Collateral Damage: Technology And The Theft Of History

Collateral Damage: Technology And The Theft Of History

In contrast to capital, humans are well aware of certain costs. For although we care for creating wealth, we value staying alive quite a bit. — Read more from Identity Element  here or follow on Twitter

In a society that maximizes economic output, leveraging technology provides a way to solve problems in a scalable fashion, serving to enhance standards of living for humans everywhere. The technological advancements made since the turn of the century have undoubtedly been beneficial from an economic lens, and companies industrious enough to solve problems in a scalable fashion have been rewarded handsomely. But there is a metaphysical and existential cost to this economic progress, since, left unconstrained, capital will leverage technology to maximize wealth creation – regardless of the cost.

In contrast to capital, humans are well aware of certain costs. For although we care for creating wealth, we value staying alive quite a bit. To that end, extensive efforts have been made in the wake of the coronavirus to bolster investments into renewable resources and clean energy – at the expense of wealth creation – to circumvent another humanitarian crisis in the coming decades. Financial markets have accounted for this manufactured constraint by rewarding Elon Musk accordingly (he is the richest man in the world at the time of this writing). Yet, while we have been capable of recognizing the potential damage caused to humans via the destruction of the environment, we have failed to fully appreciate the existential and metaphysical threat the complete application of technology poses us.

Written in Stone: Origins of the End

The origins of our infatuation with technological progress can be traced to Tanzania two million years ago. Somewhere in this harsh landscape, humanity’s relatives Homo habilis became the first animals in the genus homo to make a technological advancement via the creation of stone tools[1] It was in this precise moment – the moment when the first Homo habilis crafted the first tool from a stone slab – that humanity first escaped the constraints of biology. We are likely the lone entities in the universe that need not rely on genetic knowledge to advance our species; knowledge does not die with the individuals who possessed it. Humans transcend the bounds of biology through our ability to create knowledge that facilitates technological development. This quirk is the defining characteristic of humanity’s existence and it will be the sole perpetrator of our self-engineered marginalization.

Like Homo habilis, humans in the pre-computation era used technology in the manner that we equip automobiles today: technology was an ingenious appendage, humans remaining the key decision-makers. Additionally, technology used to rest in the realm of the tangible – we could physically interact with, and equip, tools we developed. This all changed with the advent of computers in the 20th century; their inception shifted the domain of technology from the physical to the abstract, spatially detaching humans from the tools we developed. Today, we are found deferring to analysis conducted in abstract space, leveraging programs that reside in computer systems. As Jean Baudrillard recounts:

Gunther Anders gives a striking example of this [transfer of human decision-making to computerized devices] during the Korean War. [Douglas] MacArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb, but the politicians took the decision away from him in favor of a battery of computers that calculated the “objective” benefits of the operation in political and economic terms – and that finally decided against using the bomb.

Nuclear conflict was avoided, but as G. Anders notes, symbolically, metaphysically, this… marks the point where humans definitively renounced their destiny in favor of technological authority and its unquestionable superiority. [2]

Technology is a mechanism for revealing the world around us; “[it] is a kind of poeisis, a way of bringing forth or revealing–and, as such, is ‘the realm of truth’ (294),” per Heidegger. [3] The advent of modern technology has morphed this mechanism of bringing-forth to that of challenging-forth; “[m]odern technology’s mode of revealing is not poeisis. Heidegger views the difference between older forms of technology… and modern technology which exploits and exhausts–in Heidegger’s terms, ‘challenges’ – our planet’s resources. [4] This exploitation and exhaustion force humanity to view the world through a mechanical lens, altering cultural symbols into mechanical resources. The mode of challenging-forth is technology’s greatest threat, for it conceals the process of bringing-forth, which means that truth itself is concealed and no longer unrevealed. [5]

Manifest Destiny

Once subject to our control, technological creations – underwritten by the forces of capital – have begun to usurp us. As I stated in On Bits and Blockchains, “[h]umans have applied economic constraints for negative externalities such as pollution, but we fail to apply constraints for the negative externality of economic redundancy and disenfranchisement from the labor force. This is the source of a human existential crisis and it would be a fate we engineered ourselves: the complete application of… technology implies human subjugation to a concept[s] we incepted.” Capital is a new God. Clicking like is a digital amen. [6]

We have seen the indifference of capital first-hand in the wake of the pandemic: many companies have shown no signs in reversing the technological adoptions they made to adapt to the coronavirus world. This has resulted in the disenfranchisement of humans from the economic landscape, many with no means of return. Indeed, our quarantine-induced migration to online forms of conducting business have eviscerated businesses that depended on traffic to commercial offices, and our inability to visit stores in person has caused small businesses across the world to shutter permanently. But companies and creations such as Amazon, Shopify, DraftKings, Zoom, and PayPal, and Bitcoin, are viewed as more valuable in the wake of the pandemic, indicating our adoption of virtual modes of consumption, communication, and conducting business are likely here to stay.

The technological acceleration foreshadowed by elevated valuations implies that we are yet to see the extent of technology’s effect on human capital; this will only be observable in the years to come. Since technological solutions are rewarded via unconstrained capitalism, budding capitalists will be keen on creating new solutions to the problems we face, and capital is more than willing to underwrite this progress. As CNBC reports, “Venture funding soared to record $64 billion in Q1.” [7] Humans are consequently failing to reshape capitalism’s objective function to weigh our own existential damage in the same manner that we now weigh the negative externality of ecological damage. Left unconstrained, capitalism will squeeze what it can from its available resources, and human contentment appears low on the totem pole.

What becomes of humans disenfranchised by technological progress? A popular solution is to throw money at this population through fiscal stimulus and UBI, but this does not address the existential issue underpinning this disenfranchisement, because it is a question of meaning. Humans find meaning in their pursuits. There is a reason why business owners reflect positively upon past experiences – this story becomes part of their identity, part of their life’s narrative. When an individual’s narrative is forsaken due to the advent of superior technology, a void is left that no amount of monetary compensation can fill.

The destruction of meaning through economic redundancy was the basis for the Luddite Rebellion: humanity’s first known outburst against technological progress. However, since technology now resides in an abstract domain, rebellion against its dominant position can only surface through a liquidation of values, or through the creation of nonsense. Dogecoin’s absurd rally in recent days is the digital manifestation of its Luddite precursor; parody is the new mode of rebellion.

If monetary compensation cannot remedy humanity’s loss in meaning, the only remedy is then to find comfort within oneself or in God. But the latter is no longer obtainable (since God is Dead) and the former is challenging to obtain because it has become increasingly difficult to become an idiot. In the words of Byung-Chul Han:

By nature, the idiot is unallied, un-networked, uninformed… As [someone who commands free choice] the idiot represents a figure of resistance opposing the violence of consensus. The idiot preserves the magic of the outsider. Throughgoing digital networking and communication have massively amplified the compulsion to conform… Today, in light of increasingly coercive conformism, it is more urgent than ever to heighten [freedom of thought]… The idiot does not exist as a subject – he is ‘more like a flower: an existence simply open to light.’

In his characteristically remarkable fashion, Han paints the idiot as an independent thinker who is open to new ideas, consistently questioning consensus notions. However, to attain this status of independent thought, one must remove themselves from the digital networks that are pervasive today. I view this as an impossibility for many given the pervasive bid of capital for technological progress, in addition to the technological acceleration we have witnessed in the post-pandemic world.

What becomes of this group of outcast laborers? As we know, technology addresses problems in a scalable fashion. Consequently, I assert that technology will solve its own crime through the creation of increasingly complex virtual realities, or realities that appear close to, but are not quite, objective reality. The technological hegemony is already preparing for this mass migration to the virtual – Apple recently revealed its precursor to augmented reality glasses. The complete dissociation of humans with objective reality in favor of a virtual one marks the end of history: the moment when humans are outcast from the global landscape entirely, rendering the past redundant.

Into the Matrix

This is a very precise point so I will substantiate it. Indeed, history (according to Oxford) is “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.” Participating in the act of historical analysis theoretically enables progress to occur. It is better to learn from the mistakes of humans that predated us than to internalize these lessons from experience. Assuming humans are still the main players in the global landscape, the study of history has utility.

But the story of denim provides us with a window into how technological adoption liquidates the value of the past. Once produced in a meticulous and artisanal fashion, denim production shifted from the hands of human weavers to machines after its mainstream adoption in the post-WWII era.  Initially a symbol for independence, jeans were quickly accepted as casual wear, and companies adopted industrial processes to meet surging global demand. [8] Jeans today are still widely produced in this fashion: synthetic indigo dye is favored over true indigo dye to provide jeans with their color; mass-produced denim is sold in a faded state, removing the intimacy of the fading process provided by raw denim; and importantly, the minor variations in jeans produced by shuttle looms were lost, washed away by the precision provided by industrialized processes. [9]  Consequently, the story of denim’s rise is meaningless – industrial tools have no knowledge of the traditions which predated them.

In addition to this immediate liquidation in the value of history we have also lost organic variation in denim. The different styles of jeans we see today are indicative of manufactured variation – it is rare to find a completely unique pair of jeans in modern times. Organic uniqueness is quickly becoming a notion of the past; it is a casualty of our infatuation with mechanization. [10] Denim’s saga is a microcosm of the broader problem of history’s destruction through technological adoption.

Modern technology’s liquidation of history is emblematic of its capacity to ­challenge-forth our interpretation of the world. This shifts the typology of time from a plane of trajectories (delineation of time) to a plane of moments (nodes on a network). The death of history is unsurprising under this new typology, for history can only exist in progressive time.  There is only now in a systematic world.

In a typology of nodes, connection is instantaneous and eminent – it is all-encompassing. The past cannot explain the future – these are two distinct modes of temporal order. Our inability to reject technological adoption is a symptom of this configuration of time, and it is the basis for our loss of authenticity. The disappearance of the idiot is the loss of uniqueness, a casualty of our technologicalization, in the same manner the loss of geography is a casualty of globalization. Geography; uniqueness; time; history; are casualties of our mechanization. [11]

In a world that has cast humans from the global landscape, history no longer has any context. In this configuration, humanity, in its terminal phase, has completed its manifest destiny of the total application of technology, and as such, simply inhabits the space in between, longing for a distraction from the depressing nature of a world where truth has been concealed.

This revolution is not economic or political. It is an anthropological and metaphysical one. And it is a final revolution – there is nothing left beyond it. In a way, it is the end of history… the beginning of a world without humans. While history had a subject, there is no subject of the end of history. No more work of negative or historical finality…

It is the final stage of a world that we have given up interpreting, thinking, or even imagining in favor of implementing it, instrumentalizing it objectively, or better yet: launching ourselves into the unimaginable venture of performing it, turning into a performance, perfecting it – at which point it naturally casts us out.

This world no longer needs us. The best of all possible worlds no longer needs us.”
Jean Baudrillard, Where Good Grows


[1] “2-Million-Year-Old Stone Tools Unearthed in Tanzania,” Sci News, January 11, 2021

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power

[3] Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology. Accessed April 28, 2021. http://www.english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/heidegger/guide4.html.

[4] ibid.

[5] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Basic Writings Ed. David Farrell Krell (Harper & Row, 1977), 287.

[6] “Byung-Chul Han: Shanzhai Theory.” Versobooks.com. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4283-byung-chul-han-shanzhai-theory.

[7] Levy, Ari. “Venture Funding Soared to Record $64 Billion in Q1.” CNBC. CNBC, April 9, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/09/venture-funding-soars-to-record-64-billion-in-q1-ernst-young-says.html.

[8] “James Dean: an Enduring Influence on Modern Fashion.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 18, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/fashion-blog/2014/apr/18/james-dean-an-enduring-influence-on-modern-fashion.

[9] “What Is Selvedge Denim?: DENIM 101.” HIROSHI KATO. Accessed April 28, 2021.
https://kato-brand.com/pages/what-is-selvedge-denim.

[10] Uniqueness in this sense refers to human expression or originality rooted in reality. Technology is even solving the problem of uniqueness – take, for instance, the explosion of non-fungible tokens (NFT)s.

[11] A special thanks to B.K. for motivating this exposition.


 

4 thoughts on “Collateral Damage: Technology And The Theft Of History

  1. Though this distinction is not often made, there are really two types of technology, physical technology embodied in machines, tools and other such physical manifestations and there is intellectual technology. This category involves the way we, and a surprising number of animals, create improved thought processes and concepts to make our collective lives more efficient, more secure, and more effective. When our concepts of matter fail us, we create new ones that work better. We design more effective forms of math to break down the problems we face. Yes, and we even create new gods to better guide us. History is certainly a victim of some sort as human intellectual technologies evolve.

    “We are likely the lone entities in the universe that need not rely on genetic knowledge to advance our species; knowledge does not die with the individuals who possessed it.” But it’s not just humans that evolve intellectually and move beyond their genetic constraints. Some months back I was visiting my daughter who lives in the country and has a long gravel driveway. Beside the driveway is a scrubby woods inhabited by all manner of critters. One day I was driving up the driveway when a rabbit came out of the woods about 100 yards in front of me and as I stopped to watch, it began to deposit several walnuts in the middle the track of the drive closest to it. It lined the nuts up right in the middle of the track so the next car could not help but smash them open. The rabbit then ducked back in the woods to wait. When it was out of sight I obliged it by driving over the nuts. I thought this was pretty cool but I’m sure some would say, unremarkable. A few months later I was returning to visit my daughter and there was the bunny with a bunch of nuts for the driveway. But this time the rabbit was accompanied by five of its offspring, obviously only a couple months old. This time instead of depositing the nuts in the drive herself she was patiently teaching each of her babies how to do it. I watched for 20 minutes until the all babies had deposited a long line of nuts for me to smash. To me that was most certainly cool. We know many animals teach their young the tricks they know. Intellectual technologies passed on to improve the species.

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