Recently I encountered the perfect punchline for my ongoing exploration of technology: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. The timing was perfect, since I’ve been looking for an organizing idea to describe how I understand technology.
Looking back over the technology-related posts in my archives over the last five years, this technology-is-nature theme pops out clearly, as both a descriptive and normative theme. I don’t mean that in the sense of naive visions of bucolic bliss (though that is certainly an attractive technology design aesthetic) but in the sense of technology as a manifestation of the same deeper lawfulness that creates forests-and-bears nature. Technology at its best allows for the fullest expression of that lawfulness, without narrow human concerns getting in the way.
I will explain the title in a minute but first, here is my technology sequence of 14 posts written over the last five years. The organizing narrative for the sequence comes from this technology-is-nature idea that informs my thinking, whether I am pondering landfills or rusty ships.
- An Infrastructure Pilgrimage
- Meditation on Disequilibrium in Nature
- Glimpses of a Cryptic God
- The Epic Story of Container Shipping
- The World of Garbage
What Technology Wants
- The Disruption of Bronze
- Bay’s Conjecture
- Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law
- Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet
- Welcome to the Future Nauseous
- Technology and the Baroque Unconscious
- The Bloody-Minded Pleasures of Engineering
- Towards a Philosophy of Destruction
- Creative Destruction: Portrait of an Idea
Technology is central to all my thinking, but my relationship with it is complicated. I no longer think of myself as an engineer. On the other hand, though I think and write a lot about the history, sociology, psychology and aesthetics of technology, I do not have the humanities mindset. I am not a humanist (or that very humanist creature, a transhumanist). I am pretty solidly on the science-and-engineering side of C. P. Snow’s famous two-cultures divide.
Engineering is generally understood in instrumental terms by both practitioners and observers: as something you do with a set of skills. By contrast, I have tended in recent years to understand it in appreciative terms.
So you could say that my writing on technology over the years has turned into something resembling art history of the critical variety (the connection is made somewhat explicit in one of my posts in the previous sequence).
Perhaps as a result, I have been accused in the past (with some justification) of turning my technology writing and thinking into a sort of sloppy anthropomorphic thermodynamic theology based on loose notions of technological agency, entropy and decay.
While there is certainly a degree of wabi sabi in my technological thinking, in my defense I would say that when I lurch into purple prose or bad poetry, it has less to do with deeply held conceptual beliefs and more to do with attempting to convey the sense of grandeur that I think is appropriate for the proper appreciation of technology.
We reserve for overtly showy things like cathedrals the kind of awe that should really be extended (multiplied several times) to apparently mundane things like shipping containers. We cannot make sense of the modern human condition until we begin to understand that interchangeable parts for everyday machines are actually a far greater achievement than more narrowly humanist expressions of who we are.
I will leave it at that. I think I am going to be writing more about technology appreciation in the future.