When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck

I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018.  Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996.  ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’  These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes.  In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity.  This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder.  Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder.  Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature.  The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.

Sources:

Elaine Moore, When Big Dating leaves you standing, FT Weekend, July 8th, 2021.

Paul Virilio, and Petit Philippe. Politics of the Very Worst, New York: Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89 (available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-very-worst).

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