Why we can regain agency and how – a riposte to James Dyke

I fully agree that at the current stage, we may suffer from partial blindness to the limits and constraints of our agency in technosphere evolution. However, at the same time I believe that in improving our scientific understanding of these, we can regain our human agency and find an escape route, as James hopes for.

There are two central aspects here which relate to the biased view of most scientists towards the technosphere, centring on its materiality and physical mechanisms. As I argued in other posts, this is exactly the kind of ‘alienation’ (‘Entfremdung’) highlighted by classical critical theory in distinguishing itself from standard theory. It is a paradox, as the scientists argue with forceful criticism about the current crisis of climate change. But in factually supporting a pessimistic and defeatist stance towards their own analysis, they may factually contribute to our loss of agency. In other words, science as it is practiced today mirrors the technosphere, it is the ideology of the technosphere, even if it presents a lucid and objective analysis of our current tragedy and opens our eyes for the looming catastrophe. We are left with either techno-optimism or techno-pessimism. On this blog, Axel Kleidon tends towards the former, James to the latter. From the social science and philosophy perspective, both do not move far enough into the domain of the humanities in understanding the technosphere.

Technosphere reductionism overlooks the fact that our human systems are symbiotic to the technosphere, down to the level of agency. This is clearly recognized in the social sciences, even in economics: Technology combines physical and social mechanisms in creating integrated patterns of technologically enhanced action. One implication of this is that the notion of technology needs to be broadened. This overcomes the conceptual separation between institutions and physical mechanisms, especially when it comes to the economy. It is overly simplistic to refer to large-scale constructs such as ‘capitalism’, and then discarding it, as James does; instead we need to recognize that the core of capitalism is a set of technologies in the domain of money and finance, which are  not inherently ‘capitalistic’ in the ideological sense. Goetzmann’s book ‘Money changes everything’ makes this abundantly clear, finance is a material technology like building roads or ships. This technology shapes our agency, as Marx thought, though on a different conceptual basis, in creating affordances that drive our actions. In fact, the technological core of capitalism is also the core of technosphere as it evolves today. But that also means that once we recognize this, we can redesign the engine.

The first evolutionary economist, Thorstein Veblen, believed that there is a fundamental contradiction between economy and technology, and that the former drives the latter towards technologically suboptimal developmental trajectories. I think this is reflecting suboptimal design of financial technologies. Let me give an example. Via legal changes in the US, tech companies can go public today even when they accumulate huge losses over years. One example are the mobility platforms such as Uber. This is exclusively driven by profit expectations of investors, and not by technological criteria of optimizing transport systems of the technosphere. Uber and the likes further cement the technological trajectory of individualized mobility and passenger car technology, only adding components of electric engines and automatic driving. Experts already expressed concerns that this will put even larger strain on urban traffic, as the number of individual rides will actually increase, to the detriment of radically different approaches to urban transport.

Without modern financial engineering, this trajectory may not have materialized at all. What is the solution? The problem is not the market as such, and therefore the cure is not government-driven planning and intervention. The cure is reforming finance. I cannot deal with details here, but proposals are plenty, reaching from fundamentals like radically changing our monetary system to detailed prescriptions of specific mechanisms. In our context, this means regaining agency: This is only possible via systemic design, and not by choosing certain action directly. And this is not about big-ticket items such as ‘socialism’ versus ‘capitalism’, but about ‘social engineering’. Via engineering finance, we can gain control back about technosphere evolution. Concentrating on actions such as carbon tax or green infrastructure cannot solve the deeper problem of the underlying patterns of agency.

The other important topic is winning agency back via sharing agency with others, that is, recognizing agency of others. This is a deeply Hegelian thought: genuine agency rests on mutual recognition. In thinking that we are the only masters of technology, we end up with hybris and ultimate loss of agency.

This is the political dimension, and it requires constitutional initiatives and design, as it happened in the past when democratic and human rights gradually expanded. I think that we have not yet fully recognized this point. For example, the ‘Fridays for future’ movement mostly demands for certain actions – it should increase the stakes and demand for constitutional changes, which would be truly revolutionary. In this case, that would be the constitutional recognition of future generations. There are many ways of doing this, with smaller stakes such as the lowering of age restrictions on voting, and the really challenging ones such as creating an innovative way to representing future generations, perhaps in enriching the system of division of powers, adding a power that represents future generations.

This needs to be extended towards including non-humans in our political systems, reaching from the local to the global. James introduces this perspective at the end of his post. Yes, we need the non-humans to escape from the prison that we created for ourselves. I discuss this in my previous post on co-creation, therefore do not enter into details here.

To conclude, we need a deflated view on the technosphere, against the view of many Earth system scientists in overestimating its systemicity. I agree that there are systemic drivers, such as Maximum Power. But as Georg Kobiela has argued in his comments, there are many ways how to design technological trajectories that follow this law, such as permaculture in agriculture. But we cannot impose these trajectories on the societies in which we live today, in which emergent forms of agency push towards other directions. Agency can be designed, though, on the level of creating new institutions. Of course, incumbents of power may not prefer this. That’s why we need new forms of political activism.

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