Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ecotechnological Environment

Here's an intriguing idea from historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes, set out in his 2004 book, Human-Built World.

People in industrialized nations have too narrow an understanding of technology, writes Hughes.
We are satisfied to see it used mostly for consumer goods and military weaponry, not realizing that we are unconsciously and unthinkingly using technology to create a human-built physical environment. We do not take responsibility for the aesthetic characteristics and quality of life in this human-built world. In short, we do not understand the range of technology and our responsibility for it. (Hughes 2004, p.152).
In short, we are creating our own environment by means of technology but, because we do not understand ourselves as doing so, we do not take responsibility for the results.

What's especially noteworthy in Hughes' conception is that our environment is never just technological.
We also fail to take responsibility for the creation of an ecotechnological environment, which consists of intersecting and overlapping natural and human-built environments.  More ecologically sensitive and technologically empowered today, we should ask engineers, architects, and environmental scientists to negotiate with one another as they design and construct the ecotechnological environment. (Ibid.)
I have two comments on Hughes' notion.
First, Hughes' approach to the built environment stands in stark contrast to the widespread tendency in environmental discourse to speak of any human alteration of a natural system in terms of degradation, desecration, or just plain destruction. Such ways of speaking set up a negative view of human action: to be responsible is to restrain, refrain, or retreat. For Hughes, though, to be responsible is to act thoughtfully and creatively in building something new, something good in its own terms.

This aspect of Hughes notion has some bearing on the debate over ecological restoration, to which I will turn in the near future. As such, it also has bearing on the meaning and value of the Karori sanctuary.

Second, I note that Hughes' notion of the ecotechnological environment is both descriptive and normative. Surely, the human-built world is always ecotechnological, since we build in particular natural context, using natural dynamics and natural resources in particular ways. But it is clear that Hughes also uses the term to distinguish good ways of building our world from bad.

For starters, Hughes notes that technology is already a normative enterprise:
We can use technology to consciously and purposefully shape or ecotechnological world according to our wishes, if we realize that technology is complexly value laden and that we can embody our values in its creations. (p.154)
More substantively, in his examples, Hughes applies the term 'ecolotechnological environment' to instances in which conscious effort was made to integrate human-built and natural systems, as opposed to instances in which human-built systems are imposed willy-nilly, without regard for ecological context or for long-term sustainability. The paradigm case of a bad relationship between human and natural systems is the technological fix, which Hughes defines in terms he takes from James Scott:
engineers, planners and other professionals who are committed to applying science and mastering nature tend to reduce a complex, multivariable problem to an abstract, quantifiable simplification. In other words, they resort to technological fixes.
By contrast, ecotechnological systems are rooted in a recognition of complexity, they come about by a collaborative process that includes participation by an ecological sensitive and technologically literate public (pp. 168-173), they contribute to human well-being, and they are more ecologically sustainable than the alternatives.

One of Hughes' examples stood out for me, as it was close to home.
Dayton, Ohio, found ways to counter the cold whipping winds of winter and the hot, humid air of summer that flowed into the city from the surrounding countryside. Using a six-foot-wide model of the city with buildings and streets to scale, graduate students in landscape design at Harvard University then studied the three-dimensional model in a wind tunnel. Drawing upon their studies, they proposed locating trees, new buildings, and streets to channel the flow of air from the surrounding countryside to remove polluted air, temper cold winds, and stimulate cooling breezes according to the season. Learning from this experiment, planners regulated new construction accordingly. (p. 158)
Thomas P. Hughes. (2004) Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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