Time, Magic and Species-Exceptionalism

Tahiti: It’s a Magical Place

In 1962, Arthur C Clarke published ‘Profiles of the Future‘, a collection of essays about what would happen next in areas like travel and communications. In a general observation he noted that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Buried in the pithiness of the observation is an acknowledgement that time is important; it takes time to acclimatise yourself to new possibilities, new ways to manipulate nature and the world around us. This is not just restricted to the first sight of the motor car, or listening to a gramophone record: it applies to any new and in some way awesome discovery or realisation. In Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Colson repeats the phrase ‘Tahiti – it’s a Magical Place‘, recalling a memory implanted in his brain during some complicated (and poorly explained) resurrection process after he had been killed in a previous escapade. We can all picture in our minds places that have appeared magical – a beach, a forest, a tree at dawn or the sky on a particularly clear night: there is a sense of wonder and amazement as nature in all her glory wakes us from our plodding lives, and says ‘hey, look what I can do!’

Of course, when you go to the pineapple shaped bar on the Tahitian beach and say to the bartender how amazing the place is, how wonderful, how magical it is, he may well shrug his shoulders and say ‘Sure, lady. What’s it gonna be?’ The difference, of course, is time. He has been staring at this same magnificent beach for three summers now, and the tourists are starting to grate on him. The inventor of the motor car sees in his device all of the pistons and cogs and injectors and cables that enable it to function, and not the amazement that greets him when he presents it to a new buyer. I am coming to a position where I don’t differentiate between the two – technology and nature – as they are each the same. Technology is merely a manipulation of nature, a combination of natural elements to produce an interpretation of those elements that is particularly useful to humans in some way. By extension, therefore, the wonder and awe and amazement that attaches to seeing a new technology for the first time is akin to the experience of seeing a particularly awesome thing in nature for the first time.

Our understanding of technology therefore is an understanding of ecology, a constructed awareness of the world around us and of our place in it. It is about environment as much as it is about technology, about getting over ourselves, and this species-level-hubris that insists on some kind of exceptionalism that is entirely unwarranted and self-appointed. As Tim Morton put it at the end of a particularly dismal interview, all that’s left is to shake hands with a hedgehog and disco.

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