Consider the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. These three paleolithic statuettes were made from different materials – stone, mammoth tusk, ceramic. Each depicts a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Each head is abbreviated, with no face; the legs taper to points. What were they for? What purpose did they serve?
The only guess we can make with any confidence is that they likely served multiple purposes, whatever those purposes were. Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes.
As we go back in time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed. Each person must wear many hats and perform many functions. Each tool must serve many purposes. In this highly condensed order, a minor innovation in some specific technological function would not be worth much, as it would likely come at the expense of some other function.
In our prehistory, Nick Szabo explains,
institutions usually condensed the functions of religion with business, business with politics and war, law with lore, tort law with criminal law, ceremony with accounting, and gang warfare with a substantial body of customary rules. Objects could condense the functions of jewelry with coinage, and concrete utility with media of obligation satisfaction and store of value.
Settled people, on the other hand, can collect more stuff. Going forward in time, artifacts with specialized purposes proliferate, and people specialize. New institutions appear. The cultural package de-condenses. It can look like a mess.
Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.
Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.
The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:
First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”
Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.
The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.
De-Condensing, Unbundling, Refactoring
I have previously described some of the ways that activities and institutions have become de-condensed:
The lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid reflect material well-being. But material abundance is not itself the cause of anomie and angst. Rather, ancestral, evolved solutions to lower-level problems also tended to contain solutions to higher-level problems as well. As these ancestral solutions are made obsolete by solutions that are more efficient on the material level, the more ineffable, higher-level problems they solved present themselves anew. Simple abundance of food is not the cause of obesity, but rather the loss of carefully evolved ancestral diets. Our ancestors found it easy to get to sleep because they were tired from intense physical activity; we often find it a challenge to get to sleep because modern solutions to material problems do not include physical activity. We are lonely and bored not because of material abundance simpliciter, but because the specific cultural patterns that have reproduced themselves to produce material abundance have whittled away the social and psychological solutions that were built into old solutions to material problems.
Gabriel Duquette describes how movies, games, and art de-condense (unbundle) various needs:
Unbundling – Elements formerly only available as part of a unitary object are now sold separately, like nutritional supplements instead of food. Those who only want the competence porn aspect of science fiction (without, say, the romance or character development) can get it from The Martian.
Food was probably the first domain of de-condensation. In early prehistory, a technological revolution (cooking, and a more varied diet) abstracted nutrition away from the past order, which involved sitting around chewing for ten hours a day. The change disrupted not only our behavior, but our bodies; our saliva, mouth, teeth, and gut adapted to this change. And agriculture changed everything all over again. Only recently, after yet more technological revolutions (abstracting fertilizer into constituent chemicals, abstracting micronutrients from food), have humans overcome the stunting and nutritional deficiencies that became common after the agricultural de-condensation event.
Refactoring at a minimum de-condenses a concept in a new way. At its best, it re-condenses the mess it makes into a new whole.
The Sacred Wholeness
Many of us moderns have a wistful feeling for the simpler, more condensed order of the (imagined) past. We might not want to be subsistence farmers, but a cast iron pot over the fire, in a rustic cabin in the snow, evokes a longing. Our own objects do not seem so dense with meaning.
Each time we become aware of bad fit in the world – traffic, getting sore from sitting in a chair too long, a moment of loneliness, a software malfunction – we are tempted to nod along with the Unabomber that industrialization was a mistake.
So we can understand, a little bit, why technological change triggers a sacredness immune response. Technology threatens the fragile order with which humans orient themselves. Technology threatens to tear the fabric of society, and even to carve up humans themselves into separate functions. Previous structures of meaning may not survive.
Technological de-condensation is a kind of logical analysis, and logical analysis is very impolite in sacred matters. Technology breaks down unified structures and demonstrates that they are partible. Christopher Alexander describes a “loss of innocence” when using logical, instead of intuitive (sacredness-respecting), means for design:
The use of logical structures to represent design problems has an important consequence. It brings with it the loss of innocence. A logical picture is easier to criticize than a vague picture since the assumptions it is based on are brought out into the open. Its increased precision gives us the chance to sharpen our conception of what the design process involves. But once what we do intuitively can be described and compared with nonintuitive ways of doing the same things, we cannot go on accepting the intuitive method innocently.
Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form
Technology brings to the light of conscious reflection, and therefore renders profane, the functions underlying previously sacred objects and relations.
One of the most amazing things about technology and sacredness is that (according to Seth Abrutyn) the domain of the sacred is itself a product of technological revolution and refactoring.
Abrutyn examines the so-called Axial Age (around 800-200 B.C.) and claims that sacredness and piety emerge for the first time as a separate and autonomous domain. “Religious entrepreneurs” (such as Buddha and Confucius) carved out a specifically religious domain, separate from kinship relationships and the political domain in which they had previously been embedded. And here is yet another synonym for de-condensation: “‘disembedding’ human concerns related to integration, origins of humanity, and morality/ piety from kinship and polity and embedding them in the logic of religion” (Abrutyn). The sacred itself got refactored.
People are very sacred. Technologies that refactor, disrupt, and de-condense human beings are perceived as extremely dangerous to sacredness.
Clocks de-condense time from people, so that their hours may measure their sacrifice in exchange for wages. This is the basis for industrialization. Industrialization de-condenses particular behaviors from humans. Sacredness responses to this include Marx’s alienation of labor, in which humans through industrialization are separated from their species-essence.
Vaccines, antibiotics, and medicines de-condense human health from its previous context of mystery and randomness. Birth control de-condenses human reproduction. This allows sexual relationships to be de-condensed from mating relationships. The production of new humans is de-condensed by in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. Communications technology de-condenses human relationships into messages. Hormones and surgical technology de-condense gender. Sex robots threaten to de-condense human relationships altogether. The sacredness of the “whole” person is threatened by each of these intrusions into its functioning.
One author laments the de-condensation of talking to people:
— Bret Victor (@worrydream) October 27, 2016
I think this is an important statement about the coercion that is naturally present in highly condensed culture. In a culture without electronic maps and online encyclopedias of everything, you have to talk to people in order to serve your needs. The absence of this technology provided excuses – plausible deniability – for presumably pleasant social interactions.
It is true that having choices does not always make us better off (I give many examples of choices making people worse off here). Given the choice to talk to people or not, I might choose not to annoy anybody. But I might prefer to talk to people without it being my fault. (Successful online dating technologies provide mechanisms for plausible deniability of interest, such as “matching” only after minimal mutual interest is signaled.) Earlier levels of technology forced us to do a lot of things, some of which were good for (most of) us. It’s not incoherent to regret having a choice that you didn’t have before.
Many people, however, are benefited by the separation of functions. People with ambulatory disabilities, chronic fatigue syndrome, or some forms of chronic pain are much better off not having to do manual labor or walk everywhere. Deaf people have more opportunities when more communication takes place in written text. Blind people can participate more easily in a world abstracted from the visual through software, text, and computerized voice transcription. People who have trouble with eye contact and face-to-face communication are better off with more opportunities for text-based relationships.
Technology implies a kind of coercion: you have no choice but to sit in traffic if you want to go anywhere, and you can’t go back to an earlier order. Pre-technological condensation implies coercion, too: you can’t have access to one function without everything that it’s attached to. But neither of these forms of coercion is necessarily worse. In any change, there are winners and losers. The instinct to return to a sacred wholeness, a system in which all the parts fit, including the human parts, is healthy. But the way to this wholeness, if it exists at all, is forward, not back.
The Age of Recondensation
The general trend in human culture is toward de-condensation. Yet I write this from the most highly condensed artifacts that ever existed: a mobile tablet. This small object (like the ubiquitous smartphone) condenses innumerable functions: a detailed map of the world, a telephone, a newspaper (sending and receiving), an encyclopedia, an alarm clock, a musical instrument, a research library, a neighborhood pub, a stereo, a video camera, a game console, an art studio, and new functions still to be thought of.
Many of the technological advances of the past few years condense functions within an artifact. Airbnb adds a function to a house: where previously it was a consumption good, now it is also something to rent on the market. Uber and Lyft do the same for automobiles. Self-driving cars de-condense driving from human effort and attention; in doing so, the automobile is re-condensed into a space where new functions are possible.
The grocery chain Whole Foods re-condenses food with piety and the sacred. The “wholeness” of food, before it was desacralized by industrial processing, is hinted at in the name. Stores are anchored by a prominent produce section, where shiny, earthy-tasting greens gleam from the beets they’re still ostentatiously attached to. Most of the shelves of Whole Foods, of course, contain processed foods, like this:
This food is a processed, highly palatable and convenient rectangle that nonetheless proclaims its connection to the “whole” foods that went into making this. (I’m not hating, I had this on my counter because I like them.) The point is that we are in an age of recondensation, in which technology begins to heal the ruptures it has caused. This is my optimistic portrait of the glorious technological future: