Give it a second! IT’S GOING TO SPACE!!”

Comedian Louis CK isn’t for everyone, but I’m a fan and this bit has always made me laugh. For one thing, we’re basically the same age and have seen the same transformations in the world around us. The one part of this bit that I’ve always talked about with much younger people is the idea that you once had to go inside a bank and get money to do the things you had to do, planning out your life more carefully in the process, and when the money had run out you couldn’t do anything anymore. Think about that change and marvel at how different the world is when you have access to both money and credit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. There’s never a blackout on your financial power unless there’s an actual blackout, or you end up homeless on the street.

The financial crisis is blamed on irresponsible lending, complex financial instruments, greed, corruption, and the rest. In fact, the formal roots of the financial crisis are found in electricity. No one will say that on TV, but it’s true. Electricity brought about the shape of monetary life that we don’t recognize any more than the fact that we’re sitting in a chair hurtling through the air when we fly from NY to LA. We’ve had money in some form since the days of Mesopotamia and accounting as well. The invention of money and accounting transformed ancient society (see: Denise Schmandt-Besserat) and now we have various iterations of electric technology rapidly altering the way we understand ourselves with respect to the resources around us, including the ancient notion of currency.

“Give it a second!!! IT’S GOING TO SPACE!!”

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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4 Responses to Give it a second! IT’S GOING TO SPACE!!”

  1. Chad says:

    Hmm, interesting and certainly the availability of money alone is not to blame. Although a chicken and the egg discussion is certainly possible I don’t think that money on demand happened and then business sprang up to take people’s money. In fact quite the opposite happened, businesses have been trying to get people’s wealth for a long time and the quicker access to cash was to facilitate that. While I do agree that easier access to money is symptomatic of larger problems, I do not agree that this is a major cause of the problems.

  2. mikeplugh says:

    But your argument begins with a false premise. I never said that money on demand happened and then business sprang up to take people’s money. That’s not at all how I characterize the situation.

    I’m saying that electricity, introduced into a particular culture, produces change. That change with respect to currency is to make it fluid and without the previous barriers of time and space that governed its use in previous eras. Of course, as long as there’s been currency someone has tried to manipulate the system to get their hands on it. Electricity just produced new avenues by which to engage in such activity, with such speed and pervasiveness that no existing human system could adequately deal with it. Without the changes brought about by electricity, we’re having a different conversation.

  3. Chad says:

    My point is this has been a continuum and exactly as you say there have always been people attempting to manipulate the system. Electricity is just a newer technology in the continuum. I suppose this is where you and I differ. My problem with technological determinism is that it seems to undervalue the fact that all technologies were invented intentionally or unintentionally by a person attempting to manipulate something (very often to gain some advantage).

  4. mikeplugh says:

    But electricity wasn’t “invented” or harnessed for any specific purpose, nor did any of the people who initially explored harnessing electricity have an iota of a clue as to what would become of it 5, 10, 50, 100, 200 years down the road. It was studied, understood to a point, manipulated, and introduced into a culture via various applications that produced changes. The problem I have with criticisms of technological determinism is the fact that technological determinism is a straw man. I don’t know of any mainstream voice among the group of philosophers generally associated with technological determinism who believes that technology determines anything.

    Technology, when introduced into a system of culture, changes the way that people interact with their surroundings and other people around them. Sometimes those changes are subtle and affect very little substantively, while other changes are more radical and produce gigantic shifts in the system itself. None of those changes are neutral. They are all positive and negative in nature with respect to the shape of the existing environment. Lewis Mumford is often held up as the symbol of technological determinism, but wrote quite prominently in “Technics and Civilization”:

    “In discussing the modern technics, we have advanced as far as seems possible in considering mechanical civilization as an isolated system: the next step toward re-orienting our technics consists in bringing it more completely into harmony with the new cultural and regional and societal and personal patterns we have coordinately begun to develop. It would be a gross mistake to seek wholly within the field of technics for an answer to all the problems that have been raised by technics. For the instrument only in part determines the character of the symphony or the response of the audience: the composer and the musicians and the audience have also to be considered.”

    In the case of electricity, the history is rather long and plodding. The modern history of electricity can be divided into two essential phases, the experimental and the practical. A lot of people were researching this mysterious force of electricity to understand it via the ethos of the Scientific Revolution. The Enlightenment produced the mindset that we ought to explore the fundamental qualities of the forces around us and so we did. Once we had a grasp of the nature of electricity and it’s properties, people like Tesla began to create applied science around it and produced motors and radio communication. Nowhere during that period were the investigators of the electric phenomenon consciously progressing towards the use of electricity that we see today, and you’d be hard pressed to find writing anywhere that shows clairvoyance into the socio-cultural effects of the introduction of electrical technologies in the late-19th and early-20th century. Until these technologies had found more widespread use, there was little idea as to how they would change the course of modern civilization at all. Critics emerged, much as the self-professed futurists and social media gurus of today have emerged, once the picture became clearer at to what patterns of behaviour were coming about as a result of electricity.

    There’s nothing deterministic about the origin of electricity and its effects on the culture into which it was introduced. There was an existing ideology/worldview, technology was introduced, the modes of socialization and interaction with the environment changed as a result of these new technologies, and people reacted. It’s an ecosystem. Technology does produce change, but the nature and direction of that change is only in part inevitable. The degree to which people are aware of the technology’s impact on their lives will offer a clue as to how much agency there will be in controlling the effect. If the changes, and technology’s role in producing those changes, is ignored then agency becomes moot. If the air around you becomes polluted by .00001%, you won’t likely notice it and you’ll continue to breath it in. Over 50 years that may do something to you, but you won’t likely attribute the change to the small change in pollution, but it doesn’t make it less viable an explanation. If the air becomes polluted by 50%, you’ll get smacked in the face and jump into action. I can’t speak to the level of pollution that will produce relatively invisible but potentially life-threatening consequenses because I’m not a scientist of that kind, but let’s imagine that such a threshold exists. At that threshold, given an awareness of the situation once would certainly do everything in their power to counteract the effects as quickly as possible. Then, there’s no inevitability to the life-threatening consequences produced by the pollutant. If the situation remains invisible to you, you will probably die off like the dinosaurs and some lone survivor will wonder what the hell happened to everyone. Agency never came into play, because there was no awareness. That’s where the technological determinism straw man comes into play.

    There is no inevitability in the change produced by the eye dropper full of solution, when added to the petri dish as long as the substance in the petri dish is made aware that the solution has certain properties that will interact in a particular way. Humans have that level of cognitive power and self-awareness and so, as Mumford says, “…the instrument only in part determines the character of the symphony or the response of the audience: the composer and the musicians and the audience have also to be considered.” That’s why technological determinism is just a lazy way of describing something that most scholars don’t apparently understand well enough.

    The best way I can counter the charges of technological determinism, especially when people use it lazily to attack McLuhan, for example, is to point to Aristotle’s four causes, which is where McLuhan’s philosophy finds it’s roots in some respects. Here’s a good graphic representation of Aristotle’s four causes using a table as an example:

    And, the Wikipedia entry for the Four Causes:

    I would add that I’m a systems theorist and would add the idea of mutual causality, which has become important in physics in the last generation or so. Technological determinism ascribes a level of simplicity to the philosophy of the accused that is unfair and untrue in most cases, and generally is a result of either a personal agenda against medium theory, a particular philosopher or group of philosophers, or just plain being uninformed on the full range of ideas.

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