Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Very Human Technology

- if you said to me, you can either have your toes cut off or your whole library destroyed, with no chance of ever accessing those works again, i'd say 'take my toes' - because i can more easily compensate for that loss.  of course, you could get into a grisly argument over how much of my biology i'd give up before i'd say, 'ok, take the goethe' - timothy taylor -

Whitney Trettien recently tweeted an article which applied Andy Clark's notion of humans as 'Natural-Born Cyborgs' to Medieval research.  I've been thinking and writing about technology a lot recently, particularly as to how it applies to our common mode of being, and the article's full of great insights into how Medieval 'technologies of the self' (Foucault) were utilised, and might be considered under the rubric of Clark's work.  It's great to see more philosophically and scientifically informed work emerging throughout the humanities, even if the 'neurological turn' doesn't seem, to me, to be a particularly useful concept.  Neurology is too narrow a specificity for the humanities in general to focus on, and we shouldn't settle for only drawing on work in that field, there's too much good stuff elsewhere, in the sciences and just about everywhere else.  It does seem, however, that the time for a pure disciplinarity is justly passing.  It's not that there is no value in specialising - there is, and it is vital to bringing something of real worth to any debate -, but that horribly pat phrase "it's outside my discipline" should surely cease to be a justifiable defence of an unwillingness to engage with a wider intellectual community.  Not knowing about, or even having heard of something is, of course, fine, but a blind belief that then means it's not valuable really isn't. /rant.

Anyway… One quote from the article particularly stuck out:
The late fifteenth-century European humanist Jacobus Publicius's Art of Memory (the first edition of which was printed in Venice in 1482) speaks of memory (by which he means trained memory and its associated memory-practices) as capable of transforming us from "mute beings, incapable of speech…into skilled and eloquent speakers" (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory, 232).  The theory of locational memory is the means, he assures us, "by which the advantages of nature are strengthened and the endowments of natural ability are augmented" (quoted 236).  And Publicius trusts in science to deliver this enhancement: "It has already been established by experiment that the combining of letters and material objects [images] brings us a great, immeasurable, and almost divine advantage" (quoted 249).
The compatability with Clark's work is obvious, and this chimed with the direction my own thought had taken: that technologies of all kinds, including spoken language and writing alongside tool and weapon use, contribute to a nature which we might consider to be definitively human.  Jacobus Publicus might privilege the written word and the image in granting 'divine advantage' over beings which did not possess them, but Plato before him had denigrated such (in the Phaedrus) in favour of the dialectic, the 'true work' of the philosopher, and this pair's combination of language, writing, and a particular mode of thinking is to say nothing of societies which have deployed and deploy signifying tools such as dance to express things which words cannot, nor any of the myriad of more physical, complex and mundane, technologies that are utilised around the globe, and at all times, to extend the abilities of the human body and mind.  Technology on such a broad definition, I thought, is an absolute of our species unlike any other.  I wasn't trying to suggest any inbuilt homogeneity, a preordaining genetics, instead only that our tremendous diversity stems from our ability (which is both genetically viable and culturally provoked) to look around ourselves, at our environment and culture, and divine what might aid us in our goals, and when nothing fits that bill to create something which will.  As Clark says in a later work: “We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding” (Clark, Natural-Born, 11).  This explains "why we humans are so deeply different from other animals, while being, quite demonstrably, not so very different in our neural and bodily resources" (4).

And I was relatively happy with such a notion.  But a book coming out next month, The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor, seems like it might contribute to my having to reconsider technology as a mark of 'the human,' and instead lead me to say that technology isn't just something we do, nor something which defines us, but something which made (and makes) us.

My only experience of Taylor's ideas come from a couple of interviews, so I'll use quotations from these to give a sense of his ideas as I know them (there'll a follow up post after the book I suspect):
So you are saying that technology came before humans?
The archaeological record shows chipped stone tool technologies earlier than 2.5 million years ago.  That's the smoking gun.  The oldest fossil specimen of the genus Homo is at most 2.2 million years old.  That's a gap of more than 300,000 years - more than the total length of time that Homo sapiens has been on the planet.  This suggests that earlier hominins called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools.
Is it possible that we just don't have a genus Homo fossil, but they really were around?
Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo.  I'm trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence.  The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.
"These tools were not ends in themselves, they were for doing things, like butchering animals, and, perhaps, for making things, such as slings.  The loop of hide that makes the simple sling can not only scare away a predator with a stone, it can be used to carry.  And the most critical load for a little, savannah-dwelling biped to carry would have been its own infant progeny."
"Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling - it doesn't matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year.  You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo.  We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos.  Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb - they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling."
"Many previous theorists have imagined that hominin young mothers, rendered helpless by their offspring, must have been desperate for base-camp provisioning and protection.  Both could have been provided by an incipient hubby/ape-man, whose innovative skills allowed the emergence of language (communication during the hunt) and technology (tools of the hunt).  Roll on 1950…[B]ut if we can imagine for a moment that females are inventive too, then the fix, [baby-carrying slings] might be considered more technological than social."
"By solving a carrying problem for a bipedal ape, this invention – made, I believe, by an australopithecine female with little more brain power than a modern chimp – opened the way to our becoming human."
Getting tied into neurology and, to an extent, phenomenology is what led me to think of technology as a 'human' thing, as items which we devise, the aptitude for which defines our species.  But Taylor's work, I hope, has triggered a more nuanced conclusion: that technology is not what marks us out, but what makes us us.  We are not human because we use technology, but human because we couldn't be without it; there is no human without technology, and there never was.  No human created the first technology because 'technology' doesn't describe objects we create, or even ways of thinking we establish; from our first breath, the way we encounter the world is through and because of technology, and it seems this may well always have been the case.


Whitney said...

Interesting nuance! Am wondering now if this flip -- technology making us humans that make technology -- might analogously help work through the relationships between print, idea and societys (print making ideas that make print?).

You might be interested in some of the work my partner, Philippe Verdoux, has done in this area: Particularly this and this.

cryurchin said...

That's what I'm finding with this looking at technology in general that I've moved toward recently, it all stemmed out of looking at reading technologies and realising that the vocabulary isn't quite there to do it justice, you need to look at the wider issue of technology first and establish your position there. If humans are products of technology which also produce producing technology then there's a symbiotic loop there that you'd expect to be played out at the micro level of our daily affairs, in print, in computing, in dancing, in poetry, in tool use, whatever. When we make something which we can bring on board, but which affects us when we bring it into ourselves, then we're seeing something which has defined us since we were us. Our own culture has certainly had a massively influential print history, but I wonder if this is because print is a dramatically affective technology, or if we made it an affective technology, or if certain technologies are more able to affect, but need the cultural environment to reach that level (my hunch). There's a discussion in Does Technology Drive History? where Richard Bulliet talks about printing not taking off in Medieval Arabic culture, and the failure of different modes of effective yoking and harnessing of animals, particularly camels, to spread across cultures that came into contact with them, and could have benefited from them. The technologies have the capacity to be profoundly effecting, but they have to find the right strata in which to produce effect.

Thank you for the links to your partner's work, damn you're a talented pair! His work looks fascinating, I'm really looking forward to going through it properly tomorrow.



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