â€œThese machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmenâ€
â€”Lord Byron, in a speech to the House of Lords in defense of the Luddites.
When the web we weave is complete
Five years ago, I fell ill. After a few weeks of severe sickness, I managed to shed nearly forty-five pounds and withdraw from my second semester of college. My ailment, with its profound physical presence, too left metaphysical contusions. To utilize the melodramatic, it changed the direction of my life.
Five years ago.
Five years is a comfortable amount of time. If I were to treat distance like a relationship, this year would be our â€œwood anniversary.â€ I wanted to somehow commemorate this chronology; what better way to do so than to revel in memory?
But nothing was there.
At least, in my Gmail.
It turns out that this bout of illness neatly coincided with (or perhaps precipitated) a downturn in a relationship and the end of a handful of childhood friendships. The email chains and chats that marked these dÃ©nouements also had conversations regarding my sickness nestled within their records. I purged them all from my inbox. At the time, this act of deletion felt like a necessary act of cathartic control. With so much of my life spiraling out of my hands, I felt comforted by the fact that I could, with a click, manage what pieces of digital ephemera were to stay in my inbox. But now? I want them back. I want to commemorate.
As of 2012, Gmail does not have an undelete function.
This, for some reason, endlessly frustrates me. Not that Gmail cannot undelete a set of emails and chats from five years prior, but that I was allowed the option to obliterate them in the first place. I am angered by the idea that technology would acquiesce to such humanness so quickly, so easily.
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword
The word â€œtechnologyâ€ has a surprising number of definitions (seven in the OED). In my dictionary searches, however, I failed to find the definition I wanted, the meaning that I had assumed to find when first looking up the word. In an act of hubris, I add it here: Technology (n.): something meant to amplify; something meant to fill in the silences of my incapability.
Writing this definition, my mind ambles back to the linear narrative of human technology I first learned in my eighth-grade science class. There, I remember studying our unit on simple machines. There are six of them: lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Each of them manages to bestow the physics of the mechanical advantage. Behold! The inventors probably exclaimed, These are to be adaptations to augment ourselves. They represent some of our first stabs at a teleology of enhancement. What we cannot do, they do; for us, with us.
And so begins that narrative: we can, with the type of pride for humankind that astronauts must feel in the vacuums above, take pride in our progression. The simple machine. The steam engine. The microprocessor. Fiber optics. Bits and bytes, yearning to travel at the speed of light, held back by the latencies of our creation. It truly is a technological march of progress towards our perfection. Thereâ€™s even a telos in all of this: a Kurzweilian future sitting on the horizon, coming ever so closer.
We will fling the winding-sheet
I sit at some ambiguous juncture in this teleology: not yet at the singularity, but definitely steeped in a society that is attached to perfect and shiny devices. And yet, here I am, ostensibly failed by technology. My emailsâ€”the archives of my memoryâ€”are gone forever. With a reminder of their absence, I return again to my frustration. On one hand, I (as a human) should be expected to fail. After all, Â I am a collection of flesh and bone, muscle and nerves. I am the bearer of imperfect genes that (in previous lifetimes) once required a railroad to traverse the country; that needed a pulley to lift a heavy object. Technology, though crafted by human hands, ultimately transcends mere humanness. The simple machine, car-building robots, lines of C++: always there, always ready. If I cannot do something, if I need to do something: thereâ€™s an app for that.
I want an app for that.
The true kernel of my problem is that I am too human. I am a creature of frailty and fault longing for paradise in my pocket. I want, need, and expect machine-induced life perfection. I am at the point where, upon finding evidence of my life deleted (by my own click), I want my email inbox to know that I am creature of memory. I want it to know that I am capricious and will delete and regret. And knowing that, I want it to allow me my moment of cathartic control, but in the future, I want it to keep my data so I can have it back. I want it to anticipate. I want.
Oâ€™er the despot at our feet,
But do I? Weâ€™ve been experimenting with a form of impossible-for-humans precision for some time now: a complete memory. Between the persistent breaking down of privacy barriers in social media and the detailed recollections of our lives buried in search engines, there exist networks that can never forget. In a now-famous 2010 interview with The Wall Street Journal, then-CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, jokingly remarked that future young people should be able to change their name upon reaching adulthood. With the rise of perfection, a quintessential human characteristicâ€”a nameâ€”suddenly becomes a liability. In the fight between humanness and technology, I am given pause in wondering who would emerge as the victor.
I need not turn to hypothetical examples about the future to see the fright of tech. Thinking about shifts in Self-Other/Self-Technology/Self-Self relations reminds me of the Luddites. Faced with the augmentation of the hand by the mechanized loom, weavers, once artisans, were reduced to paupers. In light of supplantation, there suddenly was no way to reinvent a self that had been bound to a cultivated tradition of skill.
So, they fought back. In 1811, the workers of Nottingham took their sticks, clubs, and torches and beat their chests with pride as they destroyed any mechanized mill in their path. They soon began to spread through all of England, growing strong enough to take on the British Army.
The Luddites drew in the support of leading cultural commentators of the time. Lord Byron fondly remarked that, â€œHow go on the weaversâ€“the breakers of framesâ€“the Lutherans of politicsâ€“the reformers?â€ He went to the House of Lords to plead their case.
To no avail, of course.
Even with Byronâ€™s support, the machines won. They, for the most part, were protected by the rest of us. Machine Breaking became a capital crime. The Ludditesâ€™ protests were greeted with punishments similar to those acts reserved for crimes against life and humanity.
And really, one might think, why deny ourselves the excellence latent in the fruits of our creation, in the prostheses that strive to make us whole?
And dye it deep in the gore he has pourâ€™d.
I am too human. I expect, want, and desire perfection in my basket of tech products and shiny desktop code. I empathize and side with the Luddites of the past and yet curse the humanistic ailment of forgetting. I hear it whispered through our times: let industrialization, computerization, and automation have their way with me, as long as I can get what I want.
Amongst all these possibilities of mayhem and despair, I yearn. Like an addict, part of me craves technological perfection, even in my future memory of this essay. Five years from now, although I will most likely still not be able see those emails from what will be ten years prior, I will be able to be this articleâ€™s All-Seeing Eye. I will be able to see the rough draft of this piece. I will be able to see it in final form. I will see its response and comments. I will be able track its spread through social media. Being human will no longer hold me back. I will see. I will know. Everything.
[Selections taken from Lord Byronâ€™s â€œSong for the Ludditesâ€]
Nishant Batsha (http://nishantb.tumblr.com) is a writer living in New York. His essays have been featured in The Awl, The Bygone Bureau, and the Hri Institute. He is currently at work on his first novel.