XIII: no there there - Langdon Winner

XIII: no there there

Words to help us express, communicate, and survive are sparked and then sculpted, not over a telephone connection -- but in place.  By means of our senses interacting with the world.  Larry Emerson taught me that.  He’s a Diné social thinker and medicine man from the Navajo Nation.  Everything in culture comes from a people’s participation with the natural world, he says.  Everything.  Food.  Garments.  Tools.  Housing.  Transport.  Songs.  Dances.  Language.  Ideas.  Stories. 
Even permission to act. 

Larry Emerson
Larry and I padded across the arroyo near Tesuque Pueblo, checking out the land for an encampment for a group of Natives and non-Natives who had been comparing notes on social ideas.  Already we had met at such a meeting at Fritjof Capra’s Elmwood Institute in Berkeley.  We plopped down onto the sand under a sprawling juniper, and for a long moment he let his eyes brim into balls of glassy liquid, as if staring into another realm.  When he came back to me, he announced that Grandmother Tree had extended an invitation to hold our camp-out in this place.  He told me too that, like this revelation, each word in our vocabularies is a gift that springs from the spirits of the land.
One wonders -- the harsh metallic presentation of mass society, the way it slices through a people, cracks each psyche into disparate mirrors, blasts a high-voltage power line through an encampment, smashes the Sacred Hoop.  One wonders – but if the utterance of language is sparked in place by the oh-so-delicate eye and ear and heart …. how will we find words to communicate?
No wonder it is that my generation of Luddites could never corral a unified vocabulary.  Here was Jerry Mander with his arrangement of political, psychological, and perceptual arguments against a single technology.  Langdon Winner describing the collusion of government, academia, and corporations toward mass dissemination of technology.  Vandana Shiva alerting the world to the health and political dangers of biotechnology in the Third World.  Susan Griffin’s lyricism on the wrenching of woman from nature.  Gustavo Esteva’s refusal to acknowledge the concept of “work.”  Many traveled to the industrial revolution to garner words: I found my way to the Neolith; Kirkpatrick to the Paleolith.  John Zerzan elaborated on the fracturing of community by abstraction.  Godfrey Reggio proffered the language of film, juxtaposing pained images of mega-techno-cities around the planet.
But, my God!  All that good work came before the “new technologies” spewed their waves and particles -- without permission -- into every thought and act of every being, jammed concrete onto every clod of soil, scrambled every molecule into global disarray.

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January 2008.  The futurist inventor of Artificial Intelligence spouts his ideas on the environmental program over public radio.  He insists that what makes people human is our mastery of technology.  He pronounces that a New Human is coming, the ultimate merging of Man and Machine: one capable of sharing any selected virtual reality with anyone else at any time in any place, one with wireless nanotechnology imbedded into the very cartography of his language.[i]

World War II could have been predicted: 85 percent of the Earth is already claimed and the forces that do the claiming are already in collision. Computers are invented to address the complexities of scale and distance endemic to such a global undertaking. They are invented in the only way such a capital-heavy scheme can be – through a consortium of legality, finance, and brains called government, business, and academia.
Poland’s secret service manages to construct a replica of a primitive German apparatus and smuggle it to Britain. The Enigma is an electromagnetic tele-printer that scrambles messages into codes decipherable only by plug patterns, or programs, inserted into the machine.
The Z3 is the first operational computer. It is built in 1941 and, based on the binary system, is designed to solve engineering problems of missiles. The German government pays for the work. In 1942 its inventor, Konrad Zuze, and his associate Helmut Schreyer propose that they redesign the Z3 using vacuum tubes instead of electromagnetic relay switches. Vacuum tubes facilitate the flow of currents by electrical forces alone, using no moving parts, and so function 1000 times faster. The German government pulls the money: it is sure Germany will win the war before the machine is finished.
Meanwhile, British intelligence sequesters a group of researchers in a Victorian estate. Their product, inspired by the Enigma, is a code-breaking computer with 2000 vacuum tubes – coincidentally the same number Zuze and Schreyer propose for the device they never build. This is the Colossos. Intercepted enemy messages are fed into it as symbols punched onto a loop of tape.  The tape is fed into a photoelectric scanner that compares the ciphered message with known Enigma codes. The machine processes 25,000 characters in a second.
In Endicott, New York, with the U.S. Navy’s blessing and the International Business Machine Corporation’s money, a Harvard mathematician named Howard Aiken builds the Mark I. The year is 1943. In this machine simple electromechanical relays serve as on-off devices for the flow of electricity, and punched tape supplies instructions for manipulating data. Unlike his contemporaries across the ocean, Aiken does not grasp the advantage of the binary system which, because it uses only two numbers, simplifies the switching of relays and so quickens the flow of information. The Mark I’s data take the form of coded decimal numbers zero to nine fed in on IBM punch cards. The Navy immediately leases the machine to solve ballistics problems. In one day it can whip through calculations that formerly took six months.
Meanwhile, also in 1943, the U.S. Army unloads hundreds of thousands of dollars onto the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering. The task: to build the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, to prepare artillery firing tables for gunners in the field. The 30-ton result is fearsomely complex, bearing no fewer than 17,000 vacuum tubes. Yet its completion at World War II’s end means there is no more need for artillery tables. Eighteen feet high, 80 feet long, 1000 times quicker than the Mark IU – ENIAC is given a new job: to calculate the feasibility of hydrogen weapons for the Cold War.

There is no direction inside a computer. Up down north south east west the sun rises the sun sets – the directives humans have known and used for 3 million years of evolution are gone, obliterated by the silicon chip. Stars burst forward like tiny messages from outer space, fly toward us, then burn up in the blackness of proximity. The silicon chip is built one layer at a time, a skyline city minuter than your smallest fingernail. It controls your car engine. It researches the human genetic map and, from outer space, determines the median income of your neighborhood and the precise location of terrorist encampments.
Radar. Thermal sensing. Digital lenses. The chip is shooting billions of data through its circuits, arranging them according to predetermined categories. Air quality. Ocean depth.  Ocean dumping. Interstate travel. Arctic melt. Desertification.  Deforestation. Nuclear tests. Animal migrations.  The march of environmental refugees from one toxic place to another.
Everywhere there is no there. No up. No down. Where inside a computer do the Christmas mailing lists come from? How does a CD player pick out the song you request? How do you fix a broken circuit board? Where is cyberspace? The lives of the people whose direction is mapped by computer are severed into digital infinity, everywhere and nowhere at once, the ultimate dream of the imperial mind. “There Will Be a Road,” chants the MCI ad.  “It Will Not Connect Two Points. It Will Connect All Points….It Will Not Go from Here to There. There Will Be No There, There.”[ii](1999)[iii]

Yes, you think you cannot live without your BlackBerry.  You think you need your BlackBerry.  You think you are your BlackBerry.  It rests at your hip.  It purrs and you feel it vibrate across your thigh.  You take it out of its cute tartan-plaid case, hold it -- and your hand becomes it, it becomes your ear, your nerves melt into the anxious words of the person who is 2000 miles away.  You speak loudly even though you are sitting alone in the café; other people who are alone are also roaring and gesticulating seemingly to no one.  Like crazy people.  Oh.  A muffled thud jerks the air.  It jars your bones.  A man has just fallen, or jumped, from the skyscraper across the avenue.  You stand up and aim your Blackberry at the spectacle of his lifeless body on the sidewalk, then thumb the photo to your top 100 list.  Twenty-three reply in text.  How weird, they say.  How bizarre.  One provides details of that building’s history of suicide, another sends a photo of a person who has leapt from a bridge, another a radio interview about a new fabric made of cattails, a third an adorable shot of a penguin on a melting ice floe that was taken that morning at the South Pole.  Download that shot to your computer at home, you tell your BlackBerry.  And while you’re at it, you send a command to your hybrid to unlock the driver’s side door so you can jump in without being delayed by the police line forming on the avenue.  You click your BlackBerry to pay for your BGH-flavored Java.  You scurry away like a machine, eyes aimed inward, head slanted down toward the voice clacking at you.  You clutch at nothingness and do not breathe.  You are pushing through an atmosphere thick with electronic disaster and distraction, zinging with pictures of penguins and men dropping like dead maggots.

This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.

[i] Ray Kurzwel on “Living on Earth” with Steve Curwood. Washington DC: National Public Radio, Week of  January 11, 2008.
[ii] Print advertisement for MCI, 1996.
[iii] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, Off the Map (An Expedition Deep into Imperialism, the Global Economy and Other Earthly Whereabouts). Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999, pp. 87-100; and Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2003, pp. 95-102.

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