Moving beyond “It’s just a tool” in technology debates
How should we evaluate the prospect of new agricultural technologies?
A friend texted me a Fast Company article featuring Soil Carbon Co., a company offering seeds coated with a proprietary microbe mix that supposedly improves both soil carbon sequestration and yield potential. My friend is interested in the strategies needed to mitigate harmful climate change and this product seemed like a win-win that should be championed. But before throwing in his support, he wanted to know, based on my experience as an agricultural researcher, what did I think of the merits of the start up’s product?
The standard way of this question gets answered is through assessment of the technical logics of any new technology. But a myopic focus on technical merits when assessing a new technology is a trap too often sprung.
Technology, especially contemporary or futuristic inventions have a strange power in mainstream discourse, which is to restrict debate about the virtue of any new techno-solution. Debate is relegated to whether the intervention “works”, based on the logic of the process itself. If the engineering or biogeochemistry is sound, then the technology itself gets placed in the “good idea” category.
When technologies go awry, as they often do, doubt begins to creep in about scrutinising techno-solutions with a limited scope. Critics begin to ask, is there something intrinsic about the technology that led us down a path of unwanted or unintended consequences? Could we have identified any design features that would have predicted its eventual misuse?
When these important questions are raised, offering a chance to break out of the boundaries of the debate, they are often quickly silenced by an inevitable counter response, asserted as a superficial trope. Unfortunately, this trope is often received as wisdom. Here is how it goes:
Technology is just a tool. Whether it is good or bad depends on how we use it. Ever since the invention of fire, it has been used for both cooking and arson. The tool has no agency. The people who use it have agency. If you are concerned about how this technology might do harm, focus on the behaviors of individuals, not the designers nor the design of the technology.
This wholesale abdication of responsibility of technology’s agency gets repeated in the New York Times technology section, in interviews with tech-barons, and in congressional testimony. Nobody bats an eye. “Yes, how true,” the congressmen mutter seriously.
For a recent example, take a recent episode of The Daily that features NYT reporter Michael Barbaro interviewing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about how some of the “unexpected” ways Twitter is being used to distort, overthrow, bully, harass and gaslight. Now, Barbaro isn’t the most hard-hitting reporter—he will likely be found calmly asking rhetorical questions about the apocalypse, but still.
Dorsey: We didn’t have really any specific intent around what Twitter should be or what is shouldn’t be.
Barbaro: Do you think Twitter is a reflection of society or an amplifier or creator of divisiveness and polarization? It’s that chicken and egg thing all over again.
Dorsey: Yeah, like any tool it can be both. With all these tools that we build, all technologies, we start using them in one way and then we discover all these problems, and then we address those and we continue that iteration. This is not unique to this time. It goes back throughout our history as a civilization. You can’t pick any tool that wasn’t used in some way in both a positive and a negative. The same is true for the tools of the internet.
The ramifications of the acceptance of this trope are serious. If we accept that tools have no agency, nor do the designers, the patent holders, or the companies that produce them. A bad outcome that involves the technology is the fault of the user, of governance, of the weakness of mankind.
What’s bizarre about the trope is that when it appears debates on technologies considered advanced or scientific (STEM) it tends to be accepted as an astute point about the nature of the world or the failure of policy. For progress to continue apace, “move fast and break things”. On the contrary, at least in the US, in the gun control debate, the same argument is often rejected as low effort partisan talking point:
“Guns don’t kill people, people do”.
It’s fascinating to me that you have, in terms of political affiliation, a group on the left (techno-optimists) who generally reject the “tools have no agency” argument when applied to firearms but strongly promote the same logic when it comes to, say, genetically modified seeds, AI, or geoengineering.
But the gun control issue gets to the heart of the weakness of the “it’s just a tool” argument: I could certainly use a rifle to prop up my tent with great success. But it’s clear that embedded in the tool, is an intended purpose, vision of best use, and relationship with society. If a firearm wasn’t meant to shoot things with precision and force as its intended purpose, the trigger would be less sensitive, the ammunition more difficult to load. Thinking of such a potent tool, built with such clear intent, we can begin to observe the embedded visions of use --intentional or not-- that are forged into the very material beings of all technologies.
Abdicating agency of a technology to “elsewhere” prevents and more of democratic contestation of a technology’s deployment, what is necessary to prevent the harmful consequences of technologies uncritical deployment. As Science and Technology Studies scholar Jack Stilgoe says,
Technology brooks no argument. It’s not clear how you effectively argue against a technology that introduces its own bias.
Perhaps Science and Technology Studies (STS), as a discipline, was born out of the frustration of the “its just a tool” debate when it comes to new technologies that will clearly shape society in meaningful ways. What STS offers is a way to observe the hidden, and sometimes overt, values found within any tool, thereby providing a window into potential “unintended” consequences and good guesses about where responsibility lies.
The beauty of the way STS engages with techno-solutions is to lay out an empirical line of inquiry for any aspiring researcher to answer queries like the one I have received. Answering these questions with a variety of ingenuity is the work of STS.
So apologies to my friend who wanted an up or down vote on the microbe coated seeds, but a good answer depends on empirical analysis of Soil Carbon Co to tease out the technology’s embedded values, design principles and interaction with existing agricultural power dynamics. In the absence of this empirical work, I can at least begin to ask what I consider the right questions to move beyond the “it’s just a tool” argument.
Microbe coated seeds!
The first question to ask about the microbe coated seeds is “Who benefits?”
A problem with high tech seeds (GM, hybrids) is that they need to be sold at large volumes to make the economics work out. Smaller farmers I have worked with discuss this problem often, saying it is easy for them to find offers for seeds in the many hundreds of thousands, but not in the thousands. Thus, seed as a technological for-profit intervention, tends to shape the size and character of agriculture, where the maximum alignment is found on large scale monoculture operations. That is where the carbon sequestration and the soil quality improvement would show the most effect.
Of course, if I am a diversified producer of crops forestry and livestock, I have much less incentive to buying a new technology for something that is only a percentage of my production. This leads me to assume that the embedded vision of use is on more large-scale industrial operations. And I’m not sure these are the systems that should be championed, propped-up, or in the case of Soil Carbon Co., marginally improved.
This isn’t the first time that agri-technologies have aligned with and constructed agricultural practices. In the classic example of the tomato harvester, a worry over the growing social power of agricultural laborers mobilised new forms of automation as well as the breeding of a more durable tomato variety that wouldn’t be damaged during mechanical harvest. The result, bland tomatoes and a disenfranchisement of farm labor. This leads to a second important question:
“What alternative solutions are marginalised if the technology succeeds?”
Think of the existing farmers who are already doing the work of maximising their soil quality and carbon sequestration through agroforestry, crop rotations, green manures or other techniques associated with agroecology or regenerative agriculture. In the article, the founders mention that their technology would perform better than these techniques.
By focusing on one dimension, carbon sequestration, the technology has a way of delegitimising alternative forms of production. Alternative production pathways that also mitigate climate change are important not just for their carbon storing potential, but for the livelihoods they support, for the types of labor regimes they avoid and the broader provisioning of other ecosystems services. As CEO Tegan Nock offers in the article, that with their solution,
You don’t have to change practices; you don’t have to get new equipment.
This is stated as a virtue, a feature of the product that allows the farming system to continue as it is, albeit with greater carbon storage. If the only concern is emissions mitigation, this makes sense. Broader concerns over equity in the food system, the provisioning of healthy diets, land use management, all could get marginalised by a one-dimensional technology.
Next, what does “the science” say about the technology’s safety?
According to the article, the company argues that global adoption of their technology will save 8.5 gigatons of carbon annually. Obviously, whatever experiments conducted, global adoption signifies a whole lot of uncertainty. How will the variety of agricultural contexts and climate interact with their intervention? What responsibility or capacity will the company have in responding to, at best, unexpected failures of their products performance, and, at worst, unexpected consequences of use?
With high uncertainty, scientific knowledge is better understood as an authoritative claims-making process. Teasing out what evidence is used and what evidence is ignored in these claims reveals much of the story behind the scientific fact. Thus, in this system, global agriculture, their will always be enough uncertainty that warrants a humility to assertion of fact. This, of course, presents a problem for technologies that also must be sold as a product.
Finally, what of ownership, control, and governance of the proposed technology?
Who controls the intellectual property and what ramifications might that have for existing seed companies as well as farmers who save their own seed? Is this a process that farmers will have to “buy” every planting season? How would a diversity of farmers want to see the structure of Soil Carbon Co?
When it comes to seeds, there is much historical work to show how the common ownership and management of the genetic diversity of seeds served to support the agri-biodiversity of farming systems required to reproduce rural existence. With macroeconomic trends and alignment towards agribusiness, seeds transitioned from a common good to a source of profit. In one argument, the commodification of seeds allows for innovation and the development of new varieties. In the other, a re-commoning of seed genetic diversity is crucial to give more power to farmers to determine their own production pathways. At first glance, it’s not clear where the vision of Soil Carb Co. clearly expresses its values regarding seed sovereignty.
None of the above speculation and questioning of Soil Carbon co. should write-off the technology completely, especially in the absence of empirical inquiry. But it should encourage potential adopters, the company itself, and any policy makers to critically challenge and even change the logics embedded in the design of the tool.
The wreckage of expertise’s past
Think of the top three environmental crises that are important to you today, I would wager that all of them are caused, at least in part, by the uncritical application of an expert driven technological process, of which at the time was deemed as a sign of great progress. Or as historian Jo Guldi says, “we are living in the wreckage of expertise’s past.”
To avoid a future wreckage of today’s hubris of expertise and technological deployment, we need to consistently use a framework for assessing new technologies holistically. Doing this is a matter of accepting that there is a way of predicting the forms of use and the stratification of benefits a technology may produce based on the values embedded in technology’s design, and that we have the tools to empirically tease out these values.