Sunday, 8 August 2010

Work in Progress

- Prometheus

I swept the dirt out of the corner, and there, in a small pile of dust, movement.  The moth beat in my hands like a panicked mouse heart as I walked to the door to put him back out into the world, and all I could think was: I’m 26 and I’ve never held a moth before.

“SOCRATES: They say that there dwelt at Naucratis in Egypt one of the old gods of that country, to who the bird they call Ibis was sacred, and the name of the god himself was Theuth.  Among his inventions were number and calculation and geometry and astronomy, not to speak of various kinds of draughts and dice, and, above all, writing.  The king of the whole country at that time was Thamus…To him came Theuth and exhibited his inventions…[W]hen it came to writing, Theuth declared: ‘Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of Egyptians.  I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.’  ‘Theuth, my paragon of inventors,’ replied the king, ‘the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it.  So it is in this case; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function.  Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources.  What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.  And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality…And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.” - Plato, Phaedrus, pp95-97

I’ve been thinking about technology a lot recently.  Not just digital reading technologies, but technologies in general.  I think I’ve been trying to work on a phenomenology of technology if I’m honest, which is even more scary to put down in words than it is to contemplate.  But how are we meant to write about the effects of iPads and Kindles when that word, ‘technology,’ encompasses the hammer of a stone-age hunter, Gutenburg’s printing press, Karl Benz’s automobile, my mobile phone, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN?  What could possibly link all of these things?  And should they be linked?

“Men have become tools of their tools” - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 61

Because I’m writing about the resistance to the digitisation of reading, contested ground if ever there was any, I want to know why there is a constant discourse of fear about technology, when the only thing that I can say with any certainty is that humans have technology at their hearts.  We can look at the lives led in any human habitat, by any nomadic or settled people, and from Inuit tupiq to Bedouin bayt char, from favelas to penthouses, the single defining element of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence is the use of equipment to ensure our thriving survival.

“Emerson, who had once embraced invention and the ‘mechanic arts’ as expression of ‘Young America’s genius and vitality,’ grew increasingly restive” - Merritt Roe Smith, Does Technology Drive History?, 26 - “What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better?  ’Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended.  Here are great arts and little men.  Here is greatness begotten of paltriness.  We cannot trace the triumphs of civilization to such benefactors as we wish.  The greatest meliorator of the world is selfish, huckstering Trade.  Every victory over matter ought to recommend to man the worth of his nature.  But now one wonders who did all this good.  Look up the inventors.  Each has his own knack; his genius is in veins and spots.  But the great, equal, symmetrical brain, fed from a great heart, you shall not find.  Every one has more to hide than he has to show, or is lamed by his excellence.  ’Tis too plain that with the material power the moral progress has not kept pace.  It appears that we have not made a judicious investment.  Works and days were offered us, and we took works” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, Vol.7 Chap. 7, ‘Works and Days

The resistances most often stem from two related arguments: (i) using technology is ‘unnatural’ (ii) technology gets between us and experiencing the world ‘as it is,’ an unwanted mediating layer that we would jettison if we could.

“Machines were not so much to save time as to save dignity that fears the animate touch.  It is miraculous the energy that goes into inventions here.  Do you know that it now takes just ten minutes to put a bushel of wheat on the market from planting to selling, whereas it took three hours in our colonial days?  That’s striking.  It must have been a tremendous force that would do that.  That force is fear that robs the emotions: a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have contact” William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain, pp182-183

But what if technology is at the fundament of our nature?  What if technology was one of the few ways we are able to experience the world?  What if we need technology in order to feel, rather than in place of feeling?

“The body is our general medium for having a world.  Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing.  Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world” - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 169

With a moth in my hand I get a taste of what it’s like to touch the world.  But the same happens when the surfboard suddenly picks up speed and the sea gives you just a hint of what it can do.  And the same happens when cars push around corners just so, at the limit of their tire’s grip.  And the same happens when I want these words to appear on screen, and the keyboard seems to take them from my hands, not my head, and flicker them up before me.  It is our bodies that give us access to the world, our bodies that are our ‘nature,’ but those bodies are malleable things, a combination of gross anatomy, and mental kinaesthetic image, and into that synthesis can be incorporated(.pdf) the tools which we skilfully deploy.  Plato told us that writing was a ‘receipt for recollection’ and not the path to true wisdom.  I wonder how many resisted the hammer, or did it sit too easily in the hand?  Do we resist the things we must conform to as much as they conform to us?  Or is complexity what’s at stake?  Because a violin is a complicated piece of equipment, with limited tolerances for error, and yet it is evident that it is incorporated into the body of the skilful user: music moves too fast to consciously make decisions on where to put your fingers, every motion must become as easy as breathing.  How does the word ‘technology’ take on all this, and so much more?  Every interaction with equipment, are they all technological?  Where do we draw that line?  And how?

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