Towards Liberatory Technology

This text is intended as an opening for the constructive discussion about development of liberatory technology (as coined by Murray Bookchin in his writings1) in the realm of European anarchist movement and its kindred spirits.

If there is one single question this text struggles to answer, it is „How to develop a technological component of a free society, to support prefiguration of confederated and freedom-oriented communities?

If there is one single goal of the travel that begins with this text, it is formation of a Special Interest Group to discuss and coordinate all technology developments done by its members, within the anarchist movement and beyond it.

1. How we define technology?

For the sake of this article I will define technology as a set of skills and knowledge concerning the way people (individually and in society) interact with their material and immaterial (information, energy) environment. As such, the technology is a part of social ecology, developed by Murray Bookchin. The liberatory technology, thus, is the specific area of technology (and the approach behind it), supporting freedom-oriented and confederative society in the spirit of anarchism and Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism.

2. Governance Economy Technology

We may (and here & now we will) see every sociopolitical model as an aggregate of three defining areas of organisation.

  • Governance defines the ways the decisions are taken an implemented.
  • Economy defines the ways the matter and energy circulates within society.
  • Technology, finally, defines the ways the society interacts with its environment, shaping it – and being shaped in the process.

3. Political importance of technology

bucky-fuller-memeTechnology is the outcome of the ruling sociopolitical paradigm and at the same time is one of the tools to replicate and develop the very same paradigm.

While „master’s tools” can „dismantle master’s house”, its unlikely they would build a house of of radically different shape. That is exactly why we need to create and develop technology essentially supporting free society, and to replace the old set of tools with the new one.

Liberatory technology (LibTech) can be both the tool of revolution and of evolution. Even in the most destructive applications it retains continuity of human culture. This dialectical usefulness makes it a bridge between disruptive and constructive aspects of anarchism.

4. What technology do we need?

It is not just about specific solutions. It is also about general way the technology is being developed, spread and implemented. While the nuclear power-plant itself is highly un-liberatory, even a distributed solar technology, based 100% on long distance import from China and protected by the law of „intellectual property” does not do a lot of liberation either. So we need to consider all three aspects.

4.1. Design and Development: Appropriate2

I am borrowing this term from (still capitalist and hierarchical in its core) thinking of E.F. Schumacher. The aspect I want to remix into LibTech is „small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled”. All these requirements are fundamental, if we want the technology to support the social ecology, not to contradict it.

However we have to remember that – in the popular understanding – appropriate technology was developed as another incarnation of the „white man’s burden” – in a more or less paternalistic way. So, while we accept its technical specification, we should avoid referring to it as an ideological construct, as it inherently lacks two other, equally important, elements.

4.2. Proliferation and improvement: Open and Participatory

The concept of „proprietary technology”, protected by the „intellectual property” law (backed up by the violent power of state) is one of the founding elements of modern capitalist and hierarchical systems3. Ownership is one of the main forms of dominations. It has two aspects: in a capitalist sense it secures the stream of „passive income” – money one is being paid for doing nothing, just for being the owner. In a domination sense it gives an owner the right to bar everyone from using one’s property – be it a word, a shape, an idea or a thing. And there is no reasoning needed – the ownership is essentially about blocking access to the property.

So, if we want to avoid replication of the domination system in and through technology, we need to avoid proprietary a.k.a. „closed” technologies. Instead, drawing from the experience of the „open source” culture4, we need to create a domain of open technologies, being available publicly and without payment for everyone to use (implement), analyse & comment, modify and spread. The only requirement is so called „contribution to the upstream” – every modification of such technology should be documented and made public on the same principle as the original5.

Having the technology opened, we will make it a part of universal social life, as much as the governance and economy. It is very important that we do not assume the technology creation to be reserved for the specialists anymore. Open technology means equal participation in development and modifications. It is not about the social status or formal education. It is about quality of solutions.

4.3. Implementation: Empowering

But still, even open and appropriate technology may be used to oppress people. The „magic sauce” here is in the way we put it into practice, implement and use it. And this has much more to do with the social and political control than with the technical solution itself. Eventually, the community itself is responsible and accountable for the way technology is used in their life. Outsourcing it is like outsourcing the governance or the economy – it is to outsource the freedom itself.

So, whenever we think about liberatory technology, the critical question is always: how this particular use of technology influences the levels of resilience, sustainability and empowerment of the community in question?

5. Computers and the Internet – it’s complicated
and complex

Very important example of technology that is not really appropriate, closed in a big part, but still possibly liberatory (and definitely necessary for liberation) is the whole realm of ICT (informations and communications technologies), which we popularly perceive as computers, smartphones and internet. The history of global computer networks is a history of non-stop power play between forces of hierarchical domination (first the U.S. military complex, then governments and transnational corporations) and the tech community – the real makers of the Internet6. The resulting mixture, pretty unstable at times, is surely the most important tool of liberation we have in our hands. Not necessarily per se, as there is a possible way to go for Luddist, primitivist approach, but as a powerful countermeasure to protect our freedom from relentless attackers. So, even as using it means using proprietary solutions, implemented in the devices manufactured in China by our sisters and brothers in oppression, there is still strong reason to use it for the liberation purposes, not for fun nor indulgence.

5.1. Knowledge pool

While writing this very text, several times I was checking sources, refreshing my memory and getting inspiration from the people far away – in time and space. Without internet, this process would take weeks or months, if it would be possible at all.

The pool of knowledge, available online, is immense. Most probably, 80% of technological solutions we may strive for, are already developed and documented, at least in general, somewhere in the Net7. They may not be open, they may not be appropriate, but they are there. So the only problem is to find and fetch a proper document and start testing the solution in practice.

Consequently, the major challenge is searching the information and verifying its credibility in practice.

5.2. Intelligent devices

There are two – although non-liberatory at the moment – areas of technology that make our struggle much more likely to succeed. It is the material engineering and microcontrollers. Creation of new materials, very often possible to be easily reproduced and improved, once the general principle is known – and the ability to add tiny bits of intelligence to almost every device, every contraption we may create out of paper, bamboo and chewing gum. That intelligence, that we can program and reprogram as we wish, makes our constructions adaptable. Lessen amount of energy and matter needed to adjust them to various – and variable – conditions. Makes them more compatible with our thinking – and with the world. Thermostat, remote control, solar panel controller or computerized medical micro-lab – they all give us a leverage, like a „bicycle for brain” – they do not provide more functions than we have in our minds, but they extend our minds in time and space, giving us more influence on the world.

5.3. Communication

The bottom line of that all is communication. Passing the content in time (archiving and retrieving it) and space – from one entity to another. The complex way the social processes seem to be extended beyond direct surrounding. Awareness of occurrence on the other side of the world. The emotional perception of events which – otherwise – would remain unknown.

Communication gives us the ability to organize, to coordinate, to cooperate in a systematic way. But, through it elaborated structure, it also drains our energy and sometimes diverts our focus towards the very act of communication. McLuhan’s „medium is the message” mutated into „there is no message but medium”, Facebook being the most notorious, while by no means unique, example.

Communication replacing action – with liking, sharing, up- or downvoting, retweeting, commenting and forwarding – is the most typical threat of the Internet, but not the only one.

5.4. The Apparatus

There are some quite obvious threats coming from the fact that we use technology way beyond our control. We become vulnerable – any kind of embargo can destroy our ability to act. From the electromagnetic pulse, burning all electronic devices around, through „Internet kill-switch” down to daily control and reglamentation of resources. We become accountable – by using products of the most drastic oppression and exploitation. We become more addicted to to the system of capital and money – buying hardware, software and services necessary to keep it operational. We become controlled, surveilled and spied upon – by using obscure tools, which sometimes follow the hidden agenda of their authors or their masters.

Vilem Flusser, Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, April 1991
Vilem Flusser, Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, April 1991

All these threats can be summarized in one synthetic concept of apparatus, coined by a philosopher Villem Flusser8. The apparatus, which Flusser depicted as a metaphorical automated camera. It is a descendant of classic cybernetic „black-box9”, only slightly less obscure.

Flusser’s apparatus is an embodied agenda of its creators: constructors, programmers, managers and owners of the whole realm that it emerged within. Left in a fully automated mode, it needs a human operator (Flusser: functionary) only to „point and click”, so the embedded algorithm processes the outside world according to the wishes of the apparatus’ masters10.

But then Flusser introduces some very important dialectics, or even mulilectics, as he writes:

There are, then, two interwoven programs within the camera: the one moves the camera to produce images automatically, and the other permits the photographer to play. Other programs, however, are hid-den beneath those two: the one composed by the photographic industry (which has programmed the camera), another composed by the industrial complex (which has programmed ‘the photographic industry), another composed by the socio-economic complex) and so on. Evidently, there can be no such thing as an “ultimate” program for an “ultimate” apparatus, because each program must have a meta-program above it. The hierarchy of programs is open towards the top.

The openness of the program hierarchy gives some maneuver space for the human user (photographer).

Power has shifted from the owners of the objects to the programmers and operators. Playing with symbols has become the power-game, and it is an hierarchical game. The photographer holds power over those who look at his photographs: he programs their behavior. The apparatus holds power over the photographer: it programs his gestures. This shift of power from the object to the symbol is the true mark of the “information society” and of an “information imperial-ism.”

Flusser essay is not very long and it is worth reading for everyone who seriously thinks about the technology and society in the contemporary world. And its conclusion provides us with a very important impulse.

Thus, the task of a philosophy of photography is to question these photographers about their freedom, and to investigate their search for freedom.

This is precisely what this essay attempted to do, and several answers did appear in the course of our investigation: One, that it is possible to outwit the stupidity of the apparatus. Two, that it is possible surreptitiously to inject human intentions into the apparatus program. Three, that it is possible to force the apparatus to produce something impossible to see in advance, something improbable, something informative. Four, that it is possible to hold the apparatus and its products in contempt, to deviate one’s attentions from “subjects” in general and to concentrate on information. In sum: Photographers seem to be saying that freedom is a strategy by which chance and necessity are submitted to human intention. In other words, that freedom “equals playing against the apparatus.”

If we look at the problem of using complex technology – like Internet, computers and the rest of the hi-tech environment – from the perspective provided by Flusser, it gives us certain options reaching beyond simple Luddist trash-it-all reaction. If we deal with the technology, we cannot quit using complex systems. Flusser suggests a mindset, which may keep us sane and in control, which is good enough to make his views valuable.

6. The road to technological freedom

Technological freedom (we are rather at the beginning than the end of of establishing its definition) may be described as the situation, when we understand or at least control11 technological processes that serve our individual and social needs.

Except for natural limits of the world (and ourselves), we accept no obscurity, no constraint of knowing technology imposed by any human being. It is as simple as that.

Does it sound extreme? It is just the same condition we expect economy and governance systems to meet. Even in the mainstream world hardly anybody tries to restrict access to trade „secrets” or copyright a contractual solution. Much often it happens in the area of governance, but it is generally frowned upon (not by the beneficiaries, of course). The only area where we meekly accept such secrecy is technology. It is about time to reach for this knowledge, too. And I do not mean an infantile „explain me like I am five”, but honest, equal for all access to information12. This is exactly what „openness” of technology means.

The freedom is more a continuum than a state of things. Asymptotic goal – absolute freedom – can and has to be pursued on every plane: political, economic and technological. In practical struggle, I would support the modified utilitarian formula: the highest level of freedom for the largest number of people, as equally in every area of social life as we can achieve.

6.1. We are all technologists

The phrase „price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, popularly attributed to Thomas Jefferson13, is still valid, whoever actually coined it. In technology area it has a form of continuous „peer review” of new or improved solutions. Originated in the open source software movement14, it provides a way to test, analyze and continuously improve all elements of technology. To keep it working, at least certain elements are needed:

  • The technology (and its „background”) must be known wide enough to make enough people interested in the review.
  • The „contribution to the upstream” has to be respected. The very review is such a contribution, but it also concerns the „patches”, fixing problems possibly detected during the review.
  • The technology community has to be civil enough to avoid or quell all personal conflicts that can (and often do) arise as an aftermath of an unfavorable review.
  • The effects of a review – forks, upgrades, patches and new implementations – have to be quickly and efficiently disseminated for the next cycle of review.

As we see, broad participation is crucial for this system. So, for the liberatory technology, it is not just about openness – it is about participation. As much as we expect people to be active in their neighborhood assembly or in their food cooperative, we expect them to be active technologists: testing, reviewing and co-creating new solutions.

6.2. Hackers FTW!

Dialectics, pervading the Universe, also created a figure of hacker15. With the emergence of complex technologies, apparatuses, also an „experimental photographer” appeared in the form of computer hacker. As the most of our technical surrounding grew complex, hacking – which is about winning the game against apparatus – also grew beyond (obviously) computer related areas. With a grim dawn of „Internet of Things”, hacking will become another necessary survival skill.

The role of a model hacker is to deal with limitations, whenever they occur. Differently than a scientist, hacker focuses on the practical results. His goal is to push apparatus beyond the limits intended by its owners. Hacking, then, appears to be a practical, technological expression for the pursuit for freedom. As such, it is an attribute of every human being. Hackers, as we know them, exist in a dialectical tension between the cult of meritocratic hierarchy16 and protest against hierarchy-imposed limits of apparatus.

6.3. Interdependent technological ecosystem

Both openness of technology and hacking as a way to deal with imposed limits serve mostly to enlarge the area of „negative freedom” – a vernacular space of potentiality. To exercise the „positive technological freedom” we will be creating technological ecosystems, matching the features of environment with our needs, within the paradigm of social ecology. Exactly like a living ecosystem, various technologies support, substitute or tame each other. Their components and products enable further development and trigger new inventions. If kept under control of community, they will work for it, not against. OSE-steam-machine-product-ecologyThe interdependent system of relationships between technological solutions is called „product ecology”. Here is an example of such ecology, depicted by the Open Source Ecology team.

As usual, there is also a need for a reserve gene pool – in this case, some „unproductive” technologies have to be kept alive and even being developed in case of need. Be it a natural or man-made disaster, or just a massive shift of circumstances, we need to be ready to react and adapt. Thus, we always need groups of hackers, doing impractical and dangerous things. They constitute immunological system in the area of technology – able to react quickly and fend off a danger as it emerges. If we manage to keep the community in such a dialectical balance, we are highly likely to survive and prosper no matter what17.

7. Practical approach

Theoretical, or just a bit general reflection is necessary to keep us aware of the direction we are bound. But technology is about material world, so let us try to outline possible solutions in certain critical areas.

In this section the sustainability and technological efficiency of technological solutions are taken for granted. The point I am trying to make is to show the social impact of technological choices.

7.1. Housing and space arrangement

A living space, providing shelter, privacy and a set of basic amenities, is among the most fundamental material needs. Liberatory Technology aims on developing designs, materials and skills needed to build (individually or in community), appropriate housing structures. Very important resource to be used in this process is the traditional, local knowledge. Building traditions (usually this part of cultural heritage is fairly well preserved, at least in the material form) are connected to the local climate, natural resources and social patterns.

Thanks to new (or rediscovered) materials and technologies, we have ways to build houses with minimal involvement of commercial services. The revival of communal work, rooted in tradition of many cultures18, open technology education and participation, all together give us the power to create new living and social space.

The way the space – living space as well as the shared, communal one – is arranged, has also strong impact on the dynamics of social life. Public areas, wide pedestrian lanes, communal gathering places, open terraces and front yards – they all encourage social contacts and help people interact.

The whole knowledge behind „liberatory architecture and urbanism” is vast. Luckily, there are more and more anarcho-architects who do it, devising new tendencies, strongly supporting liberatory technology ideas.

7.2. Food & Water19

Second only to air, food and water are critical for individual survival. Their scarcity is also the strong factor, breaking social relationships in case of drought or famine. At the same time, the decision how to manage the production and distribution of these resources is deeply political. Due to the deep, atavistic reactions, whatever way is chosen will shape the basic social relationships in the community. It has to be taken into account, especially if the community is supposed to produce its own food in a substantial amount.

For the cooperative community that we aim to build, all effort should be made to make the water and food acquisition and distribution systems efficient, easy to operate and simple. The easier the work, the broader can be the participation of the community. And it has direct influence on the community spirit. Also, if the knowledge of food & water technologies is widespread, the community is much more resilient and also can split in case of need without serious threat to the resulting smaller groups.

7.3. Energy

Contemporary energy infrastructure is – by design – one of the most oppressive systems20. Whether we talk about power grid, fossil fuel logistics or even photovoltaic installations, they are all strongly dependent on remote sources of materials, maintenance or management. Especially overwhelming addiction to electric power makes this dependence strong.

If we want to apply liberatory technology in this area, we have to start from the consumption side. All devices in an average household, let alone a workshop or public building, should be audited and redesigned in case of need. Depending on particular situation of a community, there may be an abundance of various forms of energy (thermal, mechanical, solar light) and various opportunities to convert it. In general, heat, light and movement of engines DO NOT have to be powered by electricity. We can direct daylight through various forms of optic channels. We can generate strong light through the chemical reactions. We can generate heat from easily renewable fuels, from sun, from geothermy. We can generate and store mechanical energy as compressed air or huge masses of stone or water moved up. Electricity can come from the sun via photovoltaics, but also from the thermoelectric elements, heated by a stove. Finally, it can be generated in electromagnetic dynamos, powered mechanically, or even through chemical reactions – in so called flow batteries21.

So the thinking of a liberatory technologist will be focused first on changing the structure of energy consumption in the community to meet locally available sources. In the second step, then, (s)he will try to apply the most liberatory solutions available, to produce energy fulfilling the restructured demand.

Another factor will be the maintenance knowledge. Following the principle of participation, majority of community members should be able to keep the energy systems working and in good condition, and possibly perform less serious repairs.

7.4. Health

The plant, animal and human health is the most intimate of technology areas. It is largely appropriated by „professionals”, discouraging us from taking care of ourselves. Traditional knowledge largely vanished, or at least got buried under the pile of trash. Only recently, as the global crisis progresses, more and more valuable information starts surfacing.

The Herculean work for liberatory technology in this area is to create a knowledge base of medical (again – in respect of humans, animals and plants) solutions, to be available as a static resource, but also interactive (remote consultants) and training system. The components are available, but the major challenge is to put them together and make them work.

What we need is a decentralized, interactive and adaptable equivalent of famous „Barefoot Doctor’s Manual22which was a cornerstone of the success of Maoist army campaigns in 1930s and later and also foundation of modern Chinese health care system. The health technology knowledge should be as widespread and in the community as every other kind of skills.

8. Summary

From this brief review we may build a picture of community, where is much less specialization, much less compartmentalization – be it in the area of economy, governance or technology. Community members are expected to acquire certain minimal awareness and skills in every aspect of communal life and are encouraged to go beyond it. If one is strongly inclined towards peer reviews, pushing the limits and dangerous experiments, the role of local hacker is always available.

The workload, scopes of special competences and all other aspects of technological culture in the community will be governed the same way as every other aspect. Participation and equal access will make it easier for everybody.

Borromean_Rings_Illusion_transparentA community which is strong in technology will be also stronger in political and economic sense, The three rings, while not directly intertwined, support each other, as long as they are all in place.


open-hardware-ELIf this project is too radical or too theoretical for you, I invite you to take part in a modest attempt to integrate refugees help activity with the solidarity economy in Greece. That is also a political project, but much more open-for-everybody and down-to-earth. See it at: http://anabasis2015.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/greeks-refugees-resurrection/


3 See marvelous description of uses and abuses of this mechanism described by David Bollier in „Think Like a Commoner” http://www.thinklikeacommoner.com/ (also available online).

4 Open source is mostly known as a way of producing and developing computer programs. In fact it is much broader area, including information content (Wikipedia) and physical constructions (Arduino, Open Source Ecology).

5 As we operate within mostly hostile capitalist and statist surroundings, we have to draw the line, to avoid abuse of technology, especially to prevent possible appropriation („enclosure”). Unfortunately, the only practical way is to use the very same state law. That is why I suggest to use the Creative Commons licensing system, which is the least invasive and still efficient. CC-BY-SA is a legal framework „for those who obey law”, efficiently enforcing the same behavior on the state turf.

6 The history brilliantly told by Nicolas Mendosa in his seminal essay „“Life in a Network for Survivors: The Thermonuclear Apocalypse and the Protocols of Freedom” https://nicolasmendo.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/life-in-a-network-for-survivors-the-thermonuclear-apocalypse-and-the-protocols-of-freedom-published-at-p2p-foundation/

7 For the remaining 20%, I am sure, there are relevant research papers available (in a technical, if not legal, sense), as the development could have been abandoned as not marketable.

9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_box

In Flusser’s view: „A well-programmed camera can never be wholly seen through by any photographer, nor by all photographers together. It is, in the largest sense, a black box. It is precisely the blackness of the box that challenges the photographer. It is true that he loses himself within it, but he can dominate it nonetheless. He knows how to feed the box (he knows its input), and how to make it spout photographs (he knows its output). The camera does what the photographer wants it to do, although the photographer does not know what goes on in the interior of the black box. This is the central characteristic of apparatus. The functionnaire dominates the apparatus through controlling its exterior (input and output), and is in turn dominated by the opacity of its interior. In other words, functionnaires are people who dominate a game for which they cannot be competent. Kafka.

10 Considering the camera (or any apparatus, for that matter) from such an angle, we can see that it is meant to produce symbols. It produces symbolical surfaces according to some prescription contained within it. The camera has been programmed to produce photographs, and every photograph is the realization of one of the virtualities contained in that program.” V. Flusser, ibid.

11 Actually or potentially, without a need for 4-years studies or joining a closed guild of any kind.

12 It is not just about an administrative or legal limits. It is also about price, sometimes prohibitive, that is put on the access to the knowledge. Usually it is also a hermetic language, understandable only for „peers” of the author and the manner of excessive citations and external references forcing a reader to study hundreds of pages just to understand the concept of a 10-page article.

15 In a very universal sense, hacker also means someone who makes things work beyond perceived limits in a clever way in general, without necessarily referring to computers.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_culture

17 Except for a planetary disaster, of course. Do not worry, there are procedures for that, too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Terminal_Event_Management_Policy

19 Including food processing, food preservation and also waste water treatment.

20 In pre-war Syria, for example, no town of Kurdish majority had its own power plant. They were all supplied from neighboring Arab settlements. The same applied to deep water wells (and water treatment plants) or grain mills.