Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 5, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Phil Nixon
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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Robert Fisk
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Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein





Tremendous self-examination.
Becoming conscious of oneself
not as individuals but as mankind. Nietzsche.

It 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.

From 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?

All 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?

We 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.

How 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?

If 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.

By 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 workers.

The 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.

So 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.

In 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.

The 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 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 it today.

Since 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.

We, 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?


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