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2007 10 08
Techne-City
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Toronto is coming alive in our imaginations. We no longer mutter so defensively how really, truly, honestly and sincerely Toronto is a world-class city. We’re done muttering. Done envying, resenting and also-running. Some days now, we actually reckon Toronto the greatest.

There’s always been a sense, however, in which the greatness of cities has meant abomination. The greater the city, the more abominable. Not only biblically –- as in Sodom, Gomorrah and other cities of original sinning. More generally, when it comes to our cities, there has always been a nagging sense of greatness entailing abomination –- because cities just aren’t natural. Because cities epitomize the un-natural.

We don’t let it bother us too much. Like, what does being natural even mean? Can any clear distinguishing categorically separate urban technologies and architectures –- from even our most romantic ideals of pristine virgin landscape? Between modern SUV driven convenience -– and our hunting, gathering, slashing, burning, mastodon and buffalo-jumping heritage? Does anything divide the most artificial in technological culture from what’s natural?

Difficult to say so. Many argue that the distinction between culture and nature is itself a cultural artifact. But then, if artefacts of technological culture determine our ability to distinguish technology from nature, it follows that the more technology insulates culture from nature’s influence, the more disabled we grow distinguishing them. The world turns entirely to clockwork. Our eyes become cameral and bi-cameral. Our cities keep growing into concrete jungles.

Relationships with our tools mushroom too intimately ubiquitous not to supplant –- super-seed –- our natural discernment. Technology grows right in and out of our bodies. Technology increasingly astoundingly seems to extend our natural bodies.

Can’t help seeming that way. Entirely not just because Marshall McLuhan said so. Doesn’t take a loaded gun or a pilot’s license. Doesn’t even take a driver’s license. Can’t help feeling arm’s reach and power extending when wielding a club. Precisely as depicted in The Dawn of Man –- the introduction to the most culturally and socially influential science fiction film ever. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Can’t help feeling it the way audiences did when gazing on the hominid Moon-Watcher throwing his bone club in the air. After he’d used it to shatter bones. After he’d used it for murder –- but before he’d yet used that club and its derivatives to commit genocidal slaughter. When that club went sailing up in the sky and kept right on going. Just kept turning against the backdrop of clouds up there. Until it was neither dawn nor day -– until the sky turned black as night and that club was turning against a backdrop of stars. While audiences first realized that club wasn’t ever coming down again because it had turned into a space station -– and that this huge curve ball emerging in the frame was the Earth. As seen from the orbit into which that club was tossed.

It can’t help seeming tools extend our otherwise helplessly reaching bodies in the most natural way. But there are vast and potentially irreversible hazards entailed by uncritically extending organic metaphors to our tools. Tempting as it is to imagine an ambulance speeding down the road as extending our immune systems –- like some huge lymphocyte -– what are the roads down which that ambulance speeds extensions of? Our circulatory systems? Are new media and the internet extensions of our central nervous system? So tempting to think so. As if no different from how Moon-Watcher’s club extended his arm. But if arms were to evade our most remote control and go inter-continentally ballistic? What would that be extending? And now, with industrial exhalations melting icecaps and poisoning the tree of evolutionary life, both root and branch? What does that extend? Our breath? Our respiratory systems? Absurd. Such poison has no natural origin in or out of our bodies.

There may come a day our tools get totally out of hand. When, rather than extend us, our tools start self-extending totally independently. When our tools lurch with un-natural life and consciousness. When they become Frankenstein monstrosities. But no worries -– despite every speculating what will happen when toasters declare independence and start using us for food, that day is neither yet nor near. No fear getting electric shocked reaching to flick off one’s computer; of the blue screen of death flashing jagged spectral strings like, “Don’t ever try that again, human.” No fear our computers will get together and decide to terminate us before we try again.

No fearing such rank speculation. Even though, as Ernest Nagel long since pointed out, sufficiently sophisticated thermostats may be considered teleologically goal directed -– i.e., to maintaining some temperature range despite independently varying environmental interference. Even though our increasingly networked tools are such ordered magnitudes more sophisticated than thermostats. Doesn’t matter. However goal directed our tools become, they are nowhere near deciding to terminate us. Nowhere near independently making autonomous decisions or declaring independence. Toasters, thermostats and quantum computers are not people too. Not now, not ever –- so long as the ‘off’ switches remain stacked in our favour.

More troubling is how utterly dependent on networked machinery we become. Such that, should the machinery stop, few of us will be able to go on. Some, however, hope so. Since, within short decades of our absence, everything natural will flourish again. Just like at Chernobyl.

Most hopelessly troubling, though, is that we shall go on -- just like we have been. That, completely insulated by our tools and architectures, we shall become so un-natural that we’ll go on to devastate the Earth and everything natural in it. Which scenario, even to imagine, expels us from fiction into darkest fantasy.

But what is the meaning of the natural? Even so insulated by our tools and architectures, are we not thereby proving fittest and, thus, surviving naturally? No. By no such means. True, natural selection has no prescriptive eye to the future. Criteria of fitness are all wishful thinking. Despite Darwin’s misgivings, one day to the next we may tumble from the pinnacle of creation to become dinosaurs. There are sound criteria of un-fitness, however. Such as utterly failing to negotiate ecologically.

Any plague -– regardless whether microscopic or of vertebrates -– utterly failing negotiating sustainable ecological positioning gets counted among evolutionary casualties. Must negotiate sustainable ecological positioning –- whether obviously up and down the food chain, in the dance of physical spacing or invisibly, obliquely in terms of respiration. Must negotiate in every way from the molecular to the behavioural. And in this evolutionary sense, Earth’s ecology is in global symbiosis.

That’s what’s so hopelessly troubling. While our bodies yet archive the record of global evolutionary symbiosis, we are progressively abandoning all ecological negotiating. Not because we want to. We’re over that Genesis 1:28 passage –- the one about subduing the Earth and dominating every living thing that moves on it. We all want to be green, nowadays. We just don’t know how any more. Our tools are almost entirely alien to natural evolution. They are incapable of ecological negotiating. And, insulated as we are becoming within networked technologies and urban architectures, with the immediate intimacy relating to our tools displacing every natural discernment –- how are we to retain or regain natural character?

David Brin, in the postscript to his Uplift War, wrote:
First we feared the other creatures who shared the Earth with us. Then, as our power grew, we thought of them as our property, to dispose of however we wished. The most recent fallacy (a rather nice one, in comparison) has been to play up the idea that the animals are virtuous in their naturalness, and it is only humanity who is a foul, evil, murderous, rapacious canker on the lip of creation. This view says that the Earth and all her creatures would be much better off without us. Only lately have we begun embarking upon a fourth way of looking at the world and our place in it… Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last. Others may follow us in this adventure.
Wonderful. Truly. But doesn’t the scenario of Brin’s fourth way pass entirely beyond science fiction into fantasy? What chrysalis, technological or otherwise, could conceivably transform us into such elven stewards of everything natural –- from the orcish despoilers we have become?

In the most practical sense, the one most toxic at grass roots, city dwellers now utterly fail appreciating the completeness of nature’s ecological symbiosis. How there’s no garbage in nature. No waste. We see green bins overturned by raccoons and our noses contort in reflexive disgust. Not just the smell. The very idea. The mess. We don’t see bio-degradability, the symbiosis of nature or that raccoons are among the very few among natural kinds willing and able to negotiate with us ecologically. But a pile of computer monitors? That’s alright. Stacked all neat and clean. Never mind those aren’t bio-degradable or even bio-neutral. Never mind how bio-toxic those are. How they shall spill mercurial poisons to gnaw progressively the tree of living to toxic death. Neat! Clean! Antiseptic! Get germs off soap -– use Drano. Defoliate the tree of living. Defoliate our own selves. Disable immune systems. Purge mitochondria, even –- they’re no proper parts of us. Such is our technological, industrial, un-natural disease.

Probably it is too late. By far. Just on principle -– natural principle -– though, there may be a point of entry to Brin’s fourth way. Beginning by relating to plants and other animals. Particularly those other animals prepared to negotiate with us and meet us halfway right where we live. In our cities. So easy. Just cease razing natural gardens. And feed the animals some of our leftovers. Scraps from our tables. Yes -– even raccoons. Because the world so is not our zoo. Because otherwise, in abandoning all natural discernment, that club of Moon-Watcher’s will only have transformed us into the most un-natural plague of vermin ever to disfigure the face of this Earth.

To be continued…..

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University. In November his related essay, "Acts of Salvage" (cowritten with Amy Lavender Harris) will be published in GreenTOpia (Coach House).]

[Scavenging raccoon image by Lex and used via Creative Commons.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 10/08 at 01:12 PM

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