Week Notes 31.03.23


It has only been three days since my last week note, so this will be a little shorter than usual. But it is end of the week, and therefore I feel compelled to write at least something

Some very initial thinking about technology & change

I've been thinking a bit about things changing at scale.

Carlota Perez (who is fantastic) says there are three key dynamics underlying big technology changes:

You can look at the steam engine as a technological revolution: with steam power as the multipurpose technology, coal as the cheap input, and railroads as the new infrastructure.

You can see the combination of solar, wind and battery technologies as a technological revolution: renewables as the multi-purpose technology, wind and sun as the (increasingly cheap) energy sources and the revised grid (still in process) as the infrastructure.

Perez argues that the post-war period saw a deliberate increase in domestic consumption and production as a way of continuing the dynamism of the war-time economy. Combined with on-going military spending, this worked, but has left a huge mess.

The information revolution, Perez continues, offers a route to de-materialising consumption and production. You can see this happening already in Apple's switch from products to services: we may not need to keep buying new iPhones in order to consume their associated eco-system of services.

You can also see this de-materialisation happening in the initial attempts to re-design the food and agriculture system. Precision fermentation will use a fraction of the land that conventional agriculture has.

I've understood for a while that energy production is in area in which the exponential development of technology and market mechanisms will probably be remarkably effective in addressing the climate crisis. You can just look at what has happened to the price of renewable energy to see this play out, to some degree regardless of the hapless attempts of governments (and indeed, environmental organisations) to either actively make it more difficult, or at best barely commit to making it easier.

What I've struggled to understand is how those same technology and market mechanisms will address the biodiversity crisis. There we need to, at least some of the time, stop doing stuff - stop messing up the natural world through our destructive land use. A technology like precision fermentation might free up land which could then we used for the renewal of biodiversity. But the introduction of the technology in isolation guarantees nothing about what happens to the land that is not longer used for agriculture.

The work of Carlota Perez (and Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth) all emphasise the need for coordinated and positive activity between communities, governments and businesses. In order to release land for the renewal of biodiversity, we'd need businesses to make consumption of food via precision fermentation economically inevitable, communities to shift their consumption of food accordingly, and governments to set policy frameworks within which using land for biodiversity made sense.

To do that, we'd need to start un-packing some of our fixed ideas. So: business isn't inevitably bad (greedy) - we need their innovation. Government isn't inevitably bad (bureaucratic) - we need their overall co-ordination. We need governments to put frameworks in place that encourage innovation that keep us within our global limits.

Back to reality

I've started the process of trying to get BCorp certification for Careful Digital. It is immediately obvious that we have a lot of work to do. We have some vague good intentions as a company but very little formality in terms of governance and little evidence base for any positive outcomes we may think we an are generating. I think it will be a tough but hopefully rewarding process. I'll write about the process as we work through things.

Quick thought about meditation and carbon foot-printing

What do meditation and carbon foot-printing have in common? They have both been seen as ways of individuals being made to feel responsible for big structural problems. Slavoj Žižek argued that mindfulness was as an element of the “hegemonic ideology of global capitalism”, with meditators able to decouple from the stress of contemporary life while leaving the causes of the stress untouched. And carbon foot-prints were invented by BP, to divert attention for the structural mayhem they and other large companies were wreaking.

These arguments are pretty compelling. But I don't think either activity needs to be a process of individual self-flagellation. To take the example of a carbon foot-print: part of what that activity allows you to do, as an individual or a business, is to see clearly what you can change yourself, and what is a huge structural issue that needs addressing at a structural level. So you change what you can change, and you do whatever you can do to point out the structural problem.

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