Are there alternative trajectories of technological development? A political ecology perspective

by Vasilis Kostakis*

Alternative technological systems could develop through the confluence of digital commons, peer-to-peer relations and local manufacturing capacity – but we need the integration of a political ecology perspective to face and overcome the challenges this transition implies

Humans do not control modern technology: the technological system has colonized their imagination and it shapes their activities and relations. This statement reflects the thought of influential degrowth scholars, like Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich.

Ellul believed that humans may control individual technologies, but not technology broadly conceived as the whole complex of methods and tools that advance efficiency. Instead, technology has taken a life of its own. Society should be in constant flux so that humans can shape it up to an important degree. Ellul was afraid that technology suppresses this flux, creating a uniform, static and paralytic system.

Building on Ellul, Illich and Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, I argue that there are alternative trajectories of technology appropriation that encompass small-scale, decentralized, environmentally sound and locally autonomous application. The aim of this short essay is to shed light on seeds that may exemplify new or revitalized techno-economic trajectories for post-capitalist scenarios.

Design global, manufacture local

The confluence of the digital commons of knowledge, software and design with local manufacturing technologies (from three-dimensional printers and laser cutters to low-tech tools and crafts) give rise to new modes of production, as exemplified by the “design global, manufacture local” (DGML) model.

DGML describes the processes through which design is developed as a global digital commons, whereas manufacturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures and with local biophysical conditions in check. Three interlocked practices observed in DGML projects (from wind-turbines and farming machines to prosthetic robotic hands) seem to present interesting dynamics for political ecology: the incentives for design-embedded sustainability, the possibilities of on-demand production and the practices of sharing digital and physical productive infrastructures.

Figure 1
A visualization of the “design global, manufacture local” model. Image credits: Vasilis Kostakis, Nikos Exarchopoulos, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

DGML technologies have the potential to be low-cost, feasible for small-scale operations and adjustable to local needs utilizing human creativity. DGML and other commons-oriented initiatives strive for technological sovereignty, by enabling communities (from farmers and artists to computer engineers and designers) to become technologically more autonomous.

The small group dynamics can now scale-up

The increasing access to information and communication technologies enables the global scaling up of small group dynamics. Local communities and individuals can thus shape their technologies up to an important degree, while benefiting from digitally shared resources in tandem. This dynamic of relating to each other, as exemplified by Wikipedia and free/open-source software to DGML projects such as L’Atelier Paysan and Farmhack, has been called “peer-to-peer” (P2P).

Figure 2
What peer-to-peer and the commons are in a nutshell. Image source: Bauwens, M., Kostakis, V., Troncoso, S., & Utratel, A. (2017). Commons Transition and Peer-to-Peer: A Primer. (pp.8-9). Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.

P2P allows people to connect to each other, to communicate to each other and to organize around common value creation, which is enabled by socio-technical networks that avoid intermediaries and gatekeepers. In this capacity of freely-associated common value creation, P2P becomes a synonym for “commoning”. As used in the current context, P2P is related to the capacity to collectively create commons in open contributory networks.

Challenges from a political ecology perspective

In the Ellulian spirit, technological development could therefore be in a flux. However, these P2P developments present several challenges that have to be examined from various perspectives.

The DGML model, for example, presents limitations within its two main pillars, information and communication as well as local manufacturing technologies. These issues may pertain to resource extraction, exploitative labour, energy use or material flows. A thorough evaluation of such products and practices would need to take place from a political ecology perspective. For instance, what is the ecological footprint of a product that has been globally designed and locally manufactured? Or, up to which degree the users of such a product feel in control of the technology and knowledge necessary for its use and manipulation?

In 2017-19, one of the main goals of the research collective I am part of is to provide some answers to the questions above and, thus, to better understand the transition dynamics of such an alternative trajectory of technological development.

*Vasilis Kostakis is Senior Research Fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of Technology, and a Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Affiliate, Harvard University. He is also the founder of the P2P Lab.

 

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