Aladdin’s Electric Lamp (Sing: ‘A whole new world’)

A meditation on world-making: Technology

Technology is something like an exile for us. It is like a gigantic ethereal backhoe uprooting us from the earth, our home. It lifts us out of our flesh-and-bone, dirt-and-sky, me-and-you reality in a sort of confusing way – by making everything ours; by putting everything at our fingertips. When everything is laid open and immediate to us through technology, we lose touch with anything – so Heidegger said. And this makes a lot of sense when you think about it. You are certainly not deeply rooted into the community you were born into now that anyone can pick up their life and family and move somewhere else – something people couldn’t always do. You’re not tied to a certain climate or region like people who have developed a way of life that depends on certain crops they grow, certain animals they use for clothing, and so forth. You don’t have to live in your home city, or home state, or country, or continent. These rootings used to form a significant part of a person’s identity; you were either English or Scottish; you were part of a tribe that had occupied your valley for as long as you’ve known. These elements simply don’t play anywhere near as big a part in making up who we are as they once did, and their role in our identity will continue to decrease. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is definitely a step away from so much of what humanity has been since its existence.

In addition to this uprooting of humanity from the earth, there is a flipside to this movement generated by technology – the creation of a new sort of world. Now, I’ve never lived as a tribesman in a jungle or as a self-subsistent Native American, but I imagine that the whole tone of their existence was very different from ours in an important way; think on this: Technology is power. The more technology we have, the more capable we are of having our way with the world; we can mold it and shape it into an expression of our inner will. I don’t think this was always so, at least not nearly to the extent it is now. Certianly we have always been able to affect our surroundings, but before the bright explosion of possibility caused by the advent of machinery, we were largely at the disposal of our surroundings. We had to adapt our lives to move in harmony with the world around us. We had to change our behavior to make our way in the world. Now, with bulldozers and dynamite and chemicals, we are changing the world without to resonate with and mirror the world within us. Where our lives and lifestyles were once an expression of the interplay between the demands of our surroundings and the forces of inner passion, now our lives are a triumphant expression of our wills over our natural surroundings, and the struggle shifts. We once struggled with the world without (which involved the struggle with nature and with one another). Now we conquer the world, and the struggle -the drama- is purely interpersonal. Through technology we conquer the world, and in doing so we destroy it. All that is left is for our own will – our desires and passions – to play themselves out in our new society, a society in exile from the earth.

And that only brings us through the industrial revolution. When information technology (especially the internet) arose, we took our exiled existence and planted it in a new world – a world without place, a ghost world that is everywhere, and so is nowhere. It hasn’t fully happened yet, but it has begun, and only a global catastrophe will stop it. A skeptic will say, “It’s all the same though! We still have homes, and friends, and food, and lovers, and culture, and lives. The world is essentially the same, just with more possibilities.” I say click away and see if it’s just a little different, or if technology really has uprooted us from everything that was so elemental to human existence. [Disclaimer – though maturity is required, all links are safe, despite the most initial appearance.]

Now the world isn’t out there any more. And it isn’t really just in here either. It’s in some amorphous nowhere between worlds. A things significance isn’t tied to its being anywhere or anywhen. The only significance for any thing is our experience of it. See, for instance, that the most significant symphonic performance of the year takes place….nowhere. And when you watch it, most of the performers won’t be playing. And when the performers do/did play, you weren’t there. And the people who watch it and enjoy it so much will have the experience in isolation of time and place.

So what is the problem here? It certainly could be that this uprooting isn’t a bad thing at all; maybe it’s just new, but not bad. I don’t think so. I think that this new world – this new way of existing – poses some challenges that we’re not ready for, that we’re not built for. Human life is just not the sort of thing that can thrive in the isolating prison of freedom built with our machines. The generation of people who can read this now are the first people to really face this transformation of the world, and this question of existence is ours to wrestle with, and that wrestling has to take place on a personal level before it can take place on a social one.

I have no solution to this other than to take the step of awareness, to watch and see where we’ve been uprooted, and to walk away from the opportunities to have such foundational elements of our humanity transformed and offered to us anew through technology. This way of authenticity and naturalness provides, for example, an excellent reason to reject pornography apart from any religious belief – because it is an isolated, dehumanized, technologized element of basic humanness that has been uprooted, steralized, and offered to us anew as an invitation into the ghost world we’ve created, a world in which there is only the pixeled shadow of the human, where we grow empty by feasting on our vacant abundance. So let us mind Nietzsche, who looked at his own world and remarked,

The wasteland is growing; woe to those who harbor wastelands within.

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