Monday, December 1, 2008

Cylons, cyclic capitalism and technologies of change

There's an interesting piece on Chris Trotter's blog about Nikolai Kondratiev's theory of the way capitalism, rather than promoting continuous growth, follows a cycle of peaks and troughs. Not a particularly new idea, but it's pretty depressing, both because it indicates that we are entering a very deep trough, but also because we seem locked into these boom-bust cycles. This theory also links each rise towards a peak in capitalism to a new technological development:

1st wave 18th Century – steam engine.
2nd wave 1830s – steam engines, railways.
3rd wave 1880s - steel, electricity, chemical and heavy-engineering industries.
4th wave - petrochemical, automobile manufacturing, and other mass production industries.
5th wave – 1970s - revolution in telecommunications and information technology - personal computer, cellphones, and the Internet.

So, it seems to me that the current down-turn into depression could result in large numbers of people realising the extent of the destructiveness of these cycles of capitalism and start trying to develop a system based on sustainable production, social justice, supportive communities etc. Or the forces for a new wave of capitalism could already be marshalling within the current chaos. If so, what new technological development will it be harnessing to fuel the next capitalist growth cycle? A very likely contender could be the diverse developments occuring in relation to biotechnology.

Looking back, the whole IT revolution was pre-empted in a lot of sci fi of the 1960s: eg it was a common theme in the TV programme The Avengers, in which evil computer scientists, linked with foreign capitalist corporations attempt to dominate the world.In some of the most popular sci fi TV programmes of today, there is a common theme of biotechnologies and cyborgs: Heroes (super-human genetic mutants – could use their powers for good or evil, but the powers often corrupt), Battlestar Galactica (human made robots, self generate human-like cylons, so that now many cylons and humans don't now whether they are one or the other), Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles – also features human-like robots).

I was particularly thinking of things like microchip implants that are already being developed, and look likely to follow a trajectory that has gone from desktop home computers, through mobile and wearable technologies, to implants used for medicine, surveillance, policing and military operations (The Center for Global Research on Globalisation, Canada), and art and communications. It could see a shift from microchips in our passports, to microchip implants as personal ID, and communication device.

It could result in whole populations being physically jacked into networked systems. It reminds me of some Doctor Who episodes, where they move from the Emma Peel Avengers-type Robots (Cybernauts), as clumsy robots manipulated by an evil genius, to Doctor Who’s cybermen, the result of human upgrades. And this is related in Doctor Who to alternative realities, where the communication systems infiltrate bodies, eg the TV set during the Britiish queen’s coronation, and realities where people are physically networked through mind-controlling ear attachments.

It’s already moved beyond sci fi (K & M.G. Michael, 2006) and I think also could include a “cool” factor that would mean increasingly overt forms of repression may not be needed to control populations, while simultaneously fuelling capitalist accumulation and inequalities: think of how myspace, and mobile phones etc are embraced as cool while also making surveillance and control potentially easier for authorities.

So how should we be responding to the developments in biotechnology in a way that challenges the way they could fuel a new cycle in capitalism? Proposals for a green new deal (New Economics Foundation) have possibilities.

I was thinking to include changes in gender constructions and relations in this post, but perhaps that will best be kept for a future blog entry.

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