Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Technology Alone Does Not Solve Social Problems

This article asks the question, “Is 3D printing the key to utopia?”, and the answer is almost certainly a resounding “No.” The 1950s gave us the idea that consumer capitalism’s domestic machines like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners were “labor saving” devices, and the common pop culture image of the 1960s and 1970s was that by the 21st century we would all have flying cars and eat our dinners in pill form.  Indeed, throughout the 20th century technology was promoted as the road to a utopia free of toil and full of leisure.
But that’s not how it works. Imagine that you work in a common office job, doing data entry on a computer. You work a regular eight hour day and enter X amount of data into your company’s systems. Then it is decided that a new computer program will be installed that allows data entry at twice the previous rate. So you show up to work the next day, and you enter the same X amount of data by noon that it took you an entire day to enter before. So what happens then? Do you get to go home at lunch, done with your daily duties?
No. You still have to work an eight-hour day. Except that during those eight hours, you will now be entering twice as much data as before. You will be getting paid the same amount for accomplishing twice as much,of course. The company will use the increased efficiency provided by the technology to increase the volume of work done, and thereby the profit it makes, not to improve the human condition by being satisfied with the same profit as before while giving its workers more free time. New technological inventions are not “labor saving devices,” they are “productivity enhancing devices,” as long as what is done with them is decided by capitalists seeking to maximize profit.
Oh, I'm sure that 3D printing will improve manufacturing processes and open up new possibilities. But even if someday it becomes as good as the replication machines of science fiction, manufacturing tea and dinner and any other good from scratch right in your own home, it still won’t help; don’t you know that capitalists would find a way to monopolize and patent the replicator patterns so they control who gets to replicate what, only allowing some patterns to those who pay the appropriate fee? 
3D printing will improve productivity, but that only means that capitalism will use it to exploit us for profit. A scientistic faith in technology is misguided. Only a re-arrangement of the social organization of the economy, not technology, will create conditions where most people have more leisure to  lead balanced lives lives of human development and flourishing. As long as we retain capitalism, technology will mainly be used to make more money for the rich elite. It's the social system that has to change; no technology in the current socio-econoic context will lead to utopia. 

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