Building a smarter planet — really…

Published online 13 January 2009.

This diary starts with the IBM slogan, as viewers were exposed to it in the telecasts of the NFL playoffs this weekend, and speculates on what it would really take to “build a smarter planet.”  Thus I will embark upon a critique of the notion that being “smarter” is the same as being more informed, or cleverer, and suggest a version of “building a smarter planet” that has some planetary wisdom built into it.

(crossposted on Docudharma)

All the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools…

-from the Eagles’ song “Long Road Out Of Eden,” in the album of the same name

Those of us who spent some time at home watching the NFL playoffs on CBS this last weekend were treated to a round of IBM’s “Building a Smarter Planet” commercials.  You can watch them all on YouTube if you want.  Yeah, I know, it’s just an ad, and ads are pretty vacuous stuff.

But in a sense they form the foundation of modern culture: take a look at the analysis in Leiss, Kline, and Jhally’s Social Communication In Advertising if you want to see this demonstrated.  I’ll try to summarize the argument as best I can here.  In the consumer age (after 1965), it is argued, consumer culture (i.e. OUR culture) has centered around the consumption of products in ensembles of human existence known as lifestyles.  The marketing of these products through advertising attaches what the authors call “cultural frames for goods,” in which imagined values and social relations are invested into the products themselves.  In our current phase of consumer society, the authors argue, products (as they are advertised, especially on TV) serve as “emblems of group-related consumption practices.” (279)

Now, the IBM ad about the “smarter grid” promotes less waste of energy.  You can watch it here if you want.  I guess they want to sell everyone efficiency-improving, “cleaner” devices.  Everyone wants to be efficient and clean, as opposed to being wasteful and dirty.  This is the concept IBM is using as an emblem.

Eventually all ads boil down to sales pitches for products, of course — but since advertising in this era merely displays emblems, it tends to evade serious questions as to whether we are better off, or worse off, for being consumers or for buying specific products.  Thus, for instance, Coca-Cola ads typically have nothing to say about the actual attributes of Coca-Cola or the wisdom of consuming it.  Coke ads are thus all cute montages.  And, typically, if an ad DOES say something about a product’s attributes, these attributes are shared by other physical objects which may have nothing to do with consumer life.  Riding a bicycle will get you an infinite number of miles per gallon of gasoline; the water from the drinking fountain at your local public library will probably be cool and refreshing and even better for you (on a hot day) than Budweiser.

Thus an advertisement puts a gloss on the concepts it displays as emblems: concepts in ads exist (e.g. “building a smarter planet”) so that the advertisers (e.g. IBM) can stand for them and can put movies of cute ordinary people up so that you can identify with them and with the advertisers.

It needs to be said, to the great credit of IBM, that the idea of “building a smarter planet” is however quite worthwhile.  Paths to a better world, a global world society whose economic practices are attuned to ecological realities, will probably have to go through it.  We’re not going to get around it with calls for a revolution or for better leadership — with either of those you still have the problem of what happens next, and better leadership can only go as far as the structure on the ground will let it.  So there are good things to be said about the concept of “building a smarter planet.”  It’s an idea we should identify with.

But, of course, since the purpose of advertising is to sell products, the full meaning of the concept of “smarter” is barely touched in the IBM ad.  Let’s examine here what it really means to be “smarter.”  “Smarter” does not mean more well-informed.  Throwing lots of information at people does not necessarily make them “smarter.”  More information can mean information overload; more garbage in, more garbage out.  Or it can mean monomania; information to support an unhealthy obsession.  As a whole entity, our American college and university system is the best in the world, a fact Thomas Friedman parades in his newest book Hot, Flat, and Crowded; yet, absent any sort of context which would make our academic expertise relevant to our lives, the majority of us are likely to pick up a degree or two and then move on to jobs in which our academic knowledge, whether it be in literature, political science, or chemistry, does not mean a whole lot.  Knowledge and information can be commodities which we trade for status items rather than being anything to make us smarter.  For further thinking in this regard, see David F. Labaree’s How To Succeed In School Without Really Learning.

“Smarter” does not mean more efficient, or cleverer.  If I were to destroy a portion of a pristine wilderness to build my home, it might be more efficient to use a bulldozer, as opposed to a forest fire, but it would still not be smart for me to build my home in a pristine wilderness, especially given the frightening rates of species extinction that follow from the domestication of wildernesses.  It might have been cleverer, for instance, for the US government to have avoided certain unpopular policies in its invasion of Iraq — such as, prominently, Arthur Bremer’s dictum that all former Ba’ath Party members be summarily excluded from government-paid jobs — but occupying Iraq was not a smart move anyway, nor was building fourteen US military bases there.

At some point in our adventures up the learning curve, our definition of “smarter” must include some notion of wisdom — the ability to choose the path toward the better future, both in terms of a healthy self (both mentally and physically) and a healthy planet Earth, with its ecosystems and its climate.  And this, I would argue, means that at some point we must question the logic of consumerism in order to achieve this goal of “building a smarter planet.”

So what does it really mean to build a smarter planet?  As has been suggested by the climate scientists, a smarter planet would have no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.  So would more fossil-fueled economic growth be appropriate to building a smarter planet?  No.  In fact, as Stan Cox points out, we’ll actually have to shrink the global economy, and quite significantly so.  And that’s only to keep the global economy from adding two parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere each year — we haven’t quite touched the problem of technological quick fixes to remove atmospheric CO2 yet.

What this means is that the advocates of a “Keynesian” economic stimulus are going to have to look for a better economic theory to support what they want to do.  Let me suggest one here — in the future, the economy will actually have to cater to the direct needs of human beings, food and clothing and shelter and water and air and nature and good company, rather than supporting manufactured “needs” (as supported by the monies of wealthy consumers) or supporting systems of economic domination.  This way, the “Keynesian” economic stimulus can do what it was best intended to do, to help the great mass of humanity to become solvent and thus to have a real economy, while at the same time shrinking the economy as a whole and thus mitigating its effects upon Earth’s ecosystems.  This would be a transition to what has typically been called the “conserver economy” as opposed to a “consumer economy.”  Don’t expect it to be featured on any corporate advertising in the near future.

In an old issue of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism (December 1997), Victor Wallis (“Ecological Socialism and Human Needs”) suggests a number of professions which could be phased out with the transition to a conserver economy:

  • The advertising industry, together with private insurance, banking, and associated communications, acounting, and legal services;
  • The construction, resource-use, and services arising from the automobile/ shopping mall/ suburban sprawl complex;
  • Excess energy use arising from the global integration of production processes and from over-reliance on long-distance trade;
  • The development of a highly specialized fuel-intensive agriculture with heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
  • Certain fuel-intensive, typically macho recreational activities giving their users an artificial sense of power (car-racing, snowmobiles, jet-skis, speedboats, etc.);
  • A growing sector of purely status-related luxuries, defined as such by (a) their frivolity — including pandering to sexist or racist norms (e.g. cosmetic surgery to disguise age or ethnicity) — and (b) their highly restrictive prices;
  • The police, private protection, penal, and military services built up in response to the threat and/or the reality of challenges — whether individual (delinquent) or collective (revolutionary) — to concentrated private wealth;
  • Whatever proportion of general production (and construction) or ancillary services — including health care — is accounted for by demands placed upon the system, or upon individuals, by the abovementioned practices. (49)

So what are all those people going to do, if they aren’t going to be part of those professions anymore?  How about if they chose to contribute their lives to building a smarter planet, say, by refining the art and the science of everyday life in line with the goals of ecosystem stability which we’ll have to have in the era of abrupt climate change?  They could work in agroecology, for instance, or in eco-architecture.  They could work in water conservation or tree-planting.  Let’s get humanity out of the domination business.

At this point I would like readers to imagine, for themselves and for the rest of us, what the Earth would really be like if we were to build a smarter planet.  Maybe this could be the thematic emblem of a 501 (c) 3 project — “Building A Smarter Planet After The Consumer Society.”  Or how about an ad campaign of our own?  In our ads we could have people say, to cameras, things like: “I used to be a prison guard, keeping un-violent drug users behind bars: now I raise edible perennials on a farm…”

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