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The Arch of Metahistory:
Technology

Technology is the “other shore” for humanity, the footing of the arch of metahistory opposite Sacred Nature. The arch is a symbolic device that visually interrelates the five master themes, and it does something else as well. It illustrates the single most urgent problem of history: How can our species connect the world of its own making with the world that made it human in the first place? The baseline of the arch unites Sacred Nature to Technology. It remains to be seen how this two themes can be coordinated for the best interests of the human family.

In many cultures of earlier times, the two were not separate. Over the vast reaches of collective human experience, until extremely recently, the sense of the sacredness of Nature has been closely associated with a careful and reverential way of doing things. This outlook is preserved today among the Canaque people of New Caledonia (Micronesia) for whom the term Do Kamo (pronounced DOKE-amo) is the equivalent to “authenticity.” This word indicates both the awareness of the Sacred and the way of acting to express that awareness. To the indigenous mind of the Canaque, Do Kamo is the mark of being authentically human, but this is not possible unless human beings recognize Sacred Nature and respond to it in appropriate ways. The Canaque say that Do Kamo is revealed by the way someone rows a canoe, eats a yam, or holds a newborn child. Such actions are not technology in the sense widely understood today, but they might provide us with a basis for reassessing what technology is, essentially. For the Canaque and other “first peoples” of the world, whatever the human species can achieve through the manipulation of Nature has to be grounded in a sane and reverential response to Nature. Moreover, to the indigenous mind this way of treating Nature is what makes us genuinely human. Anything else carries the potential risk of deviation from our inborn humanity.

Consistent with the scripts that attribute civilization to men, the initiators of culture are often represented as idealized male figures who possess technical and practical knowledge (although how they come by it is another question altogether). The Greek hero Triphonius is credited with the introduction of beekeeping, but he is also recognized as an architect. Curiously, the geodesic dome promoted in the Twentieth Century by R. Buckminster Fuller is constructed of interlocking triangles which imitate the hexagons of a honeycomb. The introduction of technology into society is often praised as “mastery over nature,” even though in many cases the initiators of technology learned their arts from nature in the first place. Thus there can arise a false opposition between nature and “techne”.
(Triphonius, pictured in a classical manual, Historia Deorum Fatidicorum.)

These considerations may seem remote from technology, but they are in fact intimate to every possible manifestation of it. The Greek word techne means “know-how, skill for doing something.” Translators of classic Greek works on science and philosophy render techne as “art, arts” in reference to such diverse activities as the art of weaving, the art of verbal persuasion, or the arts of civilization. In “know-how” the first component is knowledge, and the second is how to apply it. Thus techne always involves technique, the skilful way to perform a specific action, whether it be fording a stream or constructing a bridge over it. The primary tool of all action is the human body, the instrumentation of hand, fingers, arms and legs and the complex implementation of the physical senses. Paddling a canoe is techne, for the action requires a technique. Likewise, making the canoe by hand requires a battery of technical skills: choosing the wood, based on a knowledge of which tree will best serve the precise needs for a certain kind of craft suited to certain waters, fashioning the canoe so that it will be artfully made, comfortable and enduring, and so on. Reed boats built by the Indians of Lake Titicaca in the Andes are identical in form and construction to those that sailed the Nile 2500 BCE. The technology of reed boat building has persisted in Peru, but disappeared in Egypt. Another type of boat survives on the Nile, the wooden felucca that is lateen-rigged exactly as were the royal barges of the Pharaohs. The lateen rig is a simple device for fixing the sail to the mast in a way that permits versatility of navigation and optimal use of wind-power. The archaic technologies of reed construction and lateen-rigging have survived for millennia, not because their designers could not come up with anything better, but because they are so well-conceived that they cannot be improved.

Today we are constantly informed that technology is changing so rapidly that we can hardly keep up with it. In this familiar oracular message, the word “changing” carries the implication (perhaps even the imperative) of “improving.” The message here is that we need to keep up with the constant improvements in technology, otherwise our quality of life will decline or, at worst, we will be entirely and hopelessly lost. This assertion demonstrates the “technological imperative” whose validity has been closely analyzed by French cultural historian Jacques Ellul. The imperative demands staying current with every change and innovation. By contrast, the ancient and indigenous view of life is highly conservative. To the native mind, a technology that has to be continually improved is dubious, if not defective. Sun-baked clay tablets from Sumeria have survived for over 3500 years. Can anyone possibly imagine a CD-ROM lasting anywhere near that long?

Technology now drives civilization, so it is thematically linked to Origins. But the kind of civilization produced depends on the scale of application of the technology that drives it. In the 4th millennium BCE. agricultural engineering was introduced on a large scale in the Fertile Crescent, but small-plot agriculture had already existed for several millennia. Goddess-oriented societies that combined small-scale agriculture with nomadic pastoralism thrived peacefully in Old Europe and elsewhere before full-blown cities appeared. (See Gimbutas in suggested reading for Origins.) The limits of the technology evident in these peaceful societies reflects an indigenous sense of self-regulation that was forgotten or overridden when civilization grew out of smaller, human scale. The lesson to be drawn from these proto-historical settlements reflects the same principle often enunciated by native-mind peoples like the American Indians: a peaceful and sustainable society is one that preserves humanity’s right relation to its habitat. “Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself” (paraphrase of Chief Seattle).

The shift toward massive urbanization in the Middle East was driven by a combination of technologies. One huge contributor was cuneiform writing on clay tablets. The ancient counterpart of today’s “informational technology” (IT), this techne provided the means for keeping record of grain stocks and recording legal and commercial transactions. In combination with agricultural engineering, cunieform accounting allowed the Sumerians to advance rapidly with agro-business, but this initiative did not spread through the entire civilized world. It was limited to the region where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided the natural resources amenable to irrigation and organized sowing, planting and harvesting. The scale of the operations was large but not limitless. And the entire enterprise came to sudden, dramatic end around 2000 BCE perhaps due to flooding and then drought — perhaps uncannily similar to the excesses of climatic change now currently unfolding on the global scale.

The notion of “globalization” assumes that technology can be extended without limit, but this assumption contradicts a deeply ingrained sense of Moral Design. Scale and reciprocity are essential criteria for native-mind peoples, and they also seem to have been observed by the ancients in various cultures from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Chinese civilization was a highly organized and agriculturally-based mandate culture, yet it preserved an attitude toward Nature reflective of endowment cultures. (On mandate and endowment cultures, see Lexicon.) The Emperor, called the Son of Heaven, represented the human instrument of the overarching cosmic order proceeding from T’ien, “Heaven,” but the immediate expression of this order on earth was Tao, the polarity of natural cycles in the habitat. The notion of a higher intent proceeding from heaven is hierarchal, typical of a mandate culture. With its elaborate system of royal authorities focused on the Emperor, ancient China certainly reflected this hierarchal pattern. However, the actual organization of agrarian social life in ancient China was largely horizontal, reflecting a vast mosaic of endowment cultures who found their functional identity in relation to their local setting.

In Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham revealed the extent and sophistication of Chinese technology. Published in eight volumes beginning in 1954, this work presents evidence of impressive feats of technology in areas such as cartography, writing, metallurgy, astronomy, meteorology, botany, hydraulic engineering, agronomy, and more. Needham’s research extends over a vast range of particular arts: beekeeping, tanning and dying, tea cultivation, pisciculture and military technology. Some of these developments were a millennium or better in advance of their equivalents in the West. Many of the specific inventions he describes — the edge-runner mill, the piston bellows, harnesses for task animals, the cross-bow, drilling tools like the crankshaft — were still in use in China well into the early 20th century, exactly as they had been for the five preceding millennia. There is nothing in the least backward about the retention of such elementary and environmentally adapted technologies, or at least Needham did not think so. He argued that the best reason to acknowledge the scope and sophistication of technology in ancient China is to encourage the modern outlook toward “a more humane perception of the future.”

China is a striking case, but it is not the only example of a pre-industrial society of high technological achievement. Although the Roman Empire provided the model for global hegemony, the cultural and practical achievements of the Romans were in many ways both humane and in human scale. Roman viaducts of modest beauty are still used for public transport of water in southern France. Roman baths in Britain are still serviceable today. By the same measure, a Greek amphora, through usually found in a glass case in a museum, could as well serve its original function today as it did in 600 BCE. Classical European societies bequeathed to later centuries a wealth of know-how in many areas of life. Much of this techne was repressed or destroyed in the religious repression of the Middle Ages, but a fair amount survived. The Renaissance consisted not only in the rediscovery of Greco-Latin learning, but also in the revival of architecture, engineering, anatomy and other sciences.


The warning that technology can overwhelm and harm those who adopt it was signaled loudly and clearly by the most revered representative of the classical Western tradition, Plato. In the dialogue called Phaedrus Plato recounts a meeting between Thamus, an Egyptian king of the region of Thebes, and Thoth, legendary Egyptian sage and inventor. Where the text says, “Thoth came to show the king inventions,” the word used is technas, plural of techne. Several inventions were discussed, but the one that provoked the strongest response from Thamus was writing, alphabetic script (grammason). Thoth praises it highly: “This invention will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom.” To this the king replies, “Most ingenious Thoth, some have the ability to create arts, but to judge their usefulness or harmfulness belongs to others... You, who are the inventor of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite to that which they really possess.” The King explains to Thoth how the alphabet will discourage the use of the innate powers of memory. He warns that the tool to aid memory will come to replace it and the corresponding faculties will decline. Moreover, the King says, alphabetic writing is not an “elixir of wisdom” (sophias pharmicon): “it offers not wisdom, but the appearance of wisdom, for the people will read many things without instruction, and will therefore seem to know many things when they are for the most part ignorant, and so the will find it difficult to agree on what is known, since they are not wise, but only appear to be.” (Quotations from the Greek/English text of Phaedrus in the Loeb Classical Library. See Bibliography for details.)

In the third millennium CE, the monumental Industrial Revolution is a mere two hundred years old, yet the West believes itself to be fully “post-industrial.” Humanity has not yet edged beyond the third century since industrialization, yet it is widely thought that we live in a totally new era, the Digital or Electronic Age. The Thoths of computer science share with the inventors of the steam engine the imperialist assumption that their technology will rule and improve the entire world. Today the belief that computers can surpass all that human beings can do (and perhaps even be) is widely promoted in a vast range of scripts, agendas, advertisements and predictions. For over two centuries technological imperialism has worked hand-in-glove with commercial interests. The Electronic Age is not at all “post-industrial,” because it is driven by the same motivation that impelled industrialization from the outset: money in the form of profits.

The mindscape to which our culture has been shaping itself over the past three centuries — and with ever more decisive urgency since the advent of industrialization — is the creation of modern science. Science, it its turn, has reared itself on certain continuities it inherits from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the West. What is important in the examination of a people’s mindscape is not what they articulately know or say they believe. In that respect, our society is, at the popular level, all but scientifically illiterate. What matters is something deeper: the feel of the world around us, the taste that spontaneously discriminates between knowledge and fantasy. It is in all these respects that science has become the dominant force in designing the psychological and metaphysical basis of our politics.
— Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends


While the profit-motive is not difficult to identify in the modern technological imperative, it is harder to understand what is behind the belief that cyber-intelligence can and will exceed human intelligence. On the face of it, the claim that a device as simple of a handheld calculator can out-compute anyone of merely human intelligence (except, significantly, for autistic geniuses) is difficult to refute. Many devices can do what we cannot do, obviously, but what we can do that no device can, is not so often considered. In an atmosphere of public discourse saturated with the belief in the superiority of artificial intelligence (AI) over human intelligence, it may be impossible to hark back to the common sense of king Thamus’ warning to Thoth.

The startling assertion that AI can exceed human intelligence is sometime made less threatening by a change of terms: AI can enhance human capacities. This sounds good, but it has been proven to be untrue in some basic instances, starting with the case of handheld calculators. Once these were made available to children in schools, the capacity to master elementary mathematics dwindled to pitiful levels. This is exactly as King Thamus predicted. What is to be done, then? Throw out the calculators? More likely, some ingenious person will introduce a software program designed to enhance the math skills that declined from reliance on pocket computers. The dependence would then be complete: detriment to human faculties due to reliance on AI will be remedied by AI. To many people today this proposition will seem not only right and reasonable, but inevitable.

The belief that technology diminishes learning and dulls our awareness of the world around us is held by certain native-mind peoples such as the Aborigines of Australia, known for their prodigious powers of memory. Some native-mind people who recognize the dangers of technology are fully capable of rejecting it well before it takes over. They remain in a state of symbiosis, living close to Nature, not because they cannot do otherwise, but because they find sanity in a minimum of technological manipulation of Nature (see Lawlor, under reading for Sacred Nature). Historians know that the Aztecs had the wheel but did not use it for work or transport, although they did use it for toys. The Maya of Yucatan had a vast network of agrarian villages connected by well-maintained roads, but they did not introduce the wheel, either. The Incas mined and worked massive quantities of gold, but they did not use it for commercial transactions. The gold displayed all around them in elaborate décor and statuary had a sacred value, but it was never under threat of being stolen because it had by agreement no social exchange value. Such choices were neither stupid nor backward. They may account for the high level of civilization of vast populations who lived in pre-Columbian America. In its inherent capacity for self-limitation, the indigenous mind may recognize that any technology that out-performs its innovators is bound to drive human activities out of scale -- and so it ought to be rigorously restricted, if not rejected.

While the immediate problems of technology (principally focused in IT and AI, but including genetics) are complex and daunting, the solution may be simple enough. In another dialogue, the Symposium, Plato argues through Socrates that since time immemorial “the love of beautiful things has brought a myriad of benefits to both gods and humanity.” The passage refers specifically to human efforts in “artificial invention” (technon demiourgion), hence, the entire range of human-made tools and innovations. Insisting that “the love of beauty and goodness is the cause of producing those excellences,” Socrates implies that inventions inspired by the love of beauty will be beneficial. This argument offers one possible approach to a critique of the modern drive for technological advance. He links form to function and sees their unity rooted in a moral-esthetic outlook, the love of beautiful things and good deeds. A Greek amphora is beautiful and will serve as well today as it did for Socrates. The Dell Inspiron 2500 on which I write these words is also a beautiful instrument, in its own way. But it is predesigned to be useless junk in three years, if not sooner. The design consequences of “built-in obsolescence” lead inexorably to the destruction of the environment because Nature supplies the “natural resources” from which the tools and toys of modern techne are fabricated. Why does the technological imperative of today not lead to the production of beautiful things that last?

The alarming notion that Technology could lead to the disappearance of the human species from Nature has been explored by cultural historian, Theodore Roszak an eminent fellow-traveler in the metahistory caravan. In Where the Wasteland Ends Rozak argues that humankind is close to the point of encapsulating itself in an environment that is totally human-made, hence non-natural, artificial. Due to what he calls the “urban-industrial imperative” -- or more precisely, in metahistorical terms, due to the beliefs we hold about the “progress” that has become possible since the urban-industrial revolution 250 years ago — we are intent on remaking the world into a totally artificial environment. Rather than seeking our niche in Sacred Nature, symbiotic with Gaia and other species, we are seceding from the natural order into a fabricated nature-free zone where all aspects of life depend upon appliances running on electronic circuits. Roszak’s book was published in 1971, a good twenty years before the term “cyber-space” became common parlance, yet he foresees the development of electronic cocooning and lays bare what he considers to be its emergent pathology.

The intention to render human life obsolete, to migrate from Nature into cyber-space, is rarely viewed with critical reserve today. The belief in technology to provide a better world than Nature is so strong that it is likely to drive us to eliminate ourselves. In cyber-extinction, we would go out not with a bang, but a beep.

Whatever may really be possible through technology, beliefs about it are now driving society to an unprecedented brink. With every new advance, the dual chorus of technocrats (who run the system) and technophiles (who embrace the system) strains hyperbole in praising the wonders to come. Many scenarios of the future (such as Visions by acclaimed physicist Michio Kaku) pretend to be idealistic projections of human potential, but they rely on irrational and untested beliefs, often couched in fantastic and phantasmagoric claims. The belief that technology is a panacea, solving everything from medical and genetic disorders to economic and sociological dilemmas, is commonplace. The belief that technology facilitates living and assures more leisure time continues to be widely promoted although it has been proven to be woefully wrong, time and time again, according to studies of economists and sociologists. The effort required to earn a living has intensified and became more stressful, more time-consuming. Why?

The Levantine motif of enslavement (see Origins) may apply here, but in a distorted manner: the belief that God (or God-like extraterrestrials) created homo sapiens to serve as a slave race is now being superceded by the belief that humanity will attain a God-like status through its cybernetic and genetic creations. Yet the danger is equally real that humanity may become enslaved by its own technological creations.

Ironically, indigenous people who lack technology may possess the most mature view of its value. As noted above, native-mind wisdom indicates that technological innovation, when it is not conceived and implemented with reverential care for the natural order, will violate that order. Instead of working upon the physical world, technology takes a jump beyond it. Sacred Nature, epitomized in the goddess Sophia (Wisdom), was also Logos (Science), living intelligence, and humanity learned its sciences from nature for millennia until we became obsessed with outdoing Nature. (In the Symposium Socrates says that the inventors of such arts as archery, weaving, medicine and divination were originally inspired by Eros — not “love” in the human sense, but a spiritual power that operates like love by bonding the human spirit to the cosmos at large.) People who respect the natural habitat know that ants and bees are technological in astounding ways. So are whale songs, so is the ozone layer. The astounding feats of ancient engineering, such as Stonehenge in England and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, cannot be duplicated by experts today. Their very presence almost forces us to believe that our ancestors had a nature-based technology superior to anything we can now imagine. The danger of becoming totally enslaved by our own creations has been treated in numerous sci-fi scenarios (such as the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). Whatever the actual power of technology to improve or destroy our lives, whatever its ultimate magic may produce, we are confronted with another challenge: the spell of beliefs about what technology can do in our world may be more powerful, and more dangerous, than what it cam actually do.

Suggested reading: Technology

For the argument on all the wonders soon to be achieved by technology in all fields of human endeavour see Visions by Michio Kaku. For a more critical and sobering view of technology the suggested reading is:

Coming to Our Senses by Maurice Berman is a wide-ranging discussion of the atrophy of human faculties due to the rise of technology, including some thoughts on how to recover the direct experience of Sacred Nature.

Technopoly by Neil Postman is a critique of humanity’s current tendency to surrender to technology, closely paralleling Berman’s argument but with an emphasis on restoring educational values in society and schooling.

In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander is an inquiry into the way corporate and technological control of human life intentionally negates and undermines the human bond to the Sacred in Nature.

 

 

 

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Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.