In the early 90s, AT&T ran a series of commercials that posed some futuristic, technologically enabled task (e.g., “Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away?”), and then answered it emphatically (“You will.”), claiming they’d be the company to technologically enable such a task. I believe they’ve all come to pass except one. As Stewart Brand once said, “Technology marches on, over you or through you, take your pick.”
I can’t help but think that many of the technological advances we debate and marvel about were downright inevitable. In 1982, when I first got a computer, one of my main intentions was to get a modem and connect to databases. My eleven-year-old self wasn’t as hungry for information — I could’ve gotten the same stuff from the “database” down the street known as “the library.” I was hungry for the idea of connectivity. The idea that I could connect my computer to other computers and exchange information. The idea was exhilarating.
Doesn’t that feeling, one that I shared with plenty of people by then, make the internet inevitable?
Didn’t your first unassisted ride on a bike feel like flying? Riding that two-wheeled bridge of balance is like taking off on wings of your own. In more sober tones, Marshall McLuhan (1964) aligned the two activities as well, writing,
It was the tandem alignment of wheels that created the velocipede and then the bicycle, for with the acceleration of wheel by linkage to the visual principle of mobile lineality, the wheel acquired a new degree of intensity. The bicycle lifted the wheel onto the plane of aerodynamic balance, and not too indirectly created the airplane. It was no accident that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early planes seemed in some ways like bicycles (p. 182).
Supposedly birds evolved the same way. Dinosaurs became bipedal via their large, counterbalancing tails. Eventually the same concept morphed wings.
Karl Popper (1968) called it “exosomatic evolution” (p. 238), adding that now we don’t grow faster legs, we grow bicycles and cars; we don’t grow bigger brains or memories, we grow computers. McLuhan continues, writing, “The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being” (p. 182). Software and city blocks are as natural as ant hills and broccoli.
The argument that technology is organic begs the question of what to do about it: How do we maintain control over our contrivances?
The argument that technology is organic answers the question as well: We maintain control over our contrivances in the same way that we maintain control over our lawns. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.
Brand, S. (1988). The media lab: Inventing the future at MIT. New York: Penguin.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Popper, K. (1968). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. New York: Oxford University Press.
And here they are, the AT&T “You Will” commercials from 1993: