For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology's role in shaping civilization. Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed "technological determinism"; they've argued that technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man's control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history. Karl Marx gave voice to this view when he wrote, "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist." Ralph Waldo Emerson put it more crisply: "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." In the most extreme expression of the determinist view, human beings become little more than "the sex organs of the machine world," as [Marshall] McLuhan memorably wrote in the "Gadget Lover" chapter of Understanding Media. Our essential role is to produce ever more sophisticated tools--to "fecundate" machines as bees fecundate plants--until technology has developed the capacity to reproduce itself on its own. At that point, we become dispensable.I'm reminded of Soylent Green, which you may recall "is people!" But that's more Marxist than Emersonian; the corporation is still in the saddle there, whereas techno-determinists are warning us that we don't actually control the technologies we're creating and mass-producing. The assembly line, with its drone workers, extends far beyond the manufacturing plant to the brainstorming session, where tablet computers and Blackberries allegedly conspire to plant thoughts in our slave-brains to make them better, stronger, faster. Right now they still need us to propagate their species. But what will become of us when our gadgets start mating? The thought of it is enough to make me make sure that my wife's iPhone and mine stay in separate rooms.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The Shallows: The Rise of the Machines
Someone ought to write a novel or screenplay about this theory of technology, as described in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Maybe, in fact, someone already has: