Friday, March 18, 2016

Technological Coup d'état

     "From the beginning of what we used to call the industrial revolution - what we see today more clearly as a sort of technological coup d'état - men and women, particularly men and women of imaginative sensibility, have seen that something was happening to the human role in the shaping of civilization.

     'A curious automatism, human in origin but not human in action, seemed to be taking over. Cities were being built and rebuilt not with human purposes in mind but with technological means at hand. It was no longer the neighborhood which fixed the shape and limits of the town but the communications system, the power grid. Technology, our grandfathers said, 'advanced' and it was literally true: it was technology which was beating the tambours, leading the march. Buildings crowded into the air not because their occupants had any particular desire to lift them there, but because the invention of electric elevators and new methods of steel and glass construction made these ziggaruts possible and the possibility presented itself as economic compulsion.

     'Wildness and silence disappeared from the countryside, sweetness fell from the air, not because anyone wished them to vanish or fall but because throughways had to floor the meadows with cement to carry the automobiles which advancing technology produced first by the thousands and then by the thousand thousands. Tropical beaches turned into high-priced slums where thousand-room hotels elbowed each other for glimpses of once-famous surf not because those who loved the beaches wanted them there but because enormous jets could bring a million tourists every year - and therefore did.

     'The result, seen in a glimpse here, a perception there, was a gradual change in our attitude toward ourselves as men, toward the part we play as men in the direction of our lives. It was a confused change. We were proud - in England, and even more in America, raucously proud - of our technological achievements, but we were aware also, even from the beginning, that these achievements were not altogether ours or, more precisely, not altogether ours to direct, to control - that the process had somehow taken over leaving the purpose to shift for itself so that we, the ostensible managers of the process, were merely its beneficiaries."

~~ All quotes in this post are from Archibald MacLeish, Master or Man, an essay found in Riders on the Earth, published 1978.

I do wonder what Mr. MacLeish would think of today's technological advances? 

DRU - Road to the Future?
In the news today I read a story about DRU (Domino's Robotic Unit), a 'cheeky and endearing robot' that Domino's is 'confident' will one day become an integral part of the Domino's family as a pizza home delivery system. "He's a road to the future and one that we are very excited about exploring further," gushes the chain's New Zealand general manager Scott Bush. I wonder just how the presence of DRU will play out in everyday life? Robots on freeways, avenues, and sidewalks cruising beside intimately conversing couples quietly strolling arm-in-arm, more DRU's passing relaxed children in strollers or squirrelly kids on bicycles, navigating rush-hour round-abouts, tempting runners with pizza as it putts along beside them, or simply gliding next to our cars in our rainy, dark neighborhoods as we drive home from work?

Carl's Jr., the fast-food chain, is also in the news this morning because its CEO, Andy Puzder, wants to create fully automated restaurants, where 'you never see a person.' Kiosks would take and deliver orders. These kiosks would eliminate Andy's worry over increasing minimum wages, absenteeism due to illness, race/sex/age issues, and besides, "Millenials don't like seeing people." Well, there you go!

Skye Aero, advertising drone
Over in Switzerland we are told that flying drone billboards are the future we deserve! Yes, lighter-than-air 10-foot helium-filled balloons with small propellers offer increased safety for flying over crowds. Blocking out the sun, this drone junk mail would advertise who knows what, pummeling our collective consumerist mind-set with assaults on our outdoor freedom, in the very places in which we seek personal renewal - solace - from the ever-tightening throat-grip of manipulation.

"The freedom of science to follow the laws of absolute possibility to whatever conclusions had been established, or so we thought, as the unchallengeable fixed assumption of our age, and the freedom of technology to invent whatever world it happened to invent was taken as the underlying law of modern life. It was enough for a manufacturer of automobiles to announce on television that he had a better idea - any better idea: pop-open gas-tank covers or headlights that hide by day. No one thought any longer of asking whether his new idea matched a human purpose. 

'...we were ceasing to think of ourselves as men, as self-governing men, as proudly self-governing makers of a new nation, and were becoming instead a society of consumers: recipients - grateful recipients - of the blessings of a technological civilization. We no longer talked in the old way of the American Proposition, either at home or abroad - particularly abroad. We talked instead of the American Way of Life. It never crossed our minds apparently - or if it did we turned our minds away - that a population of consumers, though it may constitute an affluent society, can never compose a nation in the great, the human, sense." 

Though Mr. MacLeish addresses a condition which began forming in the 19th century, his adroit observations follow their logical conclusions into this 21st century. These conclusions now leave us with a Gordian Knot question: Where do we go from here?

"The frustration - and it is a real and debasing frustration - will not leave us until we believe in ourselves again, assume again the mastery of our lives, the management of our means."

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