22 March 2019

Nature and Technology

It's easy to think about Nature and Technology as opposites.

On a day where I've spent all day starting at the screen, they certainly feel like opposites. The colour and complexity of the natural world feels very distant. My head is full of binary logic. Nature feels a bit like a paradise that has been abandoned in order to spend more time peering at screens.

We are living through an era of ever-increasing digital abundance and ever-decreasing natural resources. While we lose ourselves in the maze of the internet, watching old music videos and comparing the price of washing machines and their average customer ratings, species of animals and plants disappear, the habitats in which they thrived becoming more and more marganlised. With our attentions distracted, we barely notice the losses. The world around us changes at alarming speed, and yet in a strange way, given the hyper-speed of our cultures and economies, everything seems quite still and unchanging.

Generally speaking, when you look at technology, it looks and feels very different to nature. It's often black and sleek and defiantly unnatural in it's appearance. As if it intends to defy nature by being around forever. And of course, technology is, almost always, designed to be inorganic. It probably will be around for a very very long time, still taking up space though probably not still functioning, while the natural world crumbles and reforms around it. Increasingly, I think of the indisposability of technology as one of it's greatest limitations and think ahead to what future generations will make of our brilliant high-tech detritus.

But of course, all our technology is actually all too natural in it's origins. Our smartphones are assemblages of precious metals and rare-earth minerals extracted from the earth. The lithium in our smartphone batteries is taken from salt lakes. Much of the cobalt, also used in smart phone batteries, is mined by hand in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bastnaesite, monazite, and xenotime contain neodymium, a rare-earth element that provides the haptic buzz that signals an incoming email. Look at a smartphone and you are still looking at nature, crudely melded and transformed into sleek blackness.

While I completely understand the appeal, I'm suspicious of the sometimes expressed wish to escape from technology into a prelapsarian world of the purely natural. From a solely practical point of view, it's pretty much impossible now. And it sounds too similar to other types of idealistic wish that have dark shadows - the wish to escape from the intellect by regressing into a prior state of unthinking bliss, the wish to escape from the busy, multicultural city into the rural idyll. We can't escape from technology completely, but we can certainly use it more carefully.

Henry Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, famously "went to the woods" to "live deliberately", away from the trappings of a corrupted civilisation. He had little time for the two technologies - the telegraph and the railroad - that were transforming American society around him. "We do not ride on the railroad;" he wrote, "it rides upon us" - as our technology - the internet, social media, machine learning - at times clearly rides upon us. But towards the end of his most famous book, Walden, he pauses by a bank of bare soil cut out by the railroad which had impinged on the area around his beloved Walden Pond:

Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented.

In this brief sequence, as Jedediah Purdy notes in his article A Radical for All Seasons Thoreau sees the "dirt slide and roll, streaming in and out of patterns, and reflects on the ways that the human body, the waterways of the earth, and every plant and animal are just more matter forever changing shape." This image, as Purdy suggests, can be seen as a "a vivid experience of the oneness of all of lifeā€”the natural world and the modern, human-made one." That sense of the fundamental non-duality of the natural and the technological, as "just more matter forever changing shape", is where I'm headed.

In recognising a deep and fundamental unity between technology and nature, we don't need to pasively accept uses of technology that cause negative impact. We're stuck, in this current moment, with our forms of technology, like Thoreau was stuck with the railroad, as the latest stage of our incredible, stupid evolution. Technology and its associated industries think and act as though they are above nature, but like human economics, technology is a modest, limited and relatively impermanent subset of nature. Where we need to get to is technology that is more like nature, and that knows it's place within the wider natural picture.