Fake Fire: Is Technology Alone Enough?

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , ,

“[C]redited with influencing and describing the modern theory of increasing returns,” economist W. Brian Arthur (new window) applies the famous theory of exponential growth to the world of technology in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. In the book, Arthur jettisons jargon and uses lay terms to unpack some technological truisms we all take for granted: technology is ubiquitous; technology is fun; technology can amaze and astonish; technology defines our society, culture, politics, and economy. I was struck most of all, however, by a truism suggested by Arthur that I have not heard expressed in this particular way before: technology alone is “what separates us from the Middle Ages.”

In suggesting that technology, not ideology, is the single thing that separates eras of human history, Arthur contradicts a lot of innate feelings we humans have about ourselves. We like to think the species has somehow become more sophisticated or civilized in our thought processes—that a slow edification through time is what distinguishes us from our “primitive” ancestors, not just the fact that instead of smoke signals or carrier pigeons, we can text and send Facebook pokes. But, as Arthur explores, the reality of the difference between us and our forebears may not be so extreme. In fact, how little difference there is could perhaps be explained by understanding the difference between the real candles once used in street lamps and the light bulbs used in modern ones.

The analogy is my own, born of a thought I had one recent night while riding the bus home from Georgetown. I found myself wondering about the florescent light bulbs that glow in modern-day street lamps. Sure, they’re just light bulbs—a simple technology by today’s standards—but don’t they represent something more?

Life, and by extension, thought processes and attitudes, were certifiably different back when nocturnal activity was dictated by flimsy flames of real fire that flickered along the road. Today we use light bulbs—fake fire—to achieve real fire’s desired results: illumination, a feeling of safety, an ability to keep the metaphorical day going, heat if you stand close enough. And the fake fire is even invincible from weather elements, which has made our work, home, and social rituals longer, more numerous, and more variable. But what came first—the ideological shift, or the technological advancement? In this example, and probably in the vast majority, the technology preceded (and influenced and/or caused) the change in philosophy. Arthur’s contention that technology, not ideology, is the only worthy delineator of human history is a valid one: only after street lamps with real candles became street lamps with light bulbs did social habits and assumptions change.

It’s admittedly a scary thought that culture and technology might be so intertwined we can’t help but confuse shifts in attitude with shifts in gadgetry. Save iPods and cars and indoor plumbing, we might be no less belligerent or intolerant (or whatever it is that makes people “primitive”) than the people who came before us. Combining this with our cognizance of technology’s exponential progress, it makes sense that we therefore, though we revere and enjoy technology, tend to distrust it in some hard-to-pinpoint way. How else does one explain the 2011 commercial for the iPad 2, entitled “We Believe,” that focuses on just how un-technological the iPad 2 is despite the fact it is one of the most advanced mass-produced contraptions ever made?

(“Technology alone is not enough,” declares the ad.) How we manage to both exalt and fear the technological is a paradox too heady for this blog post, but allow me to assert that techno-distrust is probably just a part of human nature. Perhaps this is why ideological shifts are so hard to come by? The new technology that powers them are even harder to embrace.