From time to time I think we all find ourselves wondering about words:

Why on earth do we talk about 'content' these days?

When I say 'to be honest', does that mean the rest of time I'm being a lying turd?

What the fuck is 'blockchain'?

I recently watched two Ted Talks about economic growth, from Paul Ekins and Kate Raworth which instead of making me think about growth got me thinking about the language surrounding technology.

Some unknown contributor on Wikipedia defines technology as so:

Technology ("science of craft", from Greek τέχνη, techne, "art, skill, cunning of hand"; and -λογία, -logia) is the sum of any techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation.

This sounds like a very reasonable definition to me. It is only a definition however - it does not describe how the word is used or the impression it leaves on you. I mostly hear technologies being talked about in similar contexts to the videos above, as an abstraction or smokescreen for something tangible and complicated. Technology can make repetitive and dull tasks a walk in the park, it can increase my standard of living by doing so and it can achieve this in a 'dirty' or a 'clean' way.

Take Paul Ekins for example. The UK has 'been getting it's energy from cleaner and cleaner sources.' That's a very comforting sentence, is it not? Obtaining energy from clean technology is something I think we can all agree is better than getting it from dirty technology (unless that's your kink). This wording hides the fact that this principally consisted of the UK switching from coal to fossil gas in the 90's (not to mention that it's emissions also decreased due to outsourcing it's industry). Is that what you were thinking of when he said 'clean technology'?

Then there's Kate Raworth, a proponent of lessening our obsession with growth. She says:

This century we can design our technologies and institutions to distribute wealth, knowledge and empowerment to many. Instead of fossil fuel energy and large-scale manufacturing, we've got renewable energy networks, digital platforms and 3D printing.

Instead of dirty, centralised, inequality fostering technology we could get clean, distributed and empowering technology - amazing! Of course it's not as simple as that. Take perhaps the most innocuous one, digital platforms. Digital things sound as if they're not really there, since after all we can't touch them, but of course they have a very real physical footprint and the increasing energy demand from information and communications technology is a cause for concern. There are also many issues associated with the resources that must be mined to produce digital technology (see e.g. this paper and this overly dramatic video about the depletion of ressources and of course Coltan mining in the Congo).

I'm not against renewable energy, digital services or the like. We live in a very complicated world, one where it is difficult to find ideal solutions to our problems because they are all shit in one way or another or are marginally less shit than what we're currently doing. My point is that often the vocabulary surrounding technology is able to disguise this shittiness by abstracting from it. Renewable, for example, sounds great - who doesn't want something to last indefinitely? (Unless it's 'The Simpsons', seriously, please stop). Renewable energy is only renewable however if we are able to recycle the materials used to make them, which, like most things, is tough. Similarly cloud computing conjures images of nebulous, digital entities floating around calculating useful things (like how to keep you glued to TikTok) and not massive server farms filled with soon to be toxic e-waste ready to be shipped to whichever country will take it.

What I'm trying to say is that everyone should be as pessimistic and cynical as I am and anyone who disagrees can go to hell.

This was written in roughly 30 minutes after the idea came to me while riding a bike. I think it's not too bad, principally for the following reasons:

Perhaps I should apply this when I'm writing scientific papers, which I usually spend several months writing...