I rarely listen to music anymore. Strange anxieties and fears seem to flood into my head when I try. When I seek comfort in sound these days, I tend to seek out non-human ones. The sorts of soundscapes that result from technological and natural forces gradually inter-penetrating each other.
At the Mira Flores lock, the gateway into the Pacific Ocean at the southern end of the Panama Canal, you can listen to one such soundscape: the idling of your vessel’s engine, mixed with the flapping and screeching of seabirds. The draining of the lock causes fresh water to pour into salt water, killing a new batch of freshwater fish every 30-45 minutes. The seabirds circle, waiting for the buffet to open.
The seabirds have adapted to a world created by human forces better than humans themselves. They reconcile the technological and the natural without suffering agonies. They have smoothly reconstructed their identities without worrying about labels like transhumanist or paleohumanist. There is neither futurist eagerness nor primitivist yearning to their adaptation. They do not strain impatiently to transform into dimly glimpsed future selves, nor do they strive with quixotic energy to return to an imagined original hunter-gatherer self.
If they do not strain to transform, they also do not strive for constancy. No doctrine of seabirdism elevates current contingencies into eternal values that imprison. The seabirds feast without worry on the unexpected bounty of salinity-killed fish. They do not ponder whether it is “natural.”
They are thankfully unburdened by the sorts of limiting self-perceptions that we humans enshrine into the doctrine of humanism. I think of humanism as an overweening conception of being flash-frozen into a prescription during a brief window of time in early-modern Europe. A time when humans had just gotten comfortable transforming nature, but had not yet been themselves transformed enough by the consequences to understand what they were doing.
That naked label, humanism, unadorned by prefixes like paleo- or trans-, reveals our continued failure to center our sense of self within larger non-human realities. Our big social brains can invent elaborate anthropomorphic gods and social realities within which we gladly subsume ourselves, but struggle to manufacture a sense of belonging to anything that includes dead fish, seabirds, engineered canal locks and seawater. Belonging has become an exclusively human idea to humans. We are still mean little inquisitors at the ongoing trial of Copernicus, resisting decentering realities that cannot be recursively reduced to the human. Man makes gods in his own image, blind to the non-human.
And so we distract ourselves with debates about the distinction between natural and artificial while ignoring the far more basic one between human and non-human.
So I rarely listen to music.
Music these days feels like a fog descending on my brain, obscuring visibility and tugging me gently inward into a cocoon of human belonging that promises warmth and security, but delivers an unsettling estrangement from non-human realities. Realities that are knocking with increasing urgency at the door of our species-identity.
Technology is more visual landscape than soundscape, but listening to pleasing human rhythms makes it harder to see technological ones. So even when there are no interesting soundscapes, I prefer silence. It is easy to miss frozen visual music when a soothing voice is piping fog into your brain through your ears. Perhaps all songs are lullabies.
Visible function lends lyricism to the legible but alien rhythms and melodies of technology-shaped landscapes. You can make out some of the words, like crane and unloading, but the song itself is generally impenetrable.
It is perhaps when the lyrics are at their most impenetrable that you can most pay attention to the song. To understand is to explain. To explain is to explain away and turn your attention elsewhere. Obviousness of function can sometimes draw a veil across form, by encouraging a too-quick settling into a comforting instrumental view of technology.
Oscillating slowly back and forth across sections of the Panama Canal, you will see strange boats carrying dancing fountains. I missed what the tour guide said, so I have no idea what this is.
Perhaps a fire-fighting boat of some sort, or a dredging vessel. But I don’t need to know. One of the minor benefits of an engineering education is a confidence in your ability to fathom function if the need arises, leaving you free to appreciate pure form without a sense of anxiety. Looking at this water-dancer of a boat, I found myself wondering about the place of this beast on a larger spectrum.
On one end you find the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park:
And at the other end, you find the orderly, authoritarian high-modernist fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, which dance to human music, for human entertainment.
Each is a glimpse of a different stratum of techno-natural geology. The human layer is built on top of the cryptohuman layer. The cryptohuman layer on top of the natural. Each layer offers up a water-dancer emissary to explain itself to us.
As an engineer, you no longer suffer those sudden stabs of uncomprehending anxiety that can be triggered in more humanistic brains by glances under the hood. When I hear a non-engineer seeking an answer to what does that thing do, half the time I hear, not curiosity, but fear. An urge to comprehend intimidating realities through the reassuring lens of human intention.
It takes an unnatural, inhuman instinct to ponder artificial form divorced from its intended function. But increasingly, this instinct is a necessary one if you seek to inhabit the twilight zone between human and non-human.
The Panama Canal is as much freshwater-fish-killer and seabird-free-lunch kitchen as it is a narrowly human shipping shortcut.
And it is also a manifestation of strange symmetries and cryptic generative laws, whose nature we do not completely understand, but feel an urge to unleash ever more completely. Technological landscapes have yet to experience their Watson and Crick moment.
And so we stand aside and ponder the deeper mysteries of banks of cranes, and wonder about the connection between Old Faithful, Water Dancer boats and the Bellagio fountains.
The Panama Canal is a great place to get up close and personal with container ships. I pursue ship-spotting opportunities with a mildly obsessive tenacity.
One of my evil twins, Alain de Botton, appears initially sympathetic to ship spotters in his writing, but admiration for their willingness to engage technology soon gives way to a sort of mildly patronizing humanism.
Admittedly, the ship spotters do not respond to the objects of their enthusiasm with particular imagination. They traffic in statistics. Their energies are focused on logging dates and shipping speeds, recording turbine numbers and shaft lengths. They behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade. But whatever their inarticulacies, the ship-spotters are at least appropriately alive to some of the most astonishing aspects of our time.
For de Botton, to resort to numbers as a mode of appreciation is inarticulacy. A visible symptom of a lack of poetic eye. It is a very humanist stance. One that reminds me of that famous quote (I forget the source) that claimed that it would take 500 Newton souls to make one Milton soul.
Rather ironic that that comparison required a number.
And there is something deeply sad about the fact that de Botton feels the urge to compare engagement with technology to the very inadequate benchmark of human love. Would kissing a ship, or singing a sonnet to it, be a more appropriate response than recording turbine numbers?
What is of immense importance to us as humans is not necessarily of importance to the non-human-centric universe qua NHCU. The implicit suggestion that writing a sonnet might perhaps be a better reaction than recording turbine numbers says more about our self-absorption than about turbines.
Taking refuge in numbers when faced with technological complexity is in part an acknowledgment of the poverty of a poetically enacted humanist life script . Numbers are how we grope for the trans-human.
I save my number-appreciation for private contemplation, and sometimes wax lyrical on this blog, but there is never any doubt in my mind. Numbers are the more fundamental mode of appreciation. And if your mathematical abilities limit you to mere counting, so be it. That’s better than pretending a container ship is a girl to be romanced.
When I was a kid, I used to visit my uncle who worked for the railways and lived in a railway town right by some trunk routes. I would sit on the porch and count the number of wagons on trains that went by, for hours on end. The delight of spotting the rare two-locomotive, hundred-plus-car train is not for the innumerate.
Counting is contemplation. Trains and container ships are our rosaries.
I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (recommended by many of you).
He is no great master of narrative or character development,but it is that very failing that elevates his writing to “interesting.” There is no denying that he looks at technology the way it ought to be looked at. Given a choice between saying something interesting about technology and crafting a better narrative by human literary aesthetics, he consistently chooses the former. And we’re better off for it.
When he occasionally attempts to capture in words the very non-verbal engagement of the world that is the characteristic of technologists, he offers a glimpse of what an alternative to poetry looks like. An example is an extended passage in Cryptonomicon where archetypal nerd Randy Waterhouse ponders the dynamics of dust storms in the eastern desert side of Oregon, and reaches conclusions about the open-ended strangeness of the natural world. That sort of idle train of thought is a far more appropriate reaction to technological reality than de Botton’s more articulate and poetic, but ultimately depth-limited engagement of the non-human.
Daniel Pritchett, a frequent email correspondent, IM buddy and my host in Memphis on my road trip last year, pointed me to a passage in Stephenson’s essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line, which reads thus:
Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.
Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom.
A little too harsh perhaps, but on the whole a fair indictment of the techno-illiterate. I wonder if Stephenson would consider de Botton one of the Eloi. I suspect he would. The acquittal argument for de Botton, in a Stephensonian court for technology-appreciation crimes, is that he is more romanticist than politically compromised postmodernist. His crimes are ultimately forgivable.
Stephenson’s typology helps us at least distinguish between two of the three fountains. The Water Dancer boat is a serendipitous Morlock fountain. The Bellagio fountain is an Eloi fountain constructed by Morlocks.
My reactions to the three fountains were different in interesting ways.
With Old Faithful, I found myself basically speechless and thoughtless. A division by zero moment.
With the Water Dancer fountain, I found myself in a state of happy contemplation.
With the Bellagio fountain, my mind immediately wandered to speculations about the the control algorithms and valve designs that would be needed to build the thing.
To be among the Eloi is to lack a true sense of scale, and a sense of when the clumsiest numerical groping with numbers is philosophically a better response than the most sublime poetry. The Eloi fundamentally do not get when to give up on words and turn to numbers.
It is a difference not of degree, but of kind. In Stephenson’s terms, de Botton finding the ship-spotters’ response ‘inarticulate’ is a case of one of the adult Eloi making fun of a Morlock baby.
Certainly some of the ship-spotters may never venture beyond a stamp-collector/model-builder/cataloger approach to ships (all very noble pursuits). But some will eventually end up in places where the Eloi would be entirely blind. Places where only numbers allow you to feel your way forward, away from the limited sphere where the light of humanist poetry shines.
Scale is perhaps the first aspect of reality where innumeracy severely limits your ability to engage reality.
Scale is a curious thing. Out on the open water, a container ship can seem normal-sized by some intuitive sense of “normal”.
But if you watch from the observation tower at Mira Flores, the sheer sheer size of one of these beasts starts becoming apparent. You get the sense that something abnormal is going on.
And once it is really close, little cues start to alter your sense of the various proportions involved, like this lifeboat and Manhattan fire-escape style stairways.
Cruise ships give you a sense that a large modern ship is something between a luxury hotel and a small city in terms of scale, but container ships give you a sense of the non-human scales involved.
Partly this is because cruise ship designers go to great lengths to make you forget that you are on a ship (which lends a whole new meaning to “Disney-like sensorial interfaces”). But mainly it is because our minds cling so eagerly to the human that even the slightest foothold is sufficient for anthropocentric perspectives to dominate thought. I am no more immune than anybody else. My eyes instinctively sought out the lifeboat and stairways — human scale things. Earlier in this essay, I felt obliged to describe the technological landscape by analogy to human music-making.
You can see why I think de Botton is my evil twin. He embraces tendencies that I also see in myself, but am intensely suspicious of. I don’t trust my own attraction to poetry when it comes to appreciating technology.
Scale is not just about comparisons and proportions. It is also about precision.
Take this little engine that runs along the side of the lock on tracks, steadying the ship. The clearance for some ships is in the inches, and it takes many of these little guys to keep a large ship moving slowly, safely and steadily through the lock. Inches in a world of miles. Ounces in a world of tons.
It is when one scale must interact with another in this manner that you get a true sense of what scale means. This is another reason numbers matter. You cannot appreciate precision without numbers (I remember the first time I experienced scale-shock in the numerical-precision sense of the term: when I learned that compressors in rocket engines must spin at over 40,000 RPM. I remember spending something like half an hour trying to understand that number, 40,000 as a mechanical rotation rate).
Scale and precision make for a non-verbal aesthetic. To have a true sense of scale is to give up the sense of being human. You cannot identify with the very large and very small if much of your identity is linked to an object that can be contained within a box about six feet long.
The more I study technology, the more I tend to the view that it is a single connected whole. Recurring motifs like container ships can turn into obsessions precisely because they offer glimpses of a cryptic God. An object for the devoutly atheist and anti-humanist soul to seek in perpetuity, but never quite comprehend.
I go on infrastructure pilgrimages. I write barely readable pop-theology treatises with ponderous titles like The Baroque Unconscious in Technology, and I do my little dabbling with math, software and hardware on the side.
But I still haven’t seen It. Just an elbow here, a shoulder blade there. And I make my modest attempts to measure those distances.
This essay is my sneaky way of getting around my own no-PowerPoint rule for Refactor Camp 2012, where my talk will be on motifs, mascots and muses. The event has sold out. Thanks everybody for your great support, and looking forward to meeting everybody.
If you put yourself on the waitlist, I’ll see what I can do. I am waiting to hear from the venue staff about whether there is capacity beyond the nominal maximum of 45.
Also, for those of you in Chicago, a heads-up. I’ll be there for the ALM Chicago conference next week, Feb 22-23, where I’ll be doing a talk titled Breathing Data, Competing on Code. The Neal Stephenson quote is involved.
Make it if you can. Or email me, and perhaps we can do a little meetup if there’s a couple of readers there.