(un)common ground

a commonplace book

what do you think about steve jobs?


One of Heraclitus’ best lines turns on a pun. In the archaic dialect of Greek that Homer used the word for an archer’s bow is bios (βιός). The Greek word for ‘life’ is spelled the same way (βίος). Heraclitus’ line runs:

βιός τῷ τόξῳ ὄνομα βίος ἔργον δὲ θάνατος

The name of the bow is life but its work is death.

This is the first and the last word on technology.

Technology is cleverness at play in the material world. Technology seeks to improve life by the manipulation of unthinking matter. But, because there is nothing less intelligent than cleverness, these manipulations take place wholly by the light of death. Technology is to death what the gold ingot is to the thousand tons of ore. Every attempt to improve the present conditions of life by technological means is a further tribute laid at the feet of death, as he sits in the absolute sovereignty which this activity grants him.

This quickly stops seeming like hyperbole when you imagine what an immortal version of yourself might be like: Would a you that could not die try to augment anything about your body? Would that immortal person need a car or a ship when walking and swimming can be sustained indefinitely? Would events and feelings–whose details could never be obliterated–need to be committed to paper? Would time itself even exist, to say nothing of needing keeping, to a you whom change could not affect? And if space and time become irrelevancies, of what possible interest is manipulating the dead matter that occupies these domains?

What we call ‘technology’ is then a kind of textile. A thread of cleverness crossing the threat of death. We are clothed in the fabric that this technique creates; we wear it like a better skin to keep out the several chills that mortal life is born to, but the chill is woven in.

One of the better films about technology seems to have been made with Heraclitus’ insight in mind. If you’ve ever looked into Homer’s Odyssey you may remember that weapon associated with Odysseus is the bow. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, death is the first and second use to which technology is put. The monolith reveals something to the ape-men, and soon they club tapirs and one other to death. A later protagonist of the film, called Bowman, uses a smaller club to kill a machine. A machine who murdered men when it first realized that it could die.

The intimacy with which death penetrates technology is something that is more often felt than realized. This intimacy is why a robot seems more and more like a living corpse as its appearance approaches that of human flesh; why a dying person seems to die twice as much when a respirator pumps air in and out of their lungs through a corrugated tube threaded down their throat; and it is this intimacy that cloaked the death of Steve Jobs in an aura that that death could never otherwise have assumed.

Steve Jobs came to represent the mirage of eternal life that shimmers across the face of technology when death is so close as to become impossible to distinguish. This is the mirage that makes the bow life when its work is death. It is what the monolith whispered to the ape-men that made them kill to eat meat and drink water; what men in turn whispered to HAL and what Bowman was born knowing. When Jobs died of cancer the air became momentarily clear. The mirage flickered, and then it vanished. The world seemed to grieve for a man it did not know, but this grief was what the hands felt when the hem of what we have become frayed just enough to feel the threads themselves.

The name of the bow is life but its work is death.

I don’t think I’ve seen a more concise argument for the relation of human activity to the awareness of mortality. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on November 8, 2015 by and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: