On the Bane and Boon of our Existence: Technology

Gentle readers,

I am once again struck by the Muse, not of Poets or Artists, but of Philosophers.  Yes, I know, the Greeks had no Muse for Philosophers, but they should have.  Inspiration is every bit a part of the philosopher’s trade as it is for the arts.  I also believe there should have been Muses for the artisans and tradesmen.  Is the fashioning of a well formed tool any less artistic than employing that tool in the construction of the finest edifice or most sublime statuary?

Which brings me to the topic on which I wish to wax philosophic for a while.  What brought this to mind was a conversation I had with my good friend Miss Elspeth Woolley the other night.  I later had the opportunity to debate and flesh out my initial thoughts in more detail with my good friend M. Zebrati Merricks.

Conversation and Inspiration

Miss Woolley and I were discussing some difficulties being experienced with various tools we use to communicate events and so forth to the citizens of Caledon.  I made the quip, “Technology is the Anti-Christ.”  She laughingly agreed but pointed out that without it we, meaning she and I, would not be having the discussion in which we were engaged.  It was an excellent point and got me thinking about how it was, in this way, like fire, useful when tamed and disastrous when it is not.  To which she commented that, also like fire, it tends to have a mind of its own, and that both technology and fire follow the laws of their own nature but sometimes seem mysterious.  This really got me thinking about the depth of the fire as technology metaphor.

I will return to that point in a moment.  But first, an aside that I, as a student of the arcane, find amusing.  Consider the communication medium we often refer to as the Aether, in other spheres it is known as the Internet, or the World Wide Web which is commonly abbreviated WWW.  In the Hebrew script, the letters of the aleph-bet are also used to designate numbers.  A branch of Hebrew mysticism, called Gematria, has grown out of this linguistic convention.  Its practitioners study the correspondences between letters and numbers, and between words which can be shown to have numerical equivalence.  The English letter “W” is usually, because of phonetic similarity, transliterated to the sixth Hebrew letter Vau (ו)   The character, Vau, being the sixth in order is therefore also used to designate the number six.

Applying the substitutive method of Gematria to WWW, therefore, gives us 666, the so-called “Mark of the Beast” or “Sign of the Anti-Christ”.  Another method of Gematria is to add together the digits of a letter-number substitution to arrive at a further correspondence with equivalent words.  In this case, 6+6+6 = 18.  In the literature of Gematria the number 18 represents the Hebrew word Chai (יח), meaning Life.

So, by the correspondences of Gematria the World Wide Web is either a manifestation of the Anti-Christ, or the portal to Life.

The Musings of Cats

Later that same evening I was visiting my good friend M. Zebrati Merricks.  I was still mulling over the fire analogy that had stirred my thoughts earlier and I will now relay some of our discussion.  I shared the salient points of my conversation with Miss Woolley ending with my assertion that Technology is like Fire, useful when tamed but disastrous when gone wild.  Zebrati countered that technology cannot “go wild”.  Rather, it only behaves in the way it was designed to.  People fear that it may go out of control, but it cannot really do so.

In part, I agree with this.  Speculative fiction is replete with stories premised on “the machines have taken over”.  It is a recognized sub-genre within the field.  These stories play on the fear that people have of technology that is increasingly beyond the ken of many people to understand.  I disagree, however, with the assertion that this fear is baseless, that technology cannot really go out of control.  There are almost always unintended consequences.  Take, for instance, the so-called “global warming” issue.  The whole debate is predicated on unintended consequences.  Also, consider the interwebs.  This highly complex interconnected system of communication nodes and data streams continuously exhibits unforseen characteristics and utility in previously unrecognized ways.

I return to the analogy of fire.  In ancient Greek mythology the Titan Prometheus was punished by Zeus for bringing Fire to mortal man.  Fire in this context symbolizes the dawning of civilization and the rise of technology in the world.  Several early civilizations placed Fire in a prominent position in their faith systems for this same reason.  Fire represents Life and mastery over ones environment.  Zebrati made the excellent point that humans have not really tamed fire so much as merely harnessed its power.  If it were truly tamed, there would be no need for fire brigades.  Other keystone inventions such as irrigation and the printing press actually ushered in new ages of civilization whereas fire was more of a discovery than an actual advance.

I agree that harnessing is a better description than taming; however, I contend that harnessing fire was the first and most significant advance.  Once humans learned how to contain and create fire at will, they achieved their first true advantage over the lesser animals.  The use of fire enabled them to harden the tips of their wooden spears by burning, thus making them more useful tools.  Harnessing fire also eventually led to the smelting of ores which produced the metals needed for even more efficient tools.

The analogy of Fire also reminds us that our supposed control over technology or our environment is quite tenuous.  As many stories of natural disaster show us, both those concocted as themes for fiction and true life events, when the veneer of civilization and all its familiar comforts and established norms are suddenly stripped away from us we quickly revert to a more chaotic, natural state, one which Hegel would call “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  What happens to our lives when we flip the light switch and nothing happens?  How many of you reading this journal would feel totally adrift were your connection to the myriad modes of modern communication to be suddenly severed?  And all of this without the slightest ability to control any of it.

Do we really control any of the technology we use so casually?  Even in the aggregate, do we, humanity, have any real control over our tools?  Do we really control the flow of electrons through the wires and broadcast signals that make our daily lives, both physical and virtual, possible?  I say, no, we do not.  Rather, we have learned how to set up certain conditions under which we can expect certain interactions to take place.  We have learned what works but we have not achieved true control.  The application of cause and effect is not the same as control.  We have not really learned why any of this marvelous stuff works, we have only learned to work within its boundaries.  Physics can give us an explanation for how an excited Uranium atom an be coaxed to shed a portion of its stored energy, but it is only a theory.  It is an explanation conjured up by smarter persons than I to convince themselves that they understood what was happening.  In the end, however, it is just a theory.  The field of sub-atomic physics, especially quantum physics, is nothing more than an expression of probabilities.

So again, we return to fire.  Like fire, we have not truly tamed the forces we pretend to control. Like fire we have learned how to harness its power, but it remains an untamed thing.  Ask Roy Horn what can happen when a harnessed but still naturally wild thing decides it doesn’t want to be harnessed any longer.

Where am I going with this?  I really have no idea.  Is there is any point to this rambling string of thoughts?  Yes, maybe one, maybe several.  I think maybe all I intended was to express my thoughts and maybe engender some discussion.  I like the fire-technology metaphor.  It expresses the concept fairly well, I think.  I also think that humanity has a strong affininty for fire.  Perhaps this affiinity in part explains the attraction that Steampunk has for so many.  Ah, but that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

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Published in: on 13 June, 2009 at 4:26 PM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A most educational post, sir!

    • Thank you, Miss Jameson. I am pleased that you found it so.

  2. Sir Plutonian,

    I am not afraid of the technology I control it. It is somewhat interesting to note that in the early 1800’s (http://www.ergoindemand.com/about_chalkboards.htm)
    there were similar concerns expressed regarding the use of the blackboard in the classroom, considering where we are today those concerns seem silly.

    In essence technology is a tool that can be used for good or for evil, it is the choice of the person controlling the technology. I choose to not disparage the technology that I use when it is used to make connections and have such amazing experiences with others.

    Yes we are limited ..however we are limited by the greatest technical tool known to man..our brains. Until we put aside our fears and tap into the vast maze and interconnections and loops of this fantastic technology we will forever be impeded from making any sort of meaningful progress.

    Futhermore I contend that when the time comes (in a future generation I am sure not mine) and barriers are truly broken down and people understand the potential of the collective mind will we truly realize the depth of the greatest technical tool of mankind—>the brain.

  3. Miss Afterthought,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read these ramblings, and for your most interesting reply. Your information vis a vis chalk boards was most enlightening. I caution you, however, to reconsider how lightly one uses the word ‘control’ with regards to technology.

    Make no mistake. In no wise do I advocate a rejection of the marvelous advances and wonderous devices and services available to us in this current age. I am much in favor of their use. It seems to me, though, that we risk coming to rely on these things a bit too much, and that in doing so may lose some vital part of ourselves. Is there a point at which the tool makes the task too easy? On the other hand, when a task is trivialized does that not free the mind and body to pursue greater activities, evolving the consciousness toward new heights?


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