Our Place in History

11 July 2009

Saturday


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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.

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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.

The branching bush of early computer evolution.

The branching bush of early computer evolution.

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.

T. S. Eliot formulated an historical principle on the avoidance of generalizing, which, as a general principle, is self-negating.

T. S. Eliot formulated an historical principle on the avoidance of generalizing, which, as a general principle, is self-negating.

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.

Copernicus was the game-changer in the history of cosmology, and if we follow his lead we find that we must think differently not only about space, but also about time and history.

Copernicus was the game-changer in the history of cosmology, and if we follow his lead we find that we must think differently not only about space, but also about time and history.

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.

In Ptolemaic cosmology human beings on the surface of the earth are privileged observers because they occupy the center of the universe.

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.

By the 1930s the basic conventions of car design had been established; since then, while improvements have been constant, they have also been incremental and non-revolutionary.

By the 1930s the basic conventions of car design had been established; since then, while improvements have been constant, they have also been incremental and non-revolutionary.

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.

The conventions of printed books were rapidly established during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and remain with us today.

The conventions of printed books were rapidly established during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and remain with us today.

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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4 Responses to “Our Place in History”

  1. Gregor Mieder said

    Thank you for a marvelously concise and thoughtful post. The notion of “surge-like technological advances” does much to illuminate the age-old riddle as to why a man on the moon does nothing to alleviate societal ills or human catastrophes, and how, while finding our selves “within that surge,” we like to believe that in fact it will. Perhaps SciFi in the 30ies and on was so successful because, caught in the upsurge of innovation, people were indeed likely to believe that in mere decades we would have abolished monetary systems, eat freely available synthesized foods and wear jump suits. As your post seems to suggest, or as I seem to read into it, optimism is closely linked to your notion of privileged perspective.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Mieder,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. We can go further and observe that technological advances are not only surge-like, but that the surges are focused on particular areas of development. Thus one area of technological development may advance all out of proportion with other areas. This says something about the example you mention of why a man on the moon does not alleviate social ills, and also why we have advanced computers today but no jetpacks.

      Rather than saying that a privileged perspective is linked to optimism, I would say that a privileged perspective is linked to self-deception. Those who are privileged in a social sense are notoriously unaware of the world outside their bubble of privilege, and so too those who are privileged in an historical, cosmological, or ontological sense are usually blissfully unaware of the greater world beyond. But, in so far as optimism is a form of self-deception, your characterization may be apt.

      Thanks again!

      Nick

  2. xcalibur said

    Technology is a sword with two edges. Nuclear energy and the nuclear bomb, medicine and biological warfare, etc. Going beyond this, technology can have major impacts on society, in expected and unexpected ways. Gutenberg may not have realized the effect that the printing press and movable type would have on the world. The same could be said about Watt and the steam engine.

    Computers and Internet have been the most recent revolution in history. As much as they continue to change the world, I’m doubtful about a singularity. Technology is entwined with society and its constructs, and a society may not use its technology in all ways that are possible. It may also limit technology for social reasons. There are many precedents for this. As Bark mentioned, Rome had access to watermills/windmills, yet did not use them nearly as much as their medieval descendants because they had a slave society. Of course, China’s restrictions on gunpowder is an example of censoring/limiting technology for social reasons (if peasants had guns, the imperial bureaucracy couldn’t be secure).

    In the future, it may become possible to 3d print all sorts of things just by feeding resources into the machine. But the potential for 3d printing guns, pirating technology, etc. could lead to severe limitations on how far we take 3d printing. There’s also limitations on resources, and with 7 billion people, everyone wanting advanced technology would put a strain on rare earth resources, unless we colonize space. I could keep going, but that’s the general idea – technology is tied to cultural factors which can greatly alter its effect.

    As for Origins of the Medieval World, one of my favorite passages is on page 88. Also, there’s this quote from elsewhere in the book: “Theories about rights, freedom and dignity are dangerous, however — dangerous to tyrannies of all kinds, of ignorance, poverty, superstition and the rest.” That sums up the importance of political philosophy imo, although that’s another topic.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Agreed that technology is tied to cultural factors, and that there are any number of reasons why a (promising) technology might not be exploited: it might be purposefully suppressed, but it also might be ignored because it is incommensurable with the social order, or people might have no interest in it, and so on.

      My current favorite example of an unexploited technology is nuclear rockets. There are many interesting designs for nuclear rockets, and it is likely that they would be much more powerful and efficient than chemical rockets (powerful enough to be in the launch stage of a rocket), but with the combination of public skittishness over nuclear technology and governmental effort to reduce the possibility of nuclear proliferation, nuclear rockets have almost completely disappeared from the space travel agenda.

      Even when it comes to war, where most usually assume that anything goes, cultural forces frequently prevail over military necessity. (I wrote about this in Civilization and War as Social Technologies and Deep Battle and the Culture of War.)

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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