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Since the days of flint arrowheads and fire making, technology has shaped Homo sapiens. History (the result of one technological innovation, writing) records how breakthroughs like gunpowder, the printing press, and the internal combustion engine changed lives and opened new livelihoods. Luddites among us berate technological innovation as dehumanizing and impersonal, but this antipathy usually applies only to the latest gadgets; riding in a horse-drawn carriage or floating a few hundred feet up in a balloon, you forget that these, too, were ground breaking technologies in their own era. New inventions, in fact, often require as much imagination as a poem or story. In “Mercy Street”, his homage to Anne Sexton, Peter Gabriel sings:
All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody's head
Technological revolutions tend to wax and wane. The two decades following 1900, which saw the adoption of cars, planes, movie cameras, telephones, and electric lights, was probably the high water mark thus far, but don’t write off the importance of the Industrial Revolution or, heck, the bow and arrow. The pace of technological advancement seems to have slowed after 1950. But the Internet—a marriage of computers with telephony that came of age in the mid-90s—has had profound and far-reaching effects on art and civilization. As have cell phones. And the future is sure to hold more surprises and upheaval. Self-driving cars are all but a certainty, but like drones they are a minor improvement on a previous century’s invention. On the other hand, cold fusion, cybernetics, anti-gravity, and (at the edge of possibility) time travel may well transform the next century into something that seems like a fairy realm to the humdrum world of 2020, the way antibiotics and refrigerators would appear magical to the denizens of the Middle Ages.
In general, young people seem better able to adopt and shape new technologies. My generation, Gen X, once labeled “slackers”, transformed the Internet from the nascent research network of the 1970s and 80s into the global hub it is today. The Millennials and Gen Y may have a bigger task—developing technologies to cope with climate change and other damages caused by hundreds of years of human expansion. Ironically, it is technology itself that has brought us to this point. Every breakthrough, from the gas-powered engine to electricity and plastics, comes at a price. And the cumulative effects of five millennia of new tools and ways of living also have a psychological toll for a species that evolved as hunter gatherers. Humans simply weren’t built to sit all day staring at a screen. Harmonizing technological progress with the biological world we were born into may require a major cultural shift akin to the Renaissance. In any case, our technology has its limits—even a tiny coronavirus, a simple RNA strand wrapped in proteins, can knock us flat.
Looking back on it, the entire story of human civilization is brief, when measured by Earth’s geological clock—a shooting star in a night of a hundred years. As Joe Albanese mentions in the poem that closes this issue, we’re walking out on “the dock of infinity”—and we may even, one day, reach the stars themselves.
- Joel Van Valin .