Review of Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê.
‘I would like to get a certain number of people to think about what tools do to our perception rather than what we can do with them, to look at how tools shape our mind, how their use shapes our perception of reality, rather than how we shape reality by applying or using them.” That was Ivan Illich in 1992. Technê, this astonishing collection of over sixty essays, stories and art work about tools and craft and skill is a worthy response, better late than never, to what Illich was asking for.
Dark Mountain is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who, as its website puts it, “have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. It publishes regular anthologies of “Uncivilised writing”. The call for contributions to this book focussed on a single theme, “the relationship between human beings and the things we make; with our machines and our tools, our technologies and our hands, and the future of all of them. The Greek term technê encompasses all of these ideas…” The result is this huge, exciting and disturbing book, bringing together a diverse collection of contributions by “Mountaineers” whose brief biographies at the end of the book make for an intriguing extra chapter. Remember Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy? The medium may be different, but the effect of Technê as a commentary on our civilisation is similar.
Technê starts with the photograph of a mysterious sculpture of a male nude, Mann, standing feet in water in a huge iron drainpipe somewhere in the Catskill Mountains (Robert Lever). Then there’s a photo of a computer studio, entitled Photographic Truth (Mario Popham). The caption includes this question: “What does it mean to be a human being in a world designed, simulated and overseen by our machines?” As the editorial puts it: “This book is… a meditation on the enormity of this moment for humanity.” The stage is set.
In the first essay, The Deceiving Virtues of Technology, Stephen L. Talbott draws mythic lessons from the trickster Odysseus and what he sees as the association of technology with deceit. There is a curious double aspect to be found both in English and in Homer’s Greek in such words as device, contrivance, artifice or craft, which can refer either to an external object one makes or to the inner activities of the maker. The Trojan Horse was admired as much for the cunning wile behind its invention as for its construction as an engine of war. Talbott argues that technology in this sense played a role in the historical birth of the individual self, calling forth a balance in him between the duality of external challenges on the one hand and self-possession and resourcefulness on the other. And technology also assists the birth of the individual by separating him from the natural world which has nurtured him but restricts his freedom and self-development.
With these unusual reflections, Talbott issues a warning: “Compare Homer’s man of many devices with Silicon Valley’s man of many gadgets, and you will immediately recognise a reversal within technê. Where the individual’s consciousness of self once became more vivid through the experience of his own capacity to objectify his inner contriving in the outer world, today the objects as such have engulfed us, threatening the originating self with oblivion.”
Paul Kingsnorth’s essay is called Planting Trees in the Anthropocene. (The Anthropocene is the term used for the historical epoch that began when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystems.) In the essay he describes the trials and tribulations of his own back-to-the-land choices in rural Wales over against the technium, as expounded by Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine. According to Kelly, the technium is the “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating about us”, which he believes is taking on its own life and its own mind. He claims it is a force of evolution, and as great a force as nature. Raymond Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, Kingsnorth continues, is the most famous promoter of the concept of the ‘Singularity’, through which humanity will merge with machines to create a new super-species. These ominous concepts recur repeatedly throughout Technê and are fundamental to its concerns, so this detailed introduction is very helpful.
Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist who was awarded the Right Livelihood Award last year, confronts these issues in a pensive essay, entitled Being good enough. There is apprehension, humour and resilience in the way he looks at the technological landscape of the future. He talks about the importance of community and human contact, about spiritual traditions and the unique capacity of the human species to set limits on our desires. “This deep tradition,” he says, “reminds us that meaning counts more than ability or achievement or accumulation… Given the stakes, and I think the stakes are nothing more and nothing less than the future of human meaning, it seems to me worth taking all this slowly if we can.”
In between the essays by Talbott and Kingsnorth we have a piece by Beth Tilson about what she calls ‘Unhandy Man’, people who don’t know how to look after themselves. At the age of 28, a university graduate with distinction, she resolved to change direction including learning to bake bread. Her essay, The Literacy of the Fingers, explores the wisdom of doing rather than thinking. “Words,” as she puts it, “cannot easily hold the material world.” And then comes her recipe for white sourdough with spelt, and an appetising photograph of one of her loaves!
“How can we restore, or perhaps (like love) discover for the very first time, what the Hebridean poet, Iain Crichton Smith, called ‘the feeling intelligence’: that of ‘real people in a real place’ on a shared journey that leads ‘towards the human’?”
This kind of balance applies throughout Technê where intellectual reflections alternate with contributions about domestic know-how, photographs, music, an inherited trade, the maintenance of artefacts, ritual, all sorts of practical skills – the philosophical side by side with the practical.
By hand by Jeri Reilly starts with a colour photograph of hanging out the washing in north-west Ireland: Catching the wind. She’s moving there from America where her critique of the rise and rise of the tumble dryer, and its environmental cost, is harsh. “What if the clothes dryer is not the benign domestic labour-saving device we think it is… ? What if it’s a thief of our human agency… a thief of some small portion of our humanity?”
She is followed by Jan van Boeckel, a Dutch film maker who made a documentary of Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher, just before he died in 1994. It’s called “The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul” and the on-line reference is given. It’s well worth watching. Van Boeckel’s essay, Jacques Ellul and la technique, is based on passages from the film. Ellul expounds his understanding of la technique, which in French has a wider meaning than the English “technology”; it involves a way of thinking, a way of organising society, a way of being. “What is now so awful in our society,” he says, “is that la technique has destroyed everything which people considered sacred. For example, nature. People have voluntarily moved to an acceptance of technology as something sacred.” Van Boeckel recounts how he sent the film to Ivan Illich, hoping he would consent to the making of a similar documentary about him, to which he replied curtly that he never watched films!
Ellul was a Christian and a prolific theologian as well as a sociologist. Illich was a Christian too, a Catholic priest who in 1968 was hauled before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Inquisition) in Rome for his work in Cuernavaca. It’s noticeable that Christianity as a reference point in western civilisation is virtually absent in Technê. While there are several essayists who draw meaning from the Greek myths, I suppose this omission is because of the way the Bible has in the past been interpreted to encourage the idea that technology is a God-given means of dominating nature and subduing the earth. In his studies of Hugh of St Victor, Illich pointed out that until the thirteenth century tool-making was widely understood in western culture as a search for a remedy for the damage we have done to the world, a penitential activity to alleviate the sin with which we are born. It’s a humbler view of tools.
￼Jan van Boeckel again: “Ellul holds that every technical innovation that is implemented to solve a prior problem creates, in its turn, secondary problems that worsen the problem they were intended to resolve.” Raimon Panikkar called it the Tragic Law of Technocratic Society. Eric Utne’s Where’s Ivan Illich when we need him? puts it another way: Illich “argued… that beyond a certain threshold, experts and institutionalised expertise become counterproductive – they produce the opposite of what they set out to achieve… People need to stop giving their authority over to technocrats and supposed experts.” In the light of the approaching Singularity, Utne says, Illich’s counsel is even more relevant today. Very few people are questioning Google’s view of the future. If Illich were here he would be leading the conversation and asking those questions.
Following the article on Jacques Ellul we have a dozen photos illustrating the traditional making of walnut oil by hand in the Périgord. And right after Eric Utne’s essay comes a beautiful piece, The right tool for the job by Julie Gabrielli. It’s on the practice of architectural drawing which in her lifetime has been superseded by the computer. Several reproductions of her own lovely hand drawings of Italian villas and churches and gardens accompany her account of what architecture means to her and her yearning for what has been lost. “Designing with hand drawings has an organic quality,” she writes, “similar to that of a seed sprouting or a flower’s bud blooming… This is a humbling, questioning stance, full of wonder and curiosity… Hand drawing is receptive, allowing, intuitive, mysterious, feminine… Computer drawing is iterative, masculine, hard-edged, competitive, keen to show off its impressive capabilities…”
Cate Chapman gives us a single page with ten points of advice for knitters: “1. Cast on one idea… 3. Piece together cloth and meaning confidently… 6. Make with love, or defiance, or whatever you find… 8. Bind everything you are into the thing that you make… 10. Revel in your capacity to create, slowly and with care, things that can be made quickly, brutally, and without conscience.” The title of her piece, A pattern for happiness, is apt and could be ascribed to several of the other contributions in the book which in their own way reveal a delight in making things. I shared it with my daughter in America who once knitted a house! And with my son, who is an actor based in Manchester, I’ve discussed Zoë Svendsen’s World Factory, a UK/Chinese theatre collaboration which explores the resurgence of industrial capitalism in today’s China in relation to textile production in Manchester at the time of Marx and Engels. A complex project, it was well received in both countries, involving a World Factory shirt, a catwalk/factory theatre design, and audience participation around a scenario-based card game with video films and technical gadgetry.
Alastair McIntosh is the only Scottish Mountaineer in the anthology. His essay, Rummaging through the useful bag, is written in the autobiographical mode that suits his philosophy so well. It’s clear that he loves the useful bag of tools and technology, old and new, that has accompanied him throughout his life. He recalls the culture of the diverse places, experiences, books and tools that have featured in his life – the Isle of Lewis, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Papua New Guinea, computers, Whole Earth Review, boats, family, the Rhythm of Being. And he poses what he regards as the central question we need to keep on asking of any tool or technology: What does it serve? It’s the same question as Illich’s, at the start above: “what tools do to our perception rather than what we can do with them…”
At the end of his essay Alastair confronts “the task that we face in our times”. Here he expands on the question What does it serve? For Alastair the purpose of tools is to help restore that feeling intelligence, that sense of community, that togetherness, that human purpose. Relying on the wellspring of his own deep spiritual experience, he believes this is the only way to “minimise evil…[and] dodge the pitfalls of idolatry: the worship of false gods.”
John Rember’s Life and Love after Collapse is another autobiographical tale. It begins with a catalogue of all the skills he used as a boy in the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho – harnessing a horse to a plough, building log fences, milking a cow… But then, in the next paragraph, he tells us he hasn’t used those skills for 20 or 30 years! When he was young he turned his hand to many jobs and eventually became a teacher, marrying a student who had grown up on a cattle ranch in Oregon. Both of them preferred industrial civilisation to its alternative. In time they quit their jobs and moved back to his father’s place where he started writing a column for the local paper; it became a forum for apocalyptic musings. He was “an après moi le deluge kind of guy”, as he puts it, though for him the deluge wasn’t nuclear, biological or chemical. He just thought that because secondary education was obviously getting worse and worse it would become impossible for civilisation to function!
Their finances were ruined by the credit crisis of 2008. He thinks he can see the beginning of the end. “It’s a shock when the person you love tells you they don’t want to make it through the coming bottleneck. It’s depressing, because it means that the one serious and solid option is to become a victim of circumstance and die with six billion others who aren’t going to make it.” He and Julie might still have the old age they’ve planned, but that means that “something that is demonstrably killing the planet – industrial civilisation… will have to continue functioning for 30 or 40 years.”
So he’s focussing on the present now instead of the future, living each day as it comes.
Rember has a wry sense of humour but his sarcasm is gentle. What he says about society and tools is real – sad and funny and struggling with despair. It’s different from the other essays, which is why I chose to write about him. I’ve mentioned only a quarter or so of the contributions to Technê. The scope of the book is so extensive and the authors, well-known names and newcomers to Dark Mountain, are so diverse that any review must leave the reviewer dissatisfied. But by the same token it’s good reason for me to recommend it. I have not read anything so important since Panikkar’s The Rhythm of Being.
Finally, I’m not sure whether Steve Wheeler’s The Song of Ea should be in the anthology or not since the rules specifically exclude fiction. But is it fiction? It reads like an apocalyptic myth, a myth of creation and civilisation, a myth of flowpaths and techno-speak and shifting gender, passing on messages from a neglected goddess! So it fits. It’s the final essay in Technê and it leaves you pondering deeply the enormity of this moment for humanity.