East Contemporary

Depot: Alf Hornborg “Machines as Machinations: Rethinking the Ontology of Technology”

Vienna, April 25, 2017, http://depot.or.at/

Based on the title of the lecture, I was expecting something along the lines of science and technology studies or media archeology. Yet it proved to be much more complicated.

The good thing to take away was Hornborg’s holistic view of the world economy. He lined with the argument that technology is not neutral, but that it is a result of socioeconomic development. He strongly opposed the notion of techno-scientific linear “progress”, a fairy tale that is still deeply rooted in the popular understanding of these terms. He used statistics to prove his point that the industrial revolution happened in the United Kingdom at a specific point in time not as the result of a coincidence or ingenuity of the British, but rather a product of the colonial expansion and resource extraction carried out by the British Empire. The industrial revolution was not only the starting point of technological acceleration, but also the starting point of new economic theories which came to shape the world at large. There is a continuous lineage between the historical origins and today, where even technologies that appear as neutral and transparent are in fact burdened by a moral concerns of economic exploitation not dissimilar to those a few centuries ago.

Yet Hornborg shot himself in the foot when he attempted to provide fact-based proofs and even solutions to the current state of affairs in the form of an alternative currency. His seemingly exact calculations were a bit dubious, but they did at least serve the point of engaging those who were more scientifically minded – at least there were some numbers to challenge and discuss. The numbers also highlighted the often neglected fact that normative/moralistic standpoints are simply excluded from “technical” economic reasoning. His proposal of an alternative “local” currency as a solution to the inequalities and exploitation of global trade (mirrored in technological developments) was straightforward laughable. He went into great detail explaining how the currency should work. Those familiar with socialism were eerily reminded of food stamps and central planning exercises, now augmented by a technological solution (what an irony).

Nevertheless, there was lots of food for thought in the lecture. It was controversial, which was positive. It challenged standard ways of thinking. It both informed and misinformed, but hopefully it served as a starting point for the audience to search for further materials on the broad themes that Hornborg sketched out.

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