Tag Archives: Radiolab

man as industrial palace

22 Jun

You’re Part of Technology, Too

I use Radiolab as an escape while I work out. As a radio show, it can be fascinating, funny, cute, and gruesome in a single episode. It’s the perfect distraction while I lift weights or bike—things that don’t come naturally to me.

I was at the gym when an episode stopped me in my tracks. I felt the wind go out of me, and I ceased moving. Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, was interviewing Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and something Kelly said was chilling. Going back to it now, I can’t recreate the poignancy of the moment, but it was a haunting realization for someone who avoids technological gadgets and fancies himself “set apart” from the fast-paced world of technology.

Let me set the scene. Krulwich has been talking to Kelly for nearly 20 minutes, and Krulwich has repeatedly made known his discomfort with several of Kelly’s ideas. At this juncture, Krulwich reads someone else’s summary of the book, and asks Kelly if he too is not at least a little creeped out by these notions.

Robert Krulwich (quoting): “‘Humans cannot direct or prevent technology’s course. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its own way.’ Now doesn’t that creep you out a little?”

Kevin Kelly: “No, no—”

RK: “Oh, you’re just you.”

KK: “No, no, no. Seriously. If you said the same thing about life, would that creep you out?”

RK: “No, I’m part of life; I’m just worried about the things—”

KK: “No, you’re part of technology too. Don’t you understand? We humans have invented ourselves. We have this external stomach we call cooking, that has changed our diets, that has changed our teeth, our jaws. We remade ourselves when we became literate; our brains are rewired, we think differently. We’re not the same people that left Africa. We have domesticated ourselves. And we’re going to continue doing that.”

Now, I’ve read about technological devices as extensions of human ability. The telephone was an extension of our mouths; it projected our voices across impossible distances. But this was an eye-opening way to see myself: An invention. Not readily separable from technology.

I found myself the next morning trying to imagine life with no technology, not just without our MacBook or Civic, but without the building systems that were used to create our apartment building 80-some years ago. Without the pipes and pumps that bring water up three stories and into our tub. And, yes, even more basically: without the books on our shelves or a simple pencil or written language at all.

If technology is not just gadgetry but the whole invented world—every machine, no matter how simple—then I can’t distinguish myself from that world any easier than I can pretend I’m not part of the natural system of sun, water, and air.

:: :: ::

Right up there with Swaziland

No matter how you run the data, you get a correlation between technology—whether you buy the above definition or not—and a change in the way we work. Faster, everyone says. And they’re right. In college, we learned it by rote: “Technology may mean that things get done faster, but you’re now expected to do ten times as much.” They were trying to prepare us for the real world. Except, what we didn’t learn was that this real world wasn’t everywhere.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland.

Now, certain economic systems that sound great don’t always live up the hype. Greece, for instance. It probably offers weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. But it also has zero accountability, which means government officials there make about three times as much as a private-sector employee and collect bribes to boot. One IMF official put it this way:

“The way they were keeping track of their finances—they knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”

So we don’t want to always call the European grass greener, but I must admit that my views on work don’t necessarily align with American culture’s, and yet from within such a powerful system, it’s difficult to see a way out. Not to say I’ll quit trying. Just like I won’t quit creating ways to limit—or at least remain in control of—my relationship with technology.

:: :: ::

Man as Industrial Palace

I didn’t initially see the connection, but I ran across something today that well symbolizes these complex thoughts on human evolution and industry. It doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it does provide a little room to breathe. It’s an animated installation of Fritz Kahn’s 1927 lithograph, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast,” or “Man as Industrial Palace.”

Muybridge in 1893, 2011

9 Mar

In my Reader today, from Gapers Block:

Eadweard Muybridge debuted the first motion picture device, the zoopraxiscope, at the 1893 Colombian Exposition. Read more about Muybridge, including his now lesser-known, racier stuff.

Funny how things swirl around. Muybridge was mentioned in the Radiolab episode I wrote about two weeks ago.

birds as clocks, beethoven as whale

24 Feb

Clocks mentioned in a recent (possibly recycled) Radiolab episode:

Spice Clock
Clock of Birds
Flower Clock (+ Scent Calendar)

The episode is on time, specifically its relativity. Einstein knew about this, knew that time was relative, that someone moving quickly had to experience time differently than someone moving slowly. In other words, hummingbirds literally experience time at a faster rate than we do, and we experience time at a faster rate than a whale.

They mention whales first in regard to Beethoven. In what is one of the simpler but more fascinating musical experiments, a sound artist slowed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony so that it stretched an entire day; a piece that was intended for 70 minutes now lasted exactly 24 hours. It’s as if a whale had written the piece, as if time was happening altogether more slowly.

But what of the clocks mentioned above? The spice clock, the clock of birds. Those were interesting—and telling I think.

They come from Jay Griffiths, who wrote a book called A Sideways Look at Time. Before clocks were lit up, people had no idea how to tell what time it was in the dark. So someone created a spice clock. “Cinnamon for about 1 o’clock, turmeric at 2 o’clock…” You wake up, smell turmeric, and go back to sleep. It’s not time to wake up yet.

The clock of birds comes from Papua New Guinea, where certain people teach their children that it’s the morning call of the New Guinea friarbird or the hooded butcherbird—not an alarm buzzing in their ears, or a digital clock blinking 7:30 am—that will let them know it’s time to wake up and getting ready for school. Likewise, when those birds begin their afternoon calls, the kids know it’s time to go home.

The flower clock? From Carl Linnaeus, botanist, zoologist, and “father or taxonomy.” In 1751, he created a clock from a variety of flowers. “Something that blooms in the morning and then folds up, like a morning glory, would be there in the morning, then in the evening, an evening primrose would come out.”

“And connected to that,” Griffiths says, “…on the Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean, people have a scent calendar, which I found to be the most beautiful idea, because what it was is a way of describing the months by the scents of certain fruits and flowers.”

Each of these is inventive and fun to imagine, but likewise, each highlights something rather grievous in contemporary American culture. What once was a basic way of understanding and interacting with the natural world is now a novel contraption highlighted on a popular radio show.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that people could tell what time it was based on the flowers blooming, or that you could tell it’s spring by the aromas in the air. Aside from the spice clock, these are not inventions; they are incredibly natural ways to perceive time. Waking up to a bird call is little different than waking up to a sound coming from a small box next to the bed. In fact, it’s much less painful, it doesn’t require energy or plastic or take up space. Why don’t we train our children to wake to the sounds of the hooded butcherbirds any longer?

I think Griffiths does understand this. After the segment on clocks she says, “Time is everywhere in nature. One of the things I wanted to do with the book, was to say, ‘We think of time being to do with clocks,’ but in fact, for most of the world for most of history, time has been absolutely embedded in nature in some beautiful ways.”

It’s impossible to explain just how lovely Griffiths is when she speaks. Her British accent and almost giddy joy is infectious; her voice alone is reason to listen. At the very end, before the show circles back to that elongated symphony of Beethoven’s, she says something beautiful, something that, in a way, explains an earlier post:

“In prayer, in meditation, in art, and in love, actually, people lose that very fretful ticking-off sense of clock time, and what you fall into is something transcendent. All that you have to have done is loved somebody to know that, and to hold them for half an hour, and you can know that that half an hour has lasted an eternity.”

“Time standing still in a moment like that,” says host Robert Krulwich, “is like a very… swollen… now.”

“Yes! Exactly! Exactly. And in a sense, that’s when the moment meets the eternal. That is all that matters, this moment that you’re holding in your hand.”