Human society today rests far less upon nature than upon the results of human imagination. Futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller called it our “metaphysical” world, author Neil Postman calls it “technopoly,” and I call it our “cooked-up reality.” It was not always this way.
For all but the past 500 years of our 200,000 years of humanity’s existence, nature was predominant. Populations moved with the seasons and the migration of animals – across ice, water, and desert, by foot, horseback, raft and canoe. As tool makers, people used bone, stone, crystals, wood, and eventually metals, all found in the natural environment. Average human lifespan was remarkably stable at about 40 years; many died in childbirth but others lived well into old age.
Though large cities and fixed agriculture eventually developed, people were still dependent upon the forces of nature; floods reinvigorated soil, rainwater replenished wells and sources of drinking water, winds drove ships across oceans, icecaps filled streams with spring melt providing water for seasonal migrations of fish, the sun warmed the land and fueled photosynthesis. Essentially illiterate, people passed knowledge across generations through oral teachings. In this way human society evolved and thrived.
In “Technopoly,” Postman says the shift from a tool-using to a technological culture was due to three primary inventions; Guttenberg’s printing press, the mechanical clock and the telescope. Noting that “new technologies compete with old ones,” the printing press and books supplanted memory (language and memory being two of humanity’s earliest organic “technologies”), the clock supplanted religiously imposed schedules, and the telescope over-turned human society’s conception of itself at the center of the universe.
Fuller, in “Critical Path” documents our evolution to a non-natural, technological society. We inhabit structures located on engineered streets within communities entirely designed and built by people. Our infrastructure – electricity, water delivery, natural gas, fuel for vehicles, sewers and so forth – all these are of human invention. Education, business, medicine, the entire economic framework; all cooked up. We are mostly protected from the forces of nature, insulated by the accoutrements of our technological age.
With the proliferation of the computer, Postman suggests we have entered the age of Technopoly, a period when technology actually supplants human culture, replacing societal underpinnings and dissolving national and regional attributes. Bollywood apes Hollywood, Hollywood apes TV and the Internet, and TV and the Internet apes human society. As others have noted, in America we obsessively communicate while intimate personal relationships are in decline. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are supplanting authentic face-to-face contact. Tellingly, more adult Americans now live alone than with a companion. And the phenomenon of technopoly is quickly spreading worldwide.
Technology, though powerful and game-changing, has largely been regarded as providing sophisticated tools for the improvement of life; the fundamentals of human society – economies, spiritual beliefs, customs, traditions, languages, creative arts – remained. Technopoly and the digital age risk replacing everything with itself, recomposing reality in its own image for its own sake. To fail to embrace it is to become invisible and irrelevant.
I’m no Luddite and am swept up in digital technology. But I also set aside time each day for non-digital activity – gardening, meditating, reading printed books, cooking, sharing meals with my wife, playing with my grandchildren. If I live long enough, I may be the last of my kind.