Do cultural ideas order our material worlds and technologies, or is it the other way around? In their conversation, archaeologist and sustainability scientist Sander van der Leeuw and human-environmental geographer Daniel Niles discuss how the technosphere is to be seen in the context of a long-term coevolution of spatial organization, language, and other forms of information processing that simplify the environment for the sake of complexifying societies.
Daniel Niles: I want to ask you about how we understand the quality of things in the context of the technosphere. Because you and I are interested in material culture, even in the context of all these pervasive technological systems in which we’re embedded and which seem so important at the large scale, we still interact with things in the everyday world and we say that those things are important to how we understand and act in our world.
So the question is really: Why? How can we understand the significance of everyday things and materials given the scope and scale of technological systems in our contemporary time?
Daniel: Are you thinking in terms of past environmental constraints?
Daniel: Do you think that those different basic line forms are linked to people’s conceptions of what, I’m tempted to say, are the agencies or active properties of the world?
Daniel: Something that I think is really interesting here is that when you start thinking seriously about material culture or materials, they can be seen essentially as instantiations of patterns of ideas. In this sense, the more deeply you think about material culture, the less unique material culture seems to be as an element of the ideational world.
Daniel: What does this mean for the technosphere if you have a comprehensive view of technology today? If technology is so pervasive in structuring the material environment, are you putting technology in the driver’s seat?
Daniel: Which now is essentially the technosphere?
Daniel: In that sense, though, one of the things that I think about these days is how we distinguish the qualities of things, in the sense that they are representational of this information that is being externalized into the environment.
Closer attention to the physical qualities of things should allow us to make important decisions about the environments in which we live. And I have to admit that although I can think of nice examples that exist on a relatively small scale—for example, the idea of relocalization of food—there is something substantial about even the conceptual problem of localization that we are still trying to grapple with. But when it really comes to the large flux of organization that is globalization, the Anthropocene, the technosphere … these endeavors don’t quite seem equivalent.
Daniel: And this absence of deeper value is part of the reason why the material cultural complex here in the United States—the same big box stores, sidewalk pavements, chain retailers, products that are seconds away from disposal—seems so empty. It seems so very thin.
When I said previously it doesn’t seem that the material culture realm is quite equivalent to the technospheric realm, that’s a bit of a false comparison, because I do think—and you mentioned Papua New Guinea and other places—that in fact there are many examples of much more closely linked material social and environmental complexes. And there should be within those, not just metaphorical examples, but actually real ways in which people find themselves embedded in tangible and positive social-technical-environmental relationships.
Daniel: This is the dilemma of how to regrasp the sense of value.
Daniel: Yes, Japan is such an interesting example because right away, as essentially a modern person, you confront this modernity in a completely different form. And it’s very disconcerting and fascinating at the same time, and one of the immediate ways you sense that is just walking in its streets.
Daniel: Westerners, when you see them walking, they’re kind of awkward. They tend to fall off curbs and bump themselves on little bumps and can’t quite figure out the doors or the stairways or which way is this or the other.
Daniel: It’s very different, and here we come back around because that, in turn, has to do with what the French would call people’s body techniques. And there you begin to see that the spatial organization, the body techniques, and the material culture are linked in very tight ways, all of which in Japan are equally foreign to us.
Daniel: Do you think that when it comes to this technosphere discussion, and this new realm of social media and exchange, that we are emerging into what is essentially a new field of second-order dynamics?
Daniel: Let me give one little example that links this discussion of body techniques and spatial sense and second-order dynamics that just occurred to me: I was riding on a city bus about a month ago in Kyoto, and I looked out and saw that there were these construction workers repaving the sidewalks. The sidewalks we always walk, and that are so particular, but that we never really pay attention to. They just are there.
But I saw the technique that this man used to smooth out the pavement. Once the concrete had been poured, he had his trowel and was smoothing the sidewalk in this very expert manner into this perfectly flat surface. In order to do that he was sprawled out, his legs wide open, down on one knee with his other leg offset. His center of gravity was down low and his upper body was leaning way over. He was making this maneuver that I realized instantly was essential to the making of the sidewalks in Kyoto, and so to an important part of the urban environment. But it was a maneuver that would be totally out of the question for any construction worker in the United States.
Daniel: Those guys are so huge, they can barely tie their shoes.
Daniel: Then I realized, wow, the architects, the city planners, they all know that these construction workers can get down and sprawl themselves and by force of their bodies fulfill the orders. In that sense, these gestures are implicit in the blueprints, and embedded in the city itself.
Daniel: Japan is an interesting example, but it’s certainly not the only one.
Daniel: But it helps somehow because of the thickness of the complex that has survived through time. But I think once you grasp these things there, they become much more evident in other places.