What can East Germany Teach us About Environmentalism and Mass Automation?
Posted December 10, 2021
Mario Bianchini, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of History and Sociology, has been studying the Soviet Union since high school, when he noticed that the state’s history only seemed to start after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “But I just remember thinking that can't possibly be true,” he said. “How could nothing have happened for like, 100 years?”
Now, Bianchini is finishing up his dissertation on the history of science and technology in East Germany, where he explored “the state's efforts to build a socialist technological utopia.” A scholarly sounding thesis statement that essentially asks: “What is the final promise of full communism, this future idea that everyone is supposedly working toward?” he said.
Bianchini investigated hobbies, sports, and education in East Germany and narrowed the state’s rhetoric down to two main promises: the complete control of nature and the end of drudgery and routine work. These dual undertakings, he found, have surprising parallels to today’s conversations around environmentalism and mass automation.
Over-reliance on future technology
One of the reasons communism failed was because of “this concept of an over-reliance on a future technology to solve the problems of the present moment,” Bianchini said. “That's something you see today very heavily, especially in environmentalism.”
Communist politicians in East Germany promised their citizens a future technology that would provide infinite energy to their state and heal the damage they’d already done to the environment by burning coal. Nuclear power was going to solve all of the environmental problems in East Germany — until it was achieved. Then, it was not a utopian technology anymore, but a reality with limitations. And the goalposts had to be moved again.
“That's reflected in the way that people talk about global climate change now,” Bianchini said. “Like, ‘oh, we'll build a technology, and then we'll solve it. So, we actually don't have to change our consumptive behaviors now.’” (As people pointed out on Twitter, he added, we already have carbon capture technology: it’s called trees.)
The key takeaway? Act now. “The case study of East Germany shows that [the future technology] never happens,” Bianchini said. “This concept of over-reliance on technology will always shift its definitions and will never actually come to pass, because if something's attributed to the future, you can always change its form to fit exactly what you need.”
Grappling with mass automation
Bianchini said another interesting parallel between the East Germany of the past and the United States today is the idea of mass automation.
Similar to environmentalism, there were promises in East Germany that everything would get automated and workers would be free to pursue poetry and art and leisure. Today, the narrative is similar to the promise of driverless trucks, automated data entry, and cashier-less stores. “But if that's the case, then how is capitalism going to continue to exist?” Bianchini asked. “Like, no one is getting paid. There's no one to exchange money on the market. It doesn't make sense anymore.”
But unlike in East Germany, mass automation has moved beyond the theoretical today. So, we should be careful not to treat it as such, he cautioned. “Part of the reason why 5G was pushed so hard is because it has the frequency and speed that automation needs to exist,” Bianchini said. “We actually have to grapple with this stuff because it is coming. Maybe it won’t happen, but you have to treat it as if it would because otherwise, you will be completely unprepared.”
Exploring the past to define the future
The School of History and Sociology seeks to explore the past, engage the present, and define the future, something Bianchini does succinctly in his work. Looking at the way East Germany answered, or attempted to answer, the same questions we’re grappling with today on mass automation and environmentalism can help us chart a course for a better future — if we learn from them, that is.
“One of the things people have described as the grand tragedy of the Soviet Union is, whatever you feel about it, good, bad, whatever, the fall is a tragedy in the sense that it acted as an alternative to capitalism, and now that's gone,” Bianchini said. “As [science fiction author] Ursula K. Le Guin described it, utopia is impossible, but we'd be stupid not to strive for it. We need to get back to this concept of a better future. Otherwise, we are as doomed as everyone says, because nothing will ever get better because no one believes that it can.”
Bianchini’s dissertation is titled “‘Real-Existing' Utopia: Creating East German Technological Culture 1945-1989.” His work has also been published in “Technology’s Stories” (Women on the Right Track: Integrating Women Into the Communist Technological Utopia), “German Studies Review” (Theoretical Soldiers: German Economists in the Cold War), and the “Yearbook for Historical Research on Communism 2021” (German-language).
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