Images of technology as mediators of reality

If we think about the first objects exposed to the public in science museums, very likely what comes to mind is either a huge clock (as in the Museo de las Ciencias de Castilla La Mancha, Cuenca, Spain), a huge steam engine in motion beating your ears with the repetitive piston sound (for example the one in the Science Museum, London, Great Britain) or a real plane hanging from the ceiling (for instance the one in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry). Designers and curators are aware of the power those images and sounds have to transmit values, feelings or information (see the entry Transmission of knowledge on this blog).

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Corliss Steam Engine in motion at the London Science Museum (Great Britain)

Technology is a human creation, it’s the result of transforming the reality surrounding us. But once a technological device has been brought up and has been introduced in society  (see the entries Innovation and Diffusion of innovations on this blog), it transforms our vision of that reality. Then, technology and the images representing it and resulting from it become mediators of our world view. As a result, those images convey values, give rise to archetypes and feelings that substitute rationality, or become symbols and metaphors of reality.

Technology manages to convey specific values such as progress, effectiveness or precision (see the entry Progress on this blog). Technology and technological methods represent efficacy, so they lead us to think that their use of will result in better outcomes. This idea has driven us, for example, to introduce factory methods or technological devices in activities like teaching (see the entries Culture of technology in secondary education and Educational technology on this blog) -something very well reflected in overoptimistic images foreseing a wonderful future thanks to technology, like the future School with a “Robot Teacher” we reproduce here, by Shigeru Komatsuzak. Or to the use of scientific and technological methods to measure individual characteristics in order to improve both professional orientation and performance (Guijarro y González, 2015, 249).

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A vision of the future, entitled “The Rise of the Computerized School”, illustrated by Shigeru Komatsuzaki for an 1969 article of the japanese magazine Shōnen Sunday (週刊少年サンデー, Shūkan Shōnen Sandē).

But the attitude towards technology is not universal. Whereas some people reject or mistrust an excessive technology presence (technophobia and techno-scepticism) (the Amish represent an extreme example), for others technological objects are no longer mere objects with a specific utility, but models and basic elements in their way of life (technophilia).

When the images resulting from the action of technology on a reality provide a model to understand that reality -without becoming a real explanation of it but merely an interpretation- they drive to the emergence of an archetype. Such is the case of the internet, which has become an archetype of communication (Stefik, 1996) or the human archetypes emerged from XIX century studies on physical anthropology, which led to the concept of human races and to a human archetypes hierarchy where the use of technology played an important role: it was associated to civilization and progress and hence to (moral, intellectual and material) superiority (Guijarro and González, 2015, 99-105). The latter is an example of how archetypes can introduce prejudices beyond reason that prevent us from seeing reality the way it is.

Sometimes technology, in the form of large buildings and constructions representing the triumph of engineering skill (of men over nature), provokes feelings of attraction and admiration that substitute rationality. This phenomenon, studied by David Nye in his book American Technological Sublime, takes place when “an object strikes people dumb with amazement” (Nye, 1994, 16) and it’s reflected in public’s affection for spectacular technologies.

The sublime underlies this enthusiasm for technology. One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. The sublime taps into fundamental hopes and fears. It is not a social residue, created by economic and political forces, though both can inflect its meaning. Rather, it is essentially religious feeling, aroused by the confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the earth-shaking launch of a space shuttle. (Nye, 1994, xiii).

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People gathered to watch the starting of the massive Corliss engine, which powered a myriad of other machines at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine), in 1876. The event celebrated the 100th anniversary of American independence announcing the ascendancy of the United States of America as a leading industrial power.

Yet the mediation of technology can change the way we look at the reality it has either acted upon or been associated to in such a way that it completely reshapes our vision of that reality. Then, technological images become metaphors (this entry complements the entry Metaphors on this blog). This is the case, for example, of the human mind, seen itself as a computer after both the invention of computers and the use of these devices to imitate some mind processes. Other examples would be thinking of humans as robots or of schools as factories.

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Evocation of steam and smoke, symbols of progress, in a train station. Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877 (Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums).

In other situations, technology displaces in our minds a reality it’s associated to so that the technological object get to represent that reality. It has happened, for example: with the Eiffel tower, which has become a symbol of Paris; with the steam and the smoke, symbols of progress mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and present in many paintings of the time (such is the case in the series of works by Claude Monet representing Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, paradigm of modern Paris and a subject favoured by many impressionist painters); or with the garden, which represents a domesticated nature.

“The progress of the century”. Lithograph featuring new technologies associated with America’s emerging industrial greatness: the telegraph, the railroad, the locomotive steamboat, and the steam-engine powered printing press, by Currier and Ives, 1876.

Like most symbols, technological symbols are cultural and can vary from one period to another. The garden provides a good example of it:

Los jardines formales del siglo XVII son expresión del poder humano y de la disconformidad que se sentía ante la irregularidad original que presentaba la naturaleza. Durante este periodo el diseño geométrico aplicado a estos espacios obedecía a un intento por rememorar los planes divinos en un mundo que había degenerado y caído en el caos. En el siglo XVIII se relajó levemente el apremio por el orden y la artificiosidad y se acogieron formas más naturales. En la siguiente centuria se pretendió en los encargos realizados a los naturalistas por las sociedades de agricultura, destinados al diseño de jardines de aclimatación, ensayo de plantas y cultivos, aunar lo bello y lo útil. Por tanto, la idea de jardín es un concepto ambiguo, que evoca, por un lado, una parte de la naturaleza y, por el otro, la intervención humana. Es una representación de la naturaleza, una naturaleza, en definitiva, producida y controlada.

Más tarde, el ideal del ensamblaje de la naturaleza y la civilización se intentó promover en los proyectos urbanísticos de la ciudad-jardín. En estos propósitos, concebidos por Ebenezer Howard (1850-1927) a finales del siglo XIX, se trataba de equilibrar lo mejor de la vida urbana y la rural; se trataba de disponer cinturones verdes en la ciudad y fusionar las necesidades de la industria y de la ecología.

El alto valor simbólico del jardín en nuestra cultura explica que esté presente en creaciones que cuestionan los logros de la civilización occidental. En este caso se trata de dos obras cinematográficas, Metrópolis, de Fritz Lang (1927) y Mi tío, de Jacques Tati (1958). En ambos casos se pretende crear un particular desasosiego en el espectador mostrando jardines donde la intervención humana ha creado realidades artificiales que aparentemente han anulado los vestigios de naturaleza y, por tanto, reducido la calidad de las relaciones humanas (Guijarro y González, 2015, 97)

Artists have a special ability to identify those images of reality mediated by technology that prevail in society and make them explicit in their works, frequently through parody or dystopia. Their vision is mainly techno-sceptical, that is, they accept some aspects of technology while rejecting others, specially those affecting environment, privacy, freedom or health. Apart from the movies mentioned in the quote, Metropolis and Mon oncle, and the too well known example of Modern times (Charles Chaplin, 1935) there are also other remarkable examples of film directors criticizing technology like Woody Allen (Sleeper, 1973), François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966 -film based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury, 1953), or Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, 1982, based upon the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)

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The automatized and dehumanized Garden of Villa Arpel, Jaques Tati, Mon oncle (1958)

Tati’s film, Mon oncle (1958), proposes a way to dehumanize gardens through a vision of the modern and automatized Villa Arpel:

La casa y el jardín son «máquinas para vivir» mucho más que lugares de vida. Todo en ellos es frío y mecánico. La fuente de aluminio en forma de pez que hay en medio del jardín aparece como la encarnación de los falsos valores de una burguesía que se adorna superfluamente de modernidad. […] su reflexión está relacionada con las contradicciones y las promesas incumplidas de la modernidad” (Jakob, 2010, 48-49).

Sleeper is a movie which takes place in the year 2173, when Miles (Woody Allen) wakes up after a long sleep induced in 1973. It pays tribute to the work of H.G. Wells When the Sleeper Awakes (1910), and represents a satirical look to a future where technology intervenes in every aspect of human relationships (including sex) and communications.

Blade Runner presents an apocalyptic image of the city of Los Angeles in 2019, where cyborgs genetically engineered -the replicants, with greater strength and intelligence than humans- have been created to serve humans. In the movie technology is presented as inefficient but omnipresent and oppressive.

Fahrenheit 451 presents a technocratic society where books are forbidden and where order is maintained through oppression. Individual free will has been completely overridden through a technology that rules every day life, specially through an omnipresent TV set which broadcast commercials used for the mental control of the people.

Similar examples can be found in visual arts, where we can find opposing positions. While certain trends such as futurist or constructivist praised for technology -the former glorified the machine age, the latter expressed the technological society-, other movements were more critical. After the enthusiasm of futurism, Dadaism had an ambiguous position towards the progressive mechanisation of life, showing mixed feelings (of attraction and refusal), always ironic: they humanised machines, as in the works by Picabia, Duchamp or Man Ray, and mechanised humans, as in the works by Grosz, Hausmann or Switchers (María Santos García Felguera, 2000, “Las vanguardias históricas (II)”, Historia del Arte, vol. 34, Historia 16, p. 66).

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George Grosz, Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it, 1920, Berlinische Galerie

References and further readings

María Santos García Felguera (2000), “Las vanguardias históricas (II)”, Historia del Arte, vol. 34, Historia 16; Víctor Guijarro and Leonor González (2015), La comprensión cultural de la tecnología, Madrid, Universitas; Michael Jacob (2010), El jardín y su representación, Madrid, Siruela; David Nye (1994), American Technological Sublime, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press; Mark Stefik (1996), Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors, The MIT Press; Sarah M. Watson, “Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism” (for a general and complete review on technology criticism).