No Closer to Understanding Whales

“A whale can injure another whale with its sonar. A whale can speak to another whale across sixty miles of ocean. A whale is as intelligent as we are, just in a way we can’t quite measure or understand. Because we’re these incredibly blunt instruments” (Vandermeer, Jeff, Acceptance, 81).

When I encountered this passage in Jeff Vandermeer’s conclusion to his ecological sci-fi trilogy The Southern Reach, it allowed this week’s readings to click in ways that they previously hadn’t once I realized the source of the nagging feeling in my lower back. Throughout his trilogy, Vandermeer explores how ineffectual any of our existing technologies have been at improving life for humans and non-humans, and in this quoted moment from Acceptance, it became apparent to me that this may not necessarily have to do with our technologies innately being blunt instruments, but that the motives to innovate remain fairly singular and determined by a microscopic minority of humans who prefer blunt instruments.

The readings this week both point out to the incredible imagination and ambition of Western scientists in the early to mid 20th century, but also the relatively limited scope of what they conceive of technology, and their optimism bordering on naïveté regarding its application. In light of Angela M. Haas’s article on ‘Wampum as Hypertext’, it becomes even clearer to me that in addition to all the many ways I have come to learn that hegemonic constructs choke the world, another that I’ve been ignorant to until this time is how Western hegemony has narrowed our conceptions of advancements in technology, reducing our innovations to merely creating new iterations of the same blunt instruments. We have continued to expand our technologies, preventing them from entering entropy, but what are we ultimately achieving through these advances beyond increases in efficiency and aesthetic variation? Well aware that this is a basic question, I also add: how can we, like Sequoyah, create a technology that does something different and operates from new ontological frameworks without unconsciously borrowing from hegemonic powers?

Vannevar Bush provides an overview of existing technologies in the mid-20th century, and looks at how those technologies may evolve to new applications, culminating in his description of the never created Memex device. Throughout his article, Bush discusses the progress of technologies, such as photography, showing that he thought it would be much the same in terms of material resources, but at a smaller and cheaper scale, understandably oblivious to how digital computing would upend photography as it was once known in terms of its production and circulation. In hypothesizing a device like the Memex, Bush makes leaps not only from a technological standpoint but also an ethical one. For instance, the idea of ‘annotated trails’ for a Memex user is reminiscent of the shareable highlighted text available on Amazon Kindle and other e-readers. However, Bush seems to have greater faith in people’s desire to share these highlights and other marginalia than may actually now be the case despite existing technology’s ability to do so (Bush 124). While a benign example of how Bush perhaps provides humanity too much credit, I think the hypothetical society in which Bush imagines the Memex to exists is just that, hypothetical. One in which the goal of sharing knowledge and collaborating to solve problems is driven both by a desire to do good science and improve the world, completely lacking of political and social context which uphold Western neoliberal notions of technological progress

Similar faith in humanity is displayed by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor when discussing the potential for collaboration networked computing can provide humans. Extolling its virtues, Licklider and Taylor state that networked computing would be able to allow for a model of co-learning and sharing previously unavailable to humans. Again though, they’re imagination similarly exists in a place absent of politics and economics other than to consider the exorbitant cost of mid 20th century networked computing. They imagine that with computing technology, people would be able to “Take any problem worthy of the name, and find only a few people who can contribute effectively to its solution. Those people must be brought into close intellectual partnership so that their ideas can come into contact with one another” (Licklider & Taylor 29). The problem in this scenario stems from issues of ideological similarity and access. Among what group of people are these few selected? Are they chosen based on the superiority of their skill, or on their prowess combined with a willingness to act in accordance with whomever is footing the high telecommunications bills? What values among these people determine what they consider to be a solution to a given problem? How do they view their problem-solving in relation to the environment, globalization, and non-humans? What compromises must be made for work to be done?

This is why the Hass text was remarkable to me for similar reasons to Ellen Cushman’s The Cherokee Syllabary. Both texts made it apparent that I had adapted a very limited sense of technologies, but whereas Cushman’s books illuminated my tethering of literacy to the alphabet, Hass brought to light my association between hypertext and screen technologies and digital computing. What Hass does in her essay that the previously mentioned mid-20th century people fail to do (and likely fail because it was not their goal to do so) is recognize how overly determined our conceptions of technology have been by Western societies. Hass concludes her essay stating, “the study of wampum as hypertext has the potential to reimagine the future of hypertext as more civically responsible. Although the World Wide Web is touted for its democratizing effects on communication, there is still a digital divide between the haves and have-nots, whereas shared responsibility is what links wampum beads.” (Hass 93). And it is in this civically responsible framework of technology that I hope technology would be based in, but regularly fails to do so. And with that, I return to Area X,

“To Area X, a smart phone, say, is as basic as a flint arrowhead, that it’s operating off of such refined and intricate senses that the tools we’ve bound ourselves with, the ways we record the universe, are probably evidence of our own primitive nature. Perhaps it doesn’t even think that we have consciousness or free will-not in the ways it measures such things.” (Vandermeer 81).

 

 

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