Sometimes dire warnings prove prescient. It was long predicted that a pandemic like Covid-19 would eventually take place. Now, a range of new and disruptive technologies threatens potentially 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 crucial to regaining control over vital decisions about technology’s role in our future.
Disruptive technologies in Asia Pacific
The most technologically advanced countries in Asia-Pacific, in particular in East Asia, have embraced “disruptive” technologies as core components of their development agenda. “Smart cities” are seen as the remedy for overcrowded urban areas. ”Smart agriculture” will use drones to produce food for growing populations, solving the demographic challenge of ageing farmers. Digital technologies gained cult-like followings 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 hope to pole-vault over the digital divide by aiming for 5G internet connectivity.
China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is explicitly centred around new technologies, part of an openly expansionist development agenda. Its Digital Silk Road employs new and emerging technologies that could potentially disrupt 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 through relentless acquisition of promising start-ups and small companies in the North and in emerging economies in the South.
Five visions behind the imagined dominance of new tech
Societies’ views of the future are 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 industrialisation 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 anti-democratic propagandists, technologists and corporations imagine an ecomodern 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.
Click here to view interactive illustration which shows several disruptive technologies that are currently being applied, potentially threatening the future of our planet and life.
During the nineteenth century, the use of mechanical metaphors to describe the living world solidified 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 application of technologies based on this understanding is the only reliable route to human progress.
According to scientism, replacing handlooms with vast factories and transforming self-sufficient farmers into tractor drivers were necessary for human development. As this industrial revolution took place, powerful colonial states and companies gained control over the majority of the world’s natural and human resources, at a disastrous cost for people and the environment. These changes turned skilled artisans, peasant farmers and other labourers into mere machine operators, while pushing their communities into social and ecological crisis.
The minority elite who drove this vision 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 their wealth insulated them from its impacts.
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 of data on human behaviour, agricultural and fishing practices, and 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).
The term “ecomodernism” was coined to describe these new high-tech approaches. It is best understood as eco-scientism (the application of scientism to environmental issues); its adherents believe that implementing disruptive industrial technologies will enable humanity to bypass ecological constraints, thereby solving crises like climate change and biodiversity loss.
Imaginative visions drawing on the ideologies of cyber-libertarianism and eco-scientism drive the narrative in support of the technological agenda and influence biodiversity policy at the global, regional and national levels. Their proponents advocate a tsunami of technological change, 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 – are 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 that 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 can also 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 through digital financial platforms. This vision has been embraced by Malaysia, for example, 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 ecosystems. It encompasses technologies, economic arrangements and systems of production that maximize the value of marine [including genetic] resources.” This agenda is based on the premise that vast, untapped marine and coastal resources could benefit island nations. Pacific countries have pinned their hopes 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, emissions, 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 waste into economically valuable feedstocks. This circular vision is promoted in the business sector by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
All three economic strategies imply the efficient use of resources, without questioning the goal of economic growth that underpins them. Just as more efficient coal plants can lead to lower coal prices, prompting higher use of coal, the more efficient use of materials that “closes the loop” on producing waste would be likely to make products cheaper and therefore stimulate demand. However, the recovery of energy and pollutants can never be 100%, so any environmental benefits would soon 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 people are replaced by digital contracts. The core element of all digital technologies that are sweeping across the Asia-Pacific region 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 that are meant to inform better decisions. But using the term “artificial intelligence” (or AI) as a shorthand for this type of learning is misleading. 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. Thus digitalisation initiatives risk becoming yet another application of scientism, with the inherently biased predictions by distant computer systems replacing the sound human judgement of local communities.
Living processes are increasingly being reimagined as data, which is then extracted and processed as a commodity. This has been described as data colonialism, reminiscent of resource extraction in the era of European colonialism. Corporations deploy algorithms and design machines to undertake 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 they encompass, are lost.
Financial tech (fintech) is the application of digital technologies to the finance sector and monetary policy. It encompasses digital payments, the computerised management of markets, and novel digital currencies, such as cryptocurrencies, increasingly mediated through encrypted online digital ledgers (blockchains). China and India have the highest rates of consumer adoption of fintech globally. Over one-third of the world’s 100 leading fintech companies are from Asia. Terms associated with fintech, such as “smart contracts”, conceal both their high energy use (the environmental cost of the blockchains they require) and the fact that they hand control over resources to unaccountable and unscrutinised corporations.
4. “Improving” nature
Imaginative visions relating to nature are 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) have popularised the slogan “nature-based solutions” (NBS). The bank first defined this 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 in 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 NBS they advocate not only fail to address the root causes of these crises, but actively contribute to worsening them. After years of research into schemes for 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. Nevertheless, ASEAN recently adopted NBS in its position on biodiversity, and governments across the region have included it in policy pronouncements.
Drawing on the same myths as NBS, Conservation 3.0 is now being used to promote an imaginative vision of conservation that relies on high technology interventions, using 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 the utopian convergence of the molecular engineering of the living world with processes of machine learning. This imaginative vision sees nanotechnology merging with technologies derived from understanding and manipulating genetic systems, all guided by algorithms. Advances in quantum and biological computing (nonlinear, non-binary, and combinatorial approaches to computation and communication that harness quantum phenomena and biological molecules instead of electronic components) would, under this vision, 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” 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 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 United Kingdom.