Technology Makes Relationships Invisible

Technology makes some things invisible.  This is true at least in the context of an industrial society, whether it be capitalist, communist, or anything else.

For the above to be true, I must make clear that I mean technology in a very broad sense, more along the lines of what European philosophers call technics.  This refers not just – or even primarily – to actual machines, computers, and so forth.  It also includes the systems of organization upon which industrial societies are built.  And, perhaps most of all, it includes the impulse to rational organization and efficiency.

One of the things technology makes invisible is relationships.  In any agrarian society at any time in world history, an individual relied, for the most part, on the other members of a village for most of what he or she needed.  Production, consumption, and disposal of anything (food, clothing, tools) occurred in a context in which the relationships between those who produced and consumed were visible and tangible.  You knew the person who made the iron pot.  Or it was your parents who passed down that iron pot to you.  You disposed of your waste in your own landscape and with your own hands.  The relationship between you, your waste, and the land was obvious.

In an industrial society, technology hides the relationship between the producer, the consumer, the disposer, and the lands in which all of those take place.  Today, dozens of people in a factory thousands of miles away may have all worked to produce the shirt that I am wearing.  The cotton from which they made that shirt probably came from thousands of miles away from them.  People unknown to me cultivated that cotton.  Other people unknown to me cleaned and processed the cotton.  Others transported it to a cotton mill, who knows how far away.  Then other unknown people transported the cotton cloth who knows how far to the factory where it was made into a shirt.  From there, unknown people transported it northwards thousands of miles to some warehouse.  It moved through unknown numbers of hands before it reached the store where I bought it.  There were countless other unknown people who managed the movements and sales of the materials and the product all along the way.  And then there are the thousands more people who produced the ships, trains, and trucks needed for transport.  And what of those who produced the fuel and the roads?  And the computers that managed the shipments and machines?  How many people brought me my shirt?  Thousands?  A million?

My buying my shirt produces a relationship between me and the thousands or even a million people involved in producing that shirt and getting it to me.  It is a relationship facilitated by the transfer of material things between people.  Just because the relationships are invisible doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

What are the consequences of the invisibility of so many relationships of interdependence in an industrial society?  Here are three possibilities:

  1. Decline in responsibility for one’s actions: It is easy to avoid responsibility for the consequences of one’s consumption.  The consequences include, for example, pollution.
  2. Treating others as you never would in a visible relationship: Would you directly tell a person, whom you know and who is going to pick food for you, to go out into a field and harvest that food while a plane sprays pesticide directly onto him or her?  No, but I have joined invisibly with millions of other people to tell others to do exactly that by the decisions I made about buying food.
  3. Using violence against others to get stuff: Would you gather together an army and lead it into a territory to gain control over “rare earth” minerals so that you could then build a cell phone or the computers you and I are using right now?  Or would you just do without a computer?  Or find a new way to build one?  Or find a new way to obtain rare earth minerals?

All of the above is abstract.  I am exploring and trying to make visible to myself these relationships in more concrete ways in my “waste” posts.  See the Waste category for more articles.

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One Response to Technology Makes Relationships Invisible

  1. Pingback: Technology Makes the Harshness of Life Invisible | Integral

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