Of Modern Man, Technology & Materiality

Of Modern Man, Technology & Materiality

“The available worlds looked pretty grim. They had little to offer him because he had little to offer them. He had been extremely chastened to realise that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and armagnac he didn’t, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn’t do it. Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it. There was not a lot of demand for his services.”

– Douglas Adams: Mostly Harmless (1992), Chapter 12 –

Why did I start this installment of my musings with a quote from a Sci-Fi book? Because all good science fiction writing, and Douglas Adams’ Hithchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy certainly falls into that category, despite the futuristic backdrops, writes about the problems of today. If it is written as humour, then doubly so. Remember. If it is not dead serious, then it is not worth joking about.

When Douglas Adams was writing in the later decades of the 20th century, ‘Modern Society’ has manged to create for itself an environment which requires a high level of technological knowledge to maintain and replicate. Yet at the same time, the was majority of humans inhabiting this environment do not have this knowledge. In the 21st century, driven by multimedia, smartphones and social networks, this phenomenon has only intensified. As prophesied by the cyberpunk movement in Sci-Fi literature, humanity – its business and social interactions – are moving online.

Modern man has successfully locked himself in a cage which he does not comprehend.

Information has never been so easy to come by. We have networks of public libraries, and vast online resources. Whatever you might be interested in, there is a treasure trove of knowledge to gained, and it only lies a few clicks away. Therefore, do not take me wrong, I have nothing against certain aspects of living in the information age. In fact, I love it. Without the like of online forums, email and social networks, I would never have learned most of the things I did, and I certainly would not have ended up living up my travel-ridden life.

Yet most of this species does not seem to utilize these resources, choosing instead to be distracted by a constant stream of pictures of pets, toddlers, and people posing shambolic at parties. As a consequence a lot of information technology is being used, yet people are actually not considerably more informed.

Furthermore, with the ever-rising industrialisation since the 19th century, the mass production of everyday objects and consumables has widened the gap between the producers and the consumers. Therefore the basics of how our everyday necessities of food, shelter and clothing are produced have been eroded out of common knowledge.

We may talk of our ‘daily bread’, but how many people in the modern world actually know how to bake a loaf of bread form scratch?

We all wear clothes, but how many have tried to process raw wool, linen or cotton; spin it and weave the yarn into cloth?

These are not even TVs, PCs or smartphones that I am talking about, just everyday necessities. Which makes you wonder about the autonomy, adaptability and survival capabilities of what is meant to be a very inventive species – Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Wise Man.

loaves of bread
How many skills, steps and technological procedures are involved in the baking of a simple loaf of bread, let alone the making of a sandwich?

So… What does a Hi-Tec LowLife actually know? Actually… Not that much. One of the last, relatively widely spread acts of transforming raw materials is cooking; and even here there is a lot less cooking from scratch going on.

On that note, let us return to another passage from Mostly Harmless. Now, the protagonist has by a weird twist of fate managed to crash on the planet Lamuella, where his understanding of the sandwich turned out to be a novelty, ensuring him a comfortable and revered position within the indigenous community.

“What are you doing in a place like this, Arthur?” demanded Ford.

“Well,” said Arthur, “making sandwiches mostly.”
“What?”

“I am, probably was, the sandwich maker for a small tribe. It was a bit embarrassing really. When I first arrived, that is, when they rescued me from the wreckage of this super high-technology spacecraft which had crashed on their planet, they were nice to me and I thought I should help them out a bit. You know, I’m an educated chap from a high-technology culture, I could show them a thing or two. And of course I couldn’t. I haven’t got the faintest idea, when it comes down to it, on how anything actually works. I don’t mean like video-recorders, nobody knows how to work those. I mean just something like a pen or an artesian well or something. Not the foggiest. I couldn’t help at all. One day I got glum and made myself a sandwich. That suddenly got them all excited. They’d never seen one before. It was just an idea that had never occured to the, and I happen to quite like making sandwiches, it all sort of developed from there.

– Douglas Adams: Mostly Harmless (1992), Chapter 19 –

What humanity lost is not the knowledge of the objects which make civilized life possible, not even the knowledge of the material used in the making of the objects, such as wood, steel, textile and ceramic. People generally are aware of what a table is and the fact that it is made of a natural material called wood.

What slipped out of focus is the practical understanding of the materiality of these raw materials. The understanding of where the materials come from, what are their traits, potentials, and the ways in which they can be transformed is now kept by only a select few in civilized society.

There is knowledge to be had about the different types of wood, when a tree is to be felled, how the lumber can be split or cut, the difference between green and seasoned wood, how wood dries, the nature of short and long grain, woods that tend to split and woods which lend themselves to carving, before one even contemplates making something out of wood.

Many get involved in playing with clay at some point in their lives, either in school or in a pottery class. Yet the clay they end up using a specially pre-prepared mixture, made for ideal handling and firing at a specific, usually very high temperature. The idea that earthenware clay is something that can be simply dug up, kneaded, manipulated by adding tempers such as sand, and even cured to improve it, as well as the fact that the final product may be fired in a bonfire, is hard to imagine for most.

Similarly, nowadays we all use a plethora of metal objects, made of high quality modern alloys, about which the ancient smith could only dream about. Yet, we rarely understand how they are made, let alone how the metal is extracted from ore.

Working with most materials involves using heat as a transformative tool at some point. Wood can be bent when heated over a fire or steamed, a trait which utilized by carpenters, boatmakers and arrowmakers. Heat transforms clay, a material which may be dissolved in water, into ceramic, a hard and dense material which holds water. In the production and processing of textile it is utilized in washing raw wool and dying. Glass is produced from sand and shaped – blown, rolled, moulded, spun – using intense heat. Similarly, metalworking requires the ability to achieve, maintain and control high temperatures in order to smelt the material from ore, and subsequently cast or forge an object. Steels are hardened by manipulating the temperatures of the material, by heating them up to a certain temperature, then rapidly cooling them by quenching in water or oil. The applications of fire are almost countless, and to list them all would fill whole tomes.

Most people in ‘modern civilization’ will only experience fire in the form of barbecues, and, if they are lucky, as the rare bonfire. The captivating effect of a flame, its usefulness, and the range of temperatures which can be judged and manged by the colour is lost to the masses of western society.

blazing bonfire
Fire is a force which allows us to fundamentally alter all manner of materials, bending the other elements to our will. Despite this, most people encounter fire only as fireplaces, bonfires and barbecues.

If you wish to pursue this train of thought further, you can pick up Linda Hurcombe’s book Archaeological Artefact as Material Culture (2007), where she addresses many materials and their uses through the ages, as well as how differently they may be perceived today. It can be quite an eye opener for those who have not dabbled in (ancient) craft before.

Book recommendations aside, what is the main point? Mainly that modern humanity has become alarmingly disconnected from its environment, and on an individual basis, extremely dependent on others. Most people do not know how their everyday necessities are produced and would not be able to replicate modern conveniences, were they separated from society. This lack of understanding leads to lesser respect for the environment which provides the raw ingredients, as well as the people who turn them into modern luxuries, especially since these people often happen to work in abysmal conditions in third world countries. Mass production coupled with mindless consumption leads to material things being easily available and easily discarded, which puts a strain on our natural environment.

Let this be an invitation to be a bit more mindful about the mundane things around you and ask yourself where they come from, how they are made, why they are the way they are and what happens after you are done with using them. Maybe you will even try making some of them.

Until next time, here is one last reading Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, which goes into full detail of the craft, production process, tools, materiality and social context of the making of sandwich; orchestrated by Arthur Dent – A Proper Englishman – for the good of a primal indigenous community on the alien planet of Lamuella.

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One thought on “Of Modern Man, Technology & Materiality

  1. Absolutely love Douglas Adams! “42” Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is the funniest book I’ve ever read!

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