All Graphite and Glitter

In 1982, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame released his debut solo album, The Nightfly. The first track on the album, “I.G.Y.” (International Geophysical Year) is perhaps better known by its chorus “What a Beautiful World.” On its surface, the song is an optimistic ode to the promise of the coming technological revolution as imagined from the late 1950s. Along with its kindred track, “New Frontier,” I.G.Y. positions popular culture, science and art within the inescapable shadow of the Cold War.

The track takes its name from an international collaboration of scientists that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The International Geophysical Year (actually eighteen months) featured the cross-national scientific and technological research of more than five dozen participating countries. During this venture, the United States and the Soviet Union both launched their first artificial satellites. Other important events during the period were mapping of ocean ridges that helped confirm plate tectonics and discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts. 

Fagen’s I.G.Y. lyrics reference futuristic concepts such as solar power, transatlantic high-speed train tunnels and spandex. More evocatively, Fagen describes “a machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision… we’ll be eternally free, yes and eternally young.” In Fagen’s “utopian” vision, art and culture flourish unfettered by the mundane struggle for mere existence. 

True to the Steely Dan aesthetic, Fagen sarcastically wanders from the naïveté of Disney’s City of the Future to the early 1980s, when much of the idealism and promise had been subordinated to the reality of technology for the sake of deadlier missiles. It’s not that spandex, cellphones and supersonic travel hadn’t happened, just that they were a developmental spillover rather than cultural liberators. 

In the interim, we met HAL the domineering computer in 2001: A Space Odysseyand Apple Computer’s stark 1984 commercial warning against computers that hasten Orwellian groupthink slavery.    

“So you can imagine what the next 50 to 100 years will bring. During the last 100 years we went from being dirt farmers to this. Our grandkids will have the power of the gods…”

Michio Kaku

Contrast this with the musings of celebrity genius and intellectual heir to Albert Einstein, Michio Kaku. As one of the co-progenitors of string theory, Kaku has a demonstrated ability to imagine (and substantiate said imagination mathematically) far greater than most of us. In an interview with American Waymagazine, Kaku was asked to gaze into his crystal ball of technology yet to come. 

“So you can imagine what the next 50 to 100 years will bring. During the last 100 years we went from being dirt farmers to this. Our grandkids will have the power of the gods — timeless bodies and mental control of objects. It’s just a question of time before these things become economical and wind up on your desktop or in your living room,” Kaku stated.

Yes, well, Dr. Kaku, what a beautiful world that will be; what a glorious time to be free.

If we step back from the easy pessimism wrought of the last few decades, Kaku may be on to something. If we think back to the time just before the dawn of steam power, the technological paradigm of humanity looked pretty much the same as it had for millennia. Sure, we could point to Gutenberg, Da Vinci and other visionaries, but the mass of humanity dwelt in diseased peasantry, much as it had since Biblical times. 

Steam power upends this arrangement and with it, the whole order of human society. Harnessed steam made possible many of the subsequent niceties of mass produced goods and economies of scale. Oil-based power and electricity follow in relatively short order. Technology circa 1890 doesn’t so much slope upward as it makes a left turn into the stratosphere. The nuclear, electronic and computer ages unroll like ticker tape across human civilization.

Post-modernity swaddled in the cloth of the information superhighway doesn’t hope for innovation. It demands it. Therein lies the plausibility of Kaku’s thesis: In all previous eras, innovation was often the purview of rarified and isolated inventors. Since the middle of the last century, efforts such as Bell Laboratories and NASA have shifted toward a collaborative model in which technology expands geometrically.

It is now common to hear the term “maker” to describe individuals who use a variety of emergent technologies (3D printing or artificial intelligence for example) to design, create and market new products. These intrepid individuals have short-circuited the innovation pathway that was once the purview of corporatized engineers and developers. Combined with the power of social media, garage-level enterprises have a broader platform than at any other point in human history.

There are, however, a number of voices that caution against the Siren’s song of technological salvation. In his series, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell writes, “Technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.” Campbell is right.

Technology disembodied from humanity leads to events such as those satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War cautionary tale, Dr. Strangelove. In the film, the eccentric nuclear weapon designer, Dr. Strangelove, describes the way a completely automated response to nuclear attack ensures deterrence by “[ruling] out human meddling.”

I am also reminded of another fictional, yet poignant, morality tale on the dangers of technological fetishism. In George Lucas’ Star Wars, Darth Vader cautions the Imperial command staff of the Death Star, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” It bears note that Lucas was a devoted student of Campbell’s work. 

With an irony that only a deft lyrical swordsman such as Fagen could wield, I.G.Y. foretells a world that’s “all graphite and glitter.” The song should make us wonder whether we have become “too proud.” Of course, such questions are hardly new. The well-known story of Icarus and Daedalus from Greek mythology is millennia-old. Just because we can soar toward the heavens doesn’t mean it’s always the smartest choice.

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