Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Frankenstein's Monster

"[T]he crisis that we are approaching today is of yet another order. For it entails the transition, not from one form of society and power to another, but to a new environment… The present crisis […] is a total crisis triggered by transition to a new and previously unknown environment, the technological environment… The present change of environment is much more fundamental than anything that the race has experienced for the last five thousand years.”
--Jacques Ellul, French philosopher and writer  

About a week and a half ago, I turned on our home computer, a laptop, with the intention of burning to CD all of the hundreds of photos we’d just taken on our trip to Oregon. My wife and I had talked about backing up our files for weeks and now that we had dumped several gig worth of pictures and videos to the hard drive, now seemed like a good time. In a moment of supreme and spiteful irony, the computer opened as was its habit, froze, presented the infamous “blue screen of death,” and settled with an inky black display with four tiny words: CANNOT LOCATE OPERATING SYSTEM.  

That was the last time we saw our computer proclaim anything remotely decipherable.  

Over the next several days, the computer found its way into the hands of several IT friends and coworkers gifted with miracle-working powers. “The hard drive’s crashed,” they told us one after another. “Everything’s gone. There’s nothing we can do.”  


Our recent cyber-tragedies have got me thinking about how much I rely and depend on machines; how much my life has become intertwined with the mechanisms that we construct to make our lives easier; how, in so short of time, my belief and faith in them has become nearly absolute; and how much of my life is invested in their safekeeping and care.  

Why is it I feel so much of me is lost when I lose those things which I created? Do my words define me? Only peripherally. Why then do I ache when the words I have strung together—and not the ideas or the mind behind them—vanish? Do pictures alone encapsulate recollection? Hardly. Why then, at the thought of losing them, do I feel as if I am losing the memories themselves?  

In the “old days,” the world ran by hard copy. Destroying it, even accidentally, often took, at best, tremendous will and purpose and at worst, cataclysmic misfortune. These days, with the click of a mouse, the stab of a button, the surge of a breaker, or the death rattle of an old piece of hardware, everything is gone. The result is just as final, but the method is radically simplified. The worst part of all is that the more technology swallows our lives, and the more of life we hand over to its control, the more we risk and the harder the fall once it comes.  

Computers of varying size and power control the alarm clock that wakes me up in the morning, the coffee maker that brews my coffee, the car that takes me to my job, the music I sing along to, the traffic signals that guide my way, the machines on which I make a living. I am surrounded. Everywhere I look, I am in the grip of technology.  

This is not to say that technology is malevolent. Technology has revolutionized medicine—expanding life and eradicating disease. It has made travel to the next continent or the next planet possible. It has disseminated communication and culture like never before. (Technology has certainly enhanced photography—or at the very least, its proliferation. With digital cameras, everyone is a photographer. In several decades hence, generations to come will have a far greater, richer record of their lives because digital photography made it possible to take so many images of both the momentous and the mundane, a trait I recently read referred to as "promiscuous photography.")  

This all puts me in mind of Godfrey Reggio’s staggering “Qatsi” film trilogy which merges mesmerizing hyper-accelerated images with the hypnotic music of Phillip Glass in a non-linear, non-verbal docu-experimental fashion.  

In “Koyaanisqatsi,” a Hopi Indian word which translates as “Life Out of Balance,” Reggio presented a devastating film showing how urban society moves at such a frenetic pace and is so beholden to technology that it is utterly detached from the natural environment around it. “Powaqqatsi” (Life in Transformation) looks at the complicated and often devastating effects of technology in the developing world. The final installment, “Naqoyqatsi” (Life as War), concludes the harrowing exploration of man’s slow devolution through technology, speculating that technology has radically altered how we wage war. Worse yet, asking who is the master and who is the servant, it speculates that life itself has become sustained warfare. The films are both brilliant and nearly incomprehensible and prophetically challenge viewers about their inescapable place in a universe where technology is so prevalent it is altering reality as we know it.

Technology is manipulating everything around us: media, art, entertainment, sports, politics, medicine, warfare, ethics, nature, culture and the very face of the human itself. Technology does not affect our lives--it is our lives. It does not affect our environment--it is our environment. Technology is the new nature. We've traded an old, living, organic environment for a synthetic, engineered environment. We do not need to wait for the future to travel to another world--we live in one already. Urbanites might as well be living on a terra-formed world, moving through life on surfaces of asphalt, cement, glass and plastic and lulled to sleep each night to the thrumming lullabies of machines. Science Fiction is now science fact. There are no cyborgs--half man/half machine--in our future; we are very nearly cyborgs already.

Can we not see beyond to a world in which nature has been subverted by artificiality? We already live outside of and above nature. How much longer until we live off it as well? How long until we realize its already gone?

Is technology neutral? Can it be used for either good or bad? How can one tell when we do not simple use technology but instead are technology--a sort of "how can one see the forest for the trees" metaphor wrapped in silicon. What does it mean for our futures when, being sensate beings, we become the very things we see, hear, eat, smell and touch? Will humanity fundamentally change? Will the organic side of our souls vanish with the rain forest or the dodo bird? Will natural diversity be subsumed by the infinite appetite of technological homogenization?

Have we looked beyond the glowing, shimmering surface of technology in an attempt to ascertain what it is doing to the human soul? Have we bothered, in our rabid embrace of that which makes our lives easier, to try to look past appearances to the complex, hidden dimensions? Is technology the new universal religion? Is technology fruitful; does it multiply and if so, does it reproduce the world in its own image and likeness? Is technology a way of living or is it an addiction? Does our consciousness inform our behavior or does our behavior inform our consciousness? Or do we now simply live in a world beyond the senses? Is it as Elias Canetti, a Nobel Laureate for literature said, "A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality."

In the phenomenal film, “Contact,” Father Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughy, asks, “Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web…at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.”  

Pretty heady stuff, especially when its inspired by an all-too routine computer crash. Contrary to what it may sound like, I'm not a technophobe. That said, I guess I don't plan on answering any of the above questions, but rather plan to simply leave them floating around in the very medium I've just concluded criticizing. I think that's necessary sometimes. We so often want quick answers, decisive conclusions, and unambiguous wrap-ups with neat and tidy bows. But life isn't like that and sometimes it's enough--or all one can do--to simply ask the questions. I suppose I'm much like Father Joss: "I’m not against technology. I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”  

What do you think?


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