Future Islam and the Secret of Technology

There is something prior to technology without which it cannot be understood, and that is a method that analyses and breaks things down into what it regards as logical component pieces. The process that exemplifies this best is the search for the atom. The Greeks, notably Leucippus and Democritus, proposed that if one breaks something in half, and then breaks the half in half, that one can proceed only so far until one comes to something that is not divisible, which they call the “not divisible” or atom. For “a” means “not” and “tom” means “divisible. Of course, we all know that what has been called the atom was itself divisible further into the sub-atomic particles, but the basic idea still stands. The inheritors of this thinking called the atom, “the basic building block of matter” for they thought that matter and thus the universe is essentially something that has been built, and by calling the atom a building block they of course implied that once one understands this process we too can build.

Now one person most eloquently expressed anxiety at this process, and that was Mary Shelley, for in her novel Frankinstein, and remember that Frankinstein is the doctor and not his monster although arguably it is the doctor who is the real monster, she embodied this process in the doctor who, having anaylsed the human being into his constituent organs, limbs and bones, then decides that he too can build a human. Tellingly, although what he builds is hideous, it is nevertheless human. Frankinstein is unable to return its natural need for love, and it is this that drives the creature over the edge.

So this building activity of technology derives from this prior process of analysing and breaking down into the simplest elements.

So what does technology do? We ask this in the most general sense in order to get beyond the very specific picture of particular technologies. But let us take a specific in order to understand these general processes better: a Hi-Fi system. In it we have, for example, an amplifier. The amplifier does exactly what its name implies: it takes a weak input, a weak signal, and makes it stronger. If we step back from this example, we realise that technology does this throughout its realm. It takes a weak signal and amplifies it, whether it is a sound or a force or an idea. The media take weak signals, such as silly ideas, or poor analyses of situations, but through the power of the technology, it is transmitted into thousands and often millions of homes; it is amplified. We see instantly that this process is intimately connected to power, both in the physical sense and the political.

So having derived a general from a specific, let us now list a few more general features of technology.

Technology telescopes: i.e. it brings that which is distant much closer, and this derives from the Greek root “tele” for distance. Obviously we have the telescope, telephone and television. Equally it brings that which is close to distant parts: the telephone is two-way. We can now blog and our writings can be read instantly in China or Borneo. All of us assume such a reality. We spend time in virtual communities.

Paradoxically, we see that it drives that which is closer further away, as most people have experienced with the mobile phone interrupting a conversation. The caller is brought closer but the people in the conversation are made distant.

It also microscopes: it enables one to see what is ordinarily too small to see. The detail. To do this it has to put a frame around the object excluding other things. This is an inescapable activity of science and technology. Focus in and exclude extraneous signals.

It accelerates. Things are speeded up, by planes, cars, and by processes. In general things are going faster today than they ever did, and will evidently go even faster tomorrow.

Technology reproduces, repeats, replicates, duplicates and multiplies, e.g. in factories. A simple movement is repeated endlessly. Industry analyses the manufacture of the shoe into minute processes which are then individually expedited by robots, or people behaving like robots, and then assembled. The shoe is no longer in the hands of a person but in the hands of a system, whether of machines or people or both. An unanticipated side-effect of this process is the utter boredom and tedium of people’s lives since the part of the process or the product over which they have control is in itself meaningless. People are creatures of meaning.

Although the above list certainly does not cover everything that technology does, it gives an indication of some very key things that it does do. However, the above are not necessarily technological or machine driven. For example, our outline of the factory could equally well be applied to schooling or the state. The school has become a kind of factory for manufacturing citizens. It is an industrial process. Similarly, the state is an industry for processing citizens from birth until death. Machines are used, but the essence of these two examples is that people submit themselves, whether actively or passively, to being parts of a great machine. Thus, the word technology is not going to do for what we are trying to describe, and for that reason some people, such as the French writer Jacques Ellul, suggested that really we are dealing with technique.

So here we have a technique or set of techniques or sets of techniques and technologies which accelerate, amplify, reproduce, and telescope. Programmers have a maxim of computing which is “rubbish in, rubbish out”. Any such system or set of techniques behaves much like a computer programme, so that it basically amplifies, telescopes, accelerates and endlessly reproduces the input. If it is the technical society that is destroying the planet, then it is this facet of it that is to blame. Before technique culture, mistakes were limited in scale. With technique culture, the mistakes are amplified and accelerated tremendously. What is perhaps more distressing is that the reach of mediocrity is extended greatly.

But where does this culture come from? The people of the planet asked themselves this question in different places and in different epochs and they said: it comes from Europe. Both Europeans and non-Europeans gave this answer.

As this technique culture grew, there was a broad spectrum of responses to it, whose two extremes were infatuation and repulsion. This was both in Europe and elsewhere. The first response was because of the control and the power it appeared to give, and men are prone to love control and power. However, they neglected to reflect on Dr Frankinstein’s case, for he was incapable of love. The people of technique culture are incapable of love.

The opposite response, repulsion and rejection, was to be found both in Europe and elsewhere. In its most extreme case it is to be seen in people who decided that no technology from later than the seventeenth century should be used, and they dedicated themselves to live in communities based on that principle.

Now these two responses were possible when technique culture was still growing, when there were still places it had not reached.

In the seventies, a New York painter called Tobias Schneebaum made a journey up the Amazon river. He was, probably deeply instinctively, trying to get away from the all-enveloping technique culture. He went as far up the river as anyone would think to go and arrived at a missionary settlement. He asked them what lay further up the river? They told him that there were really terrible cannibal peoples. He immediately proceeded further up the river. Seeing a beach with some curious boulders on it, he disembarked to inspect them, but was astonished to find them to be the heads of people who were squatting there staring at him. After a moment in which they contemplated each other, they leapt to their feet and embraced him wildly and happily. They were completely naked. He was taken in to their society, made welcome, and lived happily with them for a year without seeing anything untoward. At the end of that period, the young men, among whom he was included, primed themselves for some martial escapade, and he and they went to another village where there was a fight, with them killing a number of people there. Then they ate parts of the dead people, and he ate with them. This was the beginning of his disengaging from them and he ultimately returned to New York and wrote a book called, “Keep the River on Your Right”. However, the reprise of the story is that in the nineties he returned there with a documentary film crew. The missionaries had got there before him along with the Coca Cola. The erstwhile savages were now in tee-shirts and were suffering from various ailments such as unemployment, something for which they probably had no word in their language.

Thus, the reality is that the technique culture has penetrated everywhere on the planet. There is nowhere outside of it, and so the option of wanting it in that infatuated way or of rejecting it is no longer open to us. Whatever we think of it, we are stuck with it.

But now we have to ask the question again: where does the culture of technique and technology come from? We have inherited a crude theology from Rome which basically sees the world in terms of nature and civilisation. In the Christianised version, God is seen as the Creator of nature and man the maker of civilisation. The reality is that this is how people really do see things, no matter what philosophers and theologians say. And of course because man’s civilisation has grown so much that people no longer believe in God.

Early scientists such as Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Kepler and Copernicus were undoubtedly believers in the Christian sense, but what they discovered was so powerful and it produced so many results that as night follows day the next generation were basically atheists, such as Laplace who on being asked by Napoleon why his book on celestial mechanics had no mention of the Creator replied, “Monsieur, I had no need of that hypothesis.” This was from arrogant pride at the sheer extent of new information and in the power of the new technical scientific man.

But what was forgotten is that man is natural; he is a part of nature. What man creates is a part of the natural order, even when it seems un-natural. Thus it is a part of God’s creation. Everything comes from Allah. He is the Creator of everything because if this were not the case, we would be dealing with a plurality of gods, which is a very primitive idea. However, the natural order contains both fruit and poison, it contains both health and cancer. Thus, we are in need of a discrimination. Clearly something in our culture is cancerous. But we are not taking the stance of the rejectionists that sees rejection of technique culture in toto as the only way forward. Thus we are in serious need of some kind of discrimination.

Let us return to our shoe factory. The ability of the shoe factory process to turn out copious amounts of shoes is undisputed. However, the shoes suffer from one flaw: like most industrially manufactured things they are mediocre; they are neither superlatively well designed and made nor, on the other hand, unusable. The truth is that all things being equal and price being no consideration, anyone who had the choice of a handmade shoe or an industrially manufactured one, would choose the former. So why did the craft tradition go down before industry? Price. The industrial product was cheaper. Very often it was not cheaper because it was genuinely less expensive to make, but because the owners practised undercutting; they looked at the price of shoes and then decided that their shoes would be cheaper, often dramatically so. They knew that by this means they would drive their craft competitors out of business, at which point the price could be whatever they wished it to be. Now this is where our wished-for discrimination might come in useful. Undercutting used to be considered illegal in many societies.

In many traditional markets, a shoe of a known description had a known price. It was not acceptable to go below it. Thus, tradesmen had to compete with each other in terms of making the very best shoes rather than fighting each other by means of price.

So here we are up against a very different type of technique, which has little to do with machines or technology. We are up against financial and commercial technique and it has proved more decisive than the machine. We also see the difference between technique and law. Law is the idea, whether in society or in nature, that things work in a certain way. Technique finds ways to circumvent law. In our acknowledgement that the technique culture ultimately comes from Allah and our awareness that we are in need of a discrimination, it is clear that it is only Allah Who can give us the discrimination we need for that which comes from Him. It is Islam that contains that discrimination until the end of time. The task of future Islam is to recover law, Divine law, and to make it dominant over technique, both in terms of technology but particularly in terms of financial and commercial technique.

From: Abdassamad Clarke

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Filed under Fiqh, Islam, Religion, Seeking knowledge

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