Interview for Sputnik Germany
Sputnik: Mr Orlov, today we want to discuss your newest book, “Shrinking the Technosphere” (the German version), but before we start this I would like to deepen one of your answers in our first Sputnik Germany interview.
You said that the US central bank (the Federal Reserve) created new collateral in the banking ‘repo’ crisis of 2019. I would add two more questions: How would you define ‘collateral’? And you said that the US dollar would lose massive value in the next few months; what makes you so sure of it?
A: Well, to answer the first question, perhaps I misspoke in the first interview. The Fed did not so much create collateral as redeem US Treasuries and other debt instruments as collateral because banks stopped being so willing to honor them as collateral for overnight loans between banks, and so the Fed had to step in and provide these loans, provide the liquidity for these loans to the order of hundreds of billions of dollars of new money that was put into circulation—between banks, not into the broader economy.
So what that shows is that faith in US debt (and the US dollar consists of US debt at this point), that that faith was not as rock solid as some people would like to believe.
Now as far as the second question, why the dollar is likely to lose value: if you look at the value of a currency, you have to stack it up against productive capacity that underlies it. Money is a way of paying for goods and services. There has been a drastic increase in the supply of money. Right now the US government is on track to finance half of its budget using new debt—that is, basically the budget deficit is 50 percent of the federal budget, it’s on track to be that. But we don’t see any increase in the productive capacity of the United States to go with this vast increase in the money supply. In fact, the US economy has shrunk by a large amount, and it’s absolutely uncertain whether it will recover any time soon.
So basically we have more money, we have less stuff to buy with this money, and the result of that is that the money is going to be worth less. The logic of that is extremely simple.
Q: OK. Thank you very much. Now Mr. Orlov, your newest book is entitled “Shrinking the Technosphere.” So my questions: what is the technosphere, and why should it or will it shrink? What is your approach in this? And for our audience, you yourself can be seen as a technologist, as a computer scientist. What is your take on this whole topic?
A: Well, the term ‘technosphere’ was more or less coined by Vladimir Vernadsky, and he was a big proponent of the idea of the biosphere, of the living Earth as an organism, predating Lovelock’s Gaia and all of that. And then he coined the term ‘noosphere’, which was basically the knowledge, human knowledge, of the biosphere and of the physical realm that allowed us to extend it in various ways. He was a real scientific optimist: he thought that scientific knowledge would allow us to make drastic enhancements to the way life on earth is lived by humans and everyone.
And he also said that there is something called the technosphere, and that term has been in circulation ever since, to some extent. But then it turned out that the noosphere is really fractured and uncertain. It’s uncertain whether science is being used for good or evil: the prevalence of nuclear weapons, for instance, would show that the noosphere is not such a benevolent thing.
And instead what we see is the emergence of a technosphere, which is a single, integrated, global technological realm that is beyond anyone’s capacity to control it. That is, it is an entity that can be said to have a mind of its own, or at least an agenda of its own, and it has its own methods. It uses humans as opposed to humans using it. We do not have very much agency within it. All we can do is try to constrain it within our own lives.
Right now it is in a transition period. It tries to expand continually, but that expands the use of natural resources and that can’t go on forever because the amount of natural resources available is limited. Right now the technosphere is fracturing into zones of high technological development, and zones of low technological development, with buffer zones between these emergent parts of the technosphere, and this is a very interesting, very important process to recognize because it doesn’t really come down to political strategy or economic strategy or financial strategy. Because, as I said, the technosphere has an agenda of its own, and to understand what it is doing it is important to start thinking like a machine, which is not something that we normally do. And we also have to abandon every notion of morality, because the technosphere has absolutely no sense of morality at all. It can keep us happy, if that serves its interests, or it can kill us if that serves its interests. Or something in between.
Q: So if I understand you right, the current corona crisis where people are working at home offices and doing online conferences—this is not really the technology you are talking about? You give a broader view on this whole subject?
A: Well, the corona crisis has been very useful to the technosphere in terms of allowing it to grab more control, to seize control. Because one of the compulsions that the technosphere has is to forever increase its control of us humans. It doesn’t like living things; it prefers robots and machines. It prefers humans to act like machines to the greatest extent possible, so it tries to define technical functions for everyone and have everyone follow certain protocols. And of course it tries to keep tabs on everyone so as soon as someone steps out of line an alarm bell goes off somewhere, and some technician deals with the problem. Basically, to the technosphere humans are a technical problem to solve, and the way to solve it is by replacing human functions with automated functions—artificial intelligence, robots, etc.—to the greatest extent possible, and the remaining humans (because it’s impossible to completely eliminate the humans, especially human technicians) to control them as strictly as possible. And the coronavirus, by forcing people to keep distance between each other, and by relying on electronic communications techniques as opposed to face-to-face contact, has allowed the technosphere to be maximally disruptive of human relationships, and to cause us to behave like robots to the greatest extent possible, which is a win for it.
So it seized on this opportunity presented by a not particularly lethal virus to extend its sphere of control.
Q: Mr. Orlov, you wrote in your new book: “Most people are happy with high-tech replacement products, microwave ovens, smartphones, etc. Devices have reduced elegant handwriting to an outdated insignificance.”
So, if I may ask naively, what is the problem then?
A: Well, these things work for a while: a microwave oven works for, let’s say, three or five years, and then it stops working. And then what do you do? Run out and buy another one? What if you don’t have money? What if they don’t make any more microwave ovens because the resources for making microwave ovens have run out? What if your country can no longer import microwave ovens because it’s broke and the exporting countries won’t sell microwave ovens on credit? Well, then you’re stuck because you forgot how to cook, and then you starve. That’s the problem with technology: it’s like climbing a ladder while cutting out and burning the rungs of the ladder underneath you. You can only climb up; you cannot climb down. All you can do is fall down and die.
Q: Interesting answer; thank you very much. Another interesting part, you write: “Firstly, the question of exactly what is so efficient in these new facilities is hardly examined…” I will cut it a bit: basically what you wrote reminded me of Rudy Dutschke. He was a famous sociologist, political activist and student leader in the sixties in Western Germany. He was later shot to death. In one old German TV interview he said, basically, that considering technological progress, mankind should not have to work. In the future, technical solutions will help mankind with tasks and bring them more free time. My question is, why didn’t this work out? Why was this promise not fulfilled?
A: Because the purpose of technology is not to benefit humans, it’s to benefit the technosphere. The technosphere uses humans as moving parts, paying them as little as possible for their services in order to expand its control as quickly and dramatically as possible. So there is really no hope that we will ever gain freedom by expanding our use of technology. We can gain some measure of freedom by limiting our technological choices to essentials that we can produce and maintain ourselves to the greatest extent possible. But we cannot just go with the program and expect it to work out for us.
Q: Interesting. Why is technology destroying jobs?
A: Because humans are messy. The good thing about humans is that, left to their own devices, they make more humans; they breed. Machines don’t breed; you actually have to make them. On the other hand, you have to continue to house and feed humans even after they stop working. That’s called retirement. You can’t scrap them like you can machines. So there are pluses and minuses. Also, humans expect a work week: they can’t work 24/7. On the other hand, it’s easier to grow food than to produce electricity, to some extent, and humans can grow their own food to some extent. So there are pluses and minuses, but on the balance of it the technosphere just doesn’t like humans. It wants to replace us with robots and artificial intelligence to the greatest extent possible.
Q: OK. Mr. Orlov, you also write in your new book that technology can be a fetish and enslave people…making them dependent on, let’s say, smartphones. Is this the term fetish coined by Karl Marx, or what do you mean exactly?
A: No. I mean fetish as in a sexual fetish. People who like footwear, or stockings, or leather, things like that. It’s on that level. You see people, say in public transportation, clinging to their smartphones as if they were some kind of a talisman to ward off evil. You see people fondling their smartphones, and that’s basically a symptom of a psychological disorder, of dependence, an attachment disorder of some sort. If people have their smartphones removed from them, or even if they have to survive without wifi access for a couple of days, they’re likely to become catatonic and sit there and rock back and forth. They’ll need psychiatric treatment after that. So people are coming to realize this and internet access is being treated as a human right. Now, from the point of view of the technosphere, that’s perfect. That makes humans perfectly controllable. All you have to do to get them to stay in line is to threaten to cut off their internet access. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to imprison them; you don’t have to whip them; you don’t have to punish them at all. All you have to do is threaten to cut off their internet access.
Q: That leads me to my next question, because in German we have a word for what you describe in your newest book. It’s called technologie gläubigkeit or wissenschaft gläubigkeit. This means the tendency to neglect the negative social consequences, or to declare technology sacrosanct. Is this what you mean?
A: Well, yes. It’s an article of faith that nobody is allowed to question, that technology is good; that modern technology is better than outdated technology; that more technology is better than less technology; and that every single problem you can imagine has some kind of technological solution. Or, if it doesn’t, then the task is to invent that technological solution. There is never any discussion of the fact that there is already too much technology, too much dependence on it, that we should fall back on strategies that have worked for hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions of years before, because these technologies definitely haven’t hurt us in the long run, whereas the technologies we are using today—because they are modern, they are untested—they could be fatal. They could be very damaging and they could be extremely harmful.
Q: You also speak indirectly about espionage and the military sector because you also mention the use of technology for surveillance purposes, for example. Are you, like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, a critic of these surveillance technologies, or what is your view on this?
A: Well, there are plusses and minuses. If you live in a small village where everybody knows each other and everybody is willing to come to each other’s defense, you have a low crime rate and children play in the street and everybody is happy that way. If you mix people up, if you force them to live alongside strangers in large cities, there’s a lot of alienation, and because of that there is a lot of crime—just because of that, because people don’t deal with each other face to face very well in those circumstances. The solution is to introduce surveillance. It’s not as good a solution as having everybody live within tight-knit communities, but it is a solution. So, security cameras all over the place do save lives, do prevent crime from being committed in bad circumstances. It’s basically a bad solution to a bad problem.
But in terms of population control, surveillance technologies, in terms of suppressing free speech, for instance, in terms of dealing with dissidents and neutralizing them, these technologies are horrid. So, for instance, all of the censorship that is being perpetrated through social media, where just about anything that somebody doesn’t like can be labeled as hate speech, or as bullying, or as abusive, just because somebody doesn’t like it, just because it’s against somebody’s ideology. Now that is very dangerous and very bad.
Q: Next question: Who benefits from technology?
A: Well, first of all, the main beneficiary of technology is the technosphere itself. It perpetuates its own agenda of infinite growth and ever greater control. Humans benefit from technology to the extent that the technosphere finds them useful, so certainly engineers and technicians are privileged. Various other professionals are definitely privileged. Even manual laborers in jobs that cannot be automated or replaced with robots can be privileged, but once they are replaced with robots they’re pretty much completely useless, so the technosphere can deal with them by providing them with alcohol and drugs, for instance, to make sure that they die sooner, and that is the typical pattern.
Q: So Mr. Orlov, the next question, which you told me upfront would be given a broad answer. What role does technology play in economy and trade?
A: It plays a huge role, because at this point there is very little economic activity that happens without, for instance, the use of products derived from crude oil. Nothing moves without products derived from crude oil. There is really nothing green about that and never will be. And so that is a technological process. The technosphere really took off after the discovery of fossil fuels: first coal, then oil, natural gas, nuclear; and it will only continue to the extent that it can while these resources can be exploited. And now that they’re running low in most parts of the world the technosphere has to isolate itself and sequester itself in various promising zones that still have enough resources to keep it alive for the time being. So if you look at world trade, it will be between the parts of the world that the technosphere can still inhabit. And various parts of the world that the technosphere finds useless to its purposes will find themselves cut off.
Q: Mr. Orlov, what do you think of nuclear technology in general?
A: Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a nuclear technology in general. There is, for instance, nuclear technology in the United States. It has around a hundred nuclear power plants. A lot of them are still in use. A lot of them are very old. The United States at this point lacks the technology to safely dismantle them, or the funds to do so. As far as replacing these nuclear power plants, they no longer have the technical expertise to do so, and its latest attempt to build a nuclear reactor has been a fiasco.
On the other hand, if you look at Rosatom, the Russian nuclear corporation, it is well on the way to developing the closed nuclear cycle which will solve the problem of high-level nuclear waste. It will make it possible to burn up high-level nuclear waste in nuclear reactors until it becomes low-level nuclear waste that can be safely disposed of. And on the other hand it will make it possible to use uranium 238 as fuel. Right now it’s being called depleted uranium, and it’s considered useless for most purposes, except maybe making American armaments, because it’s a very heavy, dense, hard metal. But if it is used as fuel, then there are literally thousands of years of fuel available.
So the Russians are building out this technology, and not just in Russia but in other countries around the world—in Iran, in Egypt; many other countries. China is following pretty much the same program with a certain lag, but it can license Russian technology. And everybody else is pretty much left behind. So if you look at nuclear technology, it’s pretty much Russia, China, and maybe France still has some capacity left. Certainly not the United States. Germany has decided to get rid of all nuclear technology and embrace renewables, so now its electricity is six times more expensive than in Russia, making it pretty much a futile pursuit to manufacture anything in Germany. Other countries perhaps have the option—like Egypt—of buying into the Russian nuclear program, or, if they’re hostile toward Russia, as for instance Great Britain has been, they won’t have a chance to do so.
Q: Next question, Mr. Orlov. You wrote about the correlation between technology and medicine. To quote: Ukraine, to give just one example, is now Europe’s breeding ground for polio and measles, which were eradicated while Ukraine remained in the USSR. Could you elaborate on this?
A: Yes. The Soviet Union made a major investment in public health, and eradicated many infectious diseases. The legacy of that is still being used. For instance right now, the plague, bubonic plague, has come back in Mongolia and a neighboring region of the Russian Federation, in Tuva. And the vaccine that was developed by Soviet scientists is being used today to vaccinate the people and stop that epidemic. And there are similar examples. For instance, the Sputnik V vaccine for coronavirus was developed in the Soviet Union in the 80s, and has now been repurposed, basically given a different payload, to develop immunity against the coronavirus.
There are many similar examples of technology being put to good use to save human lives, and a lot of that was done as public policy as opposed to commercial, privatized medicine, which is what, for example, the Americans are trying to do, rather unsuccessfully.
Q: So the next question, and I would ask one more thing regarding the Sputnik V vaccine. You said it was already developed in the Soviet Union. It is now reshaped, or a new version, but the formula is older, from Soviet times?
A: Yes, the technique. It uses the adenovirus, a modified version of it that lacks the ability to replicate within the human body. The vaccine uses the adenovirus as the delivery vehicle. That’s most of what this technology is, and it’s proven, effective, etc.. And the payload is a little bit of the coronavirus genome that’s been chopped out specifically. It’s the bit that generates the spike protein that allows the virus to penetrate human cells. And so the adenovirus is introduced into the body, penetrates cells and releases its payload. The cells then produce the protein—at this point it doesn’t have very much to do with the coronavirus itself except for this one spike protein. That protein then reacts with the immune system and antibodies are generated, which is the end result of the whole process. And since the adenovirus lacks the ability to replicate, it just gets flushed out of the system. So the only new ingredient is the spike protein. It’s not toxic on its own; it doesn’t do anything on its own, really, except trigger an immune response, because the body doesn’t recognize it, which is what it has to do. So that’s the reason that the Russians were able to do this so quickly, and so successfully. Because it’s basically reuse of an existing technique with a slight modification.
Q: Okay. Thank you very much. Coming back to your book, you wrote that the ability to dislodge and then exploit people is a key ingredient in the technosphere’s success. Why is this?
A: Well, because if you have cohesive human societies that take care of their own members, they’re rather difficult to exploit. They tend to be picky in terms of what jobs they choose; they expect to be well compensated for their effort, and they have lots of fallbacks. For instance, if times are hard they can go back to the land, live with their relatives, with their clan, grow their own food and feel perfectly safe. And then if conditions improve they might go to the cities, look for work, etc. But if you run people off the land, if you disrupt communities, if you introduce completely incompatible strangers speaking a strange language into the community, make people afraid of each other, introduce a level of violence—for instance, take people from war zones and introduce them into communities that are used to very peaceful circumstances, you will make people so desperate that they will do just about anything just to survive because they have no fallback, they have no community support, they’re surrounded by strangers—they’re desperate, and they’ll accept anything. So that’s the technosphere’s trick for exploiting people. Disrupt and destroy communities by introducing strangers, and make that community behave not as a community but as alienated, desperate individuals.
Q: Mr. Orlov, what is your conclusion and what will the technological future look like regarding [unintelligible], AI [unintelligible], digitalizing [unintelligible] consciousness. What’s your take on this?
A: Well, I think a lot of it is just fluff. A lot of this fancy new technology is nothing. I think AI and neural net programming is useful for quite a few specific jobs. As far as digital versions of your elderly relatives, etc., that’s a little bit science fiction at this point. I think overall a lot of people will be forced to shrink their use of technology to some extent. Just the economic circumstances will force them to do so. On the other hand it’s a very potent technique: the internet and smartphones are very potent technique to keep people calm and to control them. So to that extent I think it will still be used, but I don’t expect there to be anything particularly outlandish in daily use by regular people. I think a lot of that will remain as propaganda, as technological, techno-utopian propaganda. There’s always plenty of that: there’s always talk of space missions to Mars and flying cars and what have you. That’s just a constant barrage, but that’s just propaganda.
Q: Thank you very much. My last question: do you have a positive scenario, or do you see a negative future scenario? Will it be like the movie The Terminator, or will technology give mankind a positive vibe, let’s say like in Startrek?
A: Well, I think it’s none of the above. We have no choice but to use technology. Cooking food, for instance, is a form of technology. Making clothes out of whatever—out of tree bark—is still technology. So we’ll always have some kind of technology. The question is, what kind of technology will it be? How much of it will be under our control, or not? I think we’ll live in a world that is increasingly agrarian. The amount of energy needed to maintain huge cities is just not going to be available in most places in the world. So the world will be increasingly local and agrarian, but I think there’ll still be some very useful gadgets. So, for instance, the fact that it’s possible to keep an entire library of material on a single SD card is a major breakthrough compared to paper carriers for books. Some of that may persist for quite a while. The problem is that such uses for technology require technology clusters that can produce and maintain it, and the question is in which parts of the world can these technology clusters be maintained. If you look, these will be places that have the entire technological chain, starting with mining and fossil fuel production, on to nuclear fuel production, on to everything needed to maintain an electric grid, everything needed to educate and train people who will produce semiconductors and write software, and all of the support for that. There are just a few places in the world where it’s possible to imagine that something like that will persist for many decades, perhaps centuries.