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?