[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 11 MARCH 2022]
The Canadian social commentator and iconcarver, Jonathan Pageau, describes technology as “layers of skin”. By this he means that everything we think up to make our lives easier and more bearable, can be seen as a layer we add between ourselves and the outside world.
Pageau borrows this idea from the early church fathers, who, in turn, adapted it from the allegory of Adam and Eve who were given animal skins to cover their nakedness. This covering, this protection, is an ancient idea that underpins our humanness.
As human beings we stand naked in a hostile universe. And because we are conscious, we are aware of this vulnerability. But equally, by our skill and wit, we are able to craft technology that we can use to protect ourselves against this hostile world.
Our technology starts from the simplest things: our clothes and our language; our huts, houses and vehicles of transport, and so it circles out to technology of the greatest sophistication: electricity, medicines, televisions, cellphones, cloud computing, nuclear weapons …
Our technology is really humankind’s crown. But ultimately it can also become our greatest weakness, because with technology in tow we don’t need to maintain innate strengths we had before.
Think of it like this: if you always dress warmly and never expose yourself to extreme weather, you weaken your resistance to the cold. Or here’s one all of us are acutely aware of: since we save numbers on our cellphones, no one keeps numbers in their heads any longer. Our capacity to memorise is compromised.
You will respond that we don’t need these capacities anymore, because machines store the memories for us. But what is it that defines our humanness? Is it us? Or is it the machines we build with our memories in them? It sounds like the tail wagging the dog rather than the other way around. It sounds like humans wrapped in so many layers of skin that we cannot recognise our humanness any longer.
With our increased dependence on technology we lay ourselves bare again – this time not to the hostile universe, but to the coldness of the machines that rule our lives.
And what if they fail us? Something to think about as we go into another period, it seems, of crisis level loadshedding, courtesy of Eskom.
Sometimes it is good to come to standstill and hear the silence; to not be incessantly urged on by the unceasing call of the technological distractions we have created that clutter up our lives.
But, hey, when the power goes out these days, the silence does not last long. Before long, the neighbour’s generator kicks into gear and fills the air again with clunky noise.
Layers of skin creating the need for more layers of skin …