This blog has occasionally taken issue with technology, especially when that technology seems designed not to facilitate a solution but simply to move product. But technology and desire, as Apple have shown us time and again, are fiercely interpenetrated, and often the hype of a technological advance like the iPod, iPhone or iPad is actually matched by category-creating performance. Suddenly we have a need we never had before.
Now the moralists and ideologists will fret that the new technology will transform us so much we will lose our moral or ideological compass, unless we can maintain control over the technology. That is the meme driving fantasies from H.G. Wells through the Terminator and the Matrix. If that idea makes you feel better, go ahead and have it. But it is wrong. Of course the technology changes us, it always has.
Most of our “traditional” culture from harvest festivals to religious holidays is based on agricultural civilization, which is to say a human society completely and utterly transformed by the technology of sedentary crop cultivation. A whole slew of domestic traditions and artifacts from the bowl of fruit on the table, the breadbox, the garden bed and even the domesticated dog are relics of the technology of agriculture and how it changed the way we live, interact, and think. Even many of our current cultural clashes derive from the clash of sedentary cultures with surviving migratory societies in places like Mongolia and Arabia.
Even more apparent in our 21st century physical everyday are the legacies of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, which is to say, respectable middle-class culture caused by the mass production of goods and services. The reason there is a lawn in front of my house (and a lawn mower in the shed), a dining room, a living room or parlor and bedrooms is a result of an entire moral universe crafted in no small part by industrialization and urbanization. If those room-sized artifacts seem suburban rather than urban, that is exactly the point: there is no need – no possibility – of the conceptualization of a suburban ideal in the absence of industrial urbanization. You need to be confronted by the technology that is the city before you can possibly desire a suburb as respite.
Even the artifacts within the home are evidence of the spread of this ideal and the emergence of a consumer marketing-driven technological advances. The ideal requires cultivation in the form of a piano, which industry transforms into the mass-market parlor organ, which eventually becomes the Victorola and then the HDTV. Each transforms our behavior, preparing the soil for the next new crop.
Now, in the 19th and 20th centuries as the suburban ideal spread and middle-class values took over, most of the artifacts and performances we now recognize as “traditional” in holidays were invented, which is why Dickens’ a Christmas Carol is so effective: it takes us back to the time our modern idea of Christmas began. The rise of middle-class living and ongoing technological revolutions in the domestic realm also meant that conditions enjoyed by a minority in 1900 – running water, water closets, kitchens, automobiles – were enjoyed by the majority in 2000. The tradition of having a stove in your kitchen, a bathroom in your house or a garage of any kind emerged in the last four generations.
So, I don’t wonder why I suddenly need an iPod and iPhone or an iPad – I wonder why I need a toilet or an automobile, because that was what the iPod was a century ago. My last house even had an “early-adopter” toilet with the water tank way up high (although that was actually a 1980s retro design, which introduces the idea of nostalgia, where I shan’t go today.)
Of course, the great game-changer today is “social networking,” the Facebook phenomenon. I have colleagues I have worked with since the days of typewriters and carbon copies who now longer telephone me or even email me – they simply send me a message on Facebook. I admit I got addicted to it two years ago when I was trying to find a certain song from a movie and one minute later I had the entire soundtrack – while I was on vacation in Mexico. The other night I chatted with a friend in Holland and my kids can visit their cousins in Far West Texas on Skype almost anytime they want. Last week we had houseguests from Japan so I got out the Japanese phrasebooks we used there five years ago but the kids simply carried a laptop around and let Google translate do the talking. I can lament all of the pre-Internet skills I learned that are no longer necessary, but History won’t be listening.
Why didn’t the moralists and ideologists convince us we didn’t need telephones and radios? God knows they tried, they always do. They fail. I read an article yesterday about the relative moralities (ooh – that is a fun phrase right there!!) of conservatives, liberals and libertarians, which had a nice analysis of that topic but then plopped an unexamined idea – Progress – at the end.
Progress as a concept emerges in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution along with its yin-yang counterpart: History. Both imagine a trajectory, and that image was in fact a new image in 1800, because most humans had a more cyclical view of life and time (I dealt with the idea of linear time in the last blog.) Some aspect of what we call “Progress” may be a natural condition of the churn that is life but mostly it is a value judgment, and one I sometimes share because I generally prefer now to then. But I am not convinced that NOW is better, nor I am I convinced like so many that THEN is better, and I don’t think that is a moral evasion as much as the recognition of a scientific reality. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann was constantly pushing me away from “either-or” historical analysis and forcing me to recognize the prevalence of “both-and.”
The moral question gets asked and re-answered with every technological and societal shift – that is why all ideologies are wrong, because they presuppose a static reality that never is or was – there is only historical and contingent reality. Part of that reality, is of course, a deep human desire for constants.
There are two constants: Humans have a deep seething desire to innovate and a deep seething desire to keep things as they are. And both are always true.