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Hacking With Fritz

By: Jonathan Dawson
Senior Lecturer, Economics For Transition
Schumacher College

I have accepted an invitation to speak at a hackers’ conference in Prague this weekend   I notice this provokes in me an intriguing internal conflict……between the intellect and the guts, or perhaps more accurately between habit and novelty.  I am, in short, suffering from a spot of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – the discomfort of two apparently conflicting stories occupying the same space.

A little autobiographical context is in order.  I am of the generation that grew up deeply sceptical about the power of technology to address our big problems.  A sixties childhood was filled with television programmes about space travel, robots and wonder crops ending hunger forever.

The promises fell one by one as the stories started to roll in of depleted aquifers, dead soils on land and dead zones off-shore, farmer suicides and the poor driven from their land into the slums, stockpiles of toxic radioactive waste, vast wealth living cheek-by-jowl with crippling poverty. 

The verdict was clear: looking to technology for the solutions to our problems became the last resort of those unwilling to look at their true root cause, namely a gross imbalance in political and economic power.  Techno-optimism became synonymous with being a supporter of nuclear power and GM crops……and no-one of my acquaintance came close to holding this position.

My own path took me to work in Africa in the field of small enterprise promotion and appropriate technology, working for an affiliate of Intermediate Technology Development Group (since renamed Practical Action), one of the several organisations created by Fritz Schumacher.  I then migrated to the ecovillage movement, all the while swimming in the anti-modernist story that valued social innovation above all else, resolutely suspicious of technology-led policy platforms.

And now I find myself anticipating with some excitement a gathering that I suspect will be primarily populated by techies and geeks firmly convinced that the information technology revolution we are living through carries the seeds of the potential transformation of our society in ways that Fritz Schumacher might just approve of.

What an intriguing idea…..that for the first time in the history of capitalism, the emerging soon-to-be-dominant technological form may favour the distributed over the centralised, the network over the monopoly.  That it may enable networks of locally-based producers to outcompete food corporations with their long, wasteful and vulnerable supply-chains.  That it may democratise the sharing of knowledge beyond the capacity of patents and IPR to contain.

In future blogs, I will explore how these trends already appear to be playing out across our society and economy………..and what we can do to help ensure that they serve the interests of majority rather than only those of the 1 per cent.  For the moment, I am sitting in purely intellectual excitement at the possibility that yet another dualism – that which sets technological advancement against human-scale development – may be in the process of evaporating.

What would Fritz have to say about it all?  My presentation next week will explore the relevance of the ideas of Schumacher to the world inhabited by the hackers.  I will endeavour to look through his eyes……and to report back in my next blog on what I discover.


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