We all learn in different ways and sometimes I gain understanding by relating concepts to the pop culture I have consumed. It makes for awkward moments when I explain my understanding to those who know neither the concepts I am studying or the shows I have watched. The following is how the Disney show Phineas and Ferb gives a modern explanation of the ancient Greek attitude toward technology.
Phineas and Ferb tells the story of what the titular step-brothers do on their summer vacation. This all sounds quite cute and tame until you find out the two brothers are technical geniuses, able to create anything their hearts desire. They also have a pet platypus named Perry. Perry is a secret agent and the arch-nemesis of the shows ineffective villain Dr. Doofenshmirtz. It is a crazy show, and I love it.
Our Technological Society.
Getting back to the point of clarity that Phineas and Freb demonstrate means that we have to explain technology as it is today. For this we require the use of George Grant, Jacques Ellul and Simone Weil.
Ellul in ‘The Technology in Society’ affirms that the use of techniques has been a constant in human existence. It may be that this is the key ability that elevates us above the animals. It could be, as thought by those who inspired the artists of the Renaissance, the true expression of the Image of God in humanity. Or, it could be the fabled fruit of good and evil.
Creativity is key to technique and the development of all techniques wether they be the invention of fire, music, or technology that sends a satellite into orbit. However if we look at the ancient Greeks they possessed an amazing amount of technical knowledge. Yet there was no technology as we understand and experience it today.
Today we see technique applied towards a very different goal. Applied is the word highlighted by George Grant in his compilation ‘Technology and Justice.’ We hear it in the title Applied Physics. But what is physics applied towards? What are all our techniques applied towards? There is something inexorable about this application and where it is headed.
Technology, Lego and Mickey Mouse.
According to Ellul technique is ‘self-augmenting’. This means that technique is like a LEGO brick, it is made for another brick, which is made for another and another. Technique builds on technique, the ideas and inventions of before are adapted and improved upon again and again. There is no option but to continue the adaptation, even though we do not know what the adaptations will bring.
This is technique and it grows, like mops in another Disney classic, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The slavery of the machine is good but, like Mickey we have forgotten the magic words to stop the technique growing. We are in a situation where meaning and making, knowledge and arts are so intertwined that they are unable to be separated. Grant uses the word ‘co-penetration’ to describe this union.
Archimedes and Summer Vacation
When we look back at the creations of ancient Greece and Rome and we marvel that they never made this connection. Archimedes built tremendous siege engines to save his city of Syracuse from Roman invaders. Though he never added to the machines he made. He never thought of continuing to perfect the weapons. It was not that he did not make the connection, it was that the connection was not something to pursue. This is where Phineas and Ferb come into it.
“There are a hundred and four days of summer vacation and school comes along just to end it. And the annual problem for our generation is finding a good way to spend it.” These are the first lines to the song of the Phineas and Ferb title sequence. This is the application of Phineas and Ferb’s amazing inventions. Phineas’ at the start of every show declares to his brother Freb what the two are we going to do. Each invention is special and amazing, creative, crazy and innovative. And, before the end of every episode, every invention is either destroyed, collapses, or disappears.
This is the difference between the modern application of meaning and making and the ancient philosophy. For Archimedes the combination of knowledge and arts, that for us is technique, is there at the behest of the creator, not for the furthering of another technique. Today technique self-augments like the mops given life by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Technique has grown in number, like the Apprentice’s creations never ceasing in their purpose to bring the water, and, in turn create a flood.
Technique is a force in our society. Simone Weil in her exposition of the Illiad reveals force as that which turns people into things. Force makes what was once a person, alive and in relationship with family and comrades, a lifeless thing. Techniques rarely accommodates the human factor. If the technique requires something it is obtained, not matter the cost. Just google ‘mobile phone rare metals child slavery’.
We have existed in this application of technique for a long time now. It has changed the world and will change it further. While technique looks forward to more of the same in its inexorable self-augmentation; can we choose a side? Are we Phineas and Ferb looking forward to what we are going to make for today? Or, are we the Sorcerer’s Apprentice waiting for the master to show up and save us?
Phillip Hall is working towards a research masters at the University of Divinity. He has a cracking idea on the use of Superman and Batman in explaining the two natures of Christ. If you ask him about it make sure you have a decent knowledge of the DC universe, and Christology before doing so.
Phillip Hall has been too long in Melbourne to see AFL in the same light as those back in Fremantle. East Fremantle born and bred, he would love to see the Dockers back in the eight. But would settle for just beating West Coast twice a year.