Last Saturday I climbed Feathertop (the second tallest mountain in Victoria). This is a fairly remote peak, with few signs of civilisation other than the trail that had brought us to the top.
Up there, I found a family taking lots of different group pictures on various cameras and phones. They particularly caught my attention when one of them said: Has your phone got coverage? Good. Send that photo to your brother and wish him a happy birthday from on top of the world.
I think it’s amazing the technology we have today. In this case, we have phones which easily fit in a pocket and are still able to take pictures, find the current location on a map, and connect people together around the world.
Even Everest has had phones talking to satellites for 20 years. Now it has cellphone coverage, so climbers have gone beyond voice calls to text messages and even video calls.
We use this technology so frequently that we have come to depend on it, but we are still aware of how much it has changed in our lifetimes. There is a generation growing up now that thinks all these things are natural. I have seen some who started using a touchscreen at age 2 or 3 and have literally never known a world without it.
But really, the idea of being out in a remote and desolate area and still being able to contact people anywhere in the world is incredible. It’s at about this point that it is obligatory to quote Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I am in awe of the technology we have, but I am also in awe of the speed at which it has been changing. Many of the things we have now, things which to me have always been around, weren’t around even 50 years ago. It is only now that I am starting to realise how recent they are.
Throughout our history, human ingenuity has allowed us to move at a pace far greater than the natural biological evolutionary process. We have adapted to many different surroundings and climates around the world while still remaining the one species. We have been able to change the tools we use and the clothes we wear without having to change our biology.
In recent centuries, many of these changes have had the effect of shrinking the world. Right now, the talk is of globalisation and the global economy. Inter-continental flights are available to the masses, and the power of the internet allows us to communicate with people in completely different parts of the world without leaving our desks. Even a simple email can take a couple of trips around the world, and still reach its destination a second later. And a simple search for the cheapest price on Amazon or eBay can lead to products being shipped to us from the other side of the world. And this is just considered normal.
Of course, from an evolutionary point of view this reduction in the strength of geographical borders is a threat. Variety has been built up over long periods of isolation, and our technology allows that variety to be lost in the geological blink of an eye.
Sometimes we are victims of our own success. Many people feel threatened by the pace of change (though I don’t think too many are queueing up to hand back their mobile phones and return to a simpler life). Our laws and our standards of etiquette can struggle to keep up with the changes. How exactly do you determine which technologies need regulation? And which behaviours are socially acceptable? We are communicating in ways that were unheard of a hundred years ago, and we are certainly not designed to deal with them. We need to try and rewrite the rule-book without strangling innovation, inciting riots, or succumbing to nostalgia over “good old days” that probably never existed. And should we be concerned that sometimes these technologies feel like they are gaining control of us rather than serving us?
However, I’m not really wanting to be negative. Technology fills me with wonder much more than it fills me with fear. Yes, there are things to be concerned about, but we have achieved so much that I cannot think of a past era I would prefer to live in. Our continued search for understanding also gives us the opportunity to correct some of our past mistakes (though doubtless it gives us plenty of opportunities to make more mistakes).
But to me it comes down to a simple question: Do we want to be able to understand the universe and tweak it to suit us better, or do we want to just accept it as it is? Personally, I think there is great value in being able to accept things that occur, but there’s no virtue in accepting things that could be easily improved.
But there’s one final point I want to consider when looking at technological progress, and that is the role of the gods. Often through history “God” has been the label applied to things we don’t understand. And it can still be used that way today. But right now I am celebrating human ingenuity, and we have to be clear that this does not involve God. In fact, we can see that many things which used to be labelled “god” can now be better understood by studying natural causes. Often, this has allowed us to move beyond just accepting that things happen to predicting and controlling these forces. Making them do our bidding rather than accepting them as the will of the gods.
It was humans who discovered how to float, to fly, and to dive to the bottom of the ocean when conventional wisdom said we weren’t designed for it.
It was humans who discovered the underlying laws these technologies are based on and figured out ways to use those laws.
It was humans who mined the raw materials, refined them, and processed them into incredibly powerful devices.
It was humans who went out to install and maintain the pieces that the technologies rely on, whether it be cables under the sea, phone towers in remote locations, or artificial satellites orbiting the earth.
And it was humans who decided this was all too hard and developed the technology to automate the production, installation, and maintenance processes for us.
All these things continue today, but it goes deeper:
It is humans who seek to understand the universe, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy (and then to try and use that knowledge to make it suit us better).
It is humans who seek to peer back into time to determine how we got where we are and to consider what might be coming next.
It is humans who struggle to overcome death, not by hoping for some ill-specified afterlife, but by waging war on the many causes of death.
Am I making my point?
Maybe some of those who have worked in science and technology were inspired by the concept of a god, or felt their work was serving that god. But the work was still done by those humans. We have absolutely no evidence of any involvement by a god. In fact, were such a god to exist these technologies could be viewed as a rebellion against that god. The technologies would show that humans were unwilling to just accept the place that god had given them and offer the appropriate worship. It would also be the story of Prometheus of old: an example of humans trying to steal the powers of the gods for themselves.
Through history humans have seen in the wonders of the natural world the hand of a creator. I can no longer do that. It’s not that I refuse to marvel at the beauty and grandeur of the natural world: that is much of my pleasure in hiking. It is just that I can no longer view it as something that has been created and thought through (except by the humans who cut paths, manage boundaries, and otherwise try to tame the wild I walk through).
In contrast, our technology is unquestionably designed. Not by a single mastermind, but by a disparate group of people over time who have been able to strive towards distant goals, whether working together or competing against each other. And so for me, human technology begins to fill some of that place of wonder that was once filled by the natural world. The wonder of things that people have planned and can consciously create. I also love the fact that it is not a mystic process: we can see some of the steps that were taken, some of the compromises that were made, and how people struck out in hope of changing the world (or making money) and were eventually rewarded.
The human story is a rich story, and our drive to develop and improve technology is part of what has made it a rich story. So is our ability to work collaboratively and systematically towards a shared goal. Let us continue contributing to the story.
I started by talking about mobile phones with camera and GPS, and compared with understanding the universe they only provide a small instance of human ingenuity. But they also hint at the scale of our ambition and the extent to which we are rewriting our natural, biological legacy. Through them, we communicate over much larger distances than sound permits us to, we choose unchanging external (and shareable) memories over malleable internal memories, and we are reminded of the satellites that we have stationed in the sky to assist us wherever we are in the world. The software on our phone has probably been written by collaborators from around the world, and shows the extent to which we use and value flexible computers and abstract instructions over concrete hardware that just does one job (I’m a software developer - I love abstraction and flexibility).
We can use this technology for harm or for good. Let’s appreciate it, accept it, and strive to use it for good.