To the Man With a Machete, or How Technology Mediates Perception

The most powerful and pervasive myth about technology is that a tool is fundamentally neutral; all that is of any consequence, according to this myth, is what one happens to do with that tool. This myth is powerful because it does contain an important truth: one and the same tool can be used for both morally good and bad ends. However, this is far from the whole story.

Technology, as Melvin Kranzberg has put it, is “neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Furthermore, as McLuhan and a host of others have observed, media carry total effects that are independent of any particular uses to which they are put. One of the most consequential aspects of any given tool’s non-neutrality is the power of a tool to shape perception. The old well-worn line — to the person with a hammer everything looks like a nail — neatly captures the basic idea.

Today, I was once again reminded of technology’s power to shape our perception and experience. Irma spared my home but not the many trees around my house. So I’ve been working these past couple of weeks to clean up limbs and debris. Some of this work I’ve undertaken with the help of a machete. It’s an elegant and effective tool, and I’ve been grateful for it. And sure enough, machete in hand my immediate environment is transformed, I see and feel my way through it differently than I would otherwise. A limb or branch now presents itself as something that could be struck. And with machete in hand I feel encouraged to strike.

I was reminded of the historian David Nye’s discussion of the difference between reading a tool as a text and using it. Each yields a different kind of knowledge.

The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.

This is true not only of axes and machetes and other tools that are obviously and overtly taken up and used with the body. I’d suggest that it is true of just about every kind of tool and technology. Every technology somehow mediates our relationship with the world around us, and in doing so every technology shapes our perception of the world. One of the most important things, then, that we can know about any technology is how it shapes our perception.

Happily, this kind of knowledge is not limited to the experts and scholars, it is available to all of us if only we stop to think and reflect upon our experience. A measure of self-awareness and a willingness to contemplate what it feels like to use a tool or how it directs our attention or how it represents the world to us would be enough to achieve this kind of knowledge. It may take a little practice, but we’d be a little better positioned to use our tools wisely if we took the time.


Why We’re Anxious About Technological Stagnation, And Why We Shouldn’t Be

William Robinson Leigh - '"Visionary City," 1908
William Robinson Leigh – ‘”Visionary City,” 1908

Virginia Postrel thinks that Peter Thiel is wrong about the future. I think she is about half right, roughly.

If I read her correctly, Postrel’s thesis runs something like this: our lack of optimism about the future is not the consequence of fewer “moonshot” technological innovations, rather it stems from a failure to tell positive stories about the incremental improvements that have made the present better than the past.

In what follows, I want to take a close look at Postrel’s argument and some of its underlying assumptions because I think the piece reflects some interesting tensions in our thinking about technology and innovation.

Let’s start where Postrel does, with her examples of what I’m going to start calling Tech Stagnation Angst (TSA–sure there’s another TSA out there, but maybe the overlap is instructive).

Her points of departure are the science-fiction author Neal Stephenson and, big surprise, our would-be Francis Bacon, the tech-entrepreneur cum philosopher of innovation, Peter Thiel.

I’ve written enough about Thiel (e.g., here and here) to let mention of him go without further comment. Bottom line: yes, he’s is poster-boy for TSA. Now here’s Postrel quoting Stephenson on the worries that spurred him to write a series of positive stories about the future:

“’I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,’ writes Stephenson in the preface to ‘Hieroglyph,’ a science-fiction anthology hoping ‘to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.’”

Here’s the first point I want to register: stories alone will not shape our outlook about the future, especially not if they’re consciously designed to do so.

I’ve also recently written about pleas for more hopeful science-fiction writing, pleas which seem to be a symptom of TSA. Needless to say, Stephenson is not the only one who thinks that dystopian science-fiction is poisoning our imagination for the future. Witness, for instance, Kevin Kelly’s recent offer of cash for the best happy 100-word story about the next 100 years.

About these, Postrel is mostly right–writing happy stories will not change the spirit of the age. Stories are powerful, and they can shape our imagination. But compelling fiction tends to tap into some existing aspect of the zeitgeist rather than consciously setting out to change it. The artificiality of the latter enterprise dooms it. It’s that whole thing about how you can’t tell someone how to sublimate.

Postrel adds the following public comments by Stephenson:

“’There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,’ Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, ‘and that there’s some cosmic balance at work–that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.’”

Postrel comments: “He’s identified a real problem, but his remedy — ‘more interesting Apollo-like projects’ — won’t work.” Again, I think Postrel is right, but only to an extent.

She is, on the one hand, right to challenge the simplistic fix that Stephenson lays out. But there are at least two additional points that need to be made.

First, while I agree that “more moonshots”–which just now, in my own mental wunderkammer, echoed “more cowbell” is not the right prescription for our time, I think Postrel ignores the degree to which “moonshots” fueled the public imagination for a very long time.

These “moonshots” we keep hearing about longingly might just be shorthand for the phenomena that David Nye labeled the American Technological Sublime. You can click that link to read more about it, but here is the short version: Nye documented responses to new technologies throughout the 19th and early to mid-20th century that verged on religious awe. These experiences were elicited by technologies of tremendous and hitherto unseen scale or dynamism (railroads, the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, atomic weapons, the Saturn V, etc.), and they were channeled into what amounted to a civil religion, public celebrations of national character and unity.

I would argue that Tech Stagnation Angst is, in fact, a response, wrong-headed perhaps, to the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime, which, as Nye himself explained, by the late 20th century had morphed into what he called the consumer sublime, a tacky simulated (!) version of the genuine experience.

Even if their response is misguided, Stephenson, Thiel, and all of those suffering from TSA are reacting to a real absence. While attitudes toward new technologies were often mixed, as Postrel points out, the popular response to new technologies of a grand scale in America has been overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of the atomic bomb). In fact, the response has been tinged with reverential awe, which functioned to sustain a powerful narrative about American exceptionalism grounded in our technological achievement.

It is only reasonable to expect that the eclipse of such a powerful cultural phenomena would yield a profoundly felt absence and not a little bit of anxiety. Again, I’m not endorsing the idea that we need only fabricate some more sublime experiences with moonshot-style projects and everything will be fine. On that score, I think Postrel is right. But in insisting that past optimism was chiefly grounded in relatively mundane accounts of how the present was incrementally better than the past, I think she misses other powerful forces at work in the complex way Americans came to think about technology in relation to the future.

In sum, technological projects of impressive scale and power have fueled America’s optimism about technology, thus their absence may very well account for tech stagnation angst. 

Postrel seems to waver with respect to the power of stories to shape the future, and she does so in a way that reinforces my point about the collapse of the sublime. “Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake,” Postrel writes, “when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people — that, in short, leaves out consumers.” She then adds that, “storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as Nye suggested, it is precisely the triumph of consumerism that, in part at least, accounts for the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime. To be clear, this is not a judgment call about the relative merits of consumer technology vs. moonshot/sublime technologies. It is simply a recognition of a historical feedback loop.

Innovation in a democratic, free-market society is driven by public sentiment; public sentiment is informed by our imaginative estimation of the good technology can achieve. In the American context at least, that imaginative estimation was shaped by the experience of the technological sublime. Once public sentiment became more narrowly consumeristic in the post-war period, technological innovation followed suit and, as a result, experience of the sublime faded. Fewer experiences of the sublime assured the ongoing collapse of innovation into consumer technology, narrowly conceived.

My second quibble with Postrel arises from her bristling at any criticisms of tech. Toward the end of her essay she calls for stories that do not “confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive.” But she seemingly has very little patience with criticism of the sort that might temper naive optimism. In this respect, she is not unlike some of the tech-boosters she criticizes. It’s just that she would have us be happy with the technologies the industry has given us rather than pine for more grandiose varieties. Whatever we do, it seems we shouldn’t complain. Don’t complain about what you haven’t gotten, and don’t complain about what you have. Basically, just happily embrace whatever the tech industry feeds you.

She complains, for example, that it is “depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom.” Click on that story and you will find fairly even-keeled and reasonable reporting on the consequences of the decreased demand for blood, consequences having to do both with jobs and future preparedness. It’s hardly depressing or gloomy. Elsewhere, with respect to Stephenson’s complaints about the relative triviality of Internet-based technologies, she tells us there’s already plenty of negative press out there, no need for Stephenson to pile on.

Then she goes on to tell us, “The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel.” Rather, she explains, “People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.” In other words, stories did matter, but only certain kinds of stories–real-life stories about how life was getting better.

Unfortunately, these stories began to change. Postrel goes on to give a litany of reasons “good and bad” explaining the change in the character of stories. Read the grouping of reasons for yourself, but they seem to amount to a recognition of the costs that came along with the advent of certain technologies and innovations. And to give these reasonable concerns and legitimate observations the pallor of unhinged lunacy, she caps the litany off with reference to the unfortunate growing resistance to vaccinations. See what she did there?

Postrel is right to stress that how we feel about the future has something to do with how we understand the present in light of the past (even though that’s not the whole story), and she is right to ask for something other than fashionable pessimism and naive optimism. But on the whole she seems to miss this balance herself. As I read her, she is calling for a balanced presentation of the relative merits and costs of technology, so long as we keep quiet about those costs.

Clearly, I have some reservations about the manner in which Postrel has made her case. On the one hand, with respect to what shapes our view of the future, I think she’s missed some important elements. Of course, one can’t be expected to say everything in a short piece. More importantly, I find her bristling at the critics of technology disingenuous. How else are we to temper our utopian expectations and the misguided longing for “moonshot” technologies if we are to forego searching criticism?

I want to wrap up, though, by commending Postrel’s urging that we seek to move forward with a clear-eyed vision for the future that eschews both unbridled optimism and thoughtless pessimism, one that seeks to meet our real needs and enrich our lives in a responsible and ethical manner.

Simply saying so, of course, will not make it happen. But if we’ve lost our taste for escapist fantasies of transcendence about the future, perhaps we might then be better prepared to pursue a more humane vision for our future technologies.

The Integrity of Offline Practices

In Technology Matters, historian David Nye distinguished between the knowledge we might gain of a tool by “reading” it as if it were a text and the knowledge that would arise from using the tool. It is the distinction between conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge or knowledge that we can articulate (e.g., what is the capital of Argentina)  and knowledge that we simply carry in our bodies (e.g., how to type).

To illustrate this distinction, Nye used the American axe as an example:

“The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context.”

This was well put and instructive. When I recently came across a short essay called “Axe worship” by Bella Bathurst that described the joys of chopping wood, I recalled the passage above from Nye and went on to read the essay with interest piqued.

Bathurst did not disappoint. The essay was just the right length for what it aimed to do and was written in just the right tone. It also included two paragraphs in particular that nicely captured the joy of wood chopping. Here’s the first:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

And then there was this:

“The point and the pleasure of chopping logs is that it is just me and a stone-age tool. Standing there in the shed in a deep layer of sawdust and chippings, I can hear the birds and the river and the changing note of the blade as it strikes different ages and sizes of timber. I can sense the rhythm of my own work and the difference between old wood and new.”

This resonated with me. Unlike Bathurst, I don’t live in a place that necessitates the chopping of wood for fires to keep warm by. But I have exerted myself in other physical tasks which yielded not entirely dissimilar experiences. But even as Bathurst words were resonating, I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.'”

(IRL – “in real life” – Fetish, you may remember, is Jurgenson’s name for what he takes to be the unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities. Sherry Turkle’s reflective stroll on the shores of Cape Cod was Jurgenson’s paradigmatic case.)

But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. She did not frame her experience as an escape or respite from the tyranny of the digital. There was no angst about the hyper-connected life. It was simply a meditation on the joys of swinging an axe. So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology?

I wouldn’t think so. This sort of experience appears to be altogether un-preoccupied with the discontents of digital technology. It is not that we can claim that some thought of the digital world never entered Bathurst’s mind — how could we know anyway — but that even if it did (to note that this would make a good online essay for example) it appears to have done so unproblematically.

Bathurst’s account of her experience strikes me, in fact, as another example of a practice which offers, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “a chance to find yourself.” It is a practice in which we might become absorbed, and one that offers the particular pleasures of working against the resistance presented by the material world and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully toward some end.

These practices and the pleasures they yield have an integrity of their own that are not necessarily coupled with digital technology (although they may sometimes be justly contrasted to digital technology). What they offer are goods in themselves irrespective of their relationship (or non-relationship) to digital technologies. We should, in other words, engage in these sorts of practices for their own sake, not merely as antidotes or countermeasures to digital mediation.

Perhaps we do such practices and experiences a disservice, those of us who do highlight their significance in light of digital realities, when we discuss them only as such. Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.

Hilaire Belloc noted the following long before the advent of digital technology:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

Written today this may have “IRL Fetish” written all over it. Written, as it was, in the early 20th century, it is a reminder that advocating such practices and experiences need not necessarily be an act of escapism or fetishizing. It might simply be an honest recognition of what has long been uncontroversially true about human experience. Or, as Freud reportedly put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The Technological Sublime, Alive and Well

Natural wonders, lightning storms, tornadoes, sunsets — we sometimes describe the experience of these sorts of natural phenomenon as experiences of the sublime. They leave us in awe and render us speechless if only for a moment. There is a long tradition of reflection about the nature of the sublime experience going back at least to the eighteenth century. Kant and Burke in particular are often taken as starting points for the discussion. The sublime in Burke’s view was tinged with a certain terror, and for Kant the ability of human reason to take in and domesticate the sublime was a testament to its power.

More recently historian David Nye has argued that it is not only nature that inspires sublime experiences, our modern technologies also have the ability to elicit similar reactions of wonder, awe, and not a little trepidation. In American Technological Sublime, Nye argued that these experiences of the technological sublime have been especially characteristic of American society and have amounted to a kind of civil religion. They have at least been an integral part of the American civil religion. These experiences were more than moments of profound personal experience. They were moments that forged the collective national character. They were rituals of solidarity.

The first railroads, the first massive industrial factories, the electrified cityscapes, the Hoover Dam, the atomic bomb — all of these and more have inspired sublime experiences in those who first witnessed their appearance. One is reminded as well of Henry Adams’ famous account of the massive Corliss engine that powered the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and led Adams to compare the place of the dynamo in modern society to the place of the Virgin Mary in medieval society.

In more recent history the space program has supplied most instances of the technological sublime. Nye describes rocket launches at Cape Caneveral as quasi-religious events: “the event is less a matter of spectatorship than a pilgrimage to a shrine where a technological miracle is confidently expected.” In his account of the launch of Apollo 11, Nye describes Norman Mailer’s experience of the event. Mailer came as a skeptic, bent on resisting the allure of the event. He was determined not to be caught up in the fervor and devotion of the crowd of pilgrims. And yet … When the rocket launched and the earth began to rumble and the sound caught up with the sight, Mailer found himself saying over and over again, “Oh, my God! oh my God! oh, my God! oh my God!” That is the power of the technological sublime.

I write all of this today because yesterday Americans in Florida and the Washington D. C. area got an experience of the technological sublime. The space shuttle Discovery whose launches had been occasion for numerous pilgrimages to the Cape, especially as the shuttle program wound down, took her final voyage mounted on a specially fitted 747. If you were able to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, perhaps you know experientially what Nye theorized. If you were not able to see the sight in person, you have only to read the new stories, personal accounts, and, yes, tweets to conclude that the technological sublime is alive and well, if perhaps increasingly rare.

The technological marvel, the national pride, the sense of solidarity, the awe, the pride, the wave of emotion, the patriotic fervor abetted by the military jet accompanying the shuttle on its final voyage — you can read all of it on the faces of the spectators and in the nature of the pictures that made their way around the news outlets and blogs.

In the midst of it all, however, there was a sense of nostalgia as well. Of course, part of that nostalgia arises from the fact that this was a final voyage, and as such it recalled to mind all of the previous voyages, including those that ended in tragedy. But perhaps the nostalgia also arose from a tacit realization (if such a thing is possible) of the absence of such experiences from our more common and ordinary encounters with technology. In his final chapter, Nye describes the transition to what he calls the “consumer’s sublime” typified by Las Vegas and Disneyland. “The epiphany,” Nye writes, “has been reduced to a rush of simulations, in an escape from the very work, rationality, and domination that once were embodied in the American technological sublime.”

Put that way, one wonders whether it is not on the whole better that the American technological sublime is waning. And yet when one experiences its “melancholy, long withdrawing roar,” perhaps it is only natural to feel a tinge of sadness.


My thanks to Christopher Friend for the excellent images posted below.

You can see additional photo-documentation of the technological sublime here, here, and here.

Image courtesy of Chris Friend
Image courtesy of Chris Friend.

Technology Use and the Body

Here is David Nye again, this time on the embodied character of our tool use and of our knowledge of technology:

“Tools are known through the body at least as much as they are understood through the mind. The proper use of kitchen utensils and other tools is handed down primarily through direct observation and imitation of others using them. Technologies are not just objects but also the skills needed to use them. Daily life is saturated with tacit knowledge of tools and machines. Coat hangers, water wheels, and baseball bats are solid and tangible, and we know them through physical experiences of texture, pressure, sight, smell, and sound during use more than through verbal descriptions. The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.”

This is a remarkably rich passage and not only because of its allusion to baseball. It makes an important point that tends to get lost in much of our talk about technology: technology use is an embodied practice. This point gets lost, in part, because the word technology, more often than not, brings to mind digital information technologies, and the rhetoric surrounding the use of these technologies evokes vague notions of participation in some sort of ethereal nexus of symbolic exchange.

On the one hand, we tend to forget about our more prosaic technologies — cars, refrigerators, eye glasses, drills, etc. — that are still very much a part of our lives, and, on the other, we forget that even our supposedly immaterial technologies have a very material base. We are not, as of yet, telepathically interacting the Internet after all. Having recently switched from a PC to a Mac, whenever I have occasion to use a PC again I am reminded of the embodied nature of our computer use. My fingers now want to make certain gestures or reach for certain keys on a PC that only work on the Mac. Or consider the proficient texters (or are they text messengers) who are able to key their messages without so much as glancing at their phones. Their fingers know where the keys are.

These sorts of observations resonate with the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus on knowledge and skill acquisition. You can read a very brief overview of Dreyfus’ position in this recent post on the body and online education. Simply put, Dreyfus, not unlike Merleau-Ponty, argues for the irreducibly embodied nature of our knowing and being in the world. Much of what we know, we know more with our bodies than with our minds. Or, perhaps better put, our mind’s engagement with reality is unavoidably embodied.

Likewise, our engagement with technology is unavoidably embodied and we would do well to focus our analysis of technology on the body as the intersection of our minds, our tools, and the world. The use a technology may ultimately have more in common with learning a skill, than with acquiring knowledge.  There is, as Nye points out, some value in “reading” our tools is if they were a text, but a deeper understanding, at least a different sort of understanding can only be had by the use of the technology under consideration.