The Duality of Technology

by Steven J. McArthur

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I would like to respond to a comment in one of your essays on television that i think is applicable to both gun control and the atomic bomb.

"Like any argument about technology, your opinion of the effect that media have upon us has a hidden subtext: your opinion of human nature."

Many artists, theologians, anthropologists, philosophers and thinkers have submitted and advanced various characteristics of the human race that distinguish ourselves from "the animals". The perceptions of beauty, of the soul, of community, of ethics, or of reason tend to separate our experience from other species on this planet. However, one of the great objective differences in mankind's reality is our ability to make tools.

Not terribly defining, I admit. Birds, gorillas and other animals utilise the mechanical properties of their environment to their advantage. Nonetheless, the quantum shift between a stick used to pry open a nut and a Saturn V rocket lead me to conclude the difference in more than simply the scale of our technology.

The opening act of the movie 2001: A Space Oddyssey, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke potrays an emotionally accurate summation of my view of the human condition.

The scene begins with a tribe of ape-like creatures, barely surviving on an unnamed savanna. Around them are the resources to thrive, plants and animals for food, and a (presumably) clean source of water. Unfortunatley, the plants do not provide the nutrition needed. The proto-swines coexisting with the tribe are far too ferocious, and posess far too lethal natural weaponry for the ape-men to kill. Finally, the watering hole becomes a stage for an intensly human yet barbaric confrontation with a hostile tribe.

Hunger, thirst and lethargy form an odd conspiracy in one of the ape-men. Casually playing with a femur of some dead animal, s/he begins to slowly recognise the power of leverage. The force generated by his/her arm is amplified by striking the ground with the bone. Rapidly, yet terribly predicatbly from our modern view, this force is harnessed first benevolently for the good of the tribe. One of the beasts is killed, and the resulting feast is triumphant.

Triumphant again, the next scene if far more haunting. Again at the pond, the tribe is confronted by its angry, violent neighbours. This time, however, the proto-hero/ine, armed with the femur, confronts the champion of the other tribe. The resulting brutality is so disturbing that I can barely describe it. The armed wo/man quickly dispatches of her/his opponant, then proceeds to smash the body into a pulp. The celebration of the tribes new-found (in)humanity culminates with the bone being thrown in the air....being replaced suddenly as a late 20th century space ship.

In Genesis, the first act of evil was the taking of knowledge, which immediately demanded the creation of tools (clothes). In the orginal Oddessy , by the poet Homer, evil was released through an act of curiousity. In Prometheus, the men are both cursed and blessed by the knowledge of fire.

Collectively, these myths may represent a latent understanding of the dual nature of technology in the human reality. Or they might be bullshit. My personal belief is in the probability of a kernel of truth hidden in the husks of all these stories.

As for my personal relationship with technology, it is firmly entwined with my apprenticeship as a machinist. Being a tradesman is to being a sculptor as being a 'writer for pay' is to being a self-published writer. Essentially the skills, the method and the passion remain unchanged . However, the integrity of your work is tied directly to your relationship with the editor/engineer.

People who paint, make music, speak or write for a living, and even some who sculpt non-professionally (refering to their job, not the quality of their work) tend to see the trades, especially the metal trades, as without 'artistic' qualities. This is, however, something very great, something I am better able to apprehend than to comprehend, in the making of even mundane, predesigned tools. The act of taking a chunk of steel, 10 times your weight, and scraping away the excess until you are left with the shaft for an ocean going ship is liberating, and one of the most human activities I know of.

Cutting steel as a humanity? This proposition has brought alot of scorn from my friends with liberal arts degrees.

Consider this. A typical challenge in my trade is to carve patterns into a piece of material accurately enough that it fit with another part made by someone across the shop, across town, or across the country from your location. The tolerances required for parts in even common machines like VCR's or bicycles are expressed in 1/1000th's of an inch. The typical piece of full-scap paper is 4/1000th's of an inch thick. The amount of error that a crank-shaft in a mountainbike will tolerate is approximately 0.5/1000th's of an inch.( 0.0005 of an inch)

This dimension is so small that holding the part in your hand can expand the material enough to be unacceptable. The material is not pure in the first place, with minor imperfections that confound the cutting process. Add to this virbration (noise) in a machine shop, the action of the cutting fluid on the material, the shape and composition of the cutting tool itself, and the fact that 98% of the parts have to be correct to pay for the job in the first place, and the task becomes mammoth. Is it any wonder that democracy ( a very complicated social system) was devised by man almost 2500 years before the bicycle (a relatively simple mechanism) ?

My intent here is not to prove the morality of manufacturing, nor to demonstrate its difficulty, but only to illuminate that, in every way that ethics is important to humanity, the creation of tools is important to humanity. Not just for the end result (though spoons, paper, ovens, plows and computers must be made, they do not occur naturally in nature) but also for the experience of process.

As for being merely a cog in a machine, I wonder if anyone would ask that same question of a violinist in an orchestra. Does your participation in a collective creativity negate your own personal creativity?

Now to the subject at hand, the projection of our values onto our tools.

Is a slide rule intelligent?

It was designed to aid in human thought, by simplifying and remembering certain patterns inherant in numerical relations. Humans can think about more complex problems when the mechanics of the process are automated in even the most rudimentary ways.

However, it would be folly to infuse an inanimate object with a decidedly human characteristic. The purpose of its design and its uses are irrelevant in assigning an 'intelligence' to a slide rule.

Much the same has been said about television. To say that 'we become the tool' is a cop out in all cases. As the quote above describes my feelings exactly. The judgement of technology iis actually the judgement of human nature.

This brings me to my ultimate point. How is it that otherwise optimistic people become terribly pessimistic about human nature when the technology in question happens to be guns? If we believe that a slide rule is not intelligent simply because it can be use to enhance the efficiency of human intelligence, nor because it was designed with that purpose in mind, then how can a gun be 'violent'?

To be honest, I am afraid of guns in my neighbourhood. I am also afraid of cars, nuclear weapons, computers, clocks and posters. ALL of these technologies have been used to dehumanize and/or destroy people far less threatening to the established order (or establishing order) than myself, my family or my friends.

But I will not succumb to hypocracy by calling one form of technology 'evil' simply because evil people have done evil things with the technology. "The abuse of some thing is no arguement against its use" said Thomas Jefferson, and American who seems decidedly unAmerican compared to your present day politics.

And while I fear all those tools listed above, and countless others, the tragedy is, I fear something else far worse. I fear the righteous cry of man overcomming our limits through technology, becomming the triumphant scream of one man smashing another's skull in with a bone.

Yours truly

Steven J McArthur