Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing

The story of barbed wire is one of the most instructive ones in the history of technology.  The short version is this: barbed wire (developed between 1860 to 1873) helped close the American frontier, carved out the killing fields of World War I, and by spurring the development of the tank as a counter-weapon, created industrial-era land warfare. It also ended the age-old global conflict between pastoral nomads and settled agriculturalists (of animals, vegetables and minerals) and handed a decisive victory to the latter. Cowboys and Indians alike were on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Quite a record for a technology that had little deep science or engineering behind it.

Barbed wire is an example of a proximal-cause technology that eventually disturbed multiple human balances of powers, starting with the much-mythologized cowboys-versus-ranchers balance. When things finally stabilized, a new technological world order had emerged, organizing everything from butter to guns differently.  Barbed wire was not a disruptive innovation in the Clayton Christensen sense. It was something far bigger. Its introduction marked what Marshall McLuhan calledbreak boundary in technological evolution: a rapid, irreversible and wholesale undermining of a prevailing planet-wide technological equilibrium. So ironically, the ultimate boundary-maker of physical geography was a boundary breaker in technology history.

The story of barbed wire illustrates the core principle that I want to propose: an equilibrium in technological affairs is necessary for an equilibrium in political affairs. There is no possibility of a realpolitik equilibrium without a corresponding realtechnik equilibrium: a prevailing, delicately balanced configuration of technological forces across an entire connected political-economic-cultural space (which today is always the entire planet).

[Read more…]