Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Relections on Sunrise and Material Engagement

What was it like? How did it feel? For the ten thousand thousand years before we came to see the world through the lens of technology, through the refraction of machines, what was it like to be human?

This morning I saw the sun rise from a pier that stretches into Lake Ontario. It's easy for Rochesterians to forget this giant expanse of fresh water exists. 175 years ago, broad high waterfalls 5 miles upstream led the city's founders to site their new habitation inland. The great lake is hidden even from the highest hilltop. The ability to watch night give over to the pale pink of 5 am over the lake always comes as something of a surprise to me.

In the quiet of morning light rising from the horizon as I wondered what would this would have been like 500 years ago. How would it be, say, for a member of the Seneca tribes who inhabited this area. For them there would be no jetty, no line of boats at the wharf, no massive steel bridge. Instead they would have met the water and morning light from a wooded coastline that stretched as far as they eye could see. My technological self had driven here to watch the planet rotate. Soon I would drive back. The day which I know would follow would be mediated by machines many of which I barely understand in their immediate physicality: the car I pilot, the iPhone I use for notes, music and communication, the computer I write this post on. As a physicist I get the principles but in their material presence they are manufactured goods that originated elsewhere and whose inner workings I am, in general, not supposed to be concerned with.

How different this is from most of those whose genes I carry. For the bulk of our history, even down to a mere 5 or so generations ago, the world was much closer, much more familiar. The night sky did not disappear behind a veil of electric light at sunset and the objects we lived with were formed, for the most part from materials we also lived with. In his fine small volume Prehistory, The Making of the Human Mind the archaeologist Colin Renfrew speaks of the role of material engagement in driving our shift from hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural city builders. A braiding of what we built, how we valued it and how lived together occurred that radically altered our consciousness and our encounter with the world from which we evolved. As Renfrew puts it

The social context, the necessary matrix for the development of technological innovations during the increasing engagement with the material world is dependent upon social relationships that in many cases are based on cognitive advances.
Changing social relationships change "mind" which change technology which changes social relationships etc. In the process our relation to the world changes. It seems this process never stopped. In the last century or so I would argue something has changed, something has shifted Our machines and the culture they generate (think facebook and twitter), now rely on abstractions made concrete in the form of circut boards and composite materials. In the "developed world" the engagement with the material relies on an electrical engineers sense of the word. This has to be different from a world made of rope and timbers.

So where has the evolution of human culture taken us now? We fly in a myriad of conceivable fashions, we project our machines across the solar system, we control the world on the level of atoms, we rearrange the genetic fabric of life. All the while we still stand very close to those grandparents to the Nth power, our ancestors who stepped out from clearings in the trees to watch the sun rise across the lake.

What it means to be human has changed so much in such a short time as our technology, our material forms of engagement ran away into abstractions. So much lost and gained. So what clearing, collectively, are we stepping out into now?


  1. Adam, when you say we are stepping out into a new clearing, I see this in the way we perceive reality. Alva Noe describes how we have evolved to perceive the world through action Action in Perception. We see this every day. For example if you ask some one to look at an object he won't merely look at it, he will take it out of your hand, feel it, rotate it and look at it from many angles. Only then will he feel that he has 'seen' it. However with the advent of writing we have learned to perceive the world symbolically as well, in purely abstract terms. Now through the Internet we are extending that symbolic perception to social relationships. This is a huge change which I think is restructuring the brain. So I would suggest the new clearing we are stepping into is one where we have heightened perceptions, augmented by that newly acquired ability for symbolic, abstract perception. The changes in our perception are expanding the boundaries of the clearing.

  2. Oops the correct link is this

  3. Adam

    This post gave me something of a haunting sense; nothing frightening-but something more ominous- something more profound. I hope you will unpack some of your thinking here, especially in what you are seeing in our abstracting use of technology.

    "So where has the evolution of human culture taken us now?" I would argue that this should be read more like: Where has our culture that we've evolved, taken us?

  4. What will we see as we step into the clearing? Depends on what we have our A.I. perfected virtual reality helmets programed to; could be your naked lover or the Grand Canyon or a Cayman Island beach; with one of these babies, you can step into any clearing you want from the comfort of your Barcalounger. Hmm, I wonder if Barcolounger is for sale? I see a future market!

  5. @O.R.- I think we have to separate mind from brain. At least for the sake of understanding the way the two are involved together. I would argue that our use of imagination will create more brain structuring than bare stimulus.

    I agree that we have to evolve, I just think that we have to evolve something else other than the brain.

  6. I see one thing that you make apparent here Adam, is that we don't yet have a context adequate to the change of what it means to be human; a change that occurred too rapidly for us to really understand.

    Astrobiology I think, becomes interesting here, and I have a question: Considering all that we've observed in the universe, and the level of complexity embodied by human being- namely, fully fledged consciousness along with an ability to interact with the world at will- could evolution produce any world better than the one we inhabit?

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