Tesla is the name of a band whose music tens of thousands of hardrock fans love to dance to since the eighties… Really? Well, it’s true, but I’m joking of course. The Californian band is just one out of many groups of people, most of them companies, which adopted the name of the famous engineer who, among other things, invented the Tesla coil, the Tesla turbine, the remote control and an AC induction motor. Nikola Tesla (1856-1843) supposedly built some kind of electrical car which could have revolutionized transportation from the early 1930s on had it been produced at industrial scale. But it hasn’t, since the concept was stolen and hidden by one or the other powerful corporation, various conspiracy theories purport.
Two years before Musk’s introduction of today’s most famous electric car brand in 2008 – guess what, it’s named after the engineer – Chris Paine directed the sensationalist flick “Who Killed the Electric Car?”This might have been a sneaky marketing trick, or there might be some truth to Nikola Tesla’s ingenuity – after all he was an engineer,a word derived from genius– which supposedly produced wireless energy transmission, zero-point modules, and in 1931 an electric car which ran without batteries. Whether it is true or not is beside the point for our discussion here. The fact is that he might as well have, and another fact is that we just don’t know.
Through the death of an inventive person we lose all of his or her knowledge that has not been expressed in text, formulae, or artifacts, as well as all of his or her potential for further inventions. Whether destroyed by powerful interests or lost through biological termination, the year 1943 effectively saw the disappearance of a number of technologies.
|Who killed the pyramids? (pic by Gregory Rogers, Pexels)
In the same way, we may assume, the death of a civilization brings about the loss of much of its practical techniques and technological knowledge. Not only may we assume it, we know it for a fact. History is indeed replete with examples thereof, some of which I will mention a few paragraphs on. Most of the times it happened unintentionally. Some of the times people chose to ‘forget’ the kind of knowledge they would rather not apply. As much as the latter concept seems foreign to the members of our culture it is a sane reaction to thoughts that may easily disrupt a community or a society. The Pirahã, a tribe of the Amazon basin, have been taught a number of concepts over the centuries, yet they keep forgetting the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion or European ways of building a boat, for instance. The Inquisition, as an example from our own culture, put millions of alleged heretics to trial, killing tens of thousands of herbwives as witches in the process. Both the spiritual understanding of druids and mystics and the intuitive and practical knowledge of healers were threatening the Christian order of the time; thus they have been extinguished where they were found. The eradication of knowledge was thorough and would have led to the complete loss of techniques, had they been of the engineered kind. To our great advantage mysticism and intuition are kinds of ingenuity which, given a chance, return again and again as they are immutably part of our humanity.
Much of our technological knowledge today, though, is of a completely different kind – the kind I would call inhumane, alienating, and destructive. Sitting at a laptop right now, on the one hand I almost break my fingers over typing the things I’m going to tell you now; on the other hand I need to work with what I have, and I am not someone who believes that the master’s house cannot be dismantled using the master’s tools. The core idea I would transmit by way of this article is that both our survival and the wish for a humans-appropriate life requires us to throw away – forget – most of the scientific knowledge, professional techniques and engineered technologies in use today. Civilization critic Jerry Mander, for example, makes the case against computers, saying,
Most people, even those who see the relationship between computers and increased destructive potential, consider the computers themselves to be harmless. Value free. Neutral. “People invent the machines,” is the common wisdom. “People program them, people push the buttons.”
And yet, it is a simple fact that if there were no computers, the process of engaging in war would be much more drawn out, with a lot more time for human beings to change their minds or seek alternatives. It is only because computers do exist that a virtually automatic, instant worldwide war, involving total annihilation, even enters the realm of possibility. So, can we say that computers are to blame?
It is also a fact that if computers somehow totally disappeared, the world would be instantly safer. Even if atom bombs continued to exist, they would no longer have effective delivery systems. Pakistan could still drop an atomic bomb on India, but the presently envisioned, all-out nuclear war, which quite possibly could extinguish the human species, would be impossible.
I know that this is a difficult position to accept. Critics call it throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because computers are integral to modern systems of nuclear annihilation, does that mean we must rid ourselves of computers? I am not sure, but I think so. This society upholds a fierce technological idealism. We believe we can get the best from a given technology without falling into worst-case scenarios of the sort described above. We maintain this idealism despite the fact that we have no evidence of technology ever being used at an optimal level, or even being sensibly controlled. – Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, (Sierra pbk ed. 1992) p.73f
Considering that computerized data processing and electronic memory storage has become so cheap and ubiquitous, is the forgetting of computer technology even possible? It sounds paradoxical somehow, yet all it takes is a collapse of the global trade network, and all thattakes might be a major currency crisis, a spike in oil prices, economic upheaval in Western countries, or widespread revolts of the Arab Spring or the Yellow-Vestskind shutting down neuralgic points of the world economy. Global industrial civilization is an intricate system the complexity of which makes it prone to collapse from any of the numerous possible impulses. It’s not like this was outside near-term probability, as anyone who has followed world news recently must acknowledge. It is also not like this had never happened before.
Think of tribal medicine, or indigenous survival skills, or shamanic ways of knowing the future, all of which have been completely forgotten once civilizations had killed those tribes off or absorbed them. The same happened to Celtic druids in the early Middle ages, and yet again to the herb-wives a.k.a. witches of the late Middle ages and the Renaissance. It happened to the astrological, construction and transportation knowledge of the architects of Stonehenge, and again, thousands of years later, to similar knowledge on Rapa Nui with its Moai. What of the forgotten knowledge of Inka airtight stone setting, or, as one of the most famous mysteries of all times, how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza? We don’t know for sure how old those are and what they were originally for. One man’s grave, that’s laughable. We are not quite sure what the Greeks built the Antiklythera machine for; astronomy? Possible, but the know-how definitely got lost for the next couple of millennia shortly thereafter. With the collapse of the Roman empire its knowledge of road construction, aqueducts, high-rises, war machines and other items got lost during the so-called ‘Dark Ages,’ to be rediscovered only one thousand years later. Many skills known from the Middle ages till the 19thcentury, ranging from the area of raftsmanship to tawery to rope making to vessel mending to hand-weaving are unknown to similar professions today. Heck, we’re about to forget how the steam engine and the Stirling motor are working. 280 years after Stradivari’s death (1737) there is still research and experimentation going on, in an attempt to reproduce the unique sound of his violins, and technologies the Apollo program was running on have been lost due to negligent handling of data.
|Who killed the Antikythera mechanism? (pic wikimedia user Juanxi, cc by-sa 3.0)
Who killed the pyramids? Who killed the Antiklythera mechanism? Who killed the Apollo program, the aqueduct, grandma’s cookery, or Megalithic construction techniques? The answer in most cases is “nobodyin particular;” It was merely the death of a person or a culture. In some cases, though, like with the witches’ herbal medicine, the knowledge in question was simply too inconvenient, its ramifications too disturbing to allow its continued existence, and it was often our own culture which chose to make it forgotten. The oft-heard sayings that the march of progress couldn’t be stopped and that the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle once it’s out – they are lame excuses for a mental laziness and, worse than that, a lack of willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. The obvious and appropriate conclusion from researching into atomic energy would have been to abandon this direction of research altogether. As members of our culture have chosen – fully in compliance with its overall notion – to continue on their path to complete annihilation of all human cultures, extinct theywill go. Given business-as-usual, and given our unwillingness to change we are doomed to fail. You can read the signs of disaster written all over our geo-biological, social, scientific, or economic systems already. Technology will eat itself, and society as well.
Future forgetting due to societal collapse would encompass the loss of industrial extraction and production methods, mass communication, nuclear power, high speed transportation, deep sea diving, space travel, plastics production, genetic engineering, bio-weaponry, micro and nano tech, computers and other electronic devices. As these technologies require resources from around the world, and as the global transportation system requires some of these high technologies for functioning, the industrial economy is unlikely to ever reboot once it got cracked. Its digital data storages will be lost, its analogous (paper) storages – the few libraries which may survive the immediate collapse – would soon disintegrate from the onslaught of water, mold, fire, theft, and vandalism. The biggest, most valuable book magazines would become least useful while most prone to destruction because its contents have been shelved in mechanical ways, accession by accession. With their electronic catalogues out of order they are, practically spoken, monstrous piles of millions of books in no accessible order whatsoever. As professionals die, professors forget, gears break, and spare parts rot or get lost our whole culture eventually goes to hell in a festival of human suffering. Does it have to end this way? Yes, perhaps.
|Who killed grandma’s recipes? (pic public domain)
Historically seen, technologies and techniques die outsome of the times; some of the times they are getting killed before they can cause damage. We did it before; we could do it again. In principle we have that choice, yet systemic obstacles built into the worldview upon which our machine culture rests make it seem unlikely that we actually will. Jerry Mander points out that we ought to have a closer look at our technical systems anyway, to re-evaluate them from a holistic perspective, and that we ought to chuck out those which are found incompatible with Earth’s sustainability and diversity. He goes on to say that
“There is no denying that all of this amounts to considerable adjustment, but it’s not as if there were much choice. Truly, such change is inevitable if sanity and sustainability are to prevail. To call this adjustment “going back” is to conceive of it in fearful, negative terms, when the changes are actually desirable and good. In fact, it is not really going back; it is merely getting back on track, as it were, after a short unhappy diversion into fantasy. It is going forward to a renewed relationship with timeless values and principles that have been kept alive for Western society by the very people we have tried to destroy.
As for whether it is “romantic” to make such a case, I can only say that the charge is putting the case backwards. What is romantic is to believe that technological evolution will ever live up to its own advertising, or that technology itself can liberate us from the problems it has created. So far, the only people who, as a group, are clear-minded on this point are the native peoples, simply because they have kept alive their roots in an older, alternative, nature-based philosophy that has proven effective for tens of thousands of years, and that has nurtured dimensions of knowledge and perception that have become opaque to us. It is the native societies, not our own, that hold the key to future survival.” – Mander, p.384