Our Place in History
11 July 2009
Our place in the history of life is the subject matter of biology. Our place in the history of technology is the subject matter of a subject that has not yet emerged in history. There is, as yet, nothing that we could call a history of high technology; all of it is too new to be seen in historical perspective. And the science of biology was elaborated from the time of Aristotle until the middle of the nineteenth century until it finally acquired a genuine natural history, and this is a history we are still discovering. In any case, we should not be surprised that we have not yet acquired an historical perspective on our place within the Technological Revolution, and we should not expect it any time soon.
There are many people alive today (whether the majority or not, I don’t know) who were born before the advent of digital consumer electronics. This means that those of us who have witnessed the evolution to date of the personal computer and the cell phone and all degrees of personal electronic devices between the two have been through the early rapid changes and have been intimately acquainted with the details of now defunct operating systems. This gives us a unique perspective on them.
On the one hand, our conception of personal electronic devices is tied to early paradigms that may no longer hold true, and this may prevent us from making full use of recent innovations. On the other hand, we have an historical perspective on the evolution of computers, and that makes it possible for us to understand why things are the way they are today. We remember the early browser wars, and the choice between operating systems. If Google’s planned (at the date of this writing) Chrome operating system ultimately displaces or even seriously challenges Microsoft’s Windows, we will remember that too.
In his essay “Poetry in the Eighteenth Century” (The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: From Dryden to Johnson, Volume 4), T. S. Eliot wrote, “It is dangerous to generalize about the poetry of the eighteenth century as about that of any other age; for it was, like any other age, an age of transition.” This is a wise observation that resists tempting simplifications, but if we generalize it to other cases we would be violating the spirit of the observation, however much it deserves a generalized formulation as a principle. But perhaps there is a principle already formulated under which Eliot’s observation can be subsumed.
Eliot’s observation may be considered an application to the history of poetry of what cosmologists call the Copernican Principle: that our perspective is not privileged, but may be assumed to be like other perspectives. (Cf. More Evidence for the Copernican Principle) In its original form, the Copernican Principle was simply that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We are used to this idea now, and the general principle behind Copernicanism has been repeatedly extended to keep up with the growth of scientific knowledge.
If every age is an age of transition, then our age is like every other age; hence our perspective on temporal and historical periodization is not privileged. But there is a plain-speaking and level-headed riposte to T. S. Eliot in William Carroll Bark’s Origins of the Medieval World. Bark writes that when one is confronted with distinct periodizations one may, “fall back on the cliché that all ages are ages of transition,” but Bark goes on to suggest that, “an age of transition in the narrow and proper sense, [is] an age characterized by unusually rapid and significant change and marking a decisive passage from one stage to another.” (pp. 3-4)
How then shall we understand our place in the history of technology? Do we occupy a privileged place in the early development of consumer digital electronics, something that is unique and is not likely to ever be repeated in the history of our species, or will future technology evolve so rapidly that all future ages will be ages of transition and the human species from here on out will have to evolve and adapt as rapidly as our technology changes? This thought brings us around to our old friend the Technological Singularity, upon which I have written several posts.
As a singularity skeptic, I am expecting current technologies to level off and achieve a robust level of integration into ordinary human use, just has been the case with automobiles. Thus I stand with Bark, and against Eliot, that there are ages of rapid and significant change. Moreover, in respect to technological innovation, we are living in such an era which will establish standards for man-machine interfaces that will converge upon moderately optimal solutions for the obvious problems posed by such interfaces. This happened before with the advent of printing, which more of less froze the development of modern European languages in the stage of development they enjoyed at the time. The man-book interface was established in the sixteenth century after a brief and rapid period of experimentation and exploration. Now this is occurring with respect to digital technologies.
Whether or not our privileged perspective on the computer and technological revolution constitutes a violation of the Copernican Principle depends upon how narrowly we formulate that principle, and investigating different degrees of strength in the formulation of the Copernican principle would be an endeavor well worth the effort. I suspect that we would learn something about our assumptions embedded in the Copernican Principle through such an investigation.
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