Technology’s Invisible Hand
On the deck of the Bliss, beyond the reach of cellphone coverage, I sailed through Alaska’s Glacier Bay on an autumn day in September of 2019 and into my life before the Internet...
Here, in the midst of nature’s majesty, I witnessed the technological wonder of my cellphone reduce to just a camera and a flashlight. Technology permeates our lives, and what I discovered while writing my book, The Alchemy of Us, is that these minor inconveniences hint ata underlying societal shift. Culture is often shaped by technology, and currently our way of life stands at the precipice of yet another transformation with AI. In these uncertain times, it is essential to have a map to help us navigate such innovations. Fortunately, history provides a training ground, because it shows us how past technologies brought us to the world we have today.
If you recall some of the classical books you read in high school, you might remember how long the sentences were. Passages such as “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities would be reduced to “it’s complicated” in Zuckerberg’s FaceBook parlance. The brevity of American English came from many cultural forces. One of the largest was America’s desire to individuate itself from England. While we both spoke the same mother tongue, we took different approaches to it. First, there was the spelling of words: theater vs. theatre. Then, there was the pronunciation of words: sked-ule vs. shed-ule. Next, there was how English was spoken: the melodious and erudite phrases of England versus the sparse and affable ones of America. The fashioning of American English resulted from cultural forces, but also a technological one: the telegraph.
Samuel F. B. Morse was a painter and the inventor of the American electromagnetic telegraph. In creating this form of instant communication, he also became a sculptor of language. In Morse’s day, letter writing was the common way of rapidly corresponding, and it often took a few days for a message to arrive. Morse understood this on a personal level. When in Washington, D.C. painting a portrait, he wrote a letter to his wife, Lucretia, who was at home 300 miles away from him in New Haven, Connecticut. A few days later, he unexpectedly received a letter from his father, Jedidiah Morse. She had died days before Samuel Morse wrote to her. Morse hastened back to New Haven by stagecoach. He left on a Sunday and arrived Wednesday night, to find that Lucretia had already been buried. Fashioned from his own experiences, Morse perfected his telegraph in the 1840s to shuttle information, or “intelligence,” as it was called; in doing so he also became instant communication’s patient zero.
One affliction of the telegraph, which could only send one message at a time, was the brevity of sentences. While testing his invention, there were many occasions when he chided his assistant, Alfred Vail, to “condense your language.” Morse wanted the meat of the message, and asked Vail to remove words that did not contribute to the meaning. Much like today’s shorthand on Twitter and in text messages, Morse and Vail had their own version. They used “i i” to mean yes, “1” for wait a moment, and “b” for be. With today's abbreviations—B4, LOL, and OMG, for example—it seems that the past tech of the telegraph was prologue to the way social media molds our language today. That said, the past did not predict the unintended consequence of the erosion of empathy with today’s instant communication, since we are unable to pick up cues from body language and facial expressions. Fortunately, present-day research shows that this erosion can be mitigated with real face-to-face conversations, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle explains in her book Reclaiming Conversation. As for how language will evolve in the future, today’s scholars know that language is fluid, as for what it will look like - IDK.
The telegraph was not only a shaper of language, it also encouraged and enabled America’s consumption of news. This became all too apparent after the twentieth president of the United States of America, James A. Garfield, was shot in 1881. As he lay dying for weeks on his deathbed, updates about his condition were telegraphed daily to telegraph offices and the news was written on large chalkboards outside where huge crowds stood to learn about the condition of their leader. The telegraph not only shaped language, but telegraphs from the White House served as a way to connect the nation. Samuel F. B. Morse had hopes that his invention carrying information would create “one neighbourhood of the whole country.” And it certainly has, particularly with the offspring of the telegraph, the Internet and social media, like Twitter—where memes and messages have the potential to not only unify the whole country, but the globe, surpassing Morse’s prediction.
There are other inventions that shaped us. When we think of the American light bulb, the inventor that comes to mind is Thomas Edison. Actually, Edison was not the first to work on an electric lamp, the work of Joseph Swan the England and many other inventors from around the world predates the work of the Wizard of Menlo Park. Additionally, Edison wasn’t initially interested in electric lights. He only pursued it after making a visit one Sunday on September 8, 1878 to a little known inventor in Ansonia, Connecticut, named William Wallace. Wallace, originally from Manchester, England, made a very bright arc light, similar to Humphry Davy’s invention from 1802, which informed Edison of what approach not to take and how he could improve Wallace’s attempt. Edison searched for a metal to glow incandescently, like the coils in a toaster. When Edison created his lights, he was trying to solve one problem—eliminate the dark. Edison’s lights pushed back the darkness, but there are ramifications of its overabundance today. Lights are omnipresent and always on. Eons ago, the night sky used to be a way for mariners to navigate with thousands of stars to behold. According to the US Dark Sky Association, modern city dwellers can only see about fifty stars. But the loss of the night has other consequences, some of which are connected to human health.
Research has shown that humans need to change the type of light we use during the course ofthe day, because humans are nominally two beings—a daytime one and a nighttime one. In the day, we are in a growth mode; at night, we are in a rest and repair mode. How our bodies know which mode to be in is switched by the light. To understand how the body knows, we have to think about our eyes. The eye allows us to see, but in the early 21st century, researchers found a photoreceptor on the retina that does not contribute to vision but is a detector with a sensitivity toblue light. When blue light is registered a message is sent to the part of the brain to stop secretingmelatonin, a chemical compound that tells our cells to enter the nighttime mode. As melatonin leaves our system, our bodies enter our daytime mode.
Given this, the type of light around us should change so that our bodies can enter a nighttime and a daytime mode. To do so, some scientists say we need bright mornings with bluer light, andwe need evenings with a dim redder light. The day should start with blue light that can originate from the sun or compact fluorescent bulbs or blue LED bulbs. However, when the sun sets, we need to change the light to have less blue in it, which informs our bodies to enter into nighttime mode. What takes place in this mode is still an open research question. It is believed that there is a “circadian connection to how our cells will repair the damage to our DNA,” said Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut. What is certain is that our ancestors used to enter this repair mode regularly when working by the red glow of candlelight. Today, we need to be deliberate about entering this nighttime mode by using redder LED bulbs and by changing our TV, computer, and cellphone screens to their evening settings.
Some scientists have noted that we are slightly taller than our ancestors. Nutrition is certainlyone reason for the increase in height, but light is another. Our constant exposure to artificial lights puts us in constant growth mode; with that, there is more growth. But the ever-present glow of artificial lights has been linked to a range of ailments, too. “If you are continuously bombarded with these summer-level growth hormones, with that is a risk of cancer,” said Thomas Wehr, scientist emeritus at the US National Institute of Mental Health. Lights are not just objects in the background of our lives, but center stage of our health.
With his electric lights, Edison helped to push back the darkness. But with recent research we know more about the consequences of all this light. Scientists have also shown that the lens of the eye of a 65 year old transmits only half of the blue light transmitted by a 25-year-old.1 Therest manifests as glare. The installation of the bright blue-rich LED city lights in the US is putting our most senior drivers at a detriment.
There are many debates about how the world will be changed by modern advances such as AI. But what about the older inventions that also formed our experiences? An analysis of these inventions, which are far more ubiquitous, gives us the training we need to probe and restrain themore ominous technologies on the horizon. Looking back provides us a new perspective on technology, but also the agency to mold it. As society sails into a richer technological world, questions must be asked by all about the vulnerability of data, the bias entrenched in algorithms, and the ethics incorporated into the decision-making of driverless cars. The past offers lessons ofhow our inventions re-invented us, but more importantly, it gives us the tools to navigate the present, and the future...