Technology, encounter, and the dangers of abstraction
I Spending a day in the woods recently, two experiences stood out. First, I saw an eagle. And that’s all I can do, really: follow it with my eyes as it rides the sky, higher and higher, beyond my reach. Everything to do with my seeing the eagle and the significance it holds points beyond the utility calculus. I cannot lay hold of the eagle, cannot determine or predict its movements, cannot possess or control it. Riding the sky the eagle is free. The best I can hope for is precisely this: seeing it. Whether I do or not is not for me to decide. Getting to see it will be a pure gift. My day will be richer for it. I will feel grateful – not to the particular bird I happen to see, perhaps, but to the world of which I am part for containing such a creature. Descartes’ argument about animals being inferior to humans for lack of the ability to ‘join together different words’ (1978a : 45) appears ridiculous here. What an arbitrary criterion to use! How self-serving and question-begging is it not to take as the only valid yardstick a capacity – the linguistic one – found to be lacking in all nonhuman creatures! If anything, the eagle’s brilliance at riding the sky puts my boundedness to the ground into sharp relief. Once the criterion is shifted – here, from linguistic capacities to the capacity for self-initiated motility – the roles are reversed, the bird unequivocally being the superior one. Shift the perspective not only from one criterion to another, but from the human subject’s to the animal’s, and what is widely regarded as a potent – and immensely influential – philosophical argument for human superiority emerges instead as a matter of envy – flying envy. Indeed, Freud, in concentrating on penis envy only, overlooked the entire cross-and inter-species dimension of this powerful feeling. The second experience is of a different sort. I came across a vacant vehicle of the kind used for logging these days. Since there was no-one around, I climbed on board and took the seat. Guess what commanded my attention? The computer placed above the steering wheel did. Looking at the screen and pressing the appropriate keys (that is, doing exactly what I do right now, sitting in my home office), I would be able to direct the enormous grab toward the tree selected for felling, cut the tree, remove the branches, and place it onto the pile
of timber on the plane. Of course, I didn’t actually carry out any of these operations. But I have witnessed how it is done. It is a showcase of efficient, modern technology. What a generation ago would have taken hours to accomplish, is now effected in a matter of minutes. The selected tree may have taken more than 100 years to grow, it may be thirty or forty metres tall and weigh hundreds of kilos, thus requiring considerable physical effort and experience-based skill to be taken down by saw or by axe. Felling trees when sitting inside a modern forestry vehicle makes for abstraction. My field of attention shrinks to keeping a keen eye on the computer in front of me, combined with the occasional look outside to check that the tree is indeed cut, the branches removed, and so forth; in a word, to check that the instructions I feed into the computer effect the prescribed machine operations and bring about the intended consequences in the outside world. The task at hand has lost – or overcome – the physical effort its distinct elements once called for: selecting the tree, deciding where and in what position to enter the appropriate saw, considering the optimal position for it to fall without mingling with other trees nearby, then doing the actual sawing, changing position, touching the tree to check how much more sawing is needed, looking around once more to make sure the tree is going to fall in the desired direction, completing the felling. Accomplishing this in the low-technology manner meant for the carpenter to engage in direct contact, indeed interaction, with the particular tree at hand, a contact of bodily-sensuous nature. Each tree would be different: different position in the landscape and vis-à-vis other trees and other kinds of trees, different height, different shape. Each would call for judgement concerning where, when and how. The felling of one tree would turn out to be faster and less laborious than expected; the felling of another the opposite. The physical effort required to complete the job, the time it would take, combined with the lack of complete predictability and calculability of each operation, would make each tree a particular challenge and a particular experience. No two trees are exactly alike. Nor are two carpenters. The trees only become alike, or eminently comparable, after the act of felling them, forming a pile of logs to be transported out of the woods, be it by horse and sledge or by tractor. I propose that the principal shift involved in this example is from one sort of relationship and to an entirely different one. The parties to the relationship change: from one between the individual carpenter and the particular tree he is engaging with, saw and axe acting as direct physical extensions of his bodily movements, to one between the worker seated inside the vehicle and his computer screen. Whereas all the feedback in the former case would emanate from the tree, the locus of feedback to which the modern forestry worker’s attention is directed is the computer. The man-tree relationship has been substituted by a man-computer relationship. It is important to see what is at issue here. The change that interests me is not primarily a matter of man’s relating to the tree being mediated by a machine (computer) that literally is an in-between between subject and object. Rather, and more profoundly, it is a matter of the subject-outer reality relationship – a
two-way affair, as we saw – being replaced by a man-machine (technology) one. The worker operates the computer which operates the machine that works on the tree. The machine – computer directing the saw-machinery – works physically on the tree, the worker does not: he does not touch it, does not smell it, scarcely hears it falling, although he still needs to see it, at the distance provided by staying inside the vehicle while the whole process is being executed. The machine, in a comprehensive and multi-functional sense, stands between the man and the tree, the subject and his object, making a direct (physical-bodilysensuous) interaction between them perfectly redundant. The tree felled is not a particular tree with a particular set of properties (location, age, shape, look) with which the worker interacts and to whose particularities he directs as well as adjusts his actions, as the carpenter did. Instead the tree has been transformed into an abstract entity, exchangeable not unique, operated upon via a technical device rather than being sensuously and physically experienced. What counts as reality in present-day society is to an ever-growing extent made up of artifacts whose existence would be impossible without the workings of modern technology. Whereas wild nature is heterogeneous, involving the human person as a whole person, engaging not only the mind but the entire repertoire of faculties, virtually everything a human person, including children, now ‘sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes is a human artifact’, as John Livingston (1994: 135) observed twenty years ago. To be sure, one may consider this an aspect of humanity having entered the Anthropocene. But it points to a different dimension than that usually addressed in most environmental philosophy and politics alike, being concerned with the fact that today no part of the biosphere is beyond the range of anthropogenic influence. By contrast, my interest here is not so much in the ways in which changes in nature are increasingly caused by human activities, but in the ways in which virtually everything that physically makes up our world is of our making. In engaging with the outside world, modern man increasingly encounters only himself, either directly in the form of the products of his own technologically mediated activities, or indirectly in the form of the ways in which the nonhuman environment – what’s left of it – is modified by those activities and their often unintended repercussions. This then is the question I shall pursue in what follows: What happens when the ‘total environment’ (Searles) changes from being predominantly a natural environment to becoming a predominantly human-made one? Reality as experienced today increasingly means domesticated reality. What counts as real is identical with what is worked-upon, modified or downright tailormade for our use: its sole raison d’etre is the human need it is designed to meet. If a tree is felled it is so because we decide it; if it is not, that will also be because we decide it. If there is still an outside, something other and untouched by our activities, its continued existence as such will be at the mercy of our decision to allow it to still exist – be it as an island in an ocean of domesticated nature. Experience of and in nature as something not bearing the stamp of human activity has turned, historically, from the rule to the exception; becoming precarious and scarce in supply, it must be sought out. Today even the intrinsic
qualities of the basic elements of nature are being degraded: clean water and clean air become luxury goods, commercial assets invoked in advertising for resorts for the well-off whose level of consumption has helped cause their degradation in the first place. This trend is often observed in connection with climate change: whereas the most prosperous part of the population may well afford to move away – temporarily or permanently – from the most affected cities, those least responsible for the problem have no option but to stay put and suffer the consequences (see Kirby 2006; Kolbert 2006). The general tendency is for technology to obliterate the shifts and rhythms intrinsic to nature. Day and night, lightness and darkness, warmth and coldness: these elementary qualities and the daily, seasonal and regional alterations between them are for the first time in history losing their commanding impact on the activities of human societies. Presently an increasing number of activities will take place at different times of the day, many of them non-stop, while as individuals we are more and more committed to multi-tasking, all around the clock. Production and distribution, work and shopping need not be restricted to daytime; the light and the temperature in the factories, offices and malls are the same regardless of the time of day, the outside temperature, the season of the year, and the geographical location. The activities constituting our present way of life have became quasi-autonomous and as such seemingly independent and separate – liberated, if you like – from the intrinsic structures and rhythms of nature. We take this state of affairs for granted; as moderns we are born into it: it’s the only world, the only way of living, we know, especially the children. Historically however it is a recent and unprecedented development, introducing a genuinely novel relationship between society and nature, one that would be unthinkable without the workings of modern technology. Technology’s thrust is to effect a wholesale obliteration of time and space, of the place-bound particularities that historically helped define – facilitate as well as restrict – work activities in particular, hunting and harvesting being prime examples. The specific when and where of my spatio-temporal location cease to make the difference it used to make in all earlier societies. The situation now made possible – made into reality, and taken for granted as such – is one where I am able to pursue whatever activity I may wish at any time and at any place. The upshot of modern technology, especially computer technology – helping create cyber space and virtual reality, new labels for new realities – is to effect a gigantic rendering available and accessible of everything, everywhere, to invoke a formulation of the German philosopher Günther Anders, whose monumental work Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, published in 1956, anticipated crucial aspects of recent developments. The promise of technology is to help make the perfect – unlimited – accessibility of everything available to everybody, regardless of all particularities, in a situation where ever-more objects are being drawn into technology and where ever-more people (and cultures) relate to objects in a computer-mediated manner, whereby ‘objects’ denote both other humans (as in the case of Facebook and other social media now used clockwise around the world) and the basic elements of nature.