IN THIS CONCLUSION, I will return to more strictly philosophy of technology themes, and thus I ascend in some degree from my previous, more autobiographical narrative to a look at what I think are emergent patterns relating to more futuristic trajectories. It may seem odd, at first, to look at the closing of the planned U.S. supercollider in 1994 alongside Watson’s furtive glance at Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography images of biological structures revealing the double-helix shape of DNA in 1953. Linearly this seems to be a reversed history, but I shall take a philosophy of technology perspective related to active perceptual and imaging activity. As I will show, this is not actually a linear anomaly. Rather, I shall use these examples to show the radically different dimensions of micro- compared to macrotechnics.
I begin with Evelyn Fox Keller’s Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines (2002). This book was used in my technoscience research seminar and later followed with a roast of Fox Keller herself. Fox Keller was trained as a physicist but shifted to biology. She has a long history of discussing how different these scientific practices are. They include differences in the use of modeling, degree of mathematization, and other science practices. My twist for these differences focuses upon the instrumental style of the technics of the two sciences. As the Watson/Franklin narrative shows, the instrument used to discover the double helix shape of DNA was X-ray crystallography, the machinery of which is at best “middle-sized,” as an X-ray machine fits easily into a single lab. This X-ray imaging technology is a later refinement of often-crude first generation X-ray imaging. If one goes all the way back to early modern science, much argumentation was associated with Galileo’s use of optics (both telescopes and microscopes) and the problems of double and triple images, etc. Gradual refinement of clarity is a typical trajectory of improvement in instrument development. In the case of X-ray crystallography, its image, photographed and used in a publication by Franklin (called photo #51, 1953), was the clearest to date, and Watson in one of many scientific “aha” experiences recognized the double-sided helix shape that finally destroyed the previous triple-sided notion of the shape of DNA. My point here is that biochemistry was embodied in a relatively middle-sized instrument, not yet nanoscaled as are many of today’s instruments, but easily manipulated by bodily engagement.
This example contrasts strongly with the dominant instrumental shape of what I shall call Cold War physics. Many science historians have noted that in this style of physics, the largest, most complex instruments are needed to image the smallest subatomic particles. The U.S. supercollider, whose history I will cite, was the largest planned supercollider of its time. Its design called for an 87.1-kilometer/54.1-mile tunnel, which contrasts with today’s CERN Large Hadron Collider (one of several colliders in the CERN complex). Supported by twenty-two member countries and far too expensive for any one country, including the United States, today’s foremost collider has only a 22-kilometer, very deep tunnel. I mention both as examples of macrotechnics, the style of Big Science physics instruments used to examine the nanoscaled atom particles. Individual parts of this collider, like its magnets, weigh over two tons. Large machines are needed to handle construction and adjustment. The most publicized discovery of the Hadron Collider was the Higg’s boson (the so-called “god particle”) in 2012. This is the macrotechnics equivalent to Watson and Franklin’s discovery of DNA with X-ray crystallography. In my narrative, however, I will focus more upon the U.S. supercollider, whose history is more telling in its 1994 cancellation after the Cold War. This was the largest planned instrumental technics since the emergence of Big Science and the World War II Manhattan Project. The earliest CERN colliders go back to the 1950s, which, I point out, made them roughly contemporaneous with the DNA X-ray crystallography technics. Thus, extrapolating from Fox Keller, by the mid-twentieth century we have physics using macrotechnical instruments to discover subatomic particles and biology using far more microtechnical instruments to probe the secrets of DNA and other microbiological phenomena. Both tended to produce visual images in keeping with most scientists’ preference.
The U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower has been well noted for his warning after World War II to beware the “military-industrial complex.” This warning came from his last interview as he left the office in l961.1
Cancellation of the U.S. Supercollider as Technoscience Crisis
If the invention and development of the Atomic Bomb by the end of World War II was the first Big Science military-industrial project with its constellation of military, engineering, and physics might combined, then the cancelled U.S. supercollider at the end of the Cold War came as a sociopsychological shock to the many participating scientists of the time. Sociopolitically, the “military-engineer-physicist” grouping had long been supported by an eager Congress, which had funded many Big Science projects of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s was the era of MAD (mutually assured destruction). But after the collapse of the USSR and the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it appeared that the multibillion-dollar projects fell into disfavor; so after some two years of congressional debate, with worries about vast cost overruns, the U.S. supercollider was cancelled. The reaction from within technoscience was shock. Particularly in physics, which had always gotten the largest share of governmental support, worries began to expand that this was minimally a disciplinary crisis, maximally a signal that the position of physics as the most favored science was doomed.
I experienced this myself, working out of this reaction from within a dominantly math and physics research university, Stony Brook. As a long-term member of the interdisciplinary University Research Committee, I saw the often frantic push for physicists and many related engineering research faculty to shift to biological and medical applications that rapidly grew multimillion-dollar grants and proposals. For example, new prostheses, new imaging, and often engineering-physics-based programs associated with Stony Brook’s large medical school emerged as some of the largest projects of university research. Soon multimillion-dollar grants began to be won. On an even larger scale, also going back to my graduate school days at Boston University in the mid-sixties, Charles Delisi trained in engineering and physics, later to become Dean of Engineering at Boston University. Delisi was a deep believer in Big Science and a major player in turning biological research Big. During the build up toward the Human Genome Project, he became one of the primary proponents who argued that biology would never become a major science until it became Big Science, and with this, he argued intensely for the Human Genome Project, which would propel biology into its first multibillion-dollar research project. There was a period of intense internal argumentation within biological science, but eventually as history has it, the Human Genome Project successfully made biology into a Big Science.2 Of course, biology had already turned to a plethora of research projects that entailed micro- and nanoscaled technics. DNA, biotechnology, and genetic engineering are all outcomes in this context.
What constitutes dominant technics? One measure would be relative funding totals for research by discipline. And this measurement shows that, first, most funding levels have been flat for some time, but there has been a shift from a group of natural sciences, including computer and math, physics, chemistry, and engineering. Natural science totals in the United States run about 30 percent, with nearly 60 percent now going to the life sciences (the National Institutes of Health has always been bigger than the National Science Foundation; the National Endowment for Humanities includes medical research), with the social sciences at a miserly 3.6 percent—there are no statistics for philosophy! Although my argument here is that the biological sciences have clearly gained prominence since the mid-twentieth century, it is also clear that the macro technosciences have not disappeared. In recent articles, I have often taken accounts of what I call shelf lives, or time frames in which particular technologies, scientific objects, and even philosophies have finitely useful lives; but just as each can have a beginning, endings also occur. For example, some of our oldest technologies are tools, my favorite of which is an Acheulean hand ax. This bifaced stone tool, which most likely served as a sort of Swiss Army knife for homo erectus, first appeared roughly l.8 MYA (million years ago) and, in what archeologists recognize as the oldest and longest lasting shelf life, was produced and used in virtually the same manner until roughly 400,000 BP (before present), thus displaying a 1.4 million-year shelf life. It was multipurpose, used for cutting, scraping hides, digging, and possibly even as a thrown weapon. We are all aware that since that time technological artifacts have come to have much shorter or “sped-up” shelf lives. I have often published comparisons, including the roughly similar and parallel shelf lives of typewriters and steam trains at roughly 1.25 centuries each or today’s cellphones with shelf lives of only a few years. But equally as important, contemporary shelf life technologies—such as cell phones—are much more widely used than any previous technologies. Many social scientists claim that 95 percent of the entire human population has access to cell phones, probably the most ubiquitous technology ever (many cell phones are owned by a single person who then rents or lends out usage times to entire villages). Note, too, that many contemporary communication technologies are also “Swiss Army” multipurpose: phones, texting, camera, internet, and on and on as with the more ancient Acheulean hand ax. This latter feature is miniaturized in cell phones—and in a whole series of miniaturized technologies such as drones and robots—such that surveillance, observational, spy, and distance sensing reach into mini-satellite, deep sea sensing, and, in acoustic forms, subsurface imaging. Such undersea, satellite, and remote sensing, still dominantly visual, are often preferred at micro-levels for economic and sometimes more secretive uses. Moreover, given funding, it is no surprise that military—but also medical—miniaturization is common. Bee-sized drones can occupy hidden spots for surveillance; cell phone–adapted technologies fill mini-satellites.
In my earlier chapters that take note of my own experience of such medical technics, the technics were also miniaturized. Laparoscopic surgical instruments and technologies such as X-ray, MRI, PET, and GI imaging all rely on a range of magnetic, radioactive, camera, and other microtechnics for both diagnosis and treatment. So far, I have missed using swallowable capsule-sized camera technics, some of the most nano-diagnostic technics, and very avant-garde prescription nano-placement technics. “Aging Cyborg: I Don’t Want to Be a Cyborg, I and II” does survey some newer acoustic technics, more elaborately referenced in my 2015 Acoustic Technics. Similarly, in my aging section I have not mentioned the proliferation of self-monitoring wearable data technologies that for some people are addictive. These include data generation of everything from steps taken to heart rates and a range of bodily aimed biological phenomena. Then for special diagnoses, there are blood glucose machines and a plethora of other self-collecting data streams. In Japan the proliferation of gerontological robotics include vital sign smart toilets, bathing machine robots, and even talking therapy robots. Many are also microtechnologies worn on the body and usually visually imaged. In my case, similar devices are common in recovery settings, and I have, in experiencing data for blood pressure, pulse, and multiple other rate displays, quickly learned to self-change rates by my own bodily feedback learned reactions. Wearable technologies, of course, reduce time factors that, if in the form of printed lab test results, are much delayed. Some of my readers are dismayed that I do not use social media—Facebook, Twitter, etc.—but the reason is mostly related to sheer screen time demands. Since internet research, email, and news take up inordinate time already, to add social media, particularly with its built-in nudging to self-display, voyeurism, and other exhibitionism, let alone the occasional data breach, does not fit well with my notion of myself.
Multiuse and Multistability
I have discussed two prominent Swiss Army knife technologies here. The Acheulean hand ax was in use for more than a million years as digger, cutter, scraper, and thrown weapon. And today, the cell phone, the most ubiquitous technology ever, is even more multipurpose as acoustic phone, text sender, camera, photo album, web browser, and so on, with a technological modeling such that its variants range from space probes to deep sea explorers. Postphenomenology understands all technics to be multistable and multiuse, which makes predictability difficult, if not impossible. This variability happens regardless of size or complexity.
Prostheses and Perceptual Multidimensionality
While medical technics abound in prostheses—all of which relate to the ranges of perceptual experience, from the tactile-kinesthetics of Merleau-Ponty’s examples to Nintendo surgery to my hearing aids and cataract lenses—all condense upon the whole-body motility that determines any phenomenologically related sense of embodiment. I have noted here how both art and science, through embodying technics, are fully technoart and technoscience in action.
From early modern times until now, technologies have stretched our mediated experience to dimensions unknown and never experienced in antiquity. This may be most easily discerned at both macro- and microlevels. Much of what we can now mediatedly experience was simply unknown prior to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In astronomy, as I have frequently pointed out, until the accidental discovery of radar, all astronomy was “white light” limited. Today we can image and thus mediatedly experience the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves down to gamma rays. The same happens in medical technics. We now have multiple imaging perspectives on interiors: X-rays, PET scans, MRI and fMRI. Sonograms, both static and dynamic, and frequently composite modeled through computer tomography, can vividly show everything from fetuses to brain tumors or, as in the consultation before my heart surgery, a normal multiscreen display in full, glowing color.
Animal Studies Are Indirectly Related to Medical Technics
Here the limits of human perception have again been breached. Infra- and ultra-dimensions in virtually all sensory realms have become technically and mediatedly available: thermal, magnetic, infra- and ultra- sound and vision are included in documentaries for all to appreciate. I vividly remember my first experiences of whale songs and throat singing. And the first sounds of ultrasonic male mice songs and the responding crooning of female mice.
Similarly, today’s imaging of the vast internal colonies of microorganisms amaze.
All this says much about how different our world is from the worlds of our early human ancestors. And yet, even as we uncover—through the jungles and overlays of the earth—we can sense, too, that we are simply beginning to expand this world that has yet to show its still greater complexity.