Dublin in The Rare Old Times, by Pete St. John, is a beautiful and poignant folk song about Dublin, its history and change. It’s full of pathos, remorse, and nostalgia, a story told by an old man whose identity has been overtaken by time, and made redundant. It’s also a story about technology and its impact on people and culture, and how the architecture of a city can redefine its people.
The song opens with remembrances of heroes and about the city, and the history that is embedded in the walls and structures that made up Dublin – but that is gone now. Memory, it seems, is all that is left. The narrator – Sean – remembers a girlfriend he lost, and a job that became irrelevant as technology made barrel making (coopering) an unnecessary trade. His old house was replaced – by ‘progress’, he says – a word dripping with resentment. His house was a fine house it seems, it served him well, but some external force, some outside actor decided that it would be in the interests of the city, of the society, to have it removed.
Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.
On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.
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!’
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.
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.
One of the most important and yet overlooked elements of the technology of our civilisation is the city. The roads, the bridges, the buildings the utilities – all of the mechanisms that allow humans to live in very close proximity at great scale, for mutual benefit. Cities developed not merely because people wanted to live close to each other for social reasons, which has always been the case (though not always in such numbers), but because humans needed to be close to economic resources. The design and architecture of our cities has been an immensely political function, allowing the planners to organise our societies according to their preferences and judgement.