Editorial: the drawknife and the drone

We are at a strange moment in human history. Things that for decades were the wild fantasies of science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. Military powers are developing autonomous killer robots and functional laser weapons; new nanomaterials with physics-bending capabilities are being employed in a myriad of industrial products; printable body parts, stem cell therapies and injectable tissue are on the verge of medical application; cameras and computers are shrinking exponentially, becoming ubiquitous in the fabric of our lives. Our control extends to the lower reaches of physical reality and to the furthest corners of the sky; the world has become an artefact, as many proponents of the ‘Anthropocene’ never cease to remind us.

At the same time, the costs of our technological advance are becoming ever more apparent. Half the forests are gone, desertification threatens a quarter of the world’s land, and we are living through the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are decomposing in the oceans, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the global food chain. As the Larsen ice shelf crumbles and the methane clathrates begin to bubble up from the seabed, the feedback loops multiply and threaten runaway warming that would render the face of the planet unrecognisable. And while the privileged few enjoy the fruits of technological innovation, the majority continue to live in age-old precarity and hardship.

The cultural responses to this unique epoch are similarly marked by paradox. For many, the solution to the problems created by technology is more technology: China has become the world leader in cloud seeding to combat drought, rocket-launching chemicals into the atmosphere to create millions of tonnes of extra rain; only a few years ago, rogue geoengineer Ross George dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulfate into the Pacific to encourage carbon-capturing plankton blooms. Our gaze turns skyward, contemplating the engineering of the atmosphere itself, while some dream of entirely transcending the ‘limitations’ of organic existence through the apotheosis of a technological Singularity.

Part of the energy driving the focus on technology, of course, lies in a growing disillusionment with the world’s dominant cultural and political arrangements. As inequality increases, social unity fragments, and another economic storm looms on the horizon, the urge to turn to mechanistic fixes for human predicaments only seems to deepen.

At the same time, a cultural backlash against these visions of hi-tech triumph seems to be in play in the richest societies. The turn in fashion towards a rough-hewn, homespun aesthetic; the revival of handcrafts and home-baking; the popularity of drama set in historical periods or quasi-mediæval fantasy realms – all these seem to suggest an unconscious reaction against the unbounded, high-speed frictionlessness that now characterises electronic media, global finance and corporate hegemony. At their best, these interests form part of a genuine cultural activism – community gardens and paleo diets segue into an informed rejection of the corporate food industry; counter-culture fandom into an interest in alternative media and ideologies; maker cafés and pop-up shops into a drive for self-build and land reform; craft revival into relearning the vital skills needed to navigate an uncertain future

In the midst of this network of cultural and material tensions, this issue of Dark Mountain (the first to focus specifically on one theme) takes as its subject not ‘technology’, but ‘technê’. Unfamiliar as it may be, the classical distinction between epistêmê – the realm of theory or knowledge – and technê – the practical application of art and craft – has continued to structure our thinking to the present day, dividing our humanities from our sciences, our intellectuals from our engineers, and our minds from our hands.

This book is intended to cut across this divide, weaving the global with the domestic, the theoretical with the pragmatic, the technological with the artistic. In the process, we hope to crack open the black box of a culture drowning in the digital and strangled by power lines. What stories underpin a technological mode of life? What role does skilled practice have in a world where everything Smart™ runs at the push of a button? Where are the boundaries between art and technology? Where does this experiment in total biospherical control end – in determinism or liberation, Singularity or despair?

The essays you will find within these pages deal with issues ranging from ancient myth to atomic weapons, from the inheritance of family tools to the cult of reproductive technology. Familiar names – Paul Kingsnorth picking apart the devotional underpinnings of transhumanism, or Charles Foster ruminating on the materiality of writing – and established figures like David Graeber and Bill McKibben rub shoulders here with new contributors and fresh perspectives; Sarah Perry considering the role of ritual in an automated world, James Bridle wayfaring around our ever-suffocating electromagnetic blanket, or Catrina Davies writing on the technosphere of her live-in shed. At the same time, we look back at the thinkers of the past who tried to warn us of the perilous path we were travelling – Chellis Glendinning recalls the neo-Luddites of yesteryear, while Jan van Boeckel writes of the documentary he made on 20th century techno-sage Jacques Ellul.

This collection is also the most heavily illustrated we have yet produced, valuing the visual alongside the textual. Between the essays, you will find recipes, music, how-to guides, art and other interventions, as a reminder that ideas must be grounded in the practical world, and an encouragement to explore for yourself the roots of technê in craft and manual practices. Whether enjoying the rich textures of a photo-essay on walnut oil production in the Périgord, or attempting for yourself the ad hoc construction of a luthier’s plane, making helps us retake our place on the tangled bank of life.

This book is not a shrill screed against the ills of the modern techno-cult, but rather a meditation on the enormity of this moment for humanity. Both those who fight for unrestrained technological development and those who rail against it in toto fall foul of shallow thinking: is the scythe the same as the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope? The draw-knife the same as the drone? Or the hand axe the same as the atom bomb? We give up too much contemplative breadth when we presuppose that they are. Human life needs reframing, recrafting, reweaving; a surrogate, virtual, second life, sacrificed on the altar of the technological gods, is no substitute for a life of immersion in rich, storied objects and relationships. We hope this anthology goes some way towards giving space to these possibilities.