This is my first blog post. Hurray!
I spoke recently with some family members about technological progress and the role of it in our lives. Each of us were from a separate generation: myself a millennial, my cousin gen X and my aunt a Baby Boomer. My baby boomer aunt feels that on the whole, technology is not improving our lives, or that in the very least, she is encountering more problems locally in her own life and sees a world, globally, deteriorating before her eyes. Although those are the broad strokes of her view, there are of course many instances, she admits, where technology has directly improved the lives of people using them. (It’s perhaps a small but important distinction to describe for whom technology makes the world a better place: users or technologists.) But regardless, there is some tension within her, because she feels that her grandchildren will neither inherit the same living standard nor many of the cultural practices which made her time in history significant. She sees that they will live in a world with fewer glaciers, fewer animals, less freedom of expression, more distractions and, on the whole, more ecological and social disasters within their lifetime than any generation before.
If we were to analyze rates of progress within technological development, and symptoms of this progress such as urbanization, carbon emissions, social graphs, etc. we would see that on many levels her view is a justified one. We know now, very definitively, that our technological development regimes are optimizing against particular objectives (such as transistor density in chip production or battery life in battery production). By and large, these systems are accelerating, generating more and more products at an ever increasing pace. What we see now is that rather than perhaps one or two major technological changes taking place within a generation, folk are inclined to see the cycles of “out with the old, in with the new” constantly churning, spewing out ever more detritus and lessons learned the hard way.
And that’s the problem with always having new toys to play with: you must learn their advantages and pitfalls the hard way. Certainly the medical community can attest to this with the use of opioids, antidepressants, etc. (it’s a long list): the redemptive promise of these tools carries with it a more sinister side manifested by the fact we are unable to model the world and the impact new knowledge (and systems) will have on it. So in that sense, every time we bite the apple of knowledge, we are cast out of paradise yet again. (Or in the very least, drawn further from it.)
An apt analogy may elucidate this notion and help us to see where we stand against history. Every generation has their golden hour in time: they feel they’ve mastered something new and can simultaneously be at peace with their natural surroundings. I like to conceptualize this as a hotel built on the beach of a tropical island. Yet such moments, and similarly such a hotel, evokes the need for others to participate, and secondary motivations (often greed) can very quickly begin to distort and diffract the initial utopic vision around which the hotel was conceptualized. Others, feeling that they can solve immediate problems at the hotel, try to make perhaps too hasty modifications. New hotels begin to crop up, the beach is paved over for boat landings, trees are cut down for organic farms, and before anyone can ask whether the island can support such a vibrant tourist economy and the waste it creates, we have the island covered with sprawl and development.
To the older generation of the island, paradise is lost through their own action to create it. They no longer recognize the landscape, and find themselves pining over what was lost, which will never be known to future islanders. Yet to the new generation, for whom the sprawl is their insular paradise, the streets and alleyways are equally integral to their lives as the land which sustains them and the beaches which they play in. Yet their harmonious co-existence with their urban landscapes and technological systems, because it does not fulfill the previous generation’s utopic visions, appears to be a repugnance.
The new generation, now couched in fulfilling their own uptopic vision for the island, seek out new language and conceptual tools for constructing their future. Words like “sustainability” and “green living” are thrown around. The hotels are torn down and eco-tourist lodges, communes and organic farm work-stays take their place. Yet as demand grows, the number of eco-lodges and glampsites increases; plankton farms begin occupying the lakes, and the remaining sprawl is filled with the homeless who were unable to adapt to the new island economy. Later generations will angrily write about the oblivious elitism manifest in this eco-lodge island society, and make their own best attempt to rectify it.
And so it goes -- a self-perpetuating cycle. Yet to think history is bound to its path is to ignore the primacy of human agency and collective organization. Each generation is imbued with a “weak messianic power” within which is the potentiality for redemption against the violence and destruction wrought by the mindless procession of history.