1st Edition

The Magic of Technology The Machine as a Transformation of Slavery

By Alf Hornborg Copyright 2023
    288 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    288 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book examines our understanding of technology and suggests that machines are counterfeit organisms that seem to replace human bodies but are ultimately means of displacing workloads and environmental loads beyond our horizon. It emphasises that technology is not the politically neutral revelation of natural principles that we tend to think, but largely a means of accumulating, through physically asymmetric exchange, the material means of harnessing natural forces to reinforce social relations of power. Alf Hornborg reflects on how our cultural illusions about technology appeared in history and how they continue to stand in the way of visions for an equal and sustainable world. He argues for a critical reconceptualisation of modern technology as an institution for redistributing human time, resources, and risks in world society. The book highlights a need to think of world trade in other terms than money and raises fundamental questions about the role of human-artifact relations in organising human societies. It will be of interest to a range of scholars working in anthropology, sociology, economics, development studies, and the philosophy of technology.

    *CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2023*



    Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden.

    "Alf Hornborg here adds further weight to his formidable oeuvre. He demonstrates with elan that our various technologies, both past and present, are direct mechanisms for ensuring social inequality and uneven ecological extraction. Hornborg systematically dispatches both friends and foes, in the process articulating a novel and profound perspective on the many things we both celebrate and fetishise as technologies. His argument cuts to the heart of the question ‘what is progress?’ in an era when war, disease, disaster and death are as prevalent as in any past period. Never has the term tour de force been more fitting." - Noel Castree, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester and co-author of David Harvey: A Critical Introduction to His Thinking

    "The anthropologist and world systems historian Alf Hornborg is a pioneer critic of ecologically unequal trade, and of the fetishism of technology and money. The praise for new technologies by authors from the right and the left forgets the reliance of modern technology (including industrial solar energy) on asymmetrical global resource flows orchestrated by money and the fictive reciprocity of market prices. Technology is not neutral. On the contrary, together with general-purpose money and the price system, it explains the dynamic of the socio-economic system towards increasing social inequality and destruction of the environment. The perspectives from mainstream economists, environmental modernists, ecological economists and Marxists are summarized and criticised in this original novel synthesis of Hornborg’s empirical and theoretical contributions over three decades. This is an essential book for anthropologists, historians, environmental social scientists but also for engineers, biologists and climate scientists." - Joan Martínez-Alier, Professor of Economics, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and author of The Environmentalism of the Poor

    "One of the few social theorists to combine a critique of capitalist exploitation with an original analysis of ecological crisis, Alf Hornborg has for many years developed and refined a powerful theoretical edifice drawing on Marxism, ecology and thermodynamics, engaging anthropology, history and archaeology. This book reveals capitalism as a global system for the production of inequality and ecological destruction via the blackboxing magic of machines. This is a very major achievement and an extremely important book in a world of escalating environmental destruction and mounting inequality." - Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo and author of Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change

    "This book shakes up debates about the role of technology in world history by showing how, since the Industrial Revolution, symbiosis between specific forms of technology and economy have driven and engineered extreme exploitation leading to both glorious wealth and devastating destruction. Material flows analyses document the global scale of ecologically unequal exchange unique to this period, while calculations of human time and natural space required to produce and transport commodities illuminate flows of embodied resources obscured by commodity prices. Hornborg interprets blindness about these realities as a fetishism that construes technology as inspired, even magical, objects, whose existence and value is independent of the unjust and unsustainable socio-environmental processes through which they are produced." - Susan Paulson, Professor of Latin American Studies, University of Florida and co-author of The Case for Degrowth

    "In response to the ecological hole we’re in, the ecomodernists’ mantra is ‘design new tools, keep digging!’ What makes Hornborg’s thesis radical and relevant is his critique of technology as a social structure, and his exposing of mechanisms through which it sustains worldwide webs of exploitation. Like an archaeologist deciphering links from an ancient object to the relations of power and violence that formed it, he uncovers the connexions between modern technology and systems of power and plunder, as well as the blindspots and fetishes that obscure our understanding of these monstrous mechanisms." - Gareth Dale, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy, Brunel University and author of Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left

    "From economics to social theory, from Marxism, to posthumanism, the intellectual progeny of industrial civilisation have failed to grasp its essential features, which are machine fetishism and global environmental degradation. In Alf Hornborg’s historical political ecology, technology is never a neutral flash of scientific creativity: enabled by all-purpose money, it emerges from and accentuates exploitative social relations. As ecological crisis beckons for the planet, Hornborg’s 'meta-Marxist,' sociometabolic theorisation of technology is an original materialist contribution – and a wake-up call for the social sciences." - Chris Hann, Emeritus Director of Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; author of Repatriating Polanyi: Market Society in the Visegrád States

    "As crucial as they are for our ways of living, the key concepts we use to describe today’s world – technology, society, money, economy – have grown rather flat and vacuous, devoid of lively insights that might guide our choices. Exploring some central questions in contemporary philosophy and social theory, Alf Hornborg breathes new vitality into these key ideas and their wide-ranging connections. The result is a vision of the best possibilities of modernity and how they might be realized in creative political practice." - Langdon Winner, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and the Humanities, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York and author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought

    "Hornborg expands Marx’ notion of fetishism to encompass all resource extraction embodied in industrial production, and consumption, including technologies. It opens up for a wider theoretical, but also more empirical understanding of asymmetrical global resource transfers. With all the implications it holds for the future." - Kristian Kristiansen, Professor of Archaeology, University of Gothenburg and co-author of The Rise of Bronze Age Society

    "Just as Marx argued that commodity fetishism, protecting the rights to property, merely disguised a new form of slavery, Hornborg argues that the fetishism of the machine, making a religion of technological progress, disguises how technologies impose exploitative relations between people, facilitating the destructive exploitation of nature. This work reveals how modern technologies are inextricably entwined with profit maximisation and challenges purportedly radical social theorists who, blind to this, are further entrenching machine fetishism. It is convincingly argued that unless people understand that new technologies are social strategies of appropriation and free themselves from machine fetishism and the delusions about technological progress associated with this, enslavement on a global scale and the destructive exploitation of nature will continue, and efforts to avoid a global ecological catastrophe will be ineffectual." - Arran Gare, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne and author of Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future

    "In this great book, Hornborg draws on much of his previous work on technology, unequal exchange, and money in order to substantiate a key message: Modern technologies rely on the asymmetric global flows of embodied labour and other resources. Hornborg challenges the dominant understanding of technology as products of human ingenuity, based on a revelation of natural principles and intended to harness nature to work for humans. Knowledge is needed, but asymmetric resource transfers based on cheap labour and environmental impacts elsewhere are just as important for the technological efficacy of economic core areas. Modern technology thus involves a form of slavery that is disguised through the workings of modern money. Hornborg states his case through critical dialogues with a wide range of literature from different fields – an impressive tour de force full of interesting insights and reflections. Hornborg’s critical gaze is not only directed towards the usual suspects, such as mainstream economics. Also friends from anthropology, development studies, science and technology studies, heterodox economics, Marxism, etc. may be provoked by Hornborg’s radical perspective. This perspective provides a very timely contribution to the debates on how to understand and cope with the current challenges related to environment and justice." - Inge Röpke, Professor Emeritus, Department of Planning, Aalborg University and co-editor of Recent Developments in Ecological Economics

    "Hornborg offers us that very rare thing – a new perspective on the relationship between technology, economy, and society. He rejects the dichotomies and distinctions of old models of development, and shows how rethinking the basic categories of analysis can lead to new and original approaches to the profound inequality produced under industrial capitalism." - Richard Wilk, Distinguished Provost’s Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University and author of Home Cooking in the Global Village

    "Marx thought that capital bought machines which subordinated workers to the money owners. Hornborg updates this in a highly original way: 1) by conceiving of money and technology as a reflexive unity; 2) focusing on the global material flows that underpin both; and thereby 3) opening readers to the human agency that creates our unequal world. This passes by the advocates of business as usual and their vociferous critics." - Keith Hart, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Self in the World: Connecting Life's Extremes

    "This work, dense in scholarship, grounded in high theory, and rich in empirics, is destined to become a classic. It should be in graduate collections covering environmental anthropology, environmental theory, history, Marxism, engineering, and science and technology studies. Summing up: Highly recommended." - T. Niazi in Choice