Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Strength of Man

The strength of Man lies in his limitations and his ingenuity. These two attributes are the true Mother and Father of technology. And what is technology but merely the manner in which things are done. Science has merely improved his methodology and efficiency.

That he cannot walk long distances for long, nor quick enough for his pleasure or business he domesticated animals for his purpose. Now he could save his precious energy whilst the beast of burden did most of the hard work of travelling. But after a while, this too was not quick enough, not large enough, not comfortable enough. Then came the automobile, then huge aeroplanes that roamed the skies as never before. They flew at heights around 30,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures sometimes for 23 hours at a time, besting both Man and Beast by far. We cannot travel in such conditions. Soon after, we sent unmanned sattelites to planets only imagined and calculated. This evolution of technology towards bigger, faster, more comfortable, more value for money, is ceaseless. What used to be a massive undertaking requiring lots of study, preparation, expense and energy is now reduced to less than a few hundred ringgit and four hours. We have the luxury of taking only our wallets, our passport and the clothes on our back on our travels now.

Another example. Man's memory is not infallible and his voice can only stretch so far. So he writes and records, on bits of bark, on stone with paint, with papyrus then finally with paper. It lasts longer, it transmits through the ages, it resonates through history and to so many souls. But paper could not hold enough so then we invented other recordable media like tape that could capture and preserve our voices, our music and sounds better. Then came video and now the visual medium has become one of the most influential if still not the most dominant where meaningful scholarship is concerned (I for one will be glad that I will not live long enough to see the day that, for example, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is studied by video presentation of the very text itself). So now with technology our written, spoken, acted word is actually a bunch of ones and zeros. Whilst we can understand the contents of the message, we can no longer read or even understand the envelope it comes in anymore. The same actually goes for the message as well.

These two examples above show the subtle shift that technology has set in motion. Technology inevitably becomes more and more sophisticated until a layperson unfamiliar with the intricacies of that particular technology or now, even brand of technology, is no longer able to understand how something is done - all that we can understand is that it is done. And because of this power moves away from the content to the message, because he who controls the message now controls the content. The messager becomes a new source of power.

The second thing of note is that the greater reliance on technology binds us to it. Bound because when we use technology often enough until it becomes integrated into a and our lifestyle, we cannot then live without it and in fact, operate best within it. And when so many of us use it, we then are forced into it. Another example - an ecologist with strong convictions that carbon fueled vehicles and power are evil can do nothing about it. He is powerless to see through or practise his convictions. How can he when so much power generated comes from carbon based fuel or travelling on any vehicle without an animal pulling it in front requires it? We talk about the freedom of choice with technology but the truth is you can only choose whatever it is the prevailing technology allows us to. That they offer us so many choices makes us blind to the similarity of the choices they offer us.

Man used to be in a position of Master and Servant with technology. The movies The Matrix and The Terminator are but two versions of what this reversal of this relationship would entail. But those versions are too simplistic and fantastic as they have to be in this age of visual medium. They bear the usual trademark fear of Man when faced with the unknown. Technology is not neutral, a whole lot subtler and sophisticated in its influence on us that we can know. This is made worse in this age of intensive materialism. The question that has not even begun to be answered and will begin answering itself over the course of the next few hundred years is whether there can be two Masters and no Servant.

[Daef's recommended reading: Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish]

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