It was long predicted that a pandemic like Covid-19 would take place sooner or later. Now it appears highly likely that the deployment of a range of new and disruptive technologies could sweep the world, potentially doing irreversible damage to our planet, even when their promoters claim they will do the opposite. To meet this challenge, we need to understand not just the science, but also the imagined futures that underpin them. Such an analysis is vital to regaining control over vital decisions about technology’s role in our future.
Asia Pacific disruptive technologies
The most technologically advanced countries in Asia-Pacific, in particular in East Asia, have all embraced a range of “disruptive” technologies as core components of their development agenda. Governments have published their visions to re-make overcrowded urban areas as “smart cities”. ”Smart agriculture” would use drones to produce food for growing populations, solving the demographic challenge of ageing human farmers. Digital technologies gained cult-like followings among governments in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, inspired by countries like South Korea, which embraced them in the so-called new normal of social distancing and mobility restrictions. Many smaller economies and least developed countries in the region hold the ambition of pole-vaulting over the digital divide by aiming for 5G internet connectivity.
China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is explicitly centred around new technologies, and forms part of a development agenda that is the most openly expansionist of any in Asia. Its component Digital Silk Road brings under one umbrella new and emerging digital-based technologies that could potentially cause disruption across every sector and every aspect of life in countries that partner with China. Its space-based, remote-sensing Digital Belt and Road Program could have implications beyond the borders of its partners. Giant Chinese technology companies, working closely with their government, have developed and commercialised these technologies. Now they are expanding their business interests through relentless acquisition of promising start-up and small companies in the North and in emerging economies in the South.
Within weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region’s relationship to industrial technology had been transformed. Tech companies have achieved dominance in key sectors of the economy that might have otherwise taken years or never taken place. Yet, despite the rhetoric that “no-one is safe until everyone is safe”, the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines to the majority world has been subject to globalised racial capitalism. In practice this means rich nations and their pharmaceutical giants have left people in many parts of Asia-Pacific priced out of the market and at the back of the queue.
5 visions underpinning public understanding of tech
The way societies think about the future is underlain by imaginative visions – or myths. Gandhi’s call for swaraj (home-rule) for independent India was tied to his vision for low-tech self-sufficiency as an alternative to the industrialised systems of production that had been imposed by India’s British rulers. After the country won independence, Nehru replaced swaraj with his vision of progress through “modern” science. By focussing on large-scale engineering projects, such as mega-dams, and the high-input plant varieties of the Green Revolution, his government and its successors helped contribute to the myth that Western-style industrialisation was the only route to human development. Now a coalition of technologists and corporations imagine a eco-modern future for Asia-Pacific. There is increasing evidence that such schemes are underpinned by the same exploitative relationship between industrial machines, humans and nature that underpinned European imperialism.
During the nineteenth century, the use of mechanical metaphors to describe the living world hardened into a programme for technological advancement that we now call scientism. This is the extreme view that physical science is the only reliable source of knowledge and that the applications of technologies based on these understandings are the only reliable route to human progress.
According to scientism, converting hand-weaving looms into vast factories and transforming self-sufficient farmers into drivers of tractors is a pre-requisite for human development. As this industrial revolution took place, powerful colonial states and the companies that served them, gained control over the majority of the world’s natural and human resources, at a disastrous cost for people and the environment. Far from bringing development, these changes forced skilled artisans, peasant farmers and other labourers to carry out mindless machine-tending tasks, pushing communities into social and ecological crisis.
The minority elite who drove this vision forward were able to ignore the harm caused to the majority of workers (particularly women and children) and the natural world (in the form of pollution and biodiversity destruction) – because they had the wealth to cut themselves off from its impacts.
Side-stepping the historical fact of the long-term harms caused by previous industrial revolutions, these same elites are now proposing a tsunami of new technologies for the Asia-Pacific region to solve many of the problems that scientism created in the first place. These include digitalisation, (the collection and processing data on human behaviour, agricultural and fishing practices and, genomes ecosystems), synthetic biology (the design of living organisms and processes from gene sequences) and geoengineering (the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems).
Recently, the term ecomodernism has been coined in support of adopting these new high-tech approaches. Best understood as eco-scientism (the application of scientism to environmental issues), its adherents believe that the application of these disruptive industrial technologies will enable humanity to bypass what had been thought to be ecological constraints, thereby solving crises like climate change and biodiversity loss.
Imaginative visions drawing on eco-scientism can be detected in a range of slogans that have emerged in support of the dominant technological agenda in the first two decades of the 21st century and that are influencing biodiversity policy at the global, regional and national levels. Their proponents foresee a sophisticated set of approaches, each underpinned by the current structures of global racial capitalism that will, they claim, protect the environment in the face of population pressures, while ensuring economic growth and promoting the long-term welfare of humanity.
2. Growth narratives
Three economic terms – bioeconomy, blue economy and circular economy – have become widely used in the Asia-Pacific region to justify the introduction of new technologies. All are built on the same central myth of unlimited economic growth as that that which underpins eco-scientism.
Bioeconomy involves the transformation of living biological materials, and processes in order to increase economic growth. It imagines the deployment of new technologies such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology in order to turn biomass into high value compounds, including sources of energy. Bioeconomy is also used to refer to the application of genetic engineering to agriculture, aquaculture and forestry, and the financialisation and trading of ecosystem services, such as those provided by the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles. Each can then be monetised by being technologically harnessed through digital financial platforms. This vision has been embraced by countries like Malaysia, in its national policy on biodiversity and trade, and promoted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as part of its regional agenda.
Blue economy is defined by the World Bank as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, while preserving the health of marine and coastal ecosystem. It encompasses technologies, economic arrangements and systems of production that maximize the value of marine [including genetic] resources.” The agenda is based on the premise that marine and coastal resources present vast untapped resources that could benefit island nations. Pacific countries have pinned their hope of achieving many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on their 2018 adoption of the World Bank’s Blue Economy Development Framework.
Circular economy describes a system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing and narrowing material and energy loops. Its backers focus on long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling and prioritise technologies that recapture and transform wastes into economically-valuable feedstocks. The circular vision is being promoted in the business sector by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
All three economic strategies imply more efficient use of resources, without questioning the system of economic growth that underpins them. Just as more efficient coal plants can lead to lower coal prices, prompting higher use of coal, more efficient use of materials that “close the loop” on the waste produced by their manufacture would be likely to make products cheaper and therefore stimulate demand. Even if it can be deployed in an advanced form, recovery of energy and pollutants can never be 100% and so environmental benefits would be offset by ever-greater economic growth.
3. Digitalisation narratives
Calling something digital has become synonymous with advancement: agriculture becomes digital farming; paper money is overtaken by digital currencies and relationships of trust between humans are replaced by digital contracts. The core element of all digital technologies that are sweeping across the Asia-Pacific region, threatening the environment and biodiversity, is the use of machine learning.
Machine learning is the process whereby algorithms, written into computer code, help machines detect patterns in large sets of data collected via digital devices. These patterns enable predictions to be made, which is meant to inform better decisions. But using the term “artificial intelligence” (or AI), as a shorthand for this type of learning is misleading for two reasons. First, “intelligence” often refers to nothing other than a process that optimises a particular variable. Second, the term AI obscures who is likely to benefit from its deployment. By obscuring these issues, digitalisation initiatives risk becoming yet another application of scientism, with the machine processing of large sets of data replacing sound human judgement. Following the simplistic logic of its proponents – if it can be counted, digitise it; if you can’t digitise it, it isn’t worth knowing.
Living processes are increasingly being reimagined as data, which is then extracted and processed as a commodity. This system of data extraction has been described as data colonialism since it shares similarities to processes of resource extraction from the first era of European colonialism. Corporations deploy algorithms to enable them to design machines to undertake the tasks that were previously carried out by people. In this scenario, not only do workers lose their skills, autonomy, livelihoods and identity in society, but the very biodiversity on which ecosystems depend are turned into data for monetisation by corporations. All forms of knowledge that can’t be digitised, along with the understandings about the world embedded within them, are lost.
Financial tech (fintech) is the application of digital technologies to the finance sector and monetary policy. It encompasses the growth in digital payments and computerised management of markets and the development of novel digital currencies, such as cryptocurrencies. Increasingly they are mediated through encrypted online digital ledgers (blockchains). China and India have the highest rate in consumer adoption of fintech globally. Over a third of the world’s 100 leading fintech companies are from Asia. Slogans associated with fintech, such as “smart contracts”, hide both their high energy use, and hence environmental cost of the blockchains they require and the fact that they appear to hand control over resources to unaccountable corporations, removing the possibility of scrutiny by the rest of us and the governments who are meant to be accountable to us.
4. “Improving” nature
Imaginative visions relating to nature have become perhaps the most controversial of all development narratives. In the early 2010s, influential proponents of high-tech “natural” solutions began attaching words such as “smart”, “precision” and “digital” to human interactions with nature, such as farming, fisheries, forestry and agriculture.
Both the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) popularised the slogan nature-based solutions (NBS). The Bank first defined it as, “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” It has now been adopted as a cross-cutting theme for many UN calls for action.
The vagueness of NBS has allowed corporate interests, including the fossil fuel industry, to justify technological solutions that they claim will mimic natural processes to fix both the climate and biodiversity crises. The forms of NBS they advocate not only fail to address the root causes of these crises, but to actively contribute to worsening them. After years of research into schemes for research into bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) that are supposed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through the industrial farming of monoculture plantations, there is still not a single scheme that has succeeded. Despite, or perhaps because of, this vagueness, NBS has even been adopted by the ASEAN in their recent positions on biodiversity and included in policy pronouncements by governments from across the region.
Drawing on the same myths as NBS, Conservation 3.0 has now begun to be used to promote an imaginative vision of conservation practice that relies on high technology interventions, drawing on the imagery of computer software upgrades. This includes big data monitoring, drones, and even re-engineering nature to meet conservation goals using techniques such as synthetic biology and earth systems engineering.
5. Biodigital visions
Shimmering on scientism’s horizon is what its adherents claim would be a nirvana – the merging convergence of the molecular engineering of the living world with processes of machine learning. This imaginative vision sees nanotechnology (engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules, exploiting quantum effects and the self-assembly of nanostructures) merging with technologies derived from understanding and manipulation of genetic systems (such as new biotechnologies, gene editing and synthetic biology) all guided by algorithms developed through machine learning. Advances in quantum and biological computing and molecular communication (nonlinear, non-binary, and combinatorial approaches to computation and communication that harness quantum phenomena and biological molecules instead of electronic components) would enable transient modification of genes, precision breeding, genetic manipulation of populations across whole ecosystems, including the use of spray-on nucleotides. According to this hype the development of mRNA and DNA vaccines for Covid-19 relied on such a biophysical convergence.
Forging the 4IR narrative
Advocates of eco-scientism have now combined all these myths of future progress into a single imaginative vision – “the fourth industrial revolution” (4IR) or “Great Reset”. They see biodigital convergence simultaneously taking place at the nano-genomic scale, as envisaged by synthetic biology, and at a global scale, leading to the complete engineering of the biosphere.
Keeping in mind both the imaginative visions behind technologies and the emerging lessons of the pandemic, the next four articles will distinguish reality from the hype in four areas of disruptive technology – digitalisation, automation, molecular manipulation and ecosystem modification. Our series will be concluded by a last article about the precautionary principle and the urgent need for participatory forms of technology assessment.
This article is part of the research project “Communications and conversations about food, technology and power in a time of crises in Asia”; background research has been supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Asia Ltd.
ETC Group is an international research and advocacy collective that addresses socioeconomic and ecological issues relating to science and technology. Its staff are based in offices in the Philippines, Canada, Mexico, India, Argentina and the UK.