Ruminations on alienation, commodity fetishism, myth, etc. Don’t mind me.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Human beings have always made stuff. Broadly, that’s what humans are: the apes that make stuff. Even before Darwin, Benjamin Franklin called man “the tool-making animal”, a description apparently vindicated by our discoveries about early humanity, which seem to show the rise of the ‘big brain’ driven by the needs of the hand.
The flint tools and decorative beads of the hunter-gatherers. The pyramids and ziggurats of the great slave empires. The water wheels and ploughs of medieval Europe.
But the rise of capitalism brought the factory system. The division of labour. Specialisation without expertise. Organisation of time. The creation of new kinds of cities that worked as battery farms for thousands of corralled workers. Mass production. Heavy industry. Conveyor belts. Fordism. Mechanisation. Computer-run facilities.
The ape that makes things started to make things faster than ever before, in greater numbers than ever before. And the things started to confront the thingmaker as alien, autonomous, controlling, dominating. When you have to watch a clock to make sure you clock in and clock out at the right time, it’s hard not to feel like you are answerable to the clocks, even if you work in a clock factory making clocks.
The rise of science and technology. This was also part of the rise of capitalism. Galileo, who pretty much invented what we would call modern science during the Renaissance (or the ‘Early Modern Period’, the period during which feudalism began to give way to the rise of mercantile trade, finance, private industry, markets, etc.), sold his inventions, made in his own workshop, to the Venetians who protected him. His first telescope, based on Flemish spyglasses, were made to be sold to the traders on the Rialto (the Venetian stock market: centre and powerhouse of the thrusting, ultra-modern city republic), so that they could identify at long range which merchant’s ships were returning safely, laden with goods. Only later did it occur to Galileo that he could train his telescopes upon the moon and the stars and the planets. When he did so, he published his explosive findings on the market and had a bestseller on his hands.
Later, but still as part of the same process of the rise of the new system, the concept of entropy, and with it pretty much the whole of modern applied physics, came from the need to better understand (and thus improve) how engines work, engines that powered the industrial revolution.
The things that the thing-making-ape made became increasingly wondrous. The engines became bigger, faster, more powerful. They took us all across the world (usually to pillage and enslave). They created wars that devastated vast swathes of the globe. They ferried people to industrial murder factories. They allowed man to fly. To drop bombs that killed hundreds of thousands in seconds. They put apes on the moon.
And they transformed inner space too. “You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” And here we are, on the glorious interweb.…