technology as the engine of culture

    Artificial Eye was the work of William Dobell. He has a patient who was operated on in 1978, who has a matrix of electrodes in his visual cortex that communicate a simple image from a video camera and a depth sensor directly to his brain. It's not enough of an image to be able to read but he is able to get around and certainly that's not the end of this very exciting development."

    What I was inspired to think was, that we may be able to reverse the process, that by similar mechanisms it may be requiring brain surgery we'll be able to externalise mental images. We could actually permit others to see our dreams."

    -- Lance Willians, CGI expert with Disney

    It's probably a truism that technological enhancement (I would hesitate to call it 'advancement') is at the heart of cultural change, has always been but only more so in recent decades.

    I'm not talking about the internet hype alone: even though, looking at the range of cyberpunk literature, movies and art - and online scribbles of course - one should think twice about writing the net off as a cultural phenomenon even if it's failed to cut it as an economic one.

    I'm also looking at the ways in which technological sophistication and control has altered the way we perceive reality - the enhancements in filmic language made possible by CGI, but also basic Sfx technology, editing suites, sound engineering, better cameras etc.

    It's not just cloning, artificial limbs/wombs/bodies etc. It's also the whole cultural pathology at work, the obsession with disease/viruses and body modification as a valid form of cultural expression. Not to mention the metaphors of addiction.

    Even concepts like bullet time, pop-Zen, computer games, multiplayer fightfests (never been done outside professional sports and war).

    When the life-sciences take off, another cultural revolution will accompany it. Already the media, by giving the issues and technology (not so much the science but the potential applications of it) have soften the ground for its reality to occur by planting the possibility of its existence in the public imagination. Can cultural exploration follow? It's already behind the curve as far as science fiction goes.

    Last night I asked whether the advancement of life sciences would spell the boom or bust of erotic literature, since the ancient link between sex and reproduction might once and for all be erased. Perhaps I was being disingenuous. The link has been eroding for millennia now (think contraceptive technology) and already the notion of recreational sex is a given.

    But more profoundly, even should our bodies' pleasures and its duties be finally divided for good, I doubt if cultural exploration of the body would seize (no doubt erotic writers would 'imagine' a time when bodies could be used for the squishy act of reproduction - the body as manufacturing assembly line - and be condemned for it).

    Truth is, one suspects technology has always been employed for - and indeed driven by - the imperatives of human desire. Better, faster, longer, stronger, stranger, danger... our need to tweak ourselves and the world is hardwired into our brains and is likely to remain a powerful engine for change and dis-stability -- as long as we have physical brains, anyway.

31 August 2001   08:12 hours
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