How we use, gain, and lose technologies…Part 2

My previous post How we use gain and lose technologies discussed my view of the reasons behind the creations of technologies.  By way of brief recap:

Technology is problem-solving.
Problems confront human beings from seven (or eight) basic areas:

  • Shelter (including clothing)
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Food

and Societal:

  • Community/Communication (or Society/Socialization)
  • (Perceived) Safety
  • Physical Performance and Health
  • (Aesthetics)

I also said that in the modern US where the basic physiological needs are usually easily taken care of (in what quality is a different story), the only “problems” we encounter that are very threatening are  culturally-created.  Often, culturally-created problems are the result of the (over)development of one or more of the above factors at the expense of the others.  Culturally-created problems represent a contradiction between technology and actual physical or social need.

We’ve also reached a point where the Societal factors are relatively well settled too.  I see this level of development in any society as the point where the development of further technologies in any of the areas is often aesthetic in nature.  There is no quantitative or absolute shift in the ability, for instance, to shelter oneself, to create fire, etc.  Instead, the shift becomes qualitative.  How it’s done changes…and “real” aesthetics take a foreground.  I use a Zippo lighter, and you use a Bic.  This goes further and further, till you’re using a pink Zippo with your personal logo engraved on it, and I’m using a black butane disposable, etc.  In another example – we’ve figured out how to sufficiently clothe ourselves.  Now “style” (aesthetics) comes into play.

In the previous post’s conclusion, I said that the development of a technology requires three things:

  1. The perception of a problem
  2. The creation of a solution to the problem, and
  3. The reification (making concrete) or transmission of that solution.

Before going further, it’s important for me to note that, as I mentioned in my post The Roots of Power Dynamics in Modern America, I don’t consider myself to be an “either/or” person, but instead, a “both/and” person.  I’m interested in human capability, not limitation, and I’ll discuss things from that perspective.  It’s important both so that you understand where I’m coming from, and also because I feel that much modern dialogue is based on a limitation perspective.

As Robert Heinlein wrote:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

As an aside, apparently this is a “concept” called the “competent man/woman.”  I mention it not only because I’d never heard of it till I searched for Heinlein’s quote for this post, but also because it is phrased (even in that Wikipedia entry) as something of an absurdity – as if it is not possible or likely.  As we’ll see in this post, that is a cultural bias, and one that I think we should do without.

Foundation – What Guides Perception
Since the first part of solving a problem (creating a technology) demands the perception of a problem to begin with, we have to ask how it is that we perceive problems.

Physiological problems are relatively straightforward. We start to feel the heat or cold and experience physiological cues that something isn’t right. We grow thirsty (a late sign of dehydration) or hungry. Things get worse if we do not act.

Community or social problems when very basic are also relatively straightforward. Community falters when laws are not in place or poorly agreed-upon or managed (communication). Safety is threatened and steps are taken to restore it.  Beyond basic levels, perception is guided by values.

By way of example – a baby.

To the best of my knowledge, a baby’s perception of its environment and attention are guided by six things:
Familiarity – E.g., mom’s voice
Difference – not-mom’s voice
Movement – any movement, but especially “novel” movement
Color/shape – any and all – diversity
Internal “programming”/reflex behavior – many of these, see developmental kinesiology
Personal preference – individual behavior

An adult’s perception and attention is guided by the same list, with some slight changes of emphasis and an addition:
Familiarity – of group, or previous learning/behavior
Difference – from group, or previous learning/behavior – usually radical difference
Movement – typically movement that is very different somehow from “normal”
Color/shape – according to previous learning/behavior
Habit replaces internal “programming”/reflex behavior
Cultural/societal/familial training
Personal preference takes on a different meaning, and can often be seen at this level of “original” personality combined with habit and training

At the adult level cultural and social training along with habitual courses of attentional focus and action created through the lifespan guide attention more than anything else.

Solutions and Problems
Problems then are first what the individuals within a group, raised to develop attentional foci based on group preferences (and some individual influence/variation), notice.

Solutions to problems are similarly socioculturally mediated. Some things in some societies are simply not acceptable as solutions to a problem. Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews is a very good example of this. Hitler’s solution was unacceptable for Allied nations. Hitler’s “solution” was a problem for Allied nations, and was solved using technologies familiar to both, along with a special new technology – the atom bomb.

In the 1960′s, 70′s, and early 80′s, the atom bomb solution, now transformed into the nuclear missile, became a serious problem for the world. The “solution” had become a problem.  Nuclear energy poses a similar conundrum.

Conscious Living – How to Choose
History seems to have shown us that we’re very good problem solvers (and by default, problem-makers).  The problem we haven’t solved, is how to get out of this cycle of creating problems for ourselves.

The answer is not “to stop creating solutions” or “to stop identifying problems.” As I mentioned above, I’m a “both/and” guy. I think the solution to this problem is not to let go of old solutions – but instead to develop continua of technological discovery, rather than uni-directional arrows of “progress.”

The basic solutions to physiological-class problems were worked out a long time ago. But even those solutions were refined many many times.

As I’ve mentioned before, civilization, as it has been done throughout history, is a process of alienation, disconnection, and domination. Specifically, disconnection of the individual animal from self, other, and nature, and domination of those elements by the demands of civilization (over-above what the individual might actual need or want).

As a result of that process, modern technological innovation rests upon its own basis, rather than on the basis of nature. This is one of the problems we’ve created. However, it is very very real – it threatens the most basic physiological needs (the Sacred Four above) through pollution and destruction of habitat and ecological diversity.

This isn’t liberal tree-hugger ideology.  As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment group (and many other scientific groups) said: “Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”  Other ideologies, with interests in things other than (as evidenced by their actions) the health of the planet or the animals (including human) that live within it, may say that messages about the importance of our treatment of nature is hyperbole.  But they aren’t the ones studying it, are they?

Cultural technologies that are disconnected from nature and natural cycles, and that see nature and natural cycles as “things,” create damage to nature and natural cycles that threatens to destroy those technologies and the creatures that make them.

The “indians” or any indigenous population have also seldom been free from this sort of behavior. Many indigenous populations had practices that would have ultimately led to their self-extinction had they had the technical know-how to continue pursuing them. The extinction of the large mammals of North America and elsewhere is usually attributed to the ravenous hordes of human beings roving the land at that time. Though these people were more directly connected to the land, they weren’t necessarily more conscious of their actions or the results of their actions.

It is not a uniquely human event, either.  Other animals do this as well. Any animal that gets so good at survival that it out-eats its habitat puts itself at risk of extinction. The ebb and flow of animal populations in ecological regions attests to this process. 

Consciousness is needed to prevent this.

The Most Fundamental Problem
I’ve stated before that the most fundamental problem facing humanity appears to be this disconnection of the individual from itself, other animals, and nature. But does awareness that there is a problem at all have to come before even that?  Knowing the damage that petroleum is causing to the world, do people decrease use of that resource?  Understanding that nature-based “cradle-to-cradle” technologies can be created, do we choose to do so?

What lies beneath or beyond even awareness, is a cultural valuation of awareness. So the question of change in our time becomes – how does one create cultural change?  More to the point, how does one create cultural change that stimulates connection with self, other, and nature, in an aware fashion?  How do we create consciousness?

The Camping Gear Manufacturer
I recently went to a local entrepreneur’s networking meeting. Aside from getting some strange looks for not wearing the entrepreneur’s costume, I learned a lot in a short amount of time.  For instance, I learned that entrepreneurship is mostly about leverage. Starting a business means finding the market within which you can best leverage your offerings – giving the retailer and consumer the (appearance of the) greatest benefit.

At the end of the meeting, I spoke with one of the panel who worked for a camping manufacturer. I asked him if anyone was developing technologies that you could leave behind in the wilderness. He looked at me slightly askance and said he hadn’t heard of that.

Many modern products and the technologies that support them are based on convenience. Ease of use, accessibility, simplicity, etc. Those are hallmarks of modern production and marketing. But convenience and easiness are double-edge swords. Especially when combined with an ethic of consumption.

So what I had in mind was this – one of that manufacturers products is an aluminum hiking stick. The company is based here in Seattle, which has a lot of areas locally where clearcuts have left huge amounts of quality timber. What is the benefit of an aluminum hiking stick versus a piece of cedar? A piece of cedar that may be left behind. If it breaks and is abandoned in the woods, there is no “waste.”

Looking at the manufacturer’s site, I realized that many of their products are designed to help people do things in climates they ordinarily couldn’t survive in for very long, or to help overcome other “natural” obstacles to human activity (darkness).  I’m fascinated by this drive in human beings – to want to go places where human beings aren’t at home. The Arctic, the bottom of the ocean, the surface of the moon. Anything but sink deeply into habitat, local and geological, and become as familiar with that as possible.

It reminds me of the Peace Corps. It’s great organization that has done a lot for the world, certainly, but whenever I hear of someone wanting to join the Peace Corps, my first response is to think that there is certainly a population within driving distance of that person that needs as much help as the people in the nation they want to go to (which is very far away). I.e. – clean up your own backyard before sticking your nose in other people’s business.

The Evolution Meme
In my last post I mentioned the concept of the meme – the cultural gene…”units” that transfer cultural beliefs, values or practices from one generation to the next.

The concept of evolution, as crafted by Charles Darwin, is such a meme that runs strongly through global human thought, but in vastly different ways.

As Daniel Todes points out in his book “Darwin Without Malthus,” the Malthusian idea of the struggle for survival against limited resources which was combined with Darwin’s idea of evolution in Great Britain was not embraced by Russian biologists. The Russians had a vastly different experience of life from Malthus and even Darwin. Where Great Britain had a robust capitalist system that demanded individual struggle against other individuals, the Russians at that time had a poorly developed capitalist system that embraced communalist tendencies. Great Britain was (and is) a small and overall densely populated island compared with the vast expanse of the Russian steppe.

The Russians removed Malthus’ “struggle for survival” from Darwin’s message, focusing instead on evolution as the organism’s development within its (unique) environment. In fact, many of the Russians proposed the idea that competition within a species as being so low compared with competition with other species as to be insignificant in terms of long-term adaptation. This seems pretty apparent when considered for a moment. But most Westerners will still say that Darwin’s theory is of the “survival of the fittest.”

In a note related to the section above, the Russians saw this interpretation of Darwin as distinctly British, representing “their passion for individualistic conflict” (Todes, 2009, pg. 36). The same reason the English were obsessed with climbing mountains, fighting man-to-man (the Russians preferred fighting in groups), and competing with others.

But where is the meme in this instance? It isn’t Darwin’s theory, which rests somewhere behind British and Russian interpretations. Those interpretations are somewhat mimetic, but even then beg the question of the value of the concept(s). While the concept of a meme is colorful, I feel that it lacks real power. I can’t grasp the concept in such a way as to make use of it effectively. But maybe, someday someone will figure that out.

In the meantime I’d prefer to focus on directly-observable mechanisms of cultural change. Technologies, I think, are one.

Shamanic Technology: Radical Process, Radical Practice
In short, what I’m calling for is a shift in belief-systems. Not superficial ones, either. Technologies developed in the vacuum of civilization – based on a process and ethic of division and domination – will continue to wreak havoc on natural systems until this shift is made.

I see this shift as composed of several practical parts. Among them:

  • An active practice of the belief that what is possible for one person is possible for all, and that opportunity belongs to all life equally, and should be given to all life equally.  This includes a hesitation to embrace limiting ideas of human (or natural) ability or capacity without good evidence.
  • The practice of embracing diversity as well as similarity or uniformity.  The diversity of ecosystems is their strength.  Remove diversity and the ecosystem becomes more and more fragile.
  • The practice of confronting fears and other people through love – through connection, rather than through disconnection.
  • An active practice of the understanding that human animals are part of nature – and directly part of their immediate habitat.  This one spawns my credo – “Think Locally, Act Locally.”  Worry about your own home, family, neighborhood, and habitat, and the “world” will take care of itself.  Worry about the world, and your own neighborhood suffers.  Share best practices across the world, but “fix” what’s nearest first (often by doing less).
  • A practice of direct interaction and connection with nature, in terms of ones “Sacred Four,” and Physiological Four (sounds like a good comic book name!); as well as with oneself and others. This practice involves awareness, and a practice of expanding awareness.
  • A practice of reliance on observed and observable effects of things, and judgement of their usefulness based on those observations, rather than on political, economic, religious, cultural, or emotional wishful thinking.  A technological stance toward interaction.
  • DO LESS.  Seek solutions that involve removing processes before seeking to add new ones.
  • PLAY – movement, exploration, imagination, creativity, art, poetry, music, dance…

But why “shamanic,” Josh?

Because I see those eight practices (and I want to narrow the list down…suggestions?) as being so foreign to most people in US culture as to be considered both “impossible” and “magical.”  These practices seem to me like they’d basically be akin to “primitive spirits” to most Americans.  A belief or practice involving these would mean one was akin to some sort of witch doctor in our culture.

My call is for everyone to become this type of shaman.  To embrace this shamanic technology.  For the leaders of families, schools, neighborhoods, and the like, to practice these elements and teach them to others.

Other reasons for using “shaman”:

  • The shaman often lived at the boundary between their culture and wild nature.  This was how they gained their insight.  Not living within the culture, they could more clearly see the patterns in nature separate from that culture, and offer timely and useful advice on actions to take.
  • The shaman was not fully dependent on “gifts.”  Often, they had other jobs or participated in the main culture in other ways in order to help to support the larger community, and be supported within it.
  • The shaman, being an acute observer of their culture, and relying on natural (or spiritual) knowledge, was able to observe patterns of their culture and predict events.
  • The shaman sings, dances, and heals people.
  • Shamanism does not rely on traditional or culturally-accepted norms of what is possible or acceptable.
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