I Can Extend Myself Over the Whole Planet, Research Time, 30/06/2015

Something I’ve always found fascinating about ideas is how they seem to take on a life of their own. I didn’t always believe that ideas could live disconnected from their thinkers, and even now, I’m still very unsure of how the process would work. What is an idea? I can't bring myself to believe in ideas as eternal Platonic Forms. Ideas change, just as matter does.

Venice is loved for its ancient architecture, but
Marinetti hated Venice for the same reason.
Ideas drift around societies of thinkers, and recur in different places. One thinker focusses on an aspect of a particular idea that another may never notice at all. Back when I was working full-time in academic philosophy, I thought I’d research influence: how one set of ideas occurred in the works of another.

But in terms of the evidence I could summon up from research into the social networks, relationships, and what a given writer had actually read and studied, there weren't nearly enough chains of influence to make any direct claims outside established chains – who read whom, who studied under whom and where. So if I’m going to write about the recurrence of ideas among different writers and disciplines, I’ll have to find something more poetic and figurative than direct influence. 

Here's an example that just occurred to me. I’ve been reading some old essays of Filippo Marinetti. Marinetti and his crew of Italian punk artists, poets, and playwrights at the start of the 20th century wanted a revolution in theatre and society. They created art inspired by the lines of machine production, the regimentation and power of industry.

Marinetti wrote about a wonderful dream he once had, that the ancient historic buildings of Venice would be torn to rubble, and that rubble would fill the city’s canals to build roads to factories. The embrace of technology – the economic expression of a cultural embrace of the future – would make Italy a great world power, a centre of manufacturing and military might.

Humanity extends itself over the entire world with its
technology. This is the future, our world.
His central image was the Extended Man. Human ingenuity created technologies that can enormously increase the speed and intensity of material production. We can keep making more stuff, endlessly. All that production was organized in a massive system over the entire world: industrial states built massive armies to conquer foreign territory, enslave or co-opt their residents, and funnel their resources to the homeland, where domestic industries would build equipment to sell to their people and around the world.

I learned how it works in high school. It was called the history of the colonial era. We don't conquer territory with armies anymore – there’s no movement in England to make India British again. But the economic relations are there. We all know that most of our goods are made in overseas factories. Instead of the plantation with its open slavery, we now have Foxconn with its anti-suicide nets between the compound’s buildings to prevent employee turnover.

Technology was the extension of the human will, our thoughts, plans, and dreams extending all over Earth. In Marinetti's time, we did it with armies and navies, openly. In our time, we do it a little more secretly, with free trade agreements negotiated behind closed doors until the final texts hit our legislatures for ratification. At least we’re skeptical that these agreements are always in the best interests of the people, and talk about it on our social networks and in our coffeeshops.

Back when I was still an enthusiastic academic-in-training, I was interested in philosophy of mind.* I discovered a curious idea in the work of a University of Edinburgh professor, Andy Clark: that technology extends the human mind.

* I still am. I just find the ways you can legitimately talk about it in North American philosophy departments to be a little limited.

Andy Clark, I discovered through a friend who went to
school at University of Edinburgh, is notorious for his
loud shirts. This is not Andy Clark, but Colin Baker's
similarly notorious Doctor Who.
Clark's vision was much more modest than Marinetti’s imperial conception of the technological man. Here’s a key example in Clark's work. Normally, we think of one function of the human mind as memory – memory happens inside our brains, where our minds are. But when I use technology to make a list of my day's tasks at work or a grocery list – maybe a pen and paper, maybe my phone – my mind is in the paper and the phone just as much as it’s in my skull. 

Technology extends the human mind and will beyond its body. But there are no political or social implications to this. Clark specializes in philosophy of mind, in cognitive theory. He's only interested in how human thought works. His way of thinking doesn’t have anything to do with politics. Philosophy of mind has nothing to do with political philosophy; they're different disciplines. Ask any professor.

Marinetti and Clark, across generations and countries, share an idea: technology extends the human mind. I doubt Clark ever read Marinetti's work. What would a cognitive theorist have to do with an artist, and an artist who had such repugnant politics as well? Yet the idea connects them, strangely. 

When we’re used to our assumptions about what kind of knowledge our knowledge is, we don't always make the connections that perhaps we should. Maybe we forget what once seemed obvious to us, and that forgetfulness leaves us vulnerable somehow.

Maybe good writing about ideas reminds us of the connections we should see, if we're to understand the real consequences of our thoughts. The full material implications of how creatures with our powers understand what we are.

No comments:

Post a Comment