Tech, the consequence of abbreviation

/ by Steven Fowler

The word sounds harder, in English, when abbreviated, than it should be. The sound itself contains a measure of threat. It is somehow onomatopoeic, the sound of something being struck, perhaps with intent and measure but not the desire to do catastrophic harm, or the sound of something that is supposed to be fixed above us, breaking off and dropping to a concrete floor. Teck. I youtube search for pronunciations in other languages. They are all hard sounds. Someone must be pronouncing it with a CH. Tetch. I believe the word, like the word god, has taken upon itself a quality that obscures our clear understanding of its meaning. We are responsible for it and we will get what we deserve from it. Or are we not? These are the untechnical questions of someone who writes poetry for a living, who has no utility but a daily, dirty sense of what language is and does.

Did the word, in its abbreviated form, usher in a new age when it came to represent not a tool but the possibility of a new conceptual framework for our reality, if such a thing can be established profitably across other, disparate minds? Is this latter concern, the unresolved problem of other minds, more significant in our understanding of technology than we think? Is it why, thinking through literature and technology, that realist fiction is so lasting, despite it being a specific product of the late 19th century consciousness and the intellectual tumult of that time? When metaphysics and all that refusal of the question of reality were being loaded into a cannon, so people needed writers (but they were more than that word means, were they not?) who would describe the world in boring detail, just so everyone could check they were on the same page, figuratively speaking? Is that why humans tend to only read similar stuff now, 150 years later, because they are still unsure their reality is their fellow humans’ reality? Is tech just the latest excuse for protecting the fear that we are all not sharing the same experience of consciousness? Or is an opportunity to make that question, as religion once did, a secondary concern. Who needs to know if they share the world with others if one can build a new world for each and every soul? Who will cling on to reality writing when reality has been fundamentally debased?

It is banal to say Tech is a mirror, both a horrifying harbinger of unknown suffering and the potential saviour of our species in its current bloated form. It is, of course, both the machine gun and nerve gas, as well penicillin and dentistry. But always within this now classical binary was the sense Tech was resolutely within our palms. It was always a tool. It is also banal, though necessary, to reflect that now, this is not the case. The new frontier of Tech is not a useful means of lessening pain and death, but the creation of new modes of existence that reset the fundamental parameters of being. The transhumanists and techno-progressivists must always grapple with the question of control. And if human history so far is any indicator, and what else could be, we are all in serious trouble.

An example, I have a friend who has worked for the Media Lab at MIT. It is worth spending a few minutes perusing their site and looking through their different projects. One of the ideas being explored is the development of what is known as optogenetic tools. They are real, as of now. They are reagents that can be targeted to specific, damaged cells within the brain that enable temporally precise control of electrical activity within neurons and cells. They do this using light. They are being prototyped as prosthetics to be implanted in the brain for the impossibly precise remedy of permanent brain disorders. The site says “they are derived from the natural world, these tools highlight the power of ecological diversity, in yielding technologies for analyzing biological complexity and addressing human health.” and states “We distribute these tools as freely as possible, and routinely host visitors to learn optogenetics.” What if someone used this to do the opposite, to damage healthy brain cells, with light? Tech is a switch, off or on, still then, a tool.

Who cares about that? I hadn’t heard of the word optogenetic before my friend told me about this project. I still don’t really understand what it means. It sounds like the word, Tech, intractable, obstinate, magical – for someone else. And that is what Tech is, still. Someone else’s invention. A instrument placed into our hands, made elsewhere. A thing that we would be able to fashion ourselves were we forced to do so. An idea that could be washed away with the tides. But again, this is true until it isn’t it, when Tech is a hard sound that means not a tool, but a concept.

I was asked on a panel once what the future of avant-garde poetry was, with irony, the questioner purporting the word avant-garde to be historically located, about 100 years ago. I said I had understood the word literally, to mean scout, a military term for the front line. For those meeting the future first. So the future of poetry in general was not a changing of tools. It was definitely not instapoetry or kindle collections, or some other utterly meaningless and prosaic replacement of the sliced tree. No, the future of poetry was dependent on the interaction of language and the human brain. It would be an innovation around that relationship. Perhaps the day will come when we do need to listen or hear words to have them understood in our minds. By chance, the friend I have at MIT saw the video of me saying this and sent me a link to one of their labs. Their goal is to use laser technology to beam information directly through the eye and into the human brain. No word will be written, no word uttered. The mind will receive a package, which will be understood. Will it be understood with an interior language? There perhaps will be no way to know, given that any description of that interiority with require exteriority and in those sounds grunted or marks scribbled, so the magic of the laser, of Tech, will be vanished.

The word itself, it’s curtailed form, has become a problem. It means something to the general populous it doesn’t mean to those pulling the tail of history into a new future. It is no longer a gun, or even a drone, we should worry about. But whether or not, in our children’s lifetime, their friends might be synthetic. It is not even lonely people loving robots and never needing to leave the house, or ordering everything they need online. No this is too shallow an understanding of what Tech now is. It is a frontier emerging which might remove what the body is and needs. And we, as a dumb populace, need to embrace our lack of knowledge to be best prepared. We need to engender an avant-garde of expectation. For that single word might be the reason given in laser beamed history lesson for everything and nothing.

Steven Fowler

is a writer and artist. He has published multiple collections of poetry and artworks, and been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, Tate Britain, the London Sinfonietta, Wellcome Collection and Liverpool Biennial. He is the founder and curator of The Enemies Project, Poem Brut as well as editor at 3am magazine. He is lecturer in creative writing at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern, Poetry School and Photographer's Gallery and is the director of Writers' Centre Kingston.