This article discusses the idea that the ancient human impulse to learn and take risks is still at the core of technological progress as we know it today.

The anthropologist and writer, Loren Eiseley, tells us that somewhere in the caves of Choukoutien, in what is now modern day China, archeologists have found the fossil remains of a paleoanthropic form of man with a cranial capacity roughly two-thirds the size of those of modern humans.  Little evidence has been found to suggest how this little pygmoid creature survived.  He gnawed on bones, chipped stone tools, lived in perpetual terror of shadows and predators.  Certainly, life for him was brutal and short, shrouded as it was in a vast, howling winter.  But he had fire.  And fire means that he had somehow opened his mind to exploration and learning.

The human impulse to learn, to explore, to dare shine a light on the shadows moving in the snow outside the cave, has remained unchanged over the millennia.  We have learned about DNA codes and what little we know of about  our universe for the same primordial reasons we learned about fire.  What has changed is not so much why we want to learn, but how and from where we absorb the information we feed our minds.

Cats out of the bags

Today, we who have stumbled out of the winter of our ancestors, away  from its leaping shadows and its bitter cold, are moving into a world that  appears, at least at first glance,  more wiling to yield its secrets to the interrogations of the curious.  We are informed — and quite often misinformed and disinformed — through an array of technological channels:  huge rivers of data swirl into the vaults of our consciousness on a daily basis.  Some 8.7 billion devices are now connected to the internet, while RingCentral VOIP services allow instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere on the planet.  “Demystification is the order of our day,” says Thomas Pynchon,”all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle.”

Not surprisingly, the drive to modernize, digitize and automate has backfired on us more than a couple of times.  Technophobes have a field day with subjects like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and even climate change — and we fear there are moments when they actually make sense.  Our worries do not end there, of course.  Technology has progressed at an explosive pace since the invention of the microchip in 1959.  So fast, in fact, that it is now virtually impossible to tell where it is all headed.  An industry report on big data indicates that some technology experts believe people in their field sometimes think they know more than they actually do.  When applied to some of the more dangerous technologies we’re presently exploring, that same notion can sound downright terrifying.

Brother, your fur is on fire

Still, there isn’t a single reason to believe that we’ll be changing our headlong, collective trajectory any time soon.  We’ve always been unpredictable, free, madcap and daring creatures, inclined to take gargantuan risks. Technology has heightened these characteristics to exponential degrees.  We have bigger bombs now, more powerful machines, and are fiddling with some of nature’s most closely-guarded secrets.  Any serious pondering on our future prospects can cause hand-wringing anxiety, for sure.  But then we are often at our best when we are unhinged, at times even obsessive, in our desire to to move forward.

Eiseley suggests that perhaps our course is circling back into our glacial provenance, into another version of the great, wintry wilderness out of which we came.  Maybe there is something to that.  Perhaps we are destined now to move into other, stranger landscapes, to search for other fires elsewhere,  to seek out a triumphant retort to the things we still fear and do not know and have yet to understand.   And maybe that is why we labor ruthlessly on by habit, hoping that the future could — by our tired persistence and our childlike daring — once again spring full and glorious,  hissing like static or a startling  height of prehistoric flame, endless as the oceans, endless as our past, finally redeemed from the shadows that prowl the glittering snow beyond the glow of our fire.

About Henry Conrad

Henry Conrad is a 29-year-old game developer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aside from gaming and being a tech junky, he also dabbles in creative writing, which allows him to create great storylines and backgrounds for his characters.