goals instead of rushing blindly to embrace the latest over-hyped technology non-solution.