Promethean Shocks

Consider the image below. It was created in 1952 by Alexander Leydenfrost for the 50th anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics.

Alexander Leydenfrost - March of Science 3WifC

I thought of this image as I read Thomas Misa’s brief discussion of the wide-spread perception that the pace of technological change is ever-quickening. “At least since Alvin Toffler’s best-selling Future Shock (1970),” Misa writes, “pundits perennially declare that the pace of technology is somehow quickening and that technology is forcing cultural changes in its wake, that our plunge into the future is driven by technology gone out of control.”

Misa, a historian of technology, is not altogether certain that the pace of technological change has in fact quickened. He is certainly opposed to the “crude technological determinism” inherent in the idea that technology is forcing cultural changes. He does, however, give merit to the experience that is often described using this language. He attributes the perception of quickening to “a split between our normative expectations for technology and what we observe in the world around us.” “It is not so much that our technologies are changing especially quickly,” he explains, “but that our sense of what is ‘normal,’ about technology and society, cannot keep pace.”

According to Misa, developments in cloning, biotechnology, surveillance technologies, and nanotechnology are outstripping regulatory laws and ethical norms. This seems true enough. We might even describe the condition of modernity (and/or post-modernity, or hyper-modernity, or reflexive modernity, or whatever) as one of perpetual Promethean shock. This way of putting it seems more apt than “future shock.” One way of telling the story of modernity, after all, is to order it as a series of startling realizations of what we suddenly acquired the power to do. As Auden wrote of the modern Mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

Clearly certain technological innovations yield this dizzying experience of Promethean shock more than others. The advent of human flight, the atomic bomb, and putting a man on the moon are just some of the more simultaneously startling, awe-inspiring, disconcerting examples. When these technologies arrived, in rather quick succession, they rattled and unsettled reigning cultural and moral frameworks, tacit as they may have been, for incorporating new technologies into existing society.

These normative cultural expectations for technology were set, Misa suggests, during the “longer-duration ‘eras'” of technology which he identifies in his history of the relationship between technology and culture. These eras included, for example, the age of the Renaissance, when the demands of Renaissance court culture set the agenda for technological change, and the age of imperialism, when the imperatives of empire dictated the dominant agenda. The former era, in Misa’s analysis, spanned nearly two centuries, and the latter the better part of one; but the 20th century is home to at least four different eras, which Misa labels the eras of systems, modernism, war, and global culture respectively.

Misa is on to something here, but he seems to push the question back rather than answering it directly. Why then are these eras, tentative and suggestive as he acknowledges them to be, getting progressively shorter? He is closer to the mark, I think, when he also suggests that the sense of quickening is linked to another “quickening” in  the “self-awareness of societies,” which he further defines as “our capacities to recognize and comprehend change.”

His brief illustration of this development is initially compelling. Two centuries elapsed before the Renaissance was named. Within 50 years of the appearance of factories in Manchester, the phrase industrial revolution was in usage. Just four years after the telephone arrived in Moscow, Chekhov published a short story, “On the Telephone,” about the travails of an early adopter trying to make a restaurant reservation over the phone (fodder for a Seinfeld plot, if you ask me). Most recently, William Gibson gives us the term cyberspace “almost before the fact of cyberspace.” This sequences suggests to Misa that Western society has become increasingly self-aware of technological change and its consequences.

I think this claim has merit. The Modern mind that, according to Auden “cannot understand/what it can clearly do” he described as the “self-observed, observing Mind.”  But, again, we might be tempted to ask why our “self-awareness” is accelerating in this way. Might it not be attributed, at least in part, to an increase in the rapidity of technological development? The two seem inseparable. I’m reminded of Walter Ong’s dictum about writing: “Writing heightens consciousness.” In a slightly different way, might we not argue that technological change heightens societal self-awareness?

Consider again that Leydenfrost image above. It captures an important aspect of how we’ve come to understand our world: we have aligned our reckoning of the passage of time with the development of technology. We have technologies that mark time, but in another sense the advent of new technologies mark time by their appearance, iteration, and obsolescence.

Human beings have long sought markers to organize the experience of time, of course. For a day sunrise and sunset served just fine. The seasons, too, helped order the experience of a year. For longer periods, however, cultural rather than natural markers were needed. Consider, for instance, the common practice in the ancient world of reckoning time by the reigns of monarchs. “In the x year of so-and-so’s reign” is a recurring temporal formula.

Without achieving that sort of verbal formality or precision, I’d suggest that the development of technology–the reign, if you will, of certain technologies and artifacts–now does similar work for modern societies. Records, 8-tracks, tapes, CDs, MP3s. Desktops, laptops, tablets. Landline, portable landline, cellphone, smartphone. Black and white TV, color TV, projection TV, flatscreen TV. Pre-Internet/post-Internet. Dial-up/broadband/wireless. I suspect you can supply similar artifactual chronologies that have structured our recollection of the past. We seem to have synchronized our perception and experience of time to the cycles of technological innovation.

The Leydenfrost image also reminds us that insofar as the notion of progress exists at all today, it is clearly bound up with the advance of technology. All other forms of progress that we might imagine  or aspire to– moral, economic, social–these are subsumed under the notion of technological progress. For that reason, rumors or suggestions that technological innovation might be slowing down unnerve us. We need the next big thing  to keep coming on schedule, however trivial that next big thing might be, to distract us from our economic, political, and personal woes.

This was illustrated nicely by the minor tech-media freakout occasioned recently by a Christopher Mims’ piece at Quartz arguing that 2013 was a lost year for tech. It was received as a heretical claim, and it was promptly and roundly condemned. “I, too, constantly yearn for mind-blowing new tech,” Farhad Manjoo tells us in his reply to Mims before re-assuring us: “I think we’re witnessing the dawn of a new paradigm in machine-human cooperation: Combining machine intelligence with biological intelligence will always trump one or the other. Machines make us better, and we make machines better. There’s still hope for us. Welcome to the bionic future.”

The world may be falling apart around us, but we can bear it so long as we can project our hopes on the amorphous promise of technological advance. The prospect of a host of Promethean shocks that we seemed poised to receive–from drones, robotics, AI, bioengineer, geo-engineering, nanotechnology–makes us nervous, they unsettle our moral frameworks; but their absence would worry us more, I suspect.