My essay from the presentation I held in Maribor at Kibla in 2012, entitled “The Nature of Technologies. Technologies as Nature“, which was published in the conference proceedings (Snežana Štabi, Dmitry Bulatov, Aleksandra Kostič (eds.), Soft Control: Art, Science and the Technological Unconscious / Soft Control: umetnost, znanost in tehnološko nezavedno, Maribor, ACE Kibla, 2015, bilingual, Slovenian/English) has just been republished in Russian in a book edited by Dmitry Bulatov, Beyond the Medium: Art, Science and the Technocultural Imaginary, Kaliningrad, BB NCCA (Baltic Branch of the National Centre for contemporary art, Russia), 2016.
An excerpt from my text in English. You can download this complete text in English from Academia.edu:
Through symbols humans have boosted the speed of the cultural evolution, in a process that allowed our ancestors to reduce the time of adaptation to the environment, limiting or shifting its pressure. Achievements that could have required many generations of individuals and hundreds, thousand or even millions of years of evolution through natural selection could occur in only one generation, by imitating, adopting and sharing ideas, concepts, words, habits, in a process where a key role was probably played by the mirror neurons1. The symbolic ability generated a huge acceleration in the human culture and in the process of creating more and more complex technologies, tools and artefacts.
Acceleration and speed
There are many examples of this acceleration, from a remote past to the present. In the Stone Age, from the first simple splitters to the fist-axes, that are more refined although they apparently are not so different, there is a gap of one million years. One million years is a very difficult time-frame to conceptualize: most probably in our ancestors’ culture the discoveries and inventions were very rare, and technologies and tools were very slowly developed and with fragile updates. Excluding the huge task of surviving in a very hostile environment and the sudden and usual presence of death, we would have probably been profoundly bored in a time where apparently nothing seemed to happen. Instead, between the discovery of fire and today’s many different ways of using fire-based energy four hundred thousand years elapsed.
A relevant acceleration also occurred inside the information and communication realms. For thousands of years, until the invention of the telegraph, the speed of people, animals, things and information had approximately the same order of magnitude. The remote communication in realtime was the dream of the governments and even projects based on telepathy were funded. But in roughly one century and half – a very short time if compared to the history of human culture – information experienced an extraordinary acceleration: in fact today people, animals and things can be carried at a very high speed, but information can reach the speed of light, namely more than five hundred thousand times quicker than people, animals and things, and with very economic transportation costs. The information achieved this incredible acceleration because it got rid of the matter of the support where it was codified and contained. In Latin the “support” has the double function and meaning of containing and presenting. In a letter the paper sheet contains and in the meantime presents the information, and these two functions are inseparable, so that it is impossible to deliver the information contained in a letter without carrying also the support, the paper sheet. Instead, in the communication process the modern and contemporary media do not involve one support, but two distinct and separate supports, one that contains the codified information and one that presents it: in a movie information is contained on the film sheet and it is presented on the screen; in a computer information is contained on the hard disk and it is presented on a screen. In the Web information is coded and contained in some remote storage supports but it can be viewed onto a local screen (as well as onto other millions of screens). Hence, without the matter and the inertia of the material support to move, information can travel at roughly the speed of light from the support where it is codified and contained to many, sometimes millions, supports that present it. This process requires that the two kinds of supports (the container and the presenter) are in some way connected and each other compatible through shared standards and protocols. And, finally, of course, there must be some kind of energy to activate the information coding, decoding and transferring.
This acceleration continues today, in the media realm too. In order to reach 50 million users in the USA the radio required 38 years, the television 13, the cable services 8, the Internet 5. And, remaining inside the Internet-based communications, worldwide, Facebook required less than 4 years to reach 50 million users, while Skype took roughly two years.
Today people are information producers, gatherers, modifiers, disseminators and sharers. Most of the knowledge about the world is achieved through the media (is mediated), and remote communications, both synchronous and asynchronous, have a relevant role in this trend. People can instantly, inexpensively and easily communicate in remote in realtime. What for centuries has been the dream of the political, economic and military power, of governments, inventors and magicians, is here and cheap today. Indeed, the history of humanity could be considered as some kind of race to communicate more and more quicker, through increasingly longer distances, in more and more affordable and economic ways.
The symbolic ability generated an extraordinary acceleration in the process of creating more and more complex and useful tools and artefacts. Today “speed” is a very questionable and controversial word, that reminds us of environmental, ethical, as well as of sustainability2.and pollution related issues. In 1997 in Amsterdam I attended a famous event at that time, named “Doors of Perception”, organized by the Netherlands Design Institute and directed by John Thackara. That edition was devoted to discussing the topic of speed, and when I returned home I published an article in Domus magazine where I wrote that “We need ‘speed’ (as this term is generally defined) because we do not want to compete, as losers, with nature (also generally intended), and because we want to foster the illusion of immortality too. What we do require for ‘speed’ is a concrete project […]”3.
1On the mirror neurons see Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C., 2008.Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience. New York: Oxford University Press; Iacoboni, M., 2008. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. On the mirror neurons and the imitation learning see Ramachandran, V.S., 2000. Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution. Edge – The Third Culture [online]. Available at: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html [accessed 20 June 2012].
2The term “sustainability” was firstly introduced by the Brundtland Report, commissioned by the United Nations and published in 1987. A digital version is downloadable here: http://tinyurl.com/ce9sm6f.
3Capucci, P.L., 1997, Doors of Perception 4. ‛Speed’. Per un’etica della velocità. Domus, 791, p.85 (with the English translation).