Why do people opposes technology?

In the genetic engineering discussion, within the opposition there emerges a general dislike for “technology.” Usually, when people say technology they mean things that are made of metal, plastic, uses electricity, has protruding hypodermic needles, and is usually shiny. The opposite of things that are natural or organic, technology is entirely human-derived and artificial-looking.

Of course, what this obscures is what a technology really is, and that is applied knowledge. According to Wikipedia,

Technology is a broad concept that deals with an animal species’ usage and knowledge of tools and crafts, and how it affects an animal species’ ability to control and adapt to its environment.

Certainly GE crops are a form of technology. But some other things in agriculture that count as technologies include: Organic growing methods, biologically-derived pesticides, manure, and using animals to plow fields. Heck, the horse-drawn plow itself was a technological breakthrough for its time!

Our lives are interwoven with technology – and I’m not just talking about people who can’t go anywhere without their iPods. People are born, live, eat, drink, breathe, and cheat death for years because of technology. Without it, there would be very few people on this planet. And although many, including myself, like to take vacations away from most of our technology to relax, very few want to actually be stranded in the wilderness for the rest of their lives without it.

And if we are to feed the growing number of people on this planet, we are going to need all manner of technologies.

Why then, do people oppose specific new technologies, is it a fear of how it may change their lives (or that it might end their lives)? Kevin Kelly, who helped found Wired Magazine, wants to understand why. He has compiled a short list of four general reasons why:

Contrary to Nature. Technology is in opposition to nature. It is produced at the expense of nature because it destroys ecological habitats. Its steel is mined from the earth; its lumber is taken by cutting down forests; its rare metals dug from the ground; its plastics sucked from oil and then burned into the air. Its factories pave over wetlands or meadows. Worse this destruction of natural habitat can extinguish species, an act which cannot be undone (at least not yet). Even if technology halted the destruction of natural habitat, the fact that we consume large amounts of energy causes a disruption in the atmosphere, which alters the climate. The scale of technology is simply so large that almost no matter how environmentally benign it may seem, its sheer size overwhelms natural cycles.

Contrary to Humans. Technology erodes human character. It separates us from nature, which diminishes our natural self. Out of touch with nature, we behave selfishly, stupidly. We become consumers instead of receivers. We become artificial. At the extreme we behave like machines. Technology makes us greedy, unhappy, impatient, insensitive and full of hubris.

Contrary to Technology Itself. Technology proceeds so fast it is going to self-destruct. It is no longer regulated by nature, or humans, and cannot control itself. Self-replicating technologies such as robotics, nanotech, genetic engineering are self-accelerating at such a rate that they can veer off in unexpected, unmanageable directions at any moment. The Fermi Paradox suggests that none, or very few civilizations, escape the self-destroying capacity of technology.

Contrary to God. Technology has all the hallmarks of an evil force. The worst injuries to ourselves and our species come at the hand of technology: atomic bombs, guns everywhere, toxins in water, mind drugs, dams that fail, marketplace bombs, persistent radiation, automobile crashes, not to mention the technologies of war — tanks, predator drones, land mines, etc — which have been designed with only ONE purpose: to kill as many humans as possible. Technologies amplify violence, and this violence is systemic, part of the agenda, built into the nature of these systems. Like an evil force.

I believe that some aspects of these are different sides of the same coin, particularly when it comes to genetic engineering. I have noticed that many opponents of genetic engineering regard Nature (with a capital “N”) as equivalent to God (with a capital G). The equation of Nature=Good and Human=Bad is identical to the Contrary to God argument above. I have even noted that when they find out that certain GE traits can also evolve naturally, they say “That’s Evolution!” Theologizing a scientific concept – wonderful.

But notice one thing. As a human creation,  our technology under the Nature and God arguments above is seen as Bad or necessarily destructive, even when it is used for good. But under the Humanist argument – that technology goes against human nature – notice the contradiction?

The crucial angle here is that the Nature/God arguments are implicitly anti-human because human technology is necessarily bad, while the humanistic argument is pro-human while painting the technology as anti-human. One can form a humanistic argument in favor of technology that recognizes the potential of technology to be destructive, allow for evil, and dehumanize, but by guiding that technology with pro-human and pro-natural principles we can defuse the other arguments.

Did Kevin miss any major anti-technological themes? It will be interesting to read down the road what his arguments against these anti-technological arguments become.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.

  • anon


    that strange fellow the unabomber thought very cynically that technology ultimately reinforces the existing power structure, ultimately a loss/degradation of freedom/choice. he would probably point to things like darpa research, advancement of battlefield research, the ability of computers to enhance surveillance and data acquisition. his manifesto is a strange read although im sure it gets you on a list.

  • Buffy Aakaash

    I think that often when humans use technology to solve certain problems, they create several new problems. And it is human nature to ignore the new set of problems and instead forge ahead as if you’ve actually helped instead of hindered. With the help of industry, with the intention of protecting its assets, I see this happening in the GMO world.