Build better wings

In the 1997 film Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel, scientist Dr. Ellie Arraway (Jodie Foster) is auditioning to be the first human to communicate with aliens. She is asked, “If you should meet [this advanced alien race], and were permitted only one question, what would it be?”

“How did you do it?” Arraway responds. “How did you survive your technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

We are living that question. As a species, we are in the throes of our technological adolescence.

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Humankind entered our technological adolescence in the mid-twentieth century. The 1937 invention of a circuit crucial to computers, and the atom bomb in 1945, come to mind. The former would help get us to the moon and power our smartphones; the latter would ensure we could be the destroyer of worlds.

Prepping for fatherhood in 1997, I finally felt deeply connected to humankind’s technological adolescence, a revolution that would engulf almost everyone I knew. During my wife’s pregnancy, I signed up for AOL. We acquired our first family cell phone and desktop Mac. When our son Jack arrived in 1998, I was able to say, “Welcome to the future. The agency of the gods is ours.”

Cell phones and personal computers significantly altered our perception of time and distance. Almost overnight, attitudes and expectations changed. The nature of what we are entitled to, the concept of waiting – all very different in a few short years.

Were we, as a species, ready for all this?

Initially, email enchanted me. I thought it might return folks to communicating, like when letters were de rigueur. As a writer and onetime avid pen pal, I was well acquainted with the part of the brain accessed via typing/writing – quite different from the part that talks. And I was familiar with reading a recipient’s response, composed from their unrestrained “writer mind.” What happens, I wondered, when everyone is writing, tapping into the secret self?

With social media, texting, tweets, and the comments section, now we know. The irony is that all this writing on high-tech platforms has delivered many to rawer versions of themselves.

YouTube captivated me. Cat videos! Beloved bygone bands! Until I was “YouTubing” with my son, checking out the Arab Spring of 2011, and we clicked on a video of a huge black truck plowing into a crowd of Egyptian protesters, scattering dozens, and surely killing most. We can never unsee that horror, one of countless available for view at this moment. As with popular epic-fail videos, many entranced viewers feel no connection to the victims, no inconvenient compassion.

Humankind’s relationship with technology has always evoked ambivalence. How does it change us? Does it reveal and amplify our destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies? How can we use it and not kill ourselves?

In the Icarus myth, master craftsman Daedalus builds wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, so they can fly out of a labyrinth prison. Daedalus tells him not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt, or too close to the sea, lest the moisture loosen the feathers. Icarus takes the technology, but he is not ready. He is too young, Excitement overwhelms him. He flies too close to the sun. The wings melt, and he falls to the sea and drowns.

Millennia have passed since someone recorded that timeless Greek myth, with its unsatisfying – to me – interpretation of temperance, i.e. “fly the middle way.” Thankfully, in my early years of fatherhood, I came across a quote attributed to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who essentially said he did not interpret it like that. According to Kubrick, the message of Icarus is “build better wings.” That works for me.

Whether those “better wings” must be a more compassionate technology relying on restraint to help us fly the distance – to survive – we shall see. Hopefully, when asked by other beings how we did it, how we survived our technological adolescence, we can tell them, and advise accordingly.

 

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.