Sunday, 3 October 2010

Reflecting on Extensions

- we can never escape the bio-technological nexus and get 'back to nature,' because we have never lived in nature - timothy taylor - from the artificial ape p199 -

I've been thesis writing this week, trying to get a chapter sorted before I start a new term of teaching at a couple of universities on Monday. I'm trying to define the word 'technology' with greater specificity than we currently use it, to say that technology is more than just an object which helps us get things done. But, of course, that is still a very important part of any definition of technology. Objects which we encounter in use, objects which we use as a means to an end, 'equipment' in Heideggerian terms, are very often technological things. In the thesis I've described the augmentative capacities of certain objects as 'Extension,' as in such-and-such extends our abilities. I haven't posted anything from my thesis here in a while so what follows is a small selection of ideas on technological extension from a couple of other writers which I've found helpful in shaping an early section of the chapter I've been working on.

Extension, of one kind or another, is deeply rooted in any definition of technology, and also in Heidegger’s notion of ‘equipment.’ When we approach an object with a ‘concern’ or purpose, it is because we are able to achieve something through our dealings with it that we could not achieve by ourselves, or the interaction saves us time or effort (again this is about achievement, of a faster speed, or a less tiring process) - “[t]ools and weapons have been called the 'extra-somatic means of adaptation in the human organism,' enhancing innate somatic (or body) strength beyond what would seem naturally possible” (Taylor, The Artificial Ape, 19). We shouldn’t, however, think of technologies as merely implements which exist outside of ourselves to which we must turn in order to perform a task, but instead as equipment which alters the set of default practices we consider ourselves able to achieve in their absence, i.e. if something changes the practices available to us then it moves toward being considered as a technology; we could not travel at speed without cars and planes, we could not type and print without computers, we could not have hunted effectively without spears nor butchered the catch without knives, and we would not think to do so without these items -
it is not too much philosophy to say that the emergence of technology was and is intimately connected with the extension of the range of human intentionality. Without a car...I could not have intended to go fishing..., given the distance involved; without a stone tool technology, our prehistoric ancestors could not have had the intention to kill big game, or make baby slings…[T]he existence of objects, such as saucepans, not just allows actions but suggests them (Taylor, Artificial, 152)
Marshall McLuhan suggested that media technologies are augmentations (extensions) of our basic discursive apparatuses; the phone, for instance, augments the mouth and ear, the television the eye (The Medium is the Massage). All technologies must extend some aspect of ourselves in this way, whether relatively trivially such as a shoe extending the range of abilities achievable by the foot (covering rough terrain, sports use, etc.), or profoundly, such as the spear’s extension of the hunter’s arm, allowing for an immense change in our prehistoric culture and comestibles, and every change that has been entailed by such a shift. This capacity for extension, or at least our panoply of extensive interactions, is a uniquely human trait: “We alone on the planet seem capable of creating and exploiting such a wide variety of action amplifiers, ranging from hammers and screwdrivers, to archery bows and bagpipes, to planes, trains, and automobiles” (Clark, Supersizing the Mind, 157).
Andrew Feenberg discusses technology's extensive abilities in light of its mediation of our embodiment:
God creates the world without suffering any recoil, side effects, or blowback. This is the ultimate practical hierarchy establishing a one-to-one relation between actor and object. But we are not gods. Human beings can only act on a system to which they themselves belong. This is the practical significance of embodiment...Technical action represents a partial escape from the human condition. We call an action 'technical' when the actor's impact on the object is out of all proportion to the return feedback affecting the actor (come back to this sentence in the 'extension' section). We hurtle two tons of metal down the freeway while sitting in comfort listening to Mozart or the Beatles...In the larger scheme of things, the driver on the freeway may be at peace in his car but the city he inhabits with millions of other drivers is his life environment and it is shaped by the automobile into a type of place that has major impacts on him. So the technical subject does not escape from the logic of finitude after all. But the reciprocity of finite actions is dissipated or deferred in such a way as to create the space if a necessary illusion of transcendence (“Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview.” Tailoring Biotechnologies. Vol.1, Issue 1, Winter 2005, 48)
Technology comes between us and the world so that we can temporarily exert a dominion usually beyond us, diminishing our effort, and coming closer to the work of a God immune to Newton's third law.
Timothy Taylor notes that technology tipped the balance of natural selection for humans:
Although the power of technology today is unprecedented, the tipping point occurred over 2.5 million years ago. The dawn of the technological era is signalled archaeologically by the first stone artifact - a tool or weapon plausibly used for killing big game. After that point, for animals confronted by humans, the characteristics that would ordinarily convey fitness could increasingly become a liability. The process of natural selection and survival of the fittest was undermined. Intelligent humans with weapons could kill whichever animals they liked, fit or unfit, young or old, large or small, and the animals, trapped by the biology of inheritance, had no effective response...[H]umans, at a very early stage, turned the survival - and therefore evolution - of the creatures around them upside down. The fit became targets, the weak survived to be valued as 'fit' in terms of which we are the sole arbiters (Taylor, Artificial, 20)
Technology turned 'survival of the fittest' on its head, with the fittest animals now becoming the targets of smart and well-equipped human hunters; the largest animals, the strongest, the ones with the biggest horns and tusks, the biggest feet, the biggest teeth, were suddenly no more likely to escape than the smallest, and in fact may have actively been sought out as better meals and better trophies. Technology meant that the animal kingdom surrounding successful human hunters was made up of significantly weaker breeding pairs, and the reduction in elephant tusk size, for instance, or of cattle size, is a measurable form of human- and technology-driven selection.
But technology alters our bodies too:
Even in the last 10,000 years (the blink of an eye in evolutionary time), our bodies have weakened dramatically. Over this timescale it can be shown that our stature has decreased by 7 percent: Christopher Ruff estimates that we have lost fully 10 percent of our overall bony ruggedness - our so-called skeletal robusticity - in that time. Over the past 100,000 years, we see a 30 percent overall decrease - not as great as in some of the cattle we have domesticated, but remarkable nonetheless...A more gracile body will need less upkeep, and what it can no longer manage by brute force can be managed with specifically designed artifacts that amplify and concentrate strength: slingshots and spears, levers and bows. These technologies allowed our self-domestication just as they aided our domestication of wild animals (Taylor, Artificial, 28)
Technology, then, extends our capabilities both physically, and in terms of what we perceive ourselves to be capable of. But that extension has weakened our physical bodies over time, and is almost certainly still doing so. Is there a danger of over-extension, of putting too much faith in our technological augmentations so that we end up as over-fragile, bereft without our external props? Or is there really no human life without them? Is the move of power from body to object just the logical continuation of an evolutionary drift begun long ago, one which has made us amongst the most successful species, at least in terms of dominating the food chain, on earth? I think that these questions may be part of why people are often so hesitant to adopt new technologies, the fear that this one may be the step-too-far, that this one is 'playing god,' despite the fact that we've been doing that work ever since we've sharpened stone.

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