in the boundary between the given and the made.”
Walter Truett Anderson
Technology is a funny thing.
Not funny haha…just surprising.
We made it but it is beyond our command. We tinker it into existence but not into submission. It follows our lead then zigs its own way.
From Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, this is a common theme in fiction but the fact of it is hard to digest. The problem is a kind of dyspepsia; we look at the Gizmos – the big one, the one that rhymes with cosmos – as the latest gimcrack but not the whole enchilada.
In fact, our technology is a complex system in which change takes place and which is always in process. It follows the rules that systems follow, set by the universe of systems, not by us. It interacts with other systems, gets feedback and feeds forward, influences and is influenced. All of which leads to unexpected patterns of convergence, synergence, emergence. That is why we can envision and fashion it, design and refine it, make it and break it, but we cannot rule, dominate, or otherwise whip it into submission. The forces at work are more powerful than our need to master the universe.
That is why so many things seem out of control.
Because they are…weapons, cities, networks, cell phones. The copy machine.
Each new thing we make with our compulsive tinkering is never just another doohickey. Each takes us on a trip through uncharted waters, making waves throughout the whole. Forces are unleashed that we can barely foresee and rarely contain. And each change in the Gizmos leads to a new round of innovention and the contradiction of a made world that is beyond our making.
Not that we can stop in any case.
Humanity and machinery are inextricable. There has never been a time when we were human beings without our technology nor are we ever truly separated from it. A normal day in the modern world in any city is spent almost entirely within the Gizmos, barely touching the world of muck and mire.
This is the technocosm we have been building piece by piece and item by item, within the biocosm into which were born. It is the great human enterprise, based on our unshakable belief that everything can be remade, improved, fixed. Stone to steel, carbon to silicon, cotton to rayon, water to seltzer.
In fact, technology is not something we have at all. It is something we are. Like language or culture, the mechanism of making things is in our brains, part of our nature. We are Homo Techne, the skillful ones; technology is one of the things that make us us.
I thought about all this with Frankenstein in mind. No, not the original novel and not even the movie. It was the classic scene from the Mel Brooks spoof in which the blind man tries to light a cigar but instead sets the creature’s thumb on fire. There it is, the Gizmos in a nutshell…our best intentions gone awry. A thing we made that has its own destiny, separate from what we would do with it if only we could do what we wanted. Which we cannot.
Although our creative monkeying propels it, technology has its own emergent energy. The vagaries of interplay and synergy with other systems continually push it past our intentions. Each new thing we come up with becomes an active part of this system with repercussions we never designed into it. Like Frankenstein monsters and genetically tricked dinosaurs in fiction, our real creations go off on their own.
This makes our made world stubbornly unruly. It grows without a plan, expands without boundaries, develops without any overall design. It is the reason we seem to be constantly igniting our own thumbs.
Come to think of it, that’s pretty funny haha too.