Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Human ingenuity has been a source of all manner of creations that have filled people with awe. Yet, this awe has just as often been awful as it has been awe-inspiring. The scientific and technological creativity of our species has cured diseases but it has also made them easier to spread, it has given rise to energy saving technologies on a planet blighted by the unquenchable lust for energy, it has unleashed horrific weapons and the printing press, it has given us tools to more clearly perceive our world and the means for escaping from the strictures of reality. A cursory glance over the history of human inventions yields many important insights, but amongst these should be a recognition that the technological forms that are prioritized continually shape the world in which humanity lives.
For, the technological choices that humanity makes – and they are choices – represent not only the route that was chosen, but also the paths not taken.
It is absurd to reduce all questions facing humanity to technological ones. Indeed, such an absurd urge is what often leads to the constant pursuit of technological solutions to technologically exacerbated troubles. And yet it is still worth being aware of the ways in which issues regarding technology appear in many of the calamities currently confronting our species (and by extension the rest of the species on the planet). In Iraq and Syria the machinery of the military demonstrates its destructive might – its ability to reduce buildings and people to rubble. Meanwhile in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola continues on its ravaging path as the supply of medical technologies proves insufficient to contain the scale of the outbreak – and as international panic grows of the possibility of Ebola getting on a plane and finding its way around the world. At the UN world leaders gather to discuss the threat of climate change and to contemplate what new inventions may help combat it. People line up eagerly to be able to purchase the newest model of the iPhone, with little thought about what shall become of the fully functional one they are discarding, whilst griping about how the screen can bend. And, in all of these cases modern communications technologies allow us to know of the latest developments instantly, but the speed with which information reaches us has not lead to prompt or adequate responses. The news of bombings and outbreaks, climate change and extinction, new products and celebrity gossip – all muddle into informational gruel to be glanced over on social media.
From warfare to disease and from climate change to consumerism one of the common threads that can be picked out (“one of” is not to say “the”) is the way in which all of these situations represent a certain set of technological and scientific decisions. A look at the modern battlefield reveals all manner of new military technologies that have been researched, built, purchased and used at tremendous expense (in terms of human lives and in terms of financial investment); while a survey of the regions wracked by Ebola reveals the ease with which disease can spread where there is a paucity of medical technologies available; and climate change reminds us that eventually we will have to pay for treating the planet as an all you can eat buffet (and warfare does not have salubrious effects upon the climate). These situations are about much more than technology – but when we discuss them we inevitably wind up contemplating technological issues.
There is a bleak dissonance that can be seen between our ability to constantly reinvent the methods for delivering death and our inability control the spread of diseases; between the lengths we will go to in order to pull natural resources from the planet and our sputtering attempts to respond to the consequences. Great is our capacity to invent and to create, but insofar as this capacity is divorced from an ethical connection to compelling needs these inventions too often appear as grimly macabre or crassly kitsch. When Neil Postman posed his 6 questions to ask of new technology, and started the list with the question:
“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” (Postman, 42)
He was not being dismissive of the existence of problems for which a technological solution could be important and appropriate. For the regions of the world currently afflicted by Ebola increased availability of medical technologies (conceivably brought in by modern transportation technologies) is a clear case of technology (and new technologies) providing an appropriate solution to a real problem. After all, there is a reason why areas of the world with greater resources in medical technology have proven more prepared for handling the flare ups of Ebola – for it can be handled, provided the resources are available. Yet to indicate that there are some problems that benefit from a technological solution is not to claim that all technologies should therefore be given carte blanche. The iPhone 6 – impressive and shiny as it may be – primarily addresses the problem of Apple’s stock. Likewise there is a never-ending parade of new military technologies and yet the constant unveiling of new instruments of death has not brought about eras of peace – even as devastating weapons have proven repeatedly to be technological solutions to problems that tend to metastasize under the influence of such destructive medicine.
We are inventing many things – this much is obvious – but we have become better at manufacturing new needs than in creating things to meet our current needs.
In all of these cases what we still see are choices. Our choices. Military technology requires a great deal of investment – but what if these funds were used for the building up instead of the breaking down? What if we used the speed with which we can communicate and the speed with which we travel to deliver the necessary resources to squelch outbreaks of horrific diseases before they can be worthy of being called outbreaks? What if we turned our inventive spirit towards the challenge of climate change not with science-fiction like fantasies but with a serious mindset (one that acknowledges that we may have to question our way of life)? What if we turned our species immense capability for invention towards actually addressing the genuine problems that confront our planet? What if we admitted – to borrow a turn of phrase from Lewis Mumford – that we have been pursuing the goods life instead of the good life?
It seems that scarcely a week goes by in which there is not some technology conference at which fresh-faced young start-ups take to the dais to unveil their latest app or doodad, or in which a better established tech firm reveals their new operating system or the latest model of their “get it before we make it obsolete next year” device. While there is much detectable frustration at the moment around this start-up culture – which often mixes profit driven ideology with a scarcely concealed misogyny and sense of entitlement – another problem is simply what these companies (at least those that get funded) reveal about the direction in which our technological creativity gets directed. One scarcely hears mention of Schumacher’s “Appropriate Technology” these days – but everywhere one looks one finds evidence that technology is trying to appropriate everything. And yet – though it may be a fanciful thought – we should not refrain from thinking about what kind of world humanity could construct if we re-directed our attention away from more bombs, more social networking sites, and more high tech accoutrements that will be e-waste within a year and towards honing this creativity towards vital (if less glossy) needs.
We have high tech drones and mass extinction, new smart phones and old diseases – every new (or old) technology we see in the world around us speaks to a set of priorities and a set of choices. And these are priorities and choices that were set and made by people.
We can continue making the same choices – doing the same things just with more advanced technology – and expecting different results. That is a choice we may make.
But if so, we should bear in mind that is one of the definitions of madness.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. (the formulation of the good life versus the goods life appears on page 105 – the full quote is “The belief in the good life as the goods life came to fruition before the paleotechnic complex had taken shape.” It is a comparison that Mumford returned to repeatedly in his work)