Technology Ex Nihilo

I enjoy listening to the Ad Fontes podcast from time to time and hearing three gentlemen of great learning opine on modest topics such as “education” and “poetry.” The latter is one of their recent victims and of course when dealing with such an immense subject, the best thing to do is to narrow the scope, which they do by defining poetry at various points as “philosophy,” “anything made,” and “technology.”

Of course I’m just poking fun. The definitions were, in fact, much more precise and trenchant and all around on-the-money. I was most interested, though, by the connection between technology and poetry suggested by Colin Redemer (and it was only a connection, not an identity, as I had previously implied in jest). “They both require,” says Redemer, “that you think about things that are not.” The poet and technological innovator attempt to “perceive something in reality that is not there yet.”

I am going to mostly agree with that notion in this post but also add a caveat. First of all, Redemer is certainly right that there is a connection. I might go even farther and say that technology is vaguely poetic and literary in its way of searching out new innovations. A good example might be the recent Metaverse phenomenon, which is an example of a technology whose deliverables are molded, without even a hint of irony, on the imaginary technologies that are stock figures in sci-fi books and movies. In fact, whether or not there is a market demand for a product is, in a way, a secondary consideration. What is more important is that the imaginative worlds which have sold well in Hollywood are a good index for the kind of technology that Silicon Valley, in particular, thinks it should create.

Another way to think about the standard mythology of technological innovation is that the innovator sees nature operating in a certain way (such as a horse and cart) and thinks of some human invention, which is less connected with nature, which operates above or on top of that nature (a car). The technology often takes advantage of some more hidden aspect of nature (gravity, chemical properties, whatever) to improve performance.

There is a kind of mythology about technological entrepreneurship that goes something like this: entrepreneurs see a process which is inefficient or sub-optimal; in an act of creative genius (Gestalt shift or muse-like inspiration or “growth mindset” thinking or whatever), they limn ex nihilo some improvement on that process. That moment of entreneurial genius is analogous to the Newton or Einstein moments in science, and both stories are told in similar ways to the life of an artist such as Beethoven. It is why The Social Network (not to mention all the other CEO movies) is basically the same movie as Imitation Game or Beautiful Mind and all of them are remakes of The Agony and the Ecstasy. I won’t tarry too long on this point, but it is worth noting that such a mythology is an important bulwark in the political fight around regulating technology. There is nothing that Western culture valorizes more than the mad genius Beethoven or mad scientist Einstein, and nothing that American culture valorizes more than a Beethoven or an Einstein who can also enrich the shareholders.

But, as an example, Metaverse belies this somewhat, because at least in that situation, it is not the engineers or entrepreneurs who have been creative, but rather the sci-fi novelists and cinematic studio art departments who first limned. The causality is not quite the right direction.

I would argue that, in the case of a lot of technology, this kind of ex nihilo genius, the ability to see something where there is nothing, is not how it actually works. Technological innovation is often an accident. Its original use-case may not be its eventual use-case. Most importantly, its source of inspiration may come neither from a genuine understanding of science nor from some prophetic addition to nature but as an extension of existing metaphors and natural design paradigms. I’ll look at a specific example in a moment, but the point is that technologies often innovate mainly by aping nature in ways the innovators don’t fully understand. We then retroactively delete the “natural” aspects of the technology from the mythology.

Nature and technology have a tricky relationship. William Cronon in his book Nature’s Metropolis (1991) introduces a crucially important distinction in modern American notions of “nature,” between what he calls “first nature” and “second nature.” “First nature” is the originary nature, things as they were before being disturbed by human intervention. But, in attempting to create something out of that nature (for Cronon it is the city, in our case it is technology), humans tend to transform and use “first nature” in ways that we are not fully aware of, and then subsequently forget. This creates “second nature,” the non-technologized, non-urbanized world which we think is undisturbed by human intervention but which has a layer of human intervention baked in. Cronon’s example is the way in which Chicago changed the American West, through canals, agricultural practice, deforestation, and railways. Americans tend to think of this non-metropolitan West as “nature,” although it has been radically transformed by layers and layers of human intervention.

But what about a technological example? The best I can think of is recounted in Jonathan Sterne’s brilliant The Audible Past (2003). Sterne is writing a history of the “cultural origins of sound reproduction,” about the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century origins of sound recording and sound production. He points out several important things, three of which are relevant here: (1) almost none of the major technological breakthroughs (phonography, telophony, radio) were originally made for what the ended up being used for; and (2) the single most important technological piece, what he calls the “tympanic function,” was a more-or-less ignorant aping of the function of the human ear.

I won’t dwell too long on the first point, although I can’t recommend the book highly enough to get a better sense of it (as well as his MP3: the Meaning of a Format (2012)).* But I will briefly summarize: we now use for telophony for point-to-point communication, whereas we use radio and phonography (or, I guess, its metaphorical descendents) for broadcasting and mass media. Sterne points out the ways in which the opposite was the case in the earliest technologies: radio was used primarily for point-to-point communication early on and many early champions of phonographs assumed that the future of America would be phonographs in every post office. “Before the phonograph became a means for reproducing music, it was an office tool, a form of long-distance communication, and a home recording device,” (192). Conversely, telephony was used in the early twentieth century as a means of broadcasting. Sterne recounts one such use in Budapest where someone telephone-broadcasted performances of the “Parisian Opéra, the Opéra Comique, and the Théâtre Française,” (192-3). These are microcosms of a common story in the history of this technology (and doubtless others): the original innovators were not, in fact, prophetic nor even very good at understanding market needs.

Far more interesting is Sterne’s notion of the so-called tympanic function. Sterne begins by explaining transduction, the basic principle of all modern sound reproduction technology, which is “turn[ing] sound into something else and that something else back into sound,” (22). Transducers are tools which do that task of rendering sound into information and information back into sound. Yet, curiously, the earliest sound reproduction technologies did not make their own transducers. Rather, the task of transduction was performed by—get this—an actual human ear. The entire machine, called the ear phonautograph, “used an excised human middle ear as a transducer, and the functioning of the tympanic membrane (also known as the diaphragm or the eardrum) in the human ear was the model for the diaphragms in all subsequent sound-reproduction technologies,” (22). (If you’re curious to know how such a gruesome machine works, you’ll just have to read his extensive descriptions.)

Now, I would portray this kind of technological innovation not quite in the poetic terms Redemer used, of “perceiving something in reality that is not there yet,” but rather harnassing excised nature as a source of quasi-occult power. Subsequent technology could be portrayed in a more generous, “sub-creative” way, imitating God’s creation through analogous mechanisms of our own, but the initial technology in this case was not that.

My caveat here may seem like splitting hairs, since it ends up amounting to much the same thing. And of course it isn’t the case that all technologies have the history that sound reproduction does. But, in general, I have found that histories of technology are important because they usually reveal that technology’s usage is never inevitable. The heroic narratives which are later employed to justify current technology’s uses are seldom accurate descriptions of its origins. Of course many technological, scientific, and artistic innovations do have the kind of “inspiration” narrative that I’ve deprecated here, but not as many as we think; and, more importantly, those narratives, true or not, are often put to nefarious ideological use.

I’ve now subjected Redemer and his fellow podcasters to much more scrutiny than their perfectly reasonable comments justified, and very likely they meant to imply none of the things I’m impugning here anyways. If that is the case, then I am happy that they afforded me the opportunity to “go off,” as the kids say.

* Sterne’s strength is cultural history, not theory. In Audible Past, the introduction and its analysis of the so-called “audio-visual litany” in Western culture utilizes gross caricatures of Plato, Christian theology, the Middle Ages and pre-modern culture. But get past that to the excellent analyses of technology and culture to follow.


I have been remiss in posting here and recommending music. I was thrilled to record with Brian Moats and the Theopolis podcast another “Christmas Recommends” episode, which I will link to when it comes out, but here is my Christmas playlist, in case (don’t know why?) you would be interested.

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