Novus Ludus, Part I


WHILE CONTEMPLATING this era in which we live, it is easy to conclude that every single of its defining features is essentially problematic—each a riddle to be solved. Yet we who live in this time are very far from being competent and keen, nor even very willing, Oedipuses. Indeed, taking that august story from first to last, I should even say we have endeavored to turn the fable on its head: for we have plucked our eyes out long before confronting our Sphinx. We do not know the problems of our time, save in the most superficial, involuted, and insignificant, of ways. Our fears are all sadly concrete, and bespeak a haunting lack of imagination and vision. Here we are suffering indeed from that curse to beset the blind: the cause of our troubles is precisely our inability to have adequately foreseen them.
      There is a host of questions indigenous to our time and to this land of the spirit in which we live—grave and frightening questions which test not only our wit and our ingenuity, but also our consciousness, our awareness, our independence, our courage, our good cheer, and perhaps above all our will not to fade away as a race, and finally be forgotten. For make no mistake of it, the possibility exists today, for perhaps the first time in these recorded histories of man, that he should at last prove the inexorability of his mortality. We are a people upon the brink. And among the many troubles to beset our troubled epoch, that question which stands out as perhaps the most pressing of all is the question of technology.
      I say that it is the most pressing; I do not say it is most profound. It is in the end a practical, and only very deep down a philosophical, problem. It does not for all that cease to be an important problem: indeed, it remains one of prime importance. For while philosophy is rightly the contemplation of questions nobler and grander than those which tend our pragma, nonetheless philosophy remains that which one may practice only after certain merely practical questions have already been answered. But we scorn those questions, when we do not take them for granted. We act as children—if impressively precocious and sophisticated children—and have been doing so long enough that the eleventh hour has passed us by, almost unbeknownst to us. We haven’t the time to learn what we must learn to save our souls, unless we are able in some way first to shed our habits and our pretensions.
      One could well ask the source of my urgency. I will endeavor to state the problem as clearly and sincerely as I may, but the difficulty of this task shall not be altogether in the clarity of its presentation, so much as in awakening my readers to its raw existence.
      That technology has developed with a staggering and a near-impossible velocity since the Industrial Revolution generally, and since the latter half of the twentieth century particularly, is, of course, a commonplace among us. Each of us has heard it again and again, and in all likelihood has seen, for example, some chart or graph in which “the figures” are presented to us in so many lines and curves, all precise and exact to science, if somewhat barren to imagination. Not one of us can claim ignorance any longer of the ways in which this technology demeans the planet upon which we live—though the more stubborn among us might dispute the extent or the danger of its damage. Nor can a single one among us pretend total blindness toward the horrifying possibilities of warfare and terrorism that emerge thanks to this technology. Yet I am not writing as an environmentalist; the battle for the cleanliness of the globe on which we all must still perforce dwell, though it is an important battle, is not my own. Nor am I writing as a concerned citizen—one who loses sleep each night, or likes to pretend to lose sleep each night, over nightmares of nuclear holocaust or human cloning or bio-machines. Again, denying nothing to such causes as these, that for the sake of which I am writing seems to me even vastly more important, and of a greatly higher rank, though it is by no means as practically urgent and necessary. I am perhaps writing as an American in the tradition of Thoreau—which is to say, in the best, long-forgotten sense of that word “American.” For it has been Americans to lead both the modern revolution and many of the profoundest responses to the same; and from a certain notion of justice, it falls now to the Americans either to account for what we have done, or to expiate the sin of it. I am writing, if I may beg the brief of it, as a new luddite, and a lover of the human spirit.
      There is a growing anxiety as to what our technology is even at this moment doing, not just to our human bodies, but to our human souls—if I may take the liberty of expressing myself in a way no good scientist would ever permit. Today one can hardly get through two editions of any given popular periodical without stumbling over an article on this or that study, suggesting this or that ramification of technology on health, mental and physical. But as of yet, despite their growing frequency, these reports remain but glimmerings on the face of a vast and darkened gloom, and so it happens that we must find our way here by our own lights as best we can. For science has not even caught up to itself sufficiently to account for what it has already done. We are like those first men to whom Prometheus has brought fire; but our Prometheus, alas, is no far-seer, no prophet, and surely no philosopher, and he cannot begin to tell us what this fire might do for us, nor how it might burn.
      The metaphor is chosen deliberately. Even as fire, our technology is a thing of great use and great potentiality, coeval with its destructive power. It is, as we have also been told with all the irritating insistence native to bromides, a “double-edged sword.” It would indeed be a fool’s errand to try to prove that technology—a thing which has developed by dint of the most ruthless pragmatism—is without any legitimate use. But I would claim—nay, I do claim, and indeed insist on the claim—that this use will be just and rational, only insofar as the user himself is just and rational. But we of today, into whose hands this power has fallen, are basically irresponsible, and so we cannot help but wield this power irresponsibly. And what is most hideous and terrifying about our plight, is that while our irresponsibility ensures the irresponsible use of technology, the irresponsible use of technology, because of the nature of technology, can do naught but augment and promote our irresponsibility.
      What is most dangerous about our view of technology, is that part of it which we merely assume and never speak aloud: namely, that its virtues are known to outweigh, or at least to counterbalance, its defects. Consider even that bromide, of the “double-edged sword”: a sword is a weapon, one may presume, with two equally sharp blades. In the very concession we seem to be making to the perils inherent in technology, we have tacitly presumed an equality of power to produce, in a word, good and bad results. But this supposes that we have already weighed on our scales exactly what we have to win and what to lose; that we have played Zeus, or better yet Justitia. I hope it will be forgiven me if I do not muster sufficient optimism to think that we possess even half the self-awareness required for such balancing as this. Further yet, I beg forgiveness for a claim which will seem even less sympathetic than the last: that our age possesses no self-awareness to any appreciable degree at all. It is not our technology that I fear, but our ignorance. We are in the bizarre position of being better informed, and more deeply ignorant, than any past epoch of which I am aware.
      It is time we gained a little self-knowledge, if we would preserve ourselves.

Techne and Nature

THE STRENGTH of the claims which I have just made begs a degree of defense on their behalf. Yet I shall hold off until some latter part of this essay. For now I beg my reader’s tolerance, and ask that we for but a moment presuppose this fundamental lack of modern-day self-awareness. If we prove wrong in this, so much the better for us; but we can lose nothing by adopting a temporary humility. I would like to begin before anything with a question to which we all believe we know the answer, and which we are perforce unlikely in general to ask: I want to ask, what is technology? Not in any technical sense, but in the way that we use this word day to day: when we speak of technology, or complain of it, or drop its mention in some passing way, or boast about epoch’s superiority in it—what do we mean by this word?
      And I think that a moment’s reflection will reveal to us that with this word, as with so many others, like love, justice, and beauty, it is decidedly easier to indicate to examples, than to furnish an adequate definition. Yet I want to point out that this is already an immensely peculiar fact, already a fact demanding of explanation—for the vast majority of words which possess such an indefinable character are “abstract,” while technology is in the main “concrete.”
      But we will return to this. Let us begin our investigation of this word, as is only befitting, with the common definition which we are taught as children in school: technology is applied science. As a schoolboy definition, it does its task admirably: for how official, how tersely thorough it sounds! And yet at the same time, how “technical”! Indeed, quite technical enough to obviate any embarrassing questions, either from others or from ourselves, about what it might mean. It does the job, that is to say, of most truisms: it gives the comfort of knowledge where one has not even tried to guess.
      Very well—applied science. But applied to what? Applied how? Certainly when Maxwell took the findings of Faraday and applied them to his own theories and discoveries, or when Spencer applied the insights of evolutionary theory to politics and society, this was not technology. Yet surely it was also in a primary sense applied science. When we are speaking of technology, it seems we must be speaking then of a different kind of “application.”
      How then when a farmer takes insights from the fields of biology or meteorology or geology and adjusts his crop-rotations to achieve maximum yield? Yet this, though obviously applied science, cannot be considered technology by any definition save the most technically stringent. It is certainly not the spirit in which we commonly speak the word. Nor when a man changes his diet to accord with some conclusion of the science of medicine: nor, for that matter, do we habitually call medicine itself technological, neither in its pills nor its syrums, its vaccines nor its nostrums—even when these be produced by eminently technological processes, or be descended of eminently scientific sources. Yet I do not suppose that anyone will be so bold as to deny that in all these cases science is being applied to problems in order to derive its ingenious, and usually ingenuous, solutions.
      One might be tempted to reply that these counter-examples are all abstract, while technology, as we have noted, is in the main concrete. It may be, then, that technology is the production of the concrete application of science. But this does not bear out, for it is only in the main that technology is concrete, as the example of the internet suffices to demonstrate: for the internet, like some fabulous invention of a hyperbolic science fiction, or like Hegel’s World Spirit, is at once nowhere and everywhere, bodiless and constantly embodied.
      One may well respond to this that we have taken the technical definition of technology, as used by scientists and engineers, and have opposed to it the common usage of the word. Yet even if we admit the legitimacy of this, there remains the fact that this very division suggests two different concepts standing behind a single word. Of these two, that which interests us is the one conjured by the popular use—the one which infiltrates and inflects our daily lives. It is that technology for which the given definition hardly suffices. If we are rightly to understand our situation, we are in need of better.
      I would like to propose the following, with the understanding that it be provisional and in need of specific revisions, one of which we shall presently discuss: technology is the production, through scientific theory, of mechanical replacements, likenesses, analogues, extensions and augmentations of human functions. I would like to express this also poetically, for we shall later have specific need of such a formulation to help us see with clarity the ways in which technology fails us: technology is an artificial macrocosm, a man-made homunculus; technology is an artificial man.
      What I mean when I speak of “human functions” are all those potentialities and abilities of the human being that are meant or employed for specific ends. Permit me to furnish examples, which will, I think, best express my meaning. Walking I take to be such a function, the general purpose of which is to provide locomotion from one location to another; its analogue and augmentation in technology is the bicycle, the car, the plane, the train, etc. It is no accident that each of these means of transport bears marked resemblance to the animals of the world and, as it were, takes its inspiration from them: for each of these is, I say, nothing but an attempt to improve on the natural function of locomotion. Thus the car has in general four, and not three nor five, legs; thus the plane resembles a bird, and the helicopter ever conjures the dragonfly, and the train the centipede, etc. As for “two-legged” machines of this kind, let us not forget the bicycle, as well as that absurd device known as the “Segway,” which these days has invaded the streets of certain European cities where it manifestly does not belong—a kind of rolling platform with some tourist inevitably mounted astride like the proud emissary of our time and its aims. Now, I would suggest that all of this superficial resemblance between machine and animal is more than superficial, and that it is moreover inevitable. It could not have been otherwise, because the very instinct at the root of technology is not at all to create that which is not and has never been; the very instinct at the heart of technology, is mimicry and mastery. We moderns are characterized, and have been since the work of Machiavelli, by a lowering of expectations: technology is the inevitable manifestation of this lowering.
      But let us returning to our definition of technology, and let us dig up yet other examples: the microphone is an extension of the human ear, the telephone, of the human voice; the super-telescope and the atomic microscope both augment the human eye almost beyond all imagining. Photography, television, and film all are extensions of human memory, and in a certain sense also of his spacial dimensions, insofar as they permit him to be where he is not. The equipment of excavation and construction are great improvements upon man’s physical prowess, and act as herculean limbs in place of his own. Solar panels, nuclear power plants, and coal engines are like extensions of the human stomach, which consume the inedible, and transform it into raw energy. Even so excessive, and immediately impractical, a machine as the “Hadron super-collider” is finally nothing but a super-subtle augmentation of man’s ability to manipulate objects, as well as the vision with which to regard these manipulations. And the internet, the world of the computer—the ever expanding realm of the “digital”—these are nothing other than the accumulated analogues that we have fabricated to duplicate or better the functions of the mind—our rationality, memory, fantasy, etc. And the reason that they, alone of all technologies, possess their strange double-nature—the reason that a computer is divided into hardware (brain) and software (mind)—the reason that the internet (consciousness) cannot be placed physically, and has no body whatsoever, is that they are mirrors of the human prototype.
      “Playing god” is a perilously imprecise way of describing what we are doing to ourselves and to the world; it represents a fundamental misunderstanding. We are merely toying with what the gods have given us.
      There is a special feature of this definition which we have touched on, but which I would like to emphasize: technology, even as the human functions which is emulates and seeks to surpass, is end driven. It is deeply and irreversibly utilitarian, in the sense of providing the human being ability to attain some practical purpose. It is never an end-in-and-of-itself; taken out of the context of what it can help us to do or to attain, it becomes immediately meaningless. A cable car on a deserted isle is as empty a husk as the world has known.
      Very well. So far we have spoken for the “intention” of our definition; it remains to consider its “extension,” which shall be found at once flawed. For let us take up an example from the distant, not-so-distant human past: let us consider the watermill; and let us ask, is this technology? Surely, it is a mechanical extension of a human function: it is an expression of his brute force and bodily power. Yet I think there is something a little odd about calling it technology; or rather, by the technical definition of technology known to scientists and engineers, it is unambiguously technology, while to a person raised in our modern day and living naïvely amidst technology’s latest frenetic productions, barely would deign to call the watermill technological. One might call it technology, that is, in the same avuncular and concessionary way one might call a monkey a child, and with the same overtone of metaphoric condescension. One really does not believe that this watermill, churning quietly in the gentle stream of some pastoral or bosky countryscape, is technological in the same way as, for example, a satellite, a computer chip, a helicopter, or the latest cellular phone. Then let us take an example nearer us: is a lightbulb technology in the same way as this cellular phone? Or the earliest computer—can the earliest computer be considered an instance of technology even today?
      There is something remarkable lurking here: for there is a way in which these objects, which each would in their days have been instances of technology avant-garde (or “cutting-edge,” to speak with our moment-obsessed generation), is today only technology in a distant and ghostly way. I even find myself tempted to call it primitive technology—aye, even the earliest computer, with its monstrous mainframe that was large enough to have housed a man, and its somewhat neanderthalic appearance. Compared to today’s most commonplace calculator there is certainly something a little primitive about such a grotesque beast. But how thoroughly revelatory, that we might take a word generally reserved to speak of our most distant ancestors and their ways, or of the earliest and simplest forms of life in general, and apply it to something was developed a paltry half-century back! That is the speed at which we are moving; that is the haste we are in. But where—but where are we going?
      There are two inferences I would like to draw from this point. First: technology exists on a kind of spectrum, in which its latest developments are constantly being pressed backwards by its yet most recent. A flashlight is minimally technological; a watermill almost not at all; and a knife is merely and nearly unambiguously a tool. Now, the critique to be made of the definition I have provided of technology is that it yet includes any and every tool, every odd hammer, nail-clipper, and pencil-sharpener, in the same category as space ships and atomic bombs; yet no matter what the scientists might think on this point, it is difficult to imagine any common conversation which seriously referred to a hammer as an instance of technology. And I would like to predict that, as long as our hurtling “progress” is permitted by means and mores to continue, we will see a trend of yesterday’s technologies becoming less and less “technological” to our eyes, until they have finally, like the coal engine or the handloom, joined the base ranks of mere “tools,” or at best the museum displays of “prototypes” and “early machines.” Technology contains in its very meaning this time-intoxication, this obsession with the present-most and newest and ephemerally best. Technology includes in its very meaning the idea of transition and continual development; it is the spiritual compliment to the democratic being, and it is a kin-concept to death itself.
      The second point I take from the observation above can best be approached aesthetically. Come back for a moment to our watermill milling tirelessly on its wooded stream, and ask yourself if there is not something in this image itself which belies and confounds our very notion of technology. Approach this question, if you will, thus: imagine a room, in which are a number of chairs and tables and desktop computers; already, one can see, we are a deal more “technological” than we were on our hilly plain. Let us paste the walls of this room with monitors, dashboards, buttons, knobs, switches, &co—how much more technological! But place these same items of “high-technology” in our forest scene in the place of the windmill, and suddenly one has before one’s inward eye a bizarre and contradictory image. Nestle that mainframe amidst the blackberry bush, pin that gauge to a boulder, implant that instrument panel into the trunk of a tree—aye, even raise up, if you will, a glittering supercomputer where the windmill has stood, and let it function, too, and glow with its kind of inner “life”—is this not an image, if not of monstrosity, at least of a certain weirdness? I would argue that the reason for this clash of aesthetics is not merely that, in general, one tends to find technology in cities rather than woods: trees lining a city street, or a houseplant in an office, do not strike us as so curiously out of place. The reason is rather that technology is of specifically human provenance, it is entirely a human thing, and only by farthest derivation a natural one. The human being himself is the sole link between the world he is given, and that which he has made; remove that link, and what one has left are two worlds floating side by side and, as it were, formally interpenetrating, yet holding nothing in common between them, and with no point of true connection except their merest physical underpinnings.
      The origin of the instinct which leads the environmentally-minded and the wilderness-lover to regard technology with mistrust and suspicion—and often enough also fury, scorn, avoidance, and outright loathing—the origin of that instinct, I say, is to be found here; just as the instinct which leads the city-dweller more and more to resent and shun the incursions of nature into his world, come it in the form of insects, or disorder, or tree roots splitting the sidewalks. Gone is the day when one could resolve the tension inherent here through the construction of some civilized wilderness, some garden which expresses the fullness both of the vital world beneath us and the orderly and cultivated one above; we have crossed the line, before which alone such sane measures would have been permissible and meaningful.
      We are speaking, to be sure, of “matters of taste”—but let us refrain from stopping short at this observation as good relativists, or even as good moderns, would. What we moderns call questions of “taste” form the very crux of wars and the very pith of revolutions; it is taste which defines the morph and mold of a society, and it is taste which measures out its desires and its dreams. There is simply a gap between those who love the aesthetics of the “technological world” and those who prefer instead the “natural world,” even when these people do not themselves admit it, and it would be well for us to attempt to understand this difference, and to address it as fundamentally as we may. For we cannot simply leave the matter at “diversity,” granting each person the right to pursue his own vision of things as he sees fit. The moment is fast upon us when the disagreement between these two tastes, the battle implicit between them—which at present represents a rift in our society and also in our very souls—will have to be settled in favor of the one or the other, because each vision seeks a world which can only exert itself to its final consequences, in exclusion of the other. The question is which shall be dominant in the new epoch now beginning.
      For the insight we have been preparing in these reflections is this: technology, as opposed to art, is not meant as an improvement on nature, just as science, as opposed to philosophy, is not meant as its complement: technology is the audacious attempt to replace nature with artifact; it is a necessarily reductive act of man-as-god, and has always been so, even when it seemed its most modest, its most unassuming.
      We must seek in the sequel, then, to understand precisely in what this substitution consists, and what its likely ramifications will be.


Continue to Novus Ludus, Part II.

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