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The detritus of this technological moment

The detritus of this technological moment
The ontology of the garbage truck and its phenomenological significance

There’s no getting away from waste. I mean literal garbage, although there’s a deeper metaphysical resonance in the idea. For centuries, people used wagons to take away waste. By the 1920s open-top trucks were used for the same thing. This mechanical turn caused problems of an odorous sort, however, so covered vehicles were soon preferred. Then in 1937, a man with the darkly serendipitous name of George Dempster invented the Dempster-Dumpster system, which allowed wheeled waste containers to be mechanically tipped into a truck. This is now a familiar sight across the globe. It was because of Dempster’s word for those waste containers that the word dumpster entered the English language.

Garbage disposal was always going to be a question. To be human is to use things. And it’s nearly impossible to use everything in its entirety—although palaeolithic man would have a thing or two to say against this presumption. Also, pretty much everything is accompanied by offcuts and byproducts. When the Industrial Revolution went to work on our conceptions of the world and of things in it, the question of waste ballooned. There was so much more of it. Dumpster trucks were, given this eventuality, a fairly sensible-seeming answer. And yet this simple invention was less a solution to a problem than it was and remains the mother of several other problems. Here I borrow from Boromír: One does not merely invent anything; to invent a thing is to remake the world.

The explicit goal of the invention of the garbage truck and its subsequent so-called improvements was, as will prove true for any new invention, not the only consequence. As soon as garbage trucks motored onto the world’s roads, systems needed to be created to manufacture them, supply chains needed to be arranged, skillsets needed to be combined to manage their manufacture, and so much more. As John Gall notes in his essential book Systemantics, a sort of rosetta stone book for so much accumulating nonsense in our time, “No matter what the ‘goal’ of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit system-behavior, that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems.”

Systems do not operate like machines. They operate like the world, as a more or less messy configuration of various kinds of order and disorder, roughly thrown together and fragile. Systems attempt order but tend to produce its other. Attempts to control things using technologies contribute significantly to robbing us of meaning. To introduce a new machine into the world is not to make the world more mechanical but to radically destabilise the equilibrium of the yinging-and-yanging of things. Because it is in essence artificial, this destabilisation often tends towards inhuman proportions.

And so it is with garbage removal. Once upon a time, there was a single problem; but with the invented answer and the subsequent system within which that answer would operate, many further problems were produced. “In the case of Garbage Collections,” writes Gall, “the original problem could be stated briefly as ‘What do we do with all this garbage?’ After setting up a garbage-collection system, we find ourselves faced with a new Universe of Problems.” I would say, to further Gall’s logic, the question now becomes: ‘What do we do with all this garbage removal?’

The new Universe of Problems includes “questions of collection, bargaining with the garbage collector’s union, rates and hours, collection on very cold or rainy days, purchase and maintenance of garbage trucks, millage and bond issues, voter apathy, regulations regarding separation of garbage from trash,” and, to quote Slavoj Žižek, “so on and so on. Sniff.” As civil engineers tell us, roads disintegrate more rapidly under the weight of trucks, too, which is to say that the effects of the technology supersede even the system itself. Nothing is a world unto itself.

Now, and by now I mean right now, we are not just trying to remove rubbish but trying to figure out what to do when employees are absent or how to reschedule late collections. We, and by we I mean some nebulous collective that doesn’t include me except in the sense that it must deal with my garbage, are trying to figure out better and worse ways to manufacture dumpsters. Inventions beget inventions and technologies must, as Friedrich Jünger noted so long ago, submit themselves to the logic of perfection and rationalization and the distribution of poverty.

No invention is without existential implications. Gall notes what anyone who works in a large system knows: “Large systems usually operate in failure mode.” We do not merely solve problems; we create misery. Thomas Sowell’s insight needs to be remembered: there are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.

Before I get sidetracked into discussing systems theory, however, I want to anchor the essence of this discussion in the invention of the garbage truck itself and so, by implication, deal with the nature of technological extensions in general. Certain principles around technology that we find in the world of garbage and garbage removal apply more widely. If we get what’s happening with dumpster trucks, we stand some chance of understanding our present technological moment, in which various novel technologies are becoming the talk of the town: new ways to make vaccines, new medical technologies, brain-computer interfacing through implants, AR goggles, new developments in AI, and more. Despite the hesitations and warnings of so many sci-fi authors, techno-utopians are busy building an abyss to stare into. They are building a monster to imitate.

Dempster was no doubt proud of what he had done. Without question, his invention was clever. But I doubt he was thinking about the possible troubles that would be connected to the garbage disposal industry in the future while considering how to get the engineering aspects of his invention right, even if he was building on a previous idea. Having no access to him or his thinking, I may be doing terrible justice to the man himself. And yet, by simply observing people now, the very species that quite a few of my readers belong to, I think my speculation is at least somewhat justified.

Let’s consider for one wild moment some or other technoptimist—this is what I will call the person who sees only the upsides of technology and not its side-effects and downsides. Let’s think about some enthusiastic supporter of technological innovations. This character, we shall imagine, is crazy about what science can do. He has ‘Follow the Science’ tattooed in different equally kitsch fonts on several parts of his anatomy. He is unquestionably in favour of whatever medical-industrial product you might want to give him, even if it is a cure for a disease that doesn’t exist, and even if it might be worse than any disease. He has all the latest tech, even if it’s not particularly useful. His phone is all apps. His mind is all pings and notifications and Current Things and distractions. He eats the bugs, he wears the AR goggles, and he’s on the Neuralink trial waiting list. “Just look at amazing these things!” he screams obscenely loudly at anyone who walks past his cubicle at work. His colleagues look at him askew when he does this and hurriedly increase their distance from him. No one likes to be yelled at. Who is this guy?

He is, without a doubt, a moron. What makes him a moron is his unquestioning obeisance to the immediately obvious. He, my little fictional conceit, sees any given thing as if it exists apart from a world of meanings and consequences. He sees only the thing itself and so cannot even see the thing itself. Because, after all, nothing, in reality, can exist in such an unworlded state. Nothing can, in reality, be separated from its environment.

Unfortunately, the tragic stupidity of this technoptimist seems to me to be almost everywhere, lurking in the secret machinations of normal people like you and me. Almost everyone is still likely when asked what a garbage truck does to respond that it removes garbage. The truck is the thing, not the vast complex and fragile system that came into being when it was put to work. And yes, this is true, but it is such a microscopic part of the truth that it may almost be said to be false. Schopenhauer was right about at least this one thing: the trouble we have is often less with imperfection than with distortions so dramatic that truth itself can start to appear false.

My point is this. The dumpster truck doesn’t just remove garbage; it also, perhaps on a much greater scale, creates garbage. Garbage trucks in accidents. Garbage removers and others injured on duty because of the trucks. Noise pollution gathering around homes when garbage trucks are around. Also, garbage becomes easier to produce and discard when we carry with us the assumption that there’s someone who cares enough to deal with the stuff we discard. The thing does a million things, not just one thing. It doesn’t just help but contributes significantly to making the world worse. Because—and here we are back at systems theory—what the thing does is what the thing is. Nothing is reducible to its intended function. Intention, if anything, becomes a sort of magic dust in our eyes, hiding the real truth of things from us.

Concerning technologies and technological development, it is still normal to hear people speak about technology as a neutral thing—one with merely technical limits—that can be used in good or bad ways, depending on the user. What is missed is what Marshall McLuhan spent his entire career trying to convince people of. And here I am, fighting the same losing battle he was. McLuhan wanted people to know that we misunderstand things profoundly when we view them through whatever content they happen to relay. People review products in terms of their technical specifications but fail to see them as the effects and effectors of entire systems. New technologies aren’t just insertions into the world. They transform the world.

To explain the meaning of his phrase “the medium is the message,” McLuhan uses the example of a lightbulb. The lightbulb, he declares, is a medium without a message. In the lightbulb, we are not dealing with any specific content, although perhaps neon lights shaped into letters may suggest otherwise. The thing itself does what it is. It emits light. The message of this medium, McLuhan suggests, is total change.

To know what this means, to know what this feels like, walk into a dark room and, if you’re not stuck in a phase of rolling blackouts as I often am here in South Africa, flick that light switch. Day erupts inside a room and night is chased into its various corners. The entire environment is altered. McLuhan adopts this as a metaphor for what any and every technology does. You don’t just get what the technology is intended for, you get a whole new world. It’s not that one thing changes, everything does. And in this new world in which we can convince our minds and bodies that being out of step with the rhythms of nature is possible, we suffer from so much sleep deprivation. Our moods are affected and our sense of reality itself is warped. Just because what technology does escapes our conscious awareness doesn’t mean it’s not doing what escapes our conscious awareness. Even that ever-so-helpful electric light manufactures garbage. When everything is artificially illuminated, a brand-new kind of darkness descends. The mind itself is darkened. It is left to its own oblivion.

We all know this somewhat implicitly when any new invention walks onto the world’s stage. With Apple’s Vision Pro recently unleashed, conscientious objectors to the creeping simulacrum, people like me in other words, know that not embracing this tech is likely to change little. The mere presence of the new technology alters how the world feels and operates; the mere introduction of the tech into the mimetic fray of crowdthink is sufficient to bring about some sort of slippery slope. We’ve been here before, after all. We live in a world in which this has already happened, again and again and again.

Technological solutions are garbage producers. The novelty is nice for a moment before the aftermath needs to be dealt with. What is made is, in all likelihood, not just a neat little gadget but a new tool for manufacturing mental illness. And if we’re typing prompts into AI in a frenzy, we’re not just experiencing the IKEA-effect, we’re in the process of willfully adopting a form of brain damage as we allow certain aspects of consciousness and neurological function to atrophy.

We already sense that everything is now bathed in that AR interface and the world is already becoming a glut of entirely average images, even if we’re not eating the bugs and living in the pod and wearing the goggles and typing the prompts. Consider the environmental effects of our electricity dependence, including the fact that, as the work of Steven Gonzalez Monserrate shows, the airline industry’s carbon footprint has been superseded by the Cloud. But beyond this, the psychic and social consequences of our technologies are immense. Techheads will while away hours and hours of their precious existence trying to figure out new uses for all the new tech and will become even more beholden to it. Time will be spent. Lives will be wasted. Makers of the pixellated worlds will be unmade by the very pixellated world they are creating.

There’s no getting away from garbage. But now we have increasingly moved into a world that tries, tries, and tries again to get away from reality itself as if what it is doing is cleaning up the garbage. We live now in the world imagined in Pixar’s Wall-E, even if it doesn’t quite look as bad. The real is now hidden by all the products and byproducts we’ve produced and consumed. And there’s no sign that we’re slowing down. It’s as if we’re addicted to generating the circumstances within which life itself will become unlivable.

We have reasons already not to add yet another tweak to our psychological ecosystems. We know that the more artificial the world becomes, the more we work against ourselves, against what is human. And yet, we’re still beguiled by the content of our technologies. We think that what we’re conscious of is going to rule our fate. But as Carl Jung has wisely said, it is what they are unconscious of that seals the fates of people. They’ll live in the merry belief that they’re removing garbage. They’ll rejoice in their ingenuity as one new invention after another renders the world increasingly banal and soulless.

Just as people might go around believing they can have life without suffering, some think we can have the tech without its side effects. My argument here is slightly different. Technology is mostly its side effects. What it undoes outweighs what it does. The instrumental use of the tool—that is, its content—is perhaps even almost irrelevant when compared to its total impact on the world. Garbage trucks produce more garbage than they take away. And technology, far more often and in more ways than we tend to realise, takes away more than it gives.11

This was first published on The Miskatonian on 7 March 2024.

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