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Nader Shows Real Byte in His Campaign Against 'Techno-Twits'

September 04, 2000|GARY CHAPMAN

If you were to compile a list of the Americans with the most influence on technology in the last 40 years, Ralph Nader might not be on it. But he should be. Nader, of course, is running for president and he still has a lot to say about technology in contemporary America.

Nader actually began his career writing about technology, when he burst upon the national scene with his 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed," a withering critique of the auto industry and General Motors in particular. He followed that with campaigns against nuclear power, pesticides, dangerous drugs, workplace hazards and, most recently, Microsoft's monopoly. Nader hosted the first national conference on Microsoft as a monopoly; the Justice Department filed its case a few weeks later.

In his presidential campaign this year as the Green Party candidate, he is aiming his formidable rhetoric at massive corporate power and the rampant commercialization of American culture, including the political process. "Most Americans don't realize how badly they're being harmed by the unchecked commercialization of what belongs to the commonwealth," Nader told Harper's magazine this month.

"Technology follows corporate power," Nader told me last week. "The vast bulk of our federal R&D [research and development] spending is to serve civilian corporate interests or military institutions. We need a much broader public debate about the purposes of technology and the harm of technology.

"Only when you have a small democratic context do you have the right context for discussing these issues. In a corporate or government environment, you always get a distorted discussion," he said.

Nader noted that whenever the "technological faithful" get together, which is often, their discussions about technology are "always a plus, never considering a subtraction. It's like the GDP [gross domestic product]. Everything is a plus in the GDP, never a minus--pollution, crime, workplace injuries, these are all missing."

Nader said, "Even within the computer [and] Silicon Valley framework, there's this obsession [that] first you have computer hardware. Then you get computer software. Then you get software upgrades that you don't need but have to have because your equipment won't communicate without the upgrade. Then you get viruses. Then programs to combat viruses. Then you get magazines about viruses, and computer conventions about viruses, and so on.

"We keep backing up and backing up, instead of focusing on, 'What is all this for?'

"There are certain technologies that are very important to human beings and the planet that are subordinated in every way to the glamorous and lucrative technologies," he said. He contrasted solar power with the mania over the Internet and telecommunications. "It would be far better for the world if solar technology were promoted more than telecommunications technology. Which is the most important technology? Solar tech doesn't get any press, any public support, Clinton and Gore don't fly to 'Solar Alley,' and so on," he said. Federal support for renewable energy research is lower now, even in the face of global warming and crushing oil prices, than it was in 1981, when President Carter left office.

"Our culture fosters a technology because it happens to be a moment in time when it makes a lot of money," Nader said. "This spawns a lot of stories about mega-millionaires and their lifestyles, lots of glitzy conferences. Are we advancing technology for its corporate power sake or for people's sake?"

Nader is at his most controversial when he says there's no significant difference between the Democratic and Republican parties these days. He has called his opponents, provocatively, "Gush and Bore." He told Harper's magazine, "When people tell me that I'm wrecking the Democratic Party, I ask them, 'What's left to wreck?' "

In the technology policy area, he's right. There's been a subtle but profound transformation of what we call "technology policy" in this country today. Now, when journalists ask either the Gore or Bush campaigns about their positions on technology, they're pointed to billionaire advisors from industry. "Technology policy" has become synonymous with what industry wants: tax relief, more foreign workers, no regulation and support for research that industry doesn't want to fund itself. The reason both parties have abandoned any idea of technology in the public interest is clear: They can't afford to lose access to the money the industry wields.

On the tech industry, Nader again pulls no punches. He says the industry is dominated by what he calls " 'techno-twits': people who just push technology for profits or their own personal gain, or people who just talk tech because they're fascinated and obsessed with it. They're far removed from the question of 'Quo vadis?' [where are you going?]."

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