Life out of balance

A little over two years ago (how time flies!) I did a review of the final part of the “Qatsi” trillogy – Godfrey Reggio’s seminal nonverbal films which captured spectacular visual images of the world, accompanied by an equally stiring score by Philip Glass. Looking back at these highly thoughtful and provocative works (including others such as Baraka) when I saw a piece written by said director I thought it was about time for some reflection…

By any measure, we live in an extraordinary and extreme time. Language can no longer describe the world in which we live. With antique ideas and old formulas, we continue to describe a world that is no longer present. In this loss of language, the word gives way to the image as the ‘language’ of exchange, in which critical thought disappears to a diabolic regime of conformity – the hyper-real, the omnipresent image. Language, real place gives way to numerical code, the real virtual; metaphor to metamorphosis; body to disembodiment; natural to supernatural; many to one. Mystery disappears, replaced by the illusion of certainty in technological perfection… [read on].

Can you see where this is going? Yes, without even noticing it have we have fallen into our own self-created Matrix by which we have insualted ourselves from reality through technology? Sounds far fetched? Perhaps, but in a world where we have had to re-invent organic-this and eco-friendly-that surely a few alarm bells should be ringing?! Perpetuated by cheap air travel the world may be a smaller place but at the same time travel will become pointless when everywhere looks the same as everywhere else. Just take the UK as an example – every city has the same shops etc that distinguishing between them becomes positively hard. Globalisation? Techno-fascism? Has technology replaced/overwritten nature? You tell me!

N.B. I’m not arguing either way, just presenting a topic for reflection.

Comments

  1. David says:

    Hi Henry, glad someone replied to this even if it is over 2 years since I posted it!

    If anything it appears the technological onslaught continues to accelerate even faster than before – I'm still divided about the future implications of this as the positive and negative effects are a very mixed bag.

    To be honest I don't see any way out of it, short of a catastophic failure of some sort. As part of this revolution I'm wouldn't really want that either but certainly some consideration needs to be given to the man-machine dependance.

  2. Henry Swanson says:

    That nobody has posted anything in response to your question since '06 should tell you at least a little about our Western relationship to technology. That we've willingly brought the techno-ticket (or at least been sold the idea that Tech = Good) and now we're stuck on the ride. I'm not really sure we would even want to jump off at this late stage – even if we knew how.

    Perhaps the mere fact that things like the Internet even exist, is already a sign that we've all strayed a little too far from the Garden.

    Hmmm. Perhaps the need to switch off the tech, is really the evolutionary urge to switch off our own selfish egos for good..

    Take it easy

    Henry

    PS. Small note to the shiny happy coldplay metrosexual hipster latte crowd: your new mobile phone is a lifeless lump of toxic plastic made in a Chinese sweatshop, not a social movement.

  3. Radicalsingularity says:

    I currently am having my University students read this. We are doing a section on Culture. I would suggest Focualt’s book Discipline and Punish. I also think that a good read would be Machine fetishism Value and the Image of Unlimited Good

  4. Radicalsingularity says:

    The grip of technology has the United States firmly held in oblivion. We must seek to educate those lost to its power. However, ultimately it is just a tool of the forces that seek to dominate us all.

    Read “The Formation of Intellectuals” by Antonio Gramsci
    Read FSTR by James Glick
    Read “Hic Jacet” by Robert Harrison (note: this appeared in Critical Inquiry 2001
    Read “Putting up the Gates” by Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder
    Read “Power of Words in War Time” by Robin T.Lakoff
    Read “the Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” by Harlan Ellison (found in Deathbird Stories)

    Society has lost its way, and maybe it always has been lost, to the lure of the gods that call to us throughout the ages. Currently, the gods of business and technology lure us (those uneducated many) to walk the halls of ignorance relegating us all to shadowy functions of the system itself.

    One master is switched for another throughout the ages and we bow and scrape with servile glee to do its bidding. There are, however, a few a very few who do not seek to be controlled and dominated. We are the educated people. We are the true individuals. We are the grit in the machine that hums with freedom and joy. The rest…they suffer on the lathe of heaven.

  5. albatross says:

    The idea that we are slaves to technology is outdated, outmoded, and overly conservative. Heidegger was saying these things in the 1930-40s, and it is perhaps no coincidence that he was an active Nazi party member. Not that I’m suggesting that the previous posters are Nazis, of course, but merely that they have been taken in by the doom-and-gloom narrative pervaded by our tabloid newspapers (and even our broadsheets) that technology is an evil faceless monstrosity determined to rob us of our humanity and our connection with nature.

    What these views overlook is that technology has always been present throughout human existence, from the wheel to the pen to the house to the PC. Technology today is not different quantitively from those old technologies we might consider ‘quaint’ or even ‘natural’. There is no more technology in our lives today than in those golden yesteryears, it is just technology of a different kind.

    Even more than this, if you take the time to read something by Donna Haraway, Robert Pepperell, or Katherine Hayles, you will be encouraged to consider (as I do) technology and humanity not as separate, antagonistic entities, but as the same thing. Haraway writes, ‘The machine is not an it […] the machine is us’ [Haraway, ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), p. 180]. Their view is that technology and humanity are synonymous – never in history has there been an example of the one without the other. Haraway concedes that technology (particularly information technology) has been largely funded by the military, but she does not believe that these dubious origins must dictate or limit its future potential: ‘the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism […] but illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential’ [p. 151]. Rather, she sees technology as providing the opportunity for subversion, as the cyborg (she argues that we are all cyborgs in that we are all inextricably linked to technology) allows us to disrupt and deconstruct traditional boundaries which have limited and oppressed us. ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’ is the defining text for a movement known as posthumanism, which is the answer to humanist scepticism and technofascism. It does not see technology as something which removes us from nature, nor as something which will control and enslave is; posthumanists see technology as natural, as progressive, as subversive. It is not anti-human, but reimagines the human as an integral component in an interconnected, complex system. In this system, human, technology, and nature all exist cooperatively, interdependently, and equal.

    In the end, technology is whatever we make it. If we decide that it will destroy us in one way or another, then it will. But if we open our minds to the possibilities of Haraway’s cyborg utopia, then the possibilities for beneficial technologies are endless.

    • David says:

      Firstly, thank you for spending the time to write such a detailed response. I’m very impressed by your analysis but am afraid that my reply be far less academic!

      I think the phrase “cyborg” was long ago demonised by popular culture though films and books (e.g. iRobot, Terminator etc.) so is now inexplicably linked with negative predictions about the future of technology.

      While advances in technology have undoubtedly enhanced our lives in countless ways I still think there is room for the argument what the further we move away from our original humanity (our “natural state” if you like) the weaker our connection to is becomes.

      It’s scary to think that today many children don’t know where what they eat comes from and have no notion of life existing without the persistent connection to the internet. If it were to fail we’d be in a right mess…

      • albatross says:

        Thanks for your thanks! And for your reply. This is an interesting debate 🙂 (even though it is 4 years old…)

        Some science fiction portrayals of future “cyborg” technology is often dystopian, I agree, but I would argue that those versions of the future come from the same paranoia that is expressed by the above posters, and there are many others that do not share this view. However, in the case of ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Terminator’ I’m pretty sure these are artificial intelligences, not cyborgs. A cyborg is specifically the blend of human with technology (so anyone who uses reading glasses is a cyborg; arguably anyone who wears clothes or works with tools is also a cyborg). Also, in the case of ‘I, Robot’, at least, Asimov was working in the 1950s so his writing is imbued with the popular fears of that era – remember the US and Russia were in the middle of the cold war, so any new or imagined technology was inevitably seen as threatening and warlike. I’d like to believe that we can think more progressively these days, rather than be hampered by our fears – but then again, perhaps terrorism and global warming have simply replaced cold war/nuclear anxieties.

        In response to your second point, that we have moved further away from our ‘original humanity’, I’m afraid I disagree completely! Firstly, the idea that there is an original, transcendent ‘human essence’ is one that has been disputed and argued over in philosophy for centuries. Recent theories such as poststructuralism argue that there is no such thing, and I would agree. If there is one, what is it? At what point in our history do you think such a thing existed? I would argue that the idea of a human essence or an original humanity is simply a romanticised nostalgia for an idyllic past that never actually existed. Every generation of humanity has created new technologies, so every generation experiences the same worries that we are experiencing now. There has never been a point at which humanity and technology were not symbiotic – in fact, it would be more reasonable to argue that the advancement of technology is exactly that which makes us human. Any abandonment of technology in the name of fear would be the same as the book burnings and witchhunts that took us into the dark ages.

        What we need to be wary of is those who use the technology, how it is put to use, and what kind of environmental implications it has. I believe it is possible to have a breed of technology which does not damage the environment, but could even enhance it – and would not take us further from our ‘humanity’, but allow us to better explore and understand our role in the universe.

        Technology itself is neither good nor evil; this is determined by the people who use it. If we are going to be afraid of anything, it should only be ourselves.

        As for your final point:

        I think this could easily be addressed by giving our children a decent education. Technology doesn’t necessarily have to exclude everything else; I grew up with the internet and supermarkets, but I’d like to think I could survive (just about) without them. It is an issue, of course, that if we rely too heavily on technology then we will be in trouble if it stops working, so I agree that it is important to educate our children and ourselves on the basic matters of survival should something catastrophic happen. But I don’t think this is specific to our present condition – this is something which should have (and, to an extent, has been happening) for centuries.

        But, to quote ‘Firefly’, I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t try to have it. That kind of attitude won’t get us anywhere…

  6. David says:

    Yes, “original humanity” is basically whatever you make it and for most people this will be some idealised picture from their childhood of “simpler times”. When I was born people had cars, tv’s and land-line telephones. Nearly all information exchange was verbal or written/typed on dead trees. My grandparents didn’t even have this so their reference point is even further (and so on).

    Technology is symbiotic but I would argue that the technological revolution we are experiencing has greatly amplified the complexity of our lives with both good and bad side effect. This differs from the past in that the speed of our development is much faster. Whereas the industrial revolution took decades to be realised on mass, todays revolution is being realised day-by-day by people worldwide. I revel in these changes but in the back of my mind I do worry that we may be loosing our identity to faceless machines. In the search for better lives we’re rapidly consuming our planet and the technology becomes a screen between us and the planet. As you point out how we use it is ultimately determined by ourselves but we don’t exactly have a good track record!

    Education is definitely a key component but we have reached a point where technology is so advanced that explaining how much of it works to lay people is pretty hard. Isn’t this an example of moving away from our original essence?

    So in summary I pretty much agree with you but where this will all lead is hard to imagine. I wonder if you’ve read Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulations” or watched the Japanese “Ghost in the Shell” series? I find both of these fascinating…

  7. albatross says:

    Apologies for taking ages to reply. Yes I’ve read Baudrillard – he is one of my favourites. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I enjoy the way he says it. And I’ve seen the film ‘Ghost in the Shell’ but haven’t had a chance to watch the series.

    I do agree with you that technology has increased the pace of life to the nth degree, particularly recently, although this began with the wordpress. It’s one of the few negatives to technology that I can see – inventing machines to help us perform tasks leading to the expectation that we work harder/faster/more in order to keep up with the pace set by the machine – but this is a trend fuled by capitalism and the desire to produce as much as possible for the smallest possible cost. Once we get rid of capitalism we’ll be set!

    I don’t think we’re losing our identity, because I don’t think we have one to lose – and I think technology is an extension of us, our way of interpreting the world, so I don’t see it as ‘faceless’. I also don’t see it as a screen between us and the planet – I see it as a part of the planet which is as legitimate as we are, or as trees, rivers, squirrels… I concede that the majority of our technology exploits natural resources, and this is definitely dangerous and stupid, but at the same time there are a number of technologies which work cooperatively with nature. I don’t think mankind will ever voluntarily go back to a pre-technological society, so the only way forward is to ‘fix’ technology so that it no longer harms the environment. But first we need to sort out our governments, who seem only interested in the short-term capital returns and blind to the long-term consequences of their actions. Copenhagen: case in point.

    As for your point on education… hmm… well I’ve always believed that if one person is capable of understanding something, then everybody is, no matter how complex it might be. As long as it is taught well. I don’t think technology is all that complicated, anyway, and the majority of kids know more about it than I do. For the most part, our technology has a pretty decent human interface that makes it easy to use. I don’t think this is an example of moving away from our original essence because, as I said, I don’t think there is such a thing. I think it is simply an example of people not being educated properly.

    So, where will this all lead? I can’t answer that, of course, but I can quote from ‘Rewired’: ‘Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. […] Do we live in a dystopia? One can easily imagine the American Founding Fathers, even the technophilic libertine Benjamin Franklin, recoiling in horror at some of the values of our society. In post-cyberpunk stories, human values are not imprinted on the fabric of the universe because what it means to be human is always negotiable’.

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