The Limits of Our Technical and Mechanical Apparatus – Science, Silliness and the Nucleus of Niceness – Part 8

I wrote in the previous part of this series of blog posts about the limits of our objectivity, and illuminated some of my thoughts on how our mental apparatus might be hampering us in our quest for progress, both scientifically speaking and in terms of general living standards. And I’d like to just take a few minutes to consider the same issues, only this time regarding hardware. Some of the engineering achievements of the human race over the last 200 years have been quite astonishing – from roads (actually quite incredible feats), bridges and skyscrapers to efficient farming equipment; from aeroplanes and helicopters to space travel. We have a wide range of incredibly sophisticated computers (ubiquitous to the various things we use day to day, such as cars or smart home tech) and of course the internet; possibly the crown jewel (or poisoned chalice) of the 21st century. At least until artificial intelligence changes the face of the world – possibly for the better but almost certainly for the worse.

The human race has imagined some remarkable things – and then had the skills and craft to make them useful tools. How much they all genuinely help make our lives better (particularly in terms of our happiness) is something I’ll go on to explore in a bit more detail, but there’s no doubting that all of those things are marvellous achievements of science, engineering, endeavour and intelligence. You can of course go right back to ancient civilisations like those in Egypt, Mexico and Greece to uncover incredible creations, such as the Pyramids of Giza, Mayan temples and, well, pretty much everything from the Greco-Roman era of beauty and awe, but we’ve moved on (in a sense) and must continue to do so. So let’s focus on the present (whatever that is) and future (whatever that is) for now.

Light speed and time travel

As you may have learned earlier in this series of blog posts (or not – I didn’t really understand it myself so probably didn’t explain it very well), we basically know it’s theoretically possible to travel forwards in time thanks to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. Of course, the clue is in the name here – it’s all relative. As in, a bunch of people on a spacecraft travelling close to the speed of light in a spacecraft would age much slower than the rest of us stationed here on earth over the course of, say, 10 years. The spacecraft travellers would’ve basically jumped further on in the passage of time (as we experience it) than those of us who were still subjected to the earth’s gravitational pull. It doesn’t seem to be the case that such technology is remotely close to becoming realised in the Star Trek/Star Wars/Lost In Space sci-fi sense. But we do have the technology and insight to detect primordial heat signatures which appear to confirm theories of the Big Bang and how the universe came into being. And so wouldn’t it be wonderful to somehow cobble together (ha!) the technology to actually travel back in time and see this wondrous event with our own eyes?

It currently seems to go against the laws of physics that we might be able to journey backwards in this way. The laws of thermodynamics inform us that entropy always increases, heat rises, things change. Change is constantly occurring throughout the universe and entropy continues to increase. The glass which is smashed cannot be un-smashed. The egg shell which cracks into a thousand pieces will never reseal itself. As you may have learned (probably not – again, not so good at the explaining thing) in a previous post of mine, these things are actually theoretically possible. It’s just the probability is so impossibly small that they basically never will. But what if we could?

What if we somehow could transcend the laws of physics as we know them and develop technology which allowed us to travel back in time to the beginning of the universe; to the Big Bang. I really don’t think there could be a sight one might hope to witness that would be more exhilarating. I guess potentially the heavens. But we only know for (almost) certain that one of these things is actually based in reality. If you need a guarantee of a truly wonderful sight, perhaps we should just stick to re-runs of peak Yasmine Bleeth in Baywatch? (This is a Friends reference for any of you who didn’t read my Friends blog or haven’t seen it. Baywatch was actually an awful TV show to be honest).

Whatever we might choose to do with it, it seems that mastering the tech to pull off light speed travel could open up an immense Pandora’s Box of new experiences for our species; a can of wormholes if you will! (Sorry). But of all the good and bad things that it might bring (if our bodies were even able to withstand such a strain), it’s undoubtedly the case that the potential for deep space voyages is one of the most alluring.

Deep space voyages

It is only when one considers just how vast our universe might be that the nature of our isolation becomes stark. The edge of the observable universe is 46 billion light years away – and so the diameter is roughly 92 billion light years. The speed of light is roughly 300,000 kilometres per second and, on average (due to orbital variations), Mars is around 225 million kilometres from Earth. So Earth is approximately 12.5 light years away from Mars. That’s pretty far in itself, and so suddenly that 92 billion begins to sound even more extraordinary!

And that’s only the observable universe. We have technology and equations which help to predict these things, but just like the great Copernicus, we cannot assume we are at the centre of the universe – we’ve been guilty of such arrogant nonsense before. We don’t actually know how big the universe actually is – or if there are other co-existing universes – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could develop the technology to explore a little further? It currently feels a bit like we’re stuck on this tiny rock in a vast ocean – say, a pebble in the Atlantic – and we’re basically able to send out satellites and other craft about a millimetre away from the pebble to investigate our surroundings. Technology and new engineering innovations are moving fast, but I doubt we’ll see light speed travel or deep space voyaging in my lifetime. Which is a shame – because at the rate we are burning up this planet to a dried up, barren husk, we will need to find a new home sooner rather than later.

Big ideas with small origins

You would expect that the greatest ideas in the history of scientific progress would mostly have originated from the most advanced technology available. But if the history of scientific discovery has shown us anything, it’s that you don’t need fancy equipment to make big contributions; you simply need a bright mind, the ability to dream big and the patience to make mistakes over and over again. Many of the greatest insights achieved in particle physics seem to be the result of experiments using a light source, boxes with holes in them, plates to detect when various particles are hitting them, copper wires and mirrors. Simple devices which produce remarkably effective and illuminating results.

The depth of inquiry Richard Feynman makes in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter using just mirrors, tiny arrows and imaginary stopwatches, is remarkable (I’ll on to discuss this book in more detail in the next blog post in this series. But to bolster my argument for the point I’m making here, allow me to just a list a few examples of science experiments with major consequences which derive from humble origins: Galileo proved objects fall at the same speed simply by dropping two balls of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Newton showed how light was made of different colours (frequencies) simply by viewing it through a glass prism. Thomas Young confirmed that light travels as waves by cutting a couple of slits in a board, shining a light through them and observing the interference patterns. Einstein then took this a stage further by realising that light is not just a wave, but also made up of particles by knocking electrons out of light onto metal to make an electric current. Illuminating the photoelectric effect bagged Einstein the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, and this wave-particle duality underpins quantum theory.

For better or worse?

So now that we know that pioneering science can come from relatively small-scale roots, does that mean there’s no place for elaborate technological innovations? I don’t necessarily think so – I’ve sourced information from the web, and written, edited and posted all the content on this blog site just using a few apps on my phone during my commutes to and from work. There’s absolutely no way I would’ve done so without this tech – my handwriting’s awful! But seriously – I love useful gadgets; just so long as they remain just that – useful.

As ever with my blog pieces, it’s all about balance. However – if one asks the question whether or not these technological innovations have actually improved our lives, there certainly remains something of a grey area. The internet is as good a place as any to begin this line of inquiry. The World Wide Web has brought us closer in ways we could never have imagined – I can speak to a friend, family member or business associate in, say, Australia from my living room in England using face-to-face video tech in just a few clicks of a mouse. But this kind of interaction only offers a convenient alternative to the real thing; I’d sooner do it in person every single time. Having the option to connect with someone in this way, who might otherwise be inaccessible, is a genuinely wonderful and progressive thing. I would just be wary of the fact that by having the capability to interact in this manner, it might lead to more and more people in the future thinking that this is a preferable means of communication.

Me and my wife already do this on another level – we hate phone calls. In fact, we won’t take a phone call unless we absolutely have to. Now, I realise this is slightly different, because a phone call is similarly lacking in the facial and bodily gestures and other phenomenological factors which make a face-to-face interaction so much more appealing. But we would much rather converse with family members via WhatsApp than on the phone. So I absolutely don’t practice what I preach in this respect – except for the fact that I maintain I’d always prefer to communicate face to face, in person, if possible.

Web of sighs

There are many things I could explore in favour of and against the internet – in fact, it would make a good blog post in itself. But for now, I’ll just quickly list a select few to show how ambivalent I am towards it: it’s a wonderful tool for education and research purposes, and it is a free space for anyone to share their ideas or views. But that also means it can be vehicle for misinformation and the spread of hatred, cruelty and wickedness. It’s also a space where we can be monitored and influenced by authoritative bodies. It has opened up the whole world to us – we have a plethora of choice at our fingertips in terms of music, art, films, books, TV shows and more from every country on the planet.

And yet, this much choice can be stifling and restrictive – how many times have you rewatched the same programme over and over again, just because it’s on Netflix? Yet, if we were still forced to stroll down to Blockbuster to get a video, surely we’d be more inclined to try a different thing each time? Maybe not – but what if we actually had to go to the cinema or theatre to see everything? Imagine spending all that time out with friends or loved ones engaging in an enjoyable shared experience – drinks, dinner, a film. Sound fun? There’s a time and a place for boxsets, for sure. But actually going out and sharing experiences with others is always going to be more fulfilling.

Not so social media

This is another topic which I could write a series of blog posts about, so I’ll try to gloss over it pretty quickly for the sake of keeping this a relatively short read. I’m not a huge fan of social media. There are wonderful things about it – you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog post right not without it, for example. So I shouldn’t complain too much. It has been used a tool for liberation – the Arab Spring and other rebellions and protests in recent years might not have been mobilised so effectively without it. But, having said that, people were rebelling against oppressive regimes long before we had Samsung Galaxys.

My main gripe with social media is that it gives too many people a platform to cause emotional harm to others – in a way they perhaps haven’t had before in the history of civilisation. That’s not to say there are more twats knocking about than in Ancient Rome; it’s just that being nasty and unkind, taking out frustrations on others, and being generally unpleasant to people you don’t even know has suddenly become a great deal easier. And for all the wonderful things social media might do to help us connect and share our lives, I’m not sure it’s worth paying that price.

This is why I have enjoyed getting to know members of South Korean pop group BTS so much via Twitter. I accidentally stumbled into the world of the BTS ARMY (what the band call their fans) earlier this year and have since been on something of an emotional social media rollercoaster with them. But it has been an entirely positive affair and I have really appreciated hearing their stories about how the band, and their fellow fans, help each other feel better about themselves. It’s like a big pro-positive mental health love-in and I find the way they all look after each other and support each other inspiring.

You can read about how I began my Twitter journey with the wonderful BTS ARMY right here:

Smells Like BTS Spirit – The Tale of One Small Tweet and One Giant Army

And I’m feeling good

It’s not just the internet and social media I have ambivalent feelings towards – medical and music technology are probably the two other biggest areas of scientific progression I find fascinating for their opposed dualities. The advances in medical tech, medicine and general healthcare have been quite astonishing over the past century. We can explore the human body in more depth and detail than ever before – we can identity problems much earlier and, as a result, prolong human life. This is obviously a good thing. We also have technology which helps to improve the quality of life of our species – from the humble wheelchair to state-of-the-art hospital beds, from defibrillators to X-ray machines, from heart pumps to artificial wombs for premature babies – we’ve used our great penchant for innovation and our engineering acumen to make instruments to help us live us better lives.

But these innovations of course come loaded with counter problems – they can cost a lot of money to build and so are often only accessible to certain types of people – those who either have money themselves or live in more affluent countries. As I also mentioned in a previous post, these technological advances also mean that human beings in richer nations are living longer – thus populations are increasing and the planet is struggling to cope with the burden of these growing numbers. We simply don’t have the resources or the respect for our planet to continue down this road and advances in medical tech are undoubtedly contributing to this troublesome state of affairs.

Developments in musical technology have brought new sounds and experiences to us in ways we might never have imagined. The digital age has made it possible to listen to, store and share music in ways that would’ve seemed beyond the realms of imagination when Henry VIII was playing his lute back in 1525. And the instruments and tech that we use to create, edit and record these sounds have developed in ways which have brought more complex and interesting songs, causing us to spiral into audio-based obsession. And yet for all the state-of-the-art synths, vocal modifying equipment, painstakingly tweaked laptop beats, Pro Tools or Logic plug-ins and digital recording devices, can you actually beat a piece of wood with a few strings on it? Does a musical instrument actually come any better than a few pieces of wood with plastic skins on which you hit with a stick or stomp with your feet?

Picking up a guitar just feels amazing. I can’t really explain why – it just does. Knowing what I can do with it – the different emotions it can invoke, is awe-inspiring. Learning to play a guitar is hard work – but it is rewarding. Playing a guitar (hopefully well) is an unbeatable feeling. Playing songs is amazing. Creating new music is wonderful. Playing live music, with friends and to friends, with strangers and to strangers, is an incredible, enriching, human and transcendent experience. Learning to play an instrument – like a guitar, a flute, a violin, the drums, whatever – teaches us the value of hard work, patience, perseverance and the value of developing skills. It gives us the means to express ourselves – to communicate our Genuinity (the childish, feminine, positive life-affirming voice I write about other blog pieces).

This isn’t to say one can’t bear their soul musically with just a laptop and a copy of Garage Band – what I’m trying to say is that the best things in life tend to require time, effort and hard work. And one is more likely to employ those virtues if they have to master an instrument. I also just like the idea of feeling something in my hands which has pure, organic roots – there is a phenomenological wonder to the humble acoustic guitar which I don’t think we’ll ever surpass as a technological innovation in the realm of music.

Let’s see what the future brings

So there we have it – once again it’s all about balance. Yes, there are technological innovations which have helped to improve our lives, but almost every improvement seems to have a downside lurking somewhere in the depths. Perhaps that’s just down to my mindset – maybe I need to focus my energies on being more positive about our technological advances, but I can’t help myself; I’m a strong believer in the power of Taoist thinking and a big fan of Nietzsche and I can’t shed the feeling that we lose a touch of our humanity we every step we take away from our organic roots.

Computers are wonderful things – they help me to write, edit and design the magazines I work on; they help me to connect with family members in different countries and to share ideas (like those in this blog) all across the world. But they are also little metal boxes which take away our freedoms a bit by helping to keep us chained to a desk at work for the majority of the week. Are computers tools of liberation or are they detrimental to our freedom – are they merely subtle pieces in the great puzzle of hegemonic oppression? Are those sleek and beautiful iMacs just cogs in the great machine of discursive practice and dominant discourses?

Whatever your thoughts, I’m sure we’d all agree that enslaving ourselves with artificial intelligence gone wrong would be rather awful. And so hopefully we can continue to achieve new technologies which actually make our lives better – and us happier. Hopefully we produce tech to help bring the outer realms of the universe closer to us. And hopefully we will seek to create engineering masterpieces which help humanity in positive, life-affirming ways.

Thanks to this excellent post for providing some of the info from this article:

Check out part 7 of the series on the limits of our objectivity here

7 thoughts on “The Limits of Our Technical and Mechanical Apparatus – Science, Silliness and the Nucleus of Niceness – Part 8

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