Slow Speed - Walking with giants

I have often thought about the quote “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, this understanding of knowledge as being built on previous discoveries conveys a certain modesty. It asks us to acknowledge what came before, and I’d like to think that in that moment of reflection, we carefully consider what we should do now, in what direction we should take the next step.

But I don’t see that we are taking this considered approach. Propelled by capitalist forces, we are obsessed with the notion of progress. It consumes political and economic life and takes all of our labouring energy. Progress is not new, as evolution has been the ultimate tool for human progress, and the discoveries of Newton, Galileo and Darwin have helped explain the universe and opened our eyes to the complexity of nature. But what we are doing now in the name of progress is unprecedented. We are no longer bound by nature, rather we have managed to circumvent its rules through technology, and our survival has been taken as proof that human intelligence can overcome nature’s constraints. Never mind that we are destroying, at an accelerating rate, the very resources we depend upon for our survival.

Progress is now ubiquitous and manifested as the innovation agendas of post-industrial countries whose economic viability is no longer linked to their own productive output, and now need to find new ways to multiply their capital. We are told that there is a direct link between technological innovation and economic growth and that’s why it is good, so as consumer-citizens we feel almost duty-bound to participate. The result is a plethora of technologies we don’t need, and many that harbour harmful unintended consequences to people and the environment through their manufacture, use and eventual disposal.

In the ambitious journey for progress, existing knowledge is used as a framework to build new inventions, and the giants that came before us are used as stepping stones. Rather than catapulting off their shoulders into the unknown, we should take heed of their warnings, learn from their mistakes, talk and walk with them to better understand the potentialities of their knowledge and the repercussions of our designing.

This requires us to slow down. If we do, we can ask: Where do the materials come from? What is the social cost of this labour? Do we really need this? Who stands to benefit from this?  How can I make use of what is already here?

“As beings of the naturalised artificial, ’we’ are: a biological being (an animal), a social being (a human) and a technological being (an agent of system function). So framed, ‘our’ survival now depends upon an adaptive response to environmental change, the support of a viable social ecology, and a redirective relation to technology.”  - Fry1

Fry describes us as “beings of the naturalised artificial”1, so we need to contend with the realities of a man-made world. Part of this is to rethink our lofty expectations of technology in delivering solutions to our perpetual human problems. Where technology too often works to sever our bonds to each other and to nature, craft practices can support those ecological and social relationships that we need in order to survive. The connection between the hand and the mind is the most fundamental of our being human, and its potential to restore human agency is our most valuable resource.

The question is, how can we begin the process of undermining the hegemonic power of  technology so that that we can make a world that can sustain us?

1. Fry, T. (2015). City futures in the age of a changing climate. NY: Routledge, p. 51.