In Catherine Ingram’s interview with Jerry Mander [“Bad Magic: The Failure of Technology,” Issue 192], Mander states that people in preindustrial tribal societies worked “three to five hours a day.” The rest of the time, “They hung out. . . . They related.” This is a superficial way to characterize entire peoples and cultures. People worked damned hard, all year, just to get by. But this doesn’t fit Mr. Mander’s romantic view of traditional societies.
Mr. Mander seems to oppose all technologies — reserving the word for what he dislikes, while ignoring the fact that stone axes and horseback riding are technologies as well — regardless of their actual benefit or harm. When asked about the ethics of conceiving children as potential bone-marrow donors, Mander’s response is astounding: “I’m for getting rid of systems of technology where such questions get addressed to individual people.” Would Mr. Mander really prefer a society where individuals have no say over which technologies should be used — simply for the sake of creating a uniform philosophy and lifestyle? This view is not only undemocratic, it is morally reprehensible.
In arguing that certain technologies are inherently nonegalitarian, Mr. Mander displays more romanticism than logic. Television, for example, is definitely not “most efficient at centralized, top-down usage”; that is simply the way we have organized our use of it. But why insist that we would have a better and more egalitarian flow of information without television or computers? The existence of electronic telecommunications has demonstrably increased access to both information and communications.
The claim that “native societies sustained themselves successfully for thousands of years because they had developed a philosophical system rooted in their relationship to nature” is laughable. Tribal societies sustained themselves for thousands of years not because they were wise, but simply because their numbers and technology were insufficient to damage the earth irreparably. The Sioux hunted buffalo in an irresponsible manner, killing as many of the healthiest animals as they could. Neolithic peoples practiced overgrazing and slash-and-burn agriculture. All human societies have damaged the earth; ours is simply the first to have so escalated the process — as well as the first to realize we must change our ways. Our society grasps its relation to nature better than any that has ever existed. The fact that others prayed to the animals they ate fails to demonstrate their superior knowledge of ecosystems.
If we are to ensure a future of sustainable, prosperous life for ourselves and our descendants, the answer lies not in some mythical preindustrial Eden of tribes and taboos preventing technological change, but in a deeper understanding of our world and our place in it. Technology is not “bad magic.” It is, at its best, good science.
Jerry Mander’s interview touched a nerve that hasn’t felt pain for many years. While attending an urban studies program in downtown Chicago in the early seventies, I tried to make sense of the insanity of modern urban life. When I returned to my small Minnesota college to complete my degree, I did my senior thesis on technology and ethics. The professor called the paper “antitechnology” and “Stone-Age-ism”; he soundly rejected it.
I applaud Jerry Mander for trying to explain the fundamental assumptions of technology. It is difficult to criticize that which has the most impact on our culture. Thanks for the effort.