SHM12: Science, Technology, Culture & Tradition

Background information for

We tend to think that we invent and create technology to serve our needs. But technology is not external to us, it is an extension of our physical body. And we do not invent it, it evolves along with us, socially and culturally. It is natural that we become dependent on the very technology that we create. Does our technology adapt to us, or do we adapt to our technology?

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

— coined by John Culkin and popularized by Marshall McLuhan.

The same can be said about what we know; our scientific progress, which in turn influences — and is influenced by — our technological evolution. But both science and technology are evolving significantly faster than our culture, and are constantly out of sync. When we discover or invent something and put it out into the world, that knowledge or invention creates a new environment. We then have to socially and culturally evolve, to adapt to that new environment. Even though they’re driven by our culture, our scientific and technological evolution is dragging us along with it. Socially and culturally we are racing to keep up with our own discoveries and inventions, and often we fall behind.

We are always — by definition — at the ‘fringes’ of science and emerging technology, where we marvel at the amount of knowledge and capabilities that we have, yet we often don’t know what to do with those capabilities, or whether they are even ethically acceptable or abominable. We are always at conflict between our current ‘traditional’ values and ‘fringe’ knowledge and capabilities. With every new discovery or invention, we have to re-evaluate our understanding of the world and adjust our values to go along with it. Society constantly adapts and tries to reconcile previous schools of thought with new knowledge and emerging technology. This is not new and has been happening throughout the history of our civilization. E.g. the shift from geocentric to heliocentric model of ‘the heavens’, spiritualism or Cartesian dualism vs materialism in the age of neuroscience, Aristotelian motion vs Newtonian motion vs General Relativity, Darwinian evolution vs creationism, determinism vs indeterminism in the age of quantum mechanics, synthetic biology, stem cell research, embryonic cloning, artificial life and even more recently mass surveillance, online privacy, ethics of autonomous cars etc. There are countless more examples re-igniting and providing new perspectives on age old questions in the wake of new discoveries and inventions.

Just as we think we can reconcile the past with the present, and bring everything to order, into harmony, we learn more about the universe or invent something new that challenges our values yet again. Knowledge and tradition go out of sync once more. Science and culture fall into conflict, tension and disorder. Socially and culturally we try to adapt yet again. Nature, science, culture and tradition try to realign — though this can be very slow and painful, e.g. think of the many doubters of Darwinian evolution, especially significant when they affect national policies and school curriculum. But discovery never stops. We are constantly discovering, learning and inventing new things, and this balance is constantly disturbed.

It is a never-ending cycle of order, alignment, mis-alignment, chaos, disorder, realignment and order; as our knowledge and understanding of the universe, and inventions that we bring into the world augment our physical bodies and extend our reach, whether we like it or not.

The human performers are controlled by a central computer. Each performer receives individual cues via in-ear monitors, and they do the best they can to act out the commands they receive — when to step forward and become active, when to hit, when to step back and become inactive etc. The individual performers don’t need to be aware of the ‘bigger’ picture, i.e. the composition, the show. They individually execute their own cues, and perform very simple, tedious, monotonous tasks. Each performer hits his/her own drum at fixed time intervals producing a sound and triggering a light. However, collectively they are a complex creature, controlled by the machine, playing out the complex audio-visual composition, drifting in and out of sync, shifting between order and chaos and back.

The performance was preceded by a 3-day workshop with local musicians (in this case students at the Royal Northern College of Music) familiarizing them with the concept and inspirations of the piece and preparing them for the performance.