Vocabularies for Technology, Nature, and the Anthropocene: A Conversation with Scott Kirsch

Floppy disk

Editor’s note: This post represents the third in a series of interviews with the featured panelists for the Center for Culture, History, and Environment’s (CHE) E is for Environment symposium. You can find our discussions with Kate Brown here and with Nancy Langston here. In early April, we’ll share our last conversation, with Brown University professor Sarah Besky.

40 years ago, Raymond Williams wrote Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a book dedicated to tracing the origins, shifting meanings, and political work of over 100 common English language words. Williams’s work served as inspiration for CHE’s recent E is for Environment symposium, which asked attendees, “What are the keywords or concepts from your own research that give shape to the capacious and elusive term environment?” We had the chance to speak with Scott Kirsch, a geographer at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill about one of Williams’s keywords—technology—and about how he sees the relationship between language and environmental and historical change.

Listen to our conversation below. A lightly edited interview highlights follow. You’ll notice some echo in the audio; because of the jam-packed schedule for the symposium, we faced less than ideal recording circumstances.

Eric Nost: You’re starting a project that revisits Raymond William’s Keywords. He was interested in unpacking the changing and contested cultural meanings of words like society, technology, and nature. His goal really resonates with what we want to do with our E is for Environment symposium, where we’re asking, what do we mean when we talk about the environment? I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about your project—what does it look like, and how did you get interested in it?

Scott Kirsch: I’m interested in why we think of the world as technological, which is something that is such a taken for granted idea—of course the world is technological. But what does this word actually mean, what work does it do when we group so many social processes, things, and objects such that a machine is a piece of technology, a set of methods is technology, in fact the totality of all our means and capabilities is technology. It’s become I would say profane to challenge this idea. Turning to Raymond Williams—I’ve just always had a kind of fascination with his project—gives us a historical method for looking at the way contested meanings and transformation of meanings are built into the history of a word.

Looking at the history of the word technology—how it goes from being a kind of a book to meaning the totality of all of our means and capabilities to still being this specific machine or way of doing something—it made me think we could even go beyond Williams, which is to say, not only is technology a keyword, which you could say about many widely used words, but maybe in fact technology is nothing but a keyword. It’s this way we have of grouping different processes under one word that is a kind of magic bullet. The answer, though, isn’t to just look at the history of that word technology and we’re done. It’s rather about language and materiality.

What are other kinds of technological keywords that do this? To give one example close to our hearts in universities: innovation. What kind of work is that word doing across departments currently in universities? We could think of many others. Geoengineering is one that comes to mind as a kind of solution that’s still in play—what is it going to mean? We can argue about technology and what it means—is it necessary to use this incredibly broad term? Of course, there’s some philosophical heavy-hitters that have waded into these waters before. But maybe it’s ultimately more interesting to look at words that are still in play, like geoengineering or drones, and the kinds of contests over meaning that are still at work there in shaping the discourse. I think the keyword approach is ultimately a kind of historical approach to language, but one that’s really concerned with trying to tie the language into material and historical change.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg presents on a virtual reality project. Source: <a href="https://twitter.com/joshuatopolsky/status/701582036545499137" target="_blank">Twitter</a>.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg presents on a virtual reality project. Source: Twitter.

EN: You’ve written extensively about one of the words he wrote about in the book, which is technology. But you also raise the issue of the cultural context of technology. And I wonder how you see that having changed, or not, over the past 40 years now since Keywords?

SK: Exactly. So for Williams—even though you can trace technology to the Greek techne, and arts or crafts, or Latin—the key moment is in the mid-nineteenth century with modern notions of science. Technology became a kind of domain of abstract knowledge. It starts to be applied knowledge. Before that though, technology would have meant a kind of book or a technical manual. So it could’ve been a very specific technology of ceramics or some kind of art or it could’ve been some sort of total sense of a book, a thick tome on all of our technical capabilities. But one of the interesting things about Keywords—he famously talks about culture and nature as some of the most complex words in the English language—and he’s always interested in these difficult words which had domains of meaning across multiple areas of usage. Well, technology, I think, was not particularly difficult for him when he wrote Keywords in 1976 and then revised in 1983. But 30 or 35 years from that point I think it has become considerably more complex. Because thinking of the world as technological goes well beyond thinking of the industrial arts. It’s in the early twentieth to mid twentieth century when the word started to move into common usage. To areas of consumption, the body—even just last year there was a couple of movies that came out, Ex Machina and Her, where beyond entering the home, technology enters this realm of desire and sex. How has this happened that we still seem to think nothing of it?

Film still from <em> Ex Machina</em>, directed by Alex Garland.

Film still from Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland.

EN: Williams would regularly distinguish between the technical and the natural, the artificial and the authentic. Looking at how ideas of technology cross different domains of how we see the world, what do you see as the relationship between technology and the environment?

SK: That’s a question that hopefully here at the E is for Environment conference some people will give me some answers to. I spent a year teaching in a Science, Technology, and Society program at Penn State. And I remember the director of that program, who was an engineer, telling me that he thought technology and environment essentially meant the same thing. It was just two sides of the same coin. That is a very kind of engineering view of the world. I think at the time I was sort of appalled, but somehow this stuck with me. If we think about nature not being a kind of original, unreconstructed nature, maybe that’s a useful way of thinking about it. Maybe there’s a kind of dialectic where technology and nature are always internal to the other. Is that in the Keywords history of technology? Not so much. I think it comes later. So technology comes into wide usage, really, with the industrial arts. It’s also turned into a critical way looking at the rise of manufacturing and replicable means of doing things. Marx can be credited with turning technology into a critical concept by viewing it relationally, by looking at it as a way of understanding the materiality of class struggle. To come back to Keywords, what he [Williams] is interested in is not to ever fix definitions but to say meanings always come from usage and there’s always complex cultural trends at work there. And so I think we find that after World War II—I don’t know the history of the word environment very well but I think you would look at things like nuclear testing and all the things that led up to the 1960s environmental movement as also a kind of movement in the politics of technology. I think that sense that nature and technology are two sides of the same coin emerges in practice, in politics.

"Fat Man" atomic bomb.

“Fat Man” atomic bomb on its transport carriage. Some scholars have proposed that nuclear detonations and the radioactive signatures they have left behind are key markers of the Anthropocene. Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain.

EN: That’s really interesting. That gets me to thinking about the Anthropocene, this debate about when the Anthropocene began. Some have proposed that it began in 1945, after the first atomic bombs were detonated. There seems to be a link there with technology. What do we do with that relationship? The conversation around the Anthropocene is reworking the hard and fast lines we tend to draw around society and nature, showing how human actions have fundamentally shaped earth system processes. But are we actually re-inscribing boundaries between society and nature by, for instance, trying to pinpoint the date when society and nature no longer cease to be separate things?

SK: First of all, I think it’s a great concept. I don’t have a problem with it all. I think it’s simply a useful device to give it that one date. What I think is interesting about the reception of the Anthropocene idea is that for a long time geographers, environmental historians, others—political ecologists—have been talking about the inseparability of nature and society. But somehow now we hear it from a geologist and an ecologist and now everybody’s jumping on it. You know, that’s totally fine. As you say, it’s a kind of moment; it’s an opportunity to rework some of these major words—and not just the words but the concepts, and the kind of tangled history of word, concepts, and material changes in the environment. I say, let’s give it a try. I think it ultimately will probably get appropriated in different ways—some will be problematic, some will be useful and we’ll see what happens. But for now, it’s a fertile concept that’s facilitating conversation across disciplines. So let’s see what happens.

Featured image: “Old Days of Technology.” Source: PublicDomainPictures.net, Public Domain.

Scott Kirsch is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is author of Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving (Rutgers 2005) and editor (with Colin Flint) of Reconstructing Conflict: Integrating War and Post-War Geographies (Ashgate 2011), among other published work. Contact. Twitter. Website.

Eric Nost is a Ph.D. student in Geography at UW-Madison. His research describes the technologies environmental regulators, non-profit conservationists, and private sector entrepreneurs produce and utilize to confront complex, dynamic socio-environmental problems. He is currently looking at efforts to restore coastal marshes in Louisiana. ContactTwitter. Website.

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