Tuesday, November 17, 2009

up and down, down and up

There was a time when the circle ruled life. Life was a cycle of seasons, of birth, growth and death in which life was returned to Mother Earth’s womb only to be born again.

Now, life is reduced to the straight line, the linear progression moved by the energy of its own momentum. At one time the line was called progress, and it was believed it was carrying us towards the heavens.

However, one can only have a destiny if one has a past. But, the further we move along the line, the more the past fades into the mist of oblivion. Life is reduced to a tiny laser dot whose linear movement lacks both a past and a future.

We mistake this movement for progress and believe that all change is good no matter how much destruction it leaves in its wake. As it moves, the dot believes that it is ascending when, in fact, it is descending.

Rather than a linear ascent, all historical and cultural movements inscribe a Bell curve, with an ascent, an apogee and a descent. Technological progress is no different, and we could well be riding the descent segment of the curve.

Initially, technology contributed to civilization, making life easier and more comfortable, conquering disease and lifting us out of the morass of superstition. But as with all other historical phenomena, technology peaked. Once this happened, technological innovation became destructive with the costs far outweighing the benefits. One could argue that we passed over the apogee with the splitting of the atom.

Many technologies that were benign at their inception have soured and threaten our quality of life. The internal combustion engine was great at first. Now it generates pollution and, instead of motoring pleasure, it is generating resource wars. Our dependency of plastics consumes too much oil. Petroleum based fertilizers have seen the rise of monoculture and the gradual depletion of our top soil.

Technology was a booster rocket that lifted us out of the quagmire of primitivism. But once spent, it becomes deadweight that must be jettisoned. Failure to do so will have us plunging back into the quagmire.

One could argue that the profound technological progress, the progress that made a real difference in our lives, happened between 1820 (railroads) and the 1940s (splitting the atom). Everything since then is simply the combining of existing technologies. A computer is simply a typewriter, a calculator and a television hooked up together.

New technologies do effect change, but the change is increasingly superficial. Will the fact that I can play videos on my cell phone really improve the quality of my life, especially if, thanks to the same cell phone, my boss has me on an electronic chain 24/7? Finding my way with a GPS instead of a map may be easier, but does it really contribute to my quality of life? No matter how many improvements are made to the television set, the content remains as bland as ever.

In the grand scheme of things, our technology will barely register as a cosmic fart.


Anonymous said...

I think thats ONE point of view. As far as I am concerned the technology of the industrial revolution can be considered equally as bad or worse for enslaving millions of workers and killing them.

Additionally, if you look at technological developments and their uses outside of the entertainment industry it is pretty impressive and has many many positive aspects next to the negative ones.

David M said...

A prime example (although a minor one) of this is the audio reproduction industry. Tubes and analog reproduction reproduces music far better than transistors and digital reproduction. But for convenience, progress for progress's sake, and to keep up with the Joneses we are stuck with over dynamic, harsh, stark cold recordings that wear you out while listening. Is that progress. Hell no. I think this is one of the reasons why people listen to less music and watch more of that stinking video and become hypnotized. When I was a kid, my folks would shut the TV off, gathers us around the stereo on Sunday afternoons and we would listen to all kinds of music. I thank them for that.

Ivan Hentschel said...

Technology is simply another component of human life, much like the (polluted) air we breathe, the (dirty) water we drink and the oil we use (up).

If all of the constituent components were put on the trays of a scale, being used to weigh human existence, there would ideally be a balance between the pros and cons, and the two sides would hang equally.

But this is very difficult when our utilization transforms(deceptively) into dependence and addiction.

Another article this morning, in another place, bemoans the loss of "real books", their existence being threatened by the Kindle,this despite the promise of electronic books saving trees and paper. The comments that followed were equally divided, yeah and nay, proving once again how difficult it is to balance the scales when emotion, desire and rationale are almost hopelessly intertwined.

Case Wagenvoord said...

Thanks to all of you for you input. As always it is valuable and thought provoking.

It is true, technology has given us many benefits. My argument is that not only are we seeing a diminishing return of these benefits, but some of our technologies are starting to bite us.

Could it be that progress has simply run its course?