Is tech the solution or the problem?

Impossible
Nov 30, 2021 · 6 min read

In his book, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann describes the history of the environmental movement as a fundamental battle between two philosophical perspectives. Wizards want to innovate their way out of crisis and believe that it’s through technology and innovation that we will solve our greatest challenges. Prophets want to simplify, reduce, slow down and question the idea that we should be hurtling towards some radically different future.

Mark Boyle is the quintessential prophet. After living without money since 2015, he has since made the commitment to live without modern technology, stepping away from anything made since the Industrial Revolution, which means no electricity, washing machine, TV, laptop, car, mobile phone; not even a pen.

Mark made that decision because he believes that the technological progress we’ve seen is fundamentally unsustainable and damaging to the natural world and that he would be a hypocrite to be campaigning for the environment using his metal and mineral filled laptop. Of course, if you want to find out how Mark is finding this experience, beyond reading his book, Way Home, you have to go and visit him, which is what Impossible co-founder Lily Cole did a few years into his experiment.

Mark explained to her that his key take away is that he is actually a lot happier without technology.

“My sense of aliveness is a lot stronger. My connection to the natural world is a lot stronger. My mental and physical wellbeing is healthier. They were kind of surprising lessons I got from it, as opposed to being the original motivation.”

And he has no intention of returning to tech, instead choosing “to go further” and become entirely self-sufficient, living 100% off the landscape around him.

Mark doesn’t buy into the tech will save us narrative, finding “the technological world to be inherently destructive and violent. And ultimately, unsustainable.”

“If I unpicked one mobile phone, I can show you how devastating that one phone is, regardless of whether you use it once, or you use it a hundred times. The initial production often requires a global network of factories and transport systems and mining and quarries and resource extraction that most of us wouldn’t want to be done in our names.

Even renewable energy doesn’t inspire him as a long-term solution to our power hungry habits.

“Renewable energy would be a big step forward in terms of our impact on the planet right now. Ultimately, I don’t think these things are going to make much difference in the end. They’re still reliant on an industrial ideology that is laying waste to the entire planet.”

Of course, a life without technology does not come easily or quickly. Washing is done by hand. Communication is kept up with friends and family through handwritten letters. Food is grown and harvested by hand. Fishing involves a 20km round bicycle trip with the prospect of not catching anything. Yet even hunger can’t sway Mark’s resolution and commitment.

“We’re so used in the West to just being fed three times a day, often with too much food, we never get to experience the feeling of being hungry and that changes the perception of the world, even what it means to be human.”

Slowing down offers a rare opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and reevaluate what’s important.

“We’re very used to right now in modern society not having to wait for a long time for anything, we’ve got used to speed. So I’m kind of having to retrain myself in some ways, to live in a slower way, to have more patience.”

Whilst everything Mark Boyle says makes rare, lucid and poetic sense, there are clearly few souls as brave or radical as him. If billions of people aren’t willing to unplug and disconnect, technology arguably has an essential role to play in the drive towards sustainability. Green tech promises to de-materialize products, provide renewable energy, electrify transportation, and make cities smart.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Space X and Tesla Motors, is in many ways the embodiment of the wizard philosophy and the hope that tech may save us. If electric cars powered through renewable energy aren’t enough to save the world from the climate catastrophe, then Elon has hedged his bets on spacefaring and colonizing Mars. Lily interviewed him in 2019 and asked him how optimistic he was that tech could save us.

“It’s optimistic if we take action. If we take action and we push for sustainable energy generation, then I think we can be optimistic,” he told her.

Tesla has been at the forefront of the electric car movement. As Elon explained, “When we started the company, the goal was to get the industry to move towards electric cars. At the time, there were no production electric cars, not even short-range. Electric vehicles had been written off, as you couldn’t make the technology work. And even if you could, nobody wanted an electric car. So we had to show that you could make long-range electric cars that looked good, handled well, were better in every way than a gasoline car.”

But the goal is for Tesla to be more than electric cars, and facilitate a global move towards sustainable energy. According to Elon, “The fundamental good of Tesla would be to what degree has Tesla accelerated the advent of sustainable energy, by how many years.”

“We will get to sustainable energy for sure. The question is just how much environmental damage occurs between now and then.”

As we watch the planet burn and flood around us at an unprecedented rate, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report paints a picture worse than many experts had feared, the terrifying question is: What if we’re too late? Elon believes technology has the solution if all else fails, and that solution lies in spacefaring.

Mars would be the obvious choice. “Mars has all of the ingredients that we need for our civilization. So there’s a lot of water, ice. It has an atmosphere which is mostly CO2, but it has some nitrogen and argon. The red colour on Mars is rust, iron oxide. Pretty easy to get iron, big steel.”

Elon has several ideas for how Mars could be made more hospitable. “Long-term you could do what’s called ‘terraforming Mars’, so you could warm up Mars. You would have a liquid ocean about a mile deep on about 40% of the surface. But the fast way would be a series of giant thermonuclear explosions.”

“An important defensive argument for humanity or life as we know it to be on many planets in case something happens to one of the planets. Then at least the light of consciousness will not be extinguished.”

So here we have two very different philosophies and visions for the future; looking to the past, taking it back to basics and living simpler, tech-free lives as our ancestors did for centuries, or looking to the future and hoping we can keep innovating and developing technologies that allow us to enjoy the comforts of modern life in a way that is more sustainable and accessible.

Perhaps, as with so many things, balance is what we need. Going offline. Slowing down. Adopting voluntary simplicity. Putting our fingernails into the soil and rediscovering our connection to both our local and natural community. But also continuing to push and strive for greener technologies. Demanding more of companies and ensuring our hurried embrace of techno capitalism is mindfully considered and always measured against its risks and costs.

For more about Mark’s lifestyle, watch a short documentary Lily made in collaboration with Nowness — Retreats: Marble Hill

This story was inspired by Lily’s podcast, Who Cares Wins which is available on all podcast platforms.

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Main photo credit: Elaine Casap

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