Humans as technological creatures

One version of the Greek myth of the origin of technology goes as follows: Prometheus, the Titan blessed with foresight, is given the task of distributing qualities to all the creatures on earth. Prometheus has an annoying brother called Epimetheus, cursed with forgetfulness, who follows him everywhere. Epimetheus begs his brother to let him do the job, and somewhat unwisely, or perhaps thinking of more enjoyable things he could do, Prometheus accepts the offer. So Epimetheus goes diligently to work in distributing the qualities to all the creatures. To some, like the Lion, he gives strength, power, claws and the ability to roar. To others creatures that might fall prey to the Lion, like a Zebra, he gives agility, speed, and the ability to blend into the environment. And so to all creatures Epimetheus tries as best he can to distribute the qualities evenly, and so produce a balance between all living things. Having distributed all the qualities he returns to his brother, proud of his efforts, only for Prometheus to realise that Epimethues, in his forgetfulness, has forgotten to give humans any qualities. Humans are then those creatures left naked and forgotten in the distributions of qualities. Prometheus, probably frightened of the gods anger at his failure to complete the task appointed to him, embarks upon a foolhardy mission to steal fire from Zeus, king of the gods. Thus Prometheus gives to humans the skill and mastery of fire. As punishment for his thieving, Zeus binds Prometheus to a rock while a great eagle eats his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.

Fire, then, is the origin of what we now call technology and what’s significant here is that the origin of technology is simultaneous with the origin of humanity. The consequence of this reading of the myth, as elaborated by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (who, incidentally, became a philosopher whilst serving jail time for armed robbery) is that humans are humans because they have fire. Humans are not creatures who invent technology, but are themselves technological creatures. So from the beginning of time we are, through and through, technological beings. There is no pure essence of humanity which then goes on to discover and invent technologies over time. We are contaminated from the get-go and what defines us is our technical nature, our technicity.

I hope that isn’t too arcane. The reason I bring it up is because of the way it re-frames how we think about our relationship to technology. This re-framing gives us a better chance to think about how to deal with technologies as they come into our lives, and the ever increasing speed with which we, as a species, express ourselves technologically. The most obvious result of complicating the relationship between humans and technology is to make Luddite hysteria look absurd. By buying an iPod and a MacBook Pro I’m certainly guilty of encouraging the cult of Apple Mac, that sacred society of fanatics that surely don’t need any more encouragement, nor any more of my money. But in spite of their shiny curves and fetish-tendencies, I’m not endangering the future of humanity by using them. They are not going to spontaneously “wake-up” one day and decide to kill me, and this is because they are extensions of myself. The computer is just an external accessory of my body, a prosthetic device that does the same kind of processing that I can do and only eclipses my “natural” abilities with its (admittedly impressive) capacity for processing speed and information storage.

But at the same time as this reading of the myth of the Epimetheus challenges the reactionary, it also challenges that perspective which relentlessly fetishizes technology, ascribing to it an almost infinite power of emancipation, of problem-solving, of transcendence and even mortality. If we exaggerate this perspective into a narrative caricature, then it goes something like this: At the start of human history we had no technology and were completely primitive. As we started to discover more technology we became less primitive, and the more quickly we got more and better technology the faster we shed our primitivism and at some point emerged as modern. And as our “modern” technologies become more “advanced” we become more “modern” and more “advanced” until, presumably, in the future we will have become so advanced and modern that will we be “post-human” and immortal. Soon after this we rocket off into space (having despoiled our own planet) looking for another planet to continue the advance (and the despoiling).

But if we humans are always already technological creatures, then it’s easy to falsify this linear narrative of progress. For example, an Australian soldier currently on duty in Afghanistan is equipped with an automatic rifle called a Steyr AUG, a weapon which would be considered more advanced than the rifle the same soldier’s grandfather would have used in World War II, and it would certainly be considered a more advanced technology than the Woomera used by the indigenous people. But it depends on what one means by “advanced”. Certainly, the obsessive effort given to making the weapon more efficient leads to experiments with different materials, mechanisms and designs which do make the weapon more efficient than others before it. But while efficiency may lead to advantage, it doesn’t make it any more or less advanced. If the automatic rifle, like the computer, is an extension of the body and it’s capacity, and is therefore still human, then the advanced technology remains the fact that the human stands on two legs and has its hands free to operate the weapon. Bipedalism and opposable thumbs are a much more advanced technology than even the most horrific weaponry.

Of course, if we step outside the military barracks and into a world that includes ecological ethics, then such a claim of being “advanced” becomes obscene. Cast in this light, an automatic rifle and it’s unrivaled capacity for killing is absolutely not an advance, and it’s the Woomera that is the advanced technology. The Woomera, which is a tool that lengthens the arm of the spear-thrower, is an efficient killing device, but it only can only kill once per throw, and if you attach a sharpened stone to it then it doubles as an axe to chop wood and meat. It’s advanced because it has multiple uses, and more importantly, it’s capacity does not exceed the needs of the person who uses it. It’s advanced because it’s not an automatic rifle, it doesn’t give you a disproportionate advantage over your environment, which, ecologically speaking, is a wonderful thing. Disproportionate advantage in an ecological system leads to catastrophe for the system. In this way indigenous people were very advanced in their technological expression. It’s a difference between what the poet and critic David Antin calls a “software solution” and “hardware solution”. Take the problem of seasonal water-shortages. The software solution, as practiced by indigenous cultures, was to figure out which water-holes ran out first, and which water-holes would run out last, and to chart their journey through the country based on that solution. It’s an elegant, tactful solution to a problem that is, I would argue, emblematic of a highly advanced culture. The hardware solution to the water-shortages problem is to commission a dam, and begin a massive engineering project requiring vast materials, resources and labour. No doubt a dam is an impressive structure, but as Charlie Weir will tell you about the Tallawa dam, which he helped build, the ecological result for the lower Shoalhaven since it went up in 1976 is devastating, and irreparable, short of pulling it all down again.

Nick

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