quarta-feira, 30 de janeiro de 2008

The End of Technology

Bill Vorn - Hysterical Machines/ robotic sculptures (2006)

Knowledge-intensive based art and the end of technology

For over a decade I have dedicated myself to wondering about the relationship between art, knowledge and new technology, observing and analysing the respective problems and virtues. We could say, generally speaking, that the appearance of the internet and its fast cultural dissemination on a global scale, marks the end of a certain way of cultural creation and our way of seeing it, as well as the end of certain rituals of reception, consumption and aesthetic exchange.

Pop Art was, it could be said, a delayed awareness of a phenomenon which both preceded and over took it; mass culture of a technological order. It was more Eastman´s Kodak, Orson Welles´ radio broadcast, the cyclopic cinema of Hollywood, the cars and motorways of Henry Ford which defined the era. A culture of permanent, aesthetic mobility, rather than a crisis in Fine Art has best characterised so-called “contemporary culture “ over the last 80 years.

It was this logic – of the masses and democratisation – which the advent of both internet and globalisation nudged to a higher level, even more reproductive than what Walter Benjamin warned of in 1936, except that this time it was sustained by a more unexpected promise; intellectual, social and aesthetic tribalism, measured against individual control, and the social exchange of new communicative technologies and interactive representation. By 1984, communication and “art in the age of mechanical reproduction” as identified for the first time by Walter Benjamin was, above all, a broadcasting phenomenon; that is, broadcasting to a wide variety of receptors; books, magazines, radio, cinema, television and live shows.

Without the invention and trivialisation of the personal computer which, throughout the 1980s, and principally during the 1990s, opened up the first cracks in the technological paradigm which had dominated western systems of representation and symbolism since the publication of the Gutenberg Bible (1450-55), we would still be subject to the same paradigms of cognitive and aesthetic reception from 500 years ago. Suddenly, an electronic machine allows us, for the first time, to write, draw, document, reproduce and play in an environment of virtual, electronic representations, maintained by an invisible system of logarithms and digital programming.

Unlike direct or analogical registrations of the signs and symbols of hardware or software, we access more and more interfaces of digital mediation, with the idea of translating these registrations into crypto logical and electromagnetic realities, in mazes of ever-increasing complexity, until current technological metaphysics are set, as impenetrable founder of the new and unconquerable complex of human inferiority.

As from 1994, there was a second technological revolution; computers began to communicate among themselves, establishing local and global networks (internet, intranet, extranet), sustained by agreements of data transmission; increasingly fast, over greater distance, with richer content, simple and formatted texts, images, videos, voices and a wide variety of things. Computers, cables of optical fibre or copper, transmitters, airwaves, satellites, wireless networks, Global Positioning System (GPS) etc, which converge and keep converging in a sort of worldwide intelligent digital duplication (genetic), both interactive and in real time. However, if on the one hand these duplications are destined for more natural, more intuitive and ultimately more democratic uses, which would open up greater economic potential; on the other hand, the implications of the conceptual, linguistic, technological, scientific and cultural dimensions of this speed up.

Whilst we were involved in these questions, the new century began to force us to think about an aspect which, until then, had not really been considered by our culture, and was thus unexpected. Namely, the fact that the energy responsible for our civilisation is already well over half used. In other words, we have used half the economically viable oil on the planet in 100 years, and will have to give up on this significant energy source which has been accumulated by nature over millions of years.

Quite probably, between 2030 and 2050, the current energy regime on which all scientific- technology rests, will suffer an unprecedented transfiguration, since the present rush for so-called alternative energies shows that something is dramatically worrying us. Imagine if we had to vacate this planet in two or three hundred years´ time. Or if this dante-esque possibility (…) was substituted for something less horrific, but equally apocalyptic; like a return to the standards of living and productivity of the pre-industrial era; that is, a period without cars, trains, aeroplanes, freezers, off-the-peg clothes, mobile phones, iPods, computers, electricity, with cities reduced to toxic scrap metal heaps, inhospitable and overrun by criminals. Sounds unbelievable? On the contrary; highly likely!

We have only been excessively using coal, oil and natural gas for just under 200 years. Only since the middle of the 19^th Century, with the use of iron and steel and, above all, the proliferation of machines powered by steam alongside the explosion of electricity, has it been possible to move from a period of almost two thousand years in which average annual income “per capita” in western Europe, went from 576 American dollars in year one of our calendar , to 1,572 American dollars, in 1850, to the twentieth century in which income increased ten-fold.

Even though it is poorly distributed, the new wealth obtained for abundant energy sources, which are cheap and yet lucrative, for machines and increasingly sophisticated and productive technology, plus human labour, has meant that average annual income “per capita” reached in 2003 in Europe 19,912 U.S dollars. That´s 12.6 times more than in 1500. Imagine what it would be like to live in a post-coal era, knowing these facts, with income 20 times less than current rates.

Today, when a country, continent or the whole world stops growing for two consecutive quarters, “recession” is officially declared, panic in the media ensues and everything seems to be heading towards collapse; companies go under, unemployment increases, as do suicides and crime. Imagine if we reverted to a period in which systematic growth was not the norm, and that the norm was not merely economic stagnation either, but an unstoppable decline in production and income.

This possibility, which is not so remote, would have an immediate impact upon our perception of the value of art, not to mention its inevitable worsening in technological terms. Well before we arrive at the point of the implosion of civilization, we would experience intense and frequent indications that the paradigm which regulates out lives and culture was inexorably nearing its end. The wars which drag on in the Middle East ( Iraque, Afganistan, Palestine, The Lebanon) and in Africa ( Kenya, Chade, The Central African Republic, Nigeria etc) are the result of conflict which tend to multiply and not diminish, and involve strategic resources like oil, natural gas, cereals and water.

In 2003, the world consumed around 80 million barrels of crude oil per day. The U.S consumed 25% of this, two thirds of this was used by the transport sector. The current U.S crisis is on the path to unsustainable debt, the result of over-dependence on carbon energies (particularly oil and gas) and the exportation of a large part of its productive capacity to third party countries, with cheaper labour and production costs. Because of the inevitable and negative effects of this debt, the U.S runs the risk of losing its status and heading for a dangerous decline.

What effects could such a negative evolution have on the high levels of technological and cultural performance which in the last 50 years have been the main models of creation, production, circulation and artistic consumption? What would happen if companies the size of, say, Google were swallowed up by one of the financial storms which increasingly affect the U.S? What would happen to the worldwide production of microprocessors if there were a natural or military catastrophe on Formosa for example, due to the result of a non-acceptance by the U.S of the reunification of China?

What would happen in Europe and other continents, with vital relations with the U.S both as suppliers or consumers , when the U.S´ irreversible decline was an undeniable fact? If this happened, how would our unconscious dependence on economic , scientific and technological well-being evolve? The current world recession, which will last all through 2008 and 2009, will teach us many facts about the immediate future.

The ability for technological renewal upon which we so critically depend, seems to be seriously under threat. It is thought that it will occur at the exact moment when it is no longer possible to replace our new computers, our cars, iPods and mobiles, for newer, more powerful equipment. How long will my car last? How long can I keep my laptop working? What will follow on from the digital world which is currently maintained by millions of servers the world over? Was it not there where we deposited almost all that we had, from economics to lovers´ chat?

[This is a summary of a longer text originally writte in Portuguese for Parq magazine]


Copyright © 2008 by António Cerveira Pinto

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