The post-modern world has invented a multitude of new kinds of things that cannot be categorized conveniently using the Modern dichotomy of either objective (out there) or subjective (in here).
I will ignore for the time being the reaction of the man in the street who says “So what, what difference does it make?” The Modern World made a big difference – because, for one thing, it ended up making today’s ignoramuses.
Latour calls the moderns iconoclasts. And I can do no better than this quote from page 289:
Are we not the inheritors of all the iconoclastic gestures of history? Of Moses striking down the Golden Calf? Of Plato breaking up the shadows of the Cave to honor this highest of all the idols, the Idea – eidon – itself? Of Paul sending all the pagan idols packing? Of the great wars of the Byzantine era between the iconoclasts and iconodules? Of the Lutherans deciding what should and what should not be painted? Of Galileo shattering the antique cosmos? Of the revolutionaries tearing down the ancien régime? Of Marx denouncing the illusions of commodity fetishism? Of Freud turning the fetish into a stopper that closes off the horrifying discovery of what is always missing? Of Nietzsche, the philosopher with a hammer, smashing every idol, or, more accurately, tapping them gently to hear how hollow they sound?
Latour does not discuss the high-tech world, an omission that baffles me. But I am quite willing, and capable, of elaborating on just that.
The Computer made all the difference, and those differences were (as always) a mixed blessing. We did not think to consider its effects before merging with it – and merging completely. And we are incapable of doing so after the fact because it has eliminated us and replaced us with new creatures that both it and we have created. I must repeat this: both it and we created the new creatures that we now are – monsters.
As monsters, we are destructive, and are destroying everything – including ourselves. This, in itself, is nothing new – empires without number have come and gone. But our present empire is global – thanks to the computer. An when it goes down – as it will – the results are going to be very interesting.
But I must say more about the new things (or the new worlds) that we and the computer have created. The computer started out as an idea – a new kind of programmable calculator that never got built because implementing it mechanically (the only means at the time) was too difficult. The idea was to take the programmable weaving machines that then existed (using punch cards) and add general-purpose programmable memory. But doing this mechanically was too difficult, and the project was abandoned.
It had to wait until after WWII, when electronics was invented – using vacuum tubes. Vacuum tube technology (with magnetic memory) was more flexible (only wiring was involved) and much faster (millions of operations a second). All kinds of things could now be done that were too difficult before. Wow!
But that was not all. Digital technology was invented too. When I went to Engineering School at the University of Illinois back in the Fifties, I learned everything there was to know about vacuum tubes. My professors also knew about computers, but they were uncomfortable with digital technology, and I learned about analog computers instead. These were quickly made obsolete by semiconductor technology.
To summarize, digital computers were made possible by electronic processing using magnetic memory (the hard drive, for example) and semiconductor arrays where all kinds of operations could be cheaply mass-produced and operated without using much power – compared with banks of vacuum tubes radiating all kinds of heat.
This does not explain digital technology, which I do not want to explain right now. Just consider it a new kind of magic, and you will not be too far wrong – if you keep in mind that this new magic eliminated much of the old magic – which I do not want to explain either.
Take it from me – the computer changed everything. And by the computer, I mean computer hardware, software, the Internet, and the Wireless network – the whole ball of wax.
People are left staring at their smartphones – considering them, naturally enough, as wonderful extensions of themselves they cannot understand in the least, but they cannot live without either – since they have merged with them completely.
But they will say, and say over and and over “Nothing has changed!”