The High Church of Technology has made a pronouncement, as is the business of major world religions, on the goodness of novelty. The new, the upgraded, and the shiny are to be venerated, while the old, the obsolete and the dusty are for the defeated and the underprivileged of our species. All buy the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface! All shun the Blackberry, and the desktop computer. It’s not just a technology thing, it’s a capitalist thing, of course; it’s difficult to separate the two these days. It’s all a far cry from the origins of silicon valley in the cradle of the counter-culture, and the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of anarchist tooling up of people to enable them to defend and articulate their personal freedom. Perhaps it’s an irony, perhaps a betrayal of a more fundamental human inevitability, and maybe, deeper still, the ultimate realisation of the Protestant ethic: it may be that technology binds us to fate far more than it liberates us, because of the choices that we have made. As Ken Cukier has put it, what is at stake now is the whole notion of human volition.
And yet in reality, technology is defined more by its age than its novelty, by its persistence rather than its change. It is often the case that people today see history – visceral history – in terms of technology: old castles, preserved ships, bronze age weapons. Technology is the portal through which we can engage with history, across the ages. When we hold in our hands a fragment of Minoan Greek pottery, we are transported back 3,000 years, touching something that a person touched so long ago. Technology is an ability to trap and shape nature – its elements, its materials, its matter – in a form that is resistant to the winds of time, that can survive the erosion and decay that is an essential part of nature. Nature itself, on the contrary, is always renewing itself. The leaves on the trees are new every day, the clouds in the sky form completely new configurations every second, while the waters of the oceans churn and spew and reconstitute themselves seemingly in perpetuity.
Tim Morton‘s concept of hyperobjects (whose book of that name, incidentally, arrived on my desk this morning – will review at a later date, in conjunction with Ian Bogost’s deliciously titled Alien Phenomenology) – things massively distributed in space and time relative to humans – is useful in considering the futility of current technological ambition. That ambition, of course, is towards dominion over nature itself, including mortality (see biotech, or cyborgs for example). Yet time, and a basic inability of mankind to see beyond immediate returns – immediate in the sense of months and years – undermines any attempt to build a better place for future generations. The same is true more obviously perhaps in the climate change debate, which is in a sense a gift to this generation: a visceral realisation has dawned upon the world that decades, and centuries of short-termist technology choices have undermined the human contract with the planet. Our ecological chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak.