You Are a Very Useful Engine: Bringing up a Technologist

robot holding earthAs some who read the Errant might know, especially if they were readers of Nemesis, I use Emerson as a touchstone frequently as well as often referencing the passage below which begins the essay “Experience”.

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight….

We are limited beings and yet, one or our imaginings is that we can exceed limits.

David Ehrenfeld, in 1978, said it this way,

…when the suspicion of limits has become certainty, the great bulk of educated people still believe that there is no trap we cannot puzzle our way out of  as surely and noisily as we blundered into it…every fresh disaster is met with fresh plans of power and still more power

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. (“Arrogance of Humanism”, 12)

This “excess” of belief in human agency in and over the natural world is in evidence particularly in the country that has run to excess from its inception.  This land offered limitlessness, expansion, and human opportunity.  This land fit the psychology of dominion.  We imagine ourselves, our species, as the rightful owner of what God hath wrought.  It is our to our great shame that we have simply repeated the original Fall.  Not of Adam, but of Lucifer.  We have never found ourselves anywhere but in the presumption of arrogant claims to dominion.  Lucifer is the true representative of our deepest self.  We are, after all, energetic innovators out of fire.  (And now you might see your way to confound Lucifer and Prometheus in your pantheon of ancient explanations.)

Melville put it this way in “Fragments Of A Lost Gnostic Poem Of The Twelfth Century” (my bold):

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.

“But [American] triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory. To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people.”  (Charles Olson, “Call Me Ishmael”)

Melville speaks out of the depths to see the the creator in us competing with the divine Creator.

There are true Prometheans among us –we have after all “unlocked” the most destructive power know to us in “splitting” the atom. But as Oppenheimer noted, using a different “mythology,” we are now “become death” and our Fire this time does not lead us out of mere animality but rather evaporates our very molecules by its heat.

And, we commoners, in our pedestrian ways, are now only creatures astride pavement and not earth.  Creatures of minimal capacity and understanding: science is for us not discovery, not knowledge, but technology and innovation.  Science makes “stuff” possible.

“And, though they concern us so greatly, and are, indeed, indispensable for our life and thought, the sciences are in a certain sense more foreign to us than philosophy. They fulfil a more objective end–that is to say, an end more external to ourselves. They are fundamentally a matter of economics. A new scientific discovery, of the kind called theoretical, is, like a mechanical discovery–that of the steam-engine, the telephone, the phonograph, or the aeroplane–a thing which is useful for something else. Thus the telephone may be useful to us in enabling us to communicate at a distance with the woman we love. But she,wherefore is she useful to us? A man takes an electric tram to go to hear an opera, and asks himself, Which, in this case, is the more useful, the tram or the opera?” (The Tragic Sense of Life”, Miguel de Unamuno)

“Useful” seems to be the only way to measure a thing anymore and Unamuno asks in what ways our useful actions privilege the “conveyance” and value the ride; the “unlabor” of sitting while moving short or great distances privileges the convenience of inaction and physical passivity.

Your toddler perhaps learns this lesson first from Thomas the Train where the ultimate compliment from Topham Hatt is that one is useful.  I should say that your child learns his “place” in the class hierarchy at an early age and imbibes the clear lessons of capital labor management. But HOW are we useful in a world where we strive to actually DO nothing?  And possibly, Topham and Thomas are the only useful entities in the narrative–the people being merely props to the action of mechanical industry.

Before I get back into a usual diatribe against an economy of debasement, of all beings and things as means, I’ll end by stealing from a old post from the Nemesis blog about the tech-lovers among us.

Don’t fight it, Brother, Sister…learn the best way to please IT and IT will smile upon you.

This is a real concern and has been one for aeons regarding our knowledge of the world. Philosophy has debated this knowing the world via “theory” or “practice.” Of course, it’s not a very real dichotomy as the two must go hand-in-hand (like lovers are supposed to; there’s a thin line between love and hate).

But I think the worst thing has been happening; practice is all most of us “know.” We know there is a machine and we know what we can see and use of the machine–my “knowledge” of the laptop I’m using is literally a surface knowledge…plastic keys, power cord, etc., I know nothing of its guts; I know even less of it’s software (though I can name some programs).

One might believe that knowing programming will help you “direct” technology to your benefit (and it might create economic opportunities for you, I can’t disagree)–but knowing coding is also a surface knowledge.

What do I know of anything? is finally a very important first question. Nothing is my best answer at this point (thank you, Montaigne).

I know that given the above you have to assume that I am skeptical of most of this kind of reaching after technical skill without understanding the history of our machine-driven species (emphasis on “driven”). I know nothing of how anything works–cars, computers, airplanes, refrigerators, animal bodies, atoms, bombs, seeds. Yes, I can find out the “guts” of most of these things. Yes, that is my responsibility, but what am I learning?

How to better “use” technology? Perhaps this is all we can do. If so, then I propose the we add “philosophy of technology” to our list of educational priorities. We are erasing the subjects of our liberal arts education like languages, art and music at all levels and re-tooling what’s left of them to be subservient to all-mighty STEM. Just as one learns languages best at the earliest age of immersion, so too one can learn philosophy. Our children begin as philosophers but are quickly turned into technologists, turned into imitators of Thomas the Train. “Why” is discouraged; “How to” encouraged.

I often wonder if real wisdom lies in knowing that a tower with stairs stretching to the heavens is irrelevant, not useful, and makes us simply slaves of the idea of the tower.  After all, what will we do at the top?



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  1. dpop September 18, 2011 at 11:26 am

    The Stemicks are fearful as the nation of excess realizes that increasingly we must go elsewhere to sustain it. They fear loss of interest in Stem in the same way that some fear it. Both “sides” fear the change that’s a part of everything. But there’s the cliche that if you’re not moving forward, then you’re slipping backward. In my view accurate but easily twisted to mean different things. This country is a place of contradictions but we need to see it as a manuevering of the stairway, not a fall. That’s one change I definitely want to see. Also, if Stem is viewed as the art of self reliance and the ability to do for ourselves what is necessary to thrive and prosper then that is part of the american philosophy. While indocterinated in that philosophy I can’t see how that can be bad? I believe it also needs to embrace others ideas and influences however – in that we have been lacking.

  2. Douglas Storm September 18, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Well, I think the question I posed at the end still holds, dpopp, “what do we do at the top?” To what purpose are we “moving forwards”? In what way to we count “backwards” pejorative?

    These are all “myths of progress”.

    We are as we are–our “stuff” gets “progressively” more intricate or complicated, we don’t. I would argue that most of the human population gets more dumb the more our “STEM” becomes “self-reliant”–ie, “machines” itself.

    Our ethic of benign being is further lost as we blinker our sight to focus on the innovations of our tinkering selves.

    In what way is technological tinkering “self-reliant”?

  3. dpop September 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Obviously, I don’t believe there is a top to the stairway and you recognize it by noting the role of the tinkerer since his is a never ending process. In the same way that nature evolves so do our machinizations… and so do our moral, ethical, and philosophical ones! There may be myths that perpetuate it if one is cynical but what is wrong with that? All cultures are filled with myths. These are the stories of our society’s history good and bad. I know it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the machinizations as they can be overused, warped to be used in terrible ways, or worshipped as a false deity but these are the things we need to watchguard in the same way we need to guard all things in our society. It we admit that the tinkering is our humanity, we can ask whether it is our destruction and whether we an stop it but I’ll still argue that we will wrestle with it in the same way that the cat wrestles with the need to go inside and then out. If you argue that our overly big brains allow us to not only kill ourselves and said cat then I’ll accept that. We need to have the dialogue of that very real possibility.

  4. Douglas Storm September 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    In what ways do you feel our morality has “evolved”?

    I think I might have mentioned somewhere that our “self-regard” does seem an “error” in terms of species health (and global health), and I would argue that most of our “ancient” stories will offer this warning to us.

    We ARE destructive to the core; we are destructive before we can be creative. We tear apart what is already whole and operative in order to “re-order” life in “our image”. It will indeed be our undoing.

    So, I guess I would argue that as I, personally, do not think this way–do not seek to destroy in order to create; Do not tinker with the processes of life; Do not seek to dominate nature–that I wonder why others seek to do these things.

    Evidence abounds to speak against it. Evidence abounds as well to show how understanding via observation can offer remedies to our maladies.

    We have created our messes…our diseases are now man-made and man-sustained and our fixes are only addictions to tinkering (a pill that cures nothing but tinkers with the mechanism just long enough to allow a disease to advance underneath the tinkering, and etc.)

    I cannot deny successes–and I won’t–but they pale in comparison to our constant failure to understand the consequences of intervention without full knowledge.

    I’ve said before that basic life is simple. Complicating it purposefully doesn’t change that fact.

    We are the engineers of our problems. “Progress” is a false god.

    We should pray to little known and little regarded Epimetheus, the god of hindsight, other than his brother, the giver of fire.

  5. dpop September 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Evolution is not an increase in moral superiority, it’s just a process. It leads to destruction, it leads to birth. Nasty words of selfishness and greed are really biological traits for survival and perpetuation. Self reliance can be taken overboard when indiividuals use it to the detriment of society and as you note we warn of it in myths. If we discard the antibiotic into the sanitary sewer and that makes a more resilient bacteria, that’s not a failing of Stem, it’s our little brains pretending to be big ones. Life is simple but it’s also an evolving struggle.

    1. dpop September 18, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      No entropy is all downhill and morality is not. I’d still call us just another darn animal too. OK, we’re afraid of the technologists screwing things up because they don’t have the big picture. We are a nation of technologists? Or is it lawyers? Doesn’t matter – they’re all specialists and we need generalists. We also need more asthetics. We’ve forgotten that form follows function and we’ve given art a bad name or minimized it by making everything ugly so we don’t need good taste. But we also have a problem with this garbage that the liberal Dutch started in New York. People get a little greedy and pretty soon we don’t have a middle class and the cities go to hell and we use all the resources and start wars elsewhere because we need more. What then? The market moves to Bermuda, we forget how to do anything and buy it all from China and live off the land if there’s any left we haven’t screwed up? In the end I can’t argue, our priorities are screwed up, we misuse the term “useful”, greed is rampant, and too many are insulated from the real america… the wars, education, the cities, wall street.

      1. Douglas Storm September 18, 2011 at 6:30 pm

        you done gone and spouted out words coulda spilled outta mine.

  6. Douglas Storm September 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    In what way then is morality a process–akin to entropy?

    Ah, you’ve fallen into the recent fallacy of equating human ideas for biological traits.

    Not only do other species share and cooperate, greed is often punished by shunning.

    “Selfishness” at the cellular level amounts to necessary replication. This is not the same thing as hoarding money while others starve. Apparently “we” are not all in this together.

    We cannot claim near-divinity and at the same time declare we are only a mass of biological processes acting blindly to secure survival.

    These are the stories the Right side of politics, the corporate side of wealth, the “free market” side of economics, tells in order to get away with a very real evil.

  7. dpop September 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    OK Pogo then in the immortal words of Stan Lee: nuff said!


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