The image at the top of this post is David Greene’s Log Plug (one of a pair with his Rock Plug), a typically arch conflation of technology and the bucolic. Below it is a familiar contemporary version of exactly the same thing, a mobile phone mast disguised as a tree.
I was struck by the apposite way that this illustrates something I have written about before, which is the difference between art and technology, or more particularly the difference in how we experience products of art and products of technology.
The latest issue of architecture magazine Verb contains an excellent interview with architect and geographer John May who, amongst other things, manages to express this split much more eloquently than I have managed so far. His interview touches on the perceived difference between products of culture (e.g. architecture) and products of technology (e.g. engineering).
As May points out, products of technology are assumed to work in a quite straightforward, philosophically unproblematic way. That is until they ‘break’. Then they get fixed or, more likely replaced. Art and architecture on the other hand are never assumed to be either working or not working, functioning or broken. As products of culture their ‘success’ is subject to debate and negotiation, always qualified and always in progress. This is an important distinction and like most underlying values is all the more powerful for its insidious common sense.
John May points out that our assumptions about technology (and in particular the simple opposition that it is either working or not working) are naïve and simplistic. Following Paul Virilio’s notion that a ship brings with it the possibility of a shipwreck, May clouds the sense of whether technology is ever doing something as simple as working. Just as it might be working in one way for instance it may also be not working, or even causing catastrophic damage, in another. An example of this might be my new mobile phone. It is without doubt very good at picking up emails but it may also be very good at corroding my brain. Its eventual disposal will also contribute to enormous environmental problems. In what sense then could it be said to ‘work’ well? To ask this question is to sound almost infantile but is important in being able to articulate our relationship to technology.
Subtler still is the way that technology assumes a natural place within our culture, making a self-justifying space for itself. This relationship is complex and hard to unpick. Technologies greatest trick is to appear as if from nowhere, authorless and therefore untraceable. This is how engineering escapes our gaze. Whilst the architect stands in the middle of the room shouting about his/her creation – I did this! – the producers of engineering and infrastucture melt into the air, untraceable, unknowable, evading our critical judgement. We do not know how to criticise technology beyond a slightly baffled shrug or a luddite resignation that it is bound to go wrong. Beyond this we are lost, unable to assess technology as a cultural product, or to critically judge its impact on our lives.