THE ECLECTIC SWITCH
ROBERT J. LEWIS
Becoming conscious of oneself
not as individuals but as mankind. Nietzsche.
wasn’t so long ago that we required animal or fish fat
to fuel our lamps. Today, with the flick of a switch, the darkness
of a January morning is instantly vanquished by electric light.
There was a time when we were obliged to chop wood to heat our
homes. Thanks to thermostats in winter and air-conditioning
in summer, the living and working spaces in our homes and offices
are kept at a constant ideal temperature.
toasters to televisions, it seems that every aspect of our lives
is involved with technology, and this is so for everyone who
lives in the post-industrial world. So if most of our activities
are consummated with and through technology, what can we say
about the nature of this relationship? How are we implicated
in it? What are the dangers of leaving this relationship unexamined?
of us, every day, have occasion to turn on an electric switch.
Yet for most of us, this switch is merely a plastic mechanism
with a single moveable part that is fastened to the walls of
our homes. Nonetheless, even the least informed thinking instructs
us that the electric switch that activates the heating system
or turns on the light relieves us of the physical labor (gathering/chopping
of wood) that was once required to provide for those conveniences.
As technology proliferates, our choices, which implicate other
technologies, multiply, and the criteria we employ in making
our choices become more problematic. What is the relationship
between technology and time and choice, and why is human time
(freedom) the ground for making their relationship an issue?
begin with what stands before us: technology. The light that
issues from the lamp, the stove that cooks our food and the
dwellings which contain all these technologies require electrical
energy to perform their various operations. This energy enters
our lives by way of numerous electrical outlets that are found
in all homes and buildings. Our toasters and TVs have been designed
to be able to draw electricity from these outlets.
is it that the switches we turn on and off every day -- that
are so near, like personal extensions of ourselves -- are so
little understood that we can hardly speak of them, like things
far away and unknown to us? Why should we want to address the
estrangement between ourselves and the technological entities
we recourse on a daily basis? What must happen to induce us
to want to prioritize this estrangement? Is this a pedagogical
challenge or a philosophical one?
and when we decide to follow the electric switch until it reveals
its sources and origins, we will first have to familiarize ourselves
with the signs (prior technologies) that made possible the switch’s
emergence and development.
entering the current of an electric outlet, we begin a circuitous
journey that guides us through millions of miles of wires, transformers,
capacitors and power plants all the way to a waterfall where
dams, dynamos and generators have been conceived and constructed
for the purpose of harnessing and converting nature’s
raw energy into electric energy. This feat of conversion is
accomplished thanks to the combined knowledge and cooperation
of thousands of skilled inventors, scientists, engineers and
design, construction and operation of the sophisticated machineries
of hydro-electric power presuppose a broad and deep knowledge
base. The scientists and engineers who reflect this base are
the most recent pages of a knowledge that has been developing
since man first suffered the condition of limited energy. Hydro-electric
power gathers into a common purpose names such as Faraday, Volta,
Priestly, Franklin, Newton and Edison, all of whom contributed
to making more explicit the notions of electricity.
if the technological entity of the electric switch presences
as that which frees us for other activities, among the many
possible activities is the contemplation of the relationship
between the scientists, engineers and laborers who preside over
and construct our hydro-electric projects, and their relationship
with the many who are no longer with us -- but who are accessible
in so far as history acts as a kind of afterlife.
asking how does technology presence, it is no longer adequate
to describe it as the water that is brought to a boil when a
kettle is plugged into an electric outlet, nor is it the collection
of laws of necessity that describes its operations. Technology
also presences as a cooperation of thousands of people, many
of whom are historical. By uncovering and making explicit the
nature of this cooperation, we can question our relationship
to it and place ourselves in its midst.
thinking that discloses strangers from the present and past
cooperating in a hydro-electric project makes them less strange
and brings to our notice the fact that they are both (past and
present) directly involved in our day to day living by freeing
us for other activities. By offering thought to the incalculable
number of acts -- both present and historical -- of cooperation
and purposefulness that culminate in the electric switch, we
discover that there is much to be thankful for. That there is
a relationship between thinking and thanking, or in German,
denken and danken, is not a fortuitous language
event. Thinking about what has been previously taken for granted
is to make us thankful that we no longer take for granted what
we shouldn’t have taken for granted in the first place.
* * * * * * * * * *
thinking about technology all the way back to its origins, we
inevitably end up in an historical period when there was no
technology. In undertaking the construction of a shelter for
himself and his family, man would call upon his arms, legs and
torso to transport the materials of his house. While manipulating
the materials (wood, stone) from one site to another, he suffered
beneath their weight and cumbersomeness. Suffering implies the
universal yearning to suffer less. This yearning to suffer-less
becomes the necessary condition if the creative leap to technology
– to the wheel, then the wheelbarrow -- is to happen.
In every suffering or lacking there is, in potentia,
the imaginative leap to its opposite, or the world as we know
thinking, as an open, indeterminate category, can think about
anything and everything, are some things, such as the meaning
of an electric switch, more worthy of thought than other things?
Thinking and thanking have the character of ‘involvement’
that make explicit our relationship with things such as an electric
switch. Thinking and thanking presuppose the freedom to offer
thought to, for example, the emergence and development of technology
whose first practical result is to provide the time for thinking
to question its freedom to think about whatever it wants, which
may include its relationship to technology. In other words,
since technology is not self-interpreting (self-conscious),
we can decide to wrap our thinking around it so it can respond
to that which most dignifies human life.
the privileged of the planet, are born into a world where tasks
that once required a lifetime to perform have already been completed:
hydro-electric projects, our downtowns and residential areas,
our autoroutes. We are umbilically (electrically, financially)
connected to reserves that provide for all of life’s necessities
for a lifetime, and as a first consequence, we find ourselves
in the midst of unprecedented freedom and time, where time is
revealed as a burden when the man with too much time yearns
to suffer-less the burden of it, which is the burden of choice.
How is man to honor his time and freedom, to be properly thankful
for the countless number of acts of cooperation that resulted
in his freedom? Why should he want to make the fact of his freedom
more explicit? Never in our history have the choices among the
things we can consume and the activities we can pursue been
so plentiful. Since no two choices (or anything for that matter)
are identical, are some choices better, more imperative than
others? If I choose not only for myself but for mankind, will
I, should I choose differently? If technology (time) frees us
to offer thought, what most deserves to be thought about, asks
the philosopher Martin Heidegger?