Some Sketches on Technology

Four nights after we arrived here a blizzard moved in and basically caused all traffic to stop.  The winds went up to 50 MPH and the wind chill temperature was somewhere close to negative 100 degrees Farenheit (minus 38F without wind).  As we left the museum, people there wished me a nice first blizzard.  No one appeared to take any real significant precaution, this sort of thing being pretty common this time of year.  We cooked dinner and watched the weather from the living room windows, watching the thick white curtains of snow going horizontal out onto the sea.  I went outside for a few minutes to check it out.  With something close to a hermetic seal around myself, 700 fill down, Goretex®, balaclava, goggles, etc., I was able to sit down about 200 meters away from our house and watch the storm without being too uncomfortable.  The wind was coming almost directly from the pole and it was virtually impossible to look into it, the snow material would blow apart seams between my hood and jacket, mask and goggles, and instacold would happen, combined with a kind of snow sandblasting onto my skin.  But when I put myself at an angle to the North, it was ok.  The lights of Cambridge Bay, even though I was on the waterfront street (Nitiak: seal), seated directly under one street light, were extinguished by a super low visibility storm.  The light of the moon lit up the top of the storm and cast a gray flickering distant light down through the hurtling snow.  (Brendan says that many storms are only about 10 feet high… sometimes you can get to a piece of high ground and see right over top of the blizzard.)  Sitting there I realized I have made some mistakes.

I realized that I have been permitted immense luxuries, such as constant continual access to highly evolved shelter, superlative quality nutrition, comprehensive education, transportation that takes ancient animal and plant matter and explodes it, causing the advance of extremely heavy steel carriages, including ones that fly, and in the frightening banal ubiquitous presence of all these luxuries, crafted ideas about my own person.  I don’t think it really matters what the exact contents of these ideas are; we all have them, identities.  And sitting in that storm, meditating on the peoples that have intentionally migrated HERE to live, I realized that those ideas basically just depend on being comfortable, and are perhaps completely wedded to the things themselves.  I could feel the faint intimation of why someone would choose to come live here: here, you join up with the climate, with the place: you are part of it and vice versa and if you begin to formulate ideas about yourself irrespective of the place, you’ll die.

I also realized that when we (Westerners) consider native people it is very difficult to avoid a simplistic noble savage type scenario.  In high school history books are cartoons of Indians putting fish under corn plants with Pilgrims, there are sharpened spear and totem artifacts behind glass in museums of Civilization, sculptures of Sacajawea pointing the way for Msrs. Clark and Lewis, etc.  It is very difficult to conceive of native technology in contra-position to Western industrialized technology.  This is at least a mistake I have always made (thinking that natives just made stuff sharp and stabbed animals).  When you consider the validity of ancient technologies, along with the stark factual reality that none of us can explain very well how really anything works (a telephone, computer, engine, electric transformer, CD, fax machine, photo copier, cell phone, even things like a sky-scraper, a pair of running shoes, a loom, a windmill, etc.), much less the lack of ability to make any of those things… it becomes interesting to look at ancient technology.  Here is a comparison of two things, a modern thing and an ancient Inuit thing.  What they both share is vast independent research, engineering and joint effort across borders (peoples), communication between generations, constant vetting over time with experimentation, and constant improvement leading to better results.

The first, modern thing: the 2009 Audi A4 Avant (one of my favorite machines):

It would take a long book to detail the advances this machine represents, starting with early processes such as steel casting, refinement and casting of plastic, refinement of rubber, leather tanning, fire-retardant foam, on-board electrical generation, electrical engineering, metal machining, laser boring, on and on and on with safety features, number of circuits, performance both in user experience and competition with other vehicles, etc.  In my mind, the automobile represents something every modern nation has taken pride in trying to perfect; nations have learned from one another, traded with each other, competed over, and exhausted mental and physical resources trying to sell these to every person on earth.  (I have a special affinity for the German version of the automobile; they do it so well.)  To provide one sentence about this machine, what it can do: go from zero miles per hour to sixty in right at five seconds; it can also make a reverse banked turn at high speed on snow and electronically correct between four driving wheels to go exactly where you want to go.  This thing is the result of probably hundreds of thousands of people thinking about it, pouring their life energies into making it better.  And now we have it: it’s amazing; (and kind of silly.)

What about a traditional technology?  This is another item that has been manufactured by the hundreds of thousands all over the North, for the past many thousand years, with significant advance in performance:

I can only see in these objects certain strains of similarities… and then the things I’ve been told from Brendan, and in perusing a book in the Arctic explorer’s library: “Ancient Harpoon Heads of Nunavut: An Illustrated Guide” by Robert W. Park and Douglas R. Stenton.  There are several discernible periods of Northern craft and peoples who made sakkuni (harpoon heads).  Amazingly, in the Central and Eastern Arctic, there is a Pre-Dorset period (people who were up here before the Inuit and remain a bit mysterious, before 2000 B.C.–way before Heraclitus), Dorset, and then the Thule (the ancestors of the Alaskan Esquimaux and Inuit).  The harpoon was used widely and is found commonly in archaeological expeditions across the Arctic.  It was used to kill sea mammals.  The fairly incredible innovation of this tool is the invention of the tikaagut, the toggle: in the leftmost harpoon head it is most obvious as that large tooth.  If you examine them all they have something like it, some of the others get the same action from the swallow tail in the base.  The head is lashed with tendon to the end of the harpoon shaft (tigula) and then also tied with another tendon so that the shaft can come free.  This allows the hunter to thrust the shaft into the animal (and the book details many innovations in the harpoon heads to make its way into the flesh faster), completely penetrate the skin and then release from the shaft, which the hunter would quickly pull away and set aside, AND THEN AUTOMATICALLY TURN INSIDE THE WOUND and lock itself under the skin of a seal, a walrus, a beluga whale, or even a 40 ton Bowhead whale (Balaena Mysticetus).  (Aside: I have been out walking on the sea ice every day here; if you charged me with finding and killing a seal, I would not even know how to FIND one… much less kill one without a gun.-)-  A good Inuit hunter would take down a seal every day with an instrument like this, fashioned by his own hand, and by tracking down breathing holes and waiting, haunting the animal, using methods he learned from his father and the generation before him.  A strong guy would strike the seal with the harpoon, the seal would run by diving straight back down with the sakku embedded, he would let out up to 50 feet of tendon line, slowly adding tension to the lead, and then manually arrest a 200 pound seal, reeling it back to finish it off with a club, and haul it in to hook it up to his dog sled; it’s ten AM, nighttime dark, Aurora Borealis dancing over your head like long glittering green harpoon spears in the stars, minus 50F, you cut out a small piece of steaming seal steak for right then, eat it, looking up at a dancing sky, cut a piece of fat and feed your dogs, and know you’re returning to feed your family.

Personally, I would be just as happy about knowing how to make and do that… as I would about the Audi.

Let’s compare the two stories a little more.

The story of the Audi starts before the industrial revolution: even though the West had Copernican astral mechanics and Bach, life was hand made and built sturdily on WORK.  Of course it was not a subsistence lifestyle (… but neither was life in the western Arctic, even long before Bach).  Heat was made largely with fire, either burning wood and then later coal, if you were a farmer, you’re house was made of stones and earth and wood, and likely made by you.  When you went to the market, you purchased (or traded your metier) for food grown by the people selling it to you and probably from within ten miles of where you lived.  There were of course intense hierarchies of social organization, politics, major abundance in different places such as in the hands of land owners or conquerors… and it was a life of surplus in that you did not necessarily worry how to get from one day to the next, or worry about the weather killing you.  But you probably did worry… and that concern lead to more tooling, more refinement, greater ease in producing and therefore less worry about quotidian things such as dinner and shelter.  The human penchant for accessorizing is discernible in more frills, the Victorian age, complex musical instruments, theater, shock absorption on the horse and carriage, and a couple hundred years down the line, the CNC bored single aluminum block 3.0L V6 Audi A4 engine.

The Inuit in the Central Arctic are descended from the Tuniit and Thule peoples, who are thought to have migrated from the Alaskan Coast and Bering Sea starting somewhere around 1,000 years ago.  Their migration is well documented by archaeologists, Brendan being one of those people who have looked at the story of why people would migrate deeper into the Arctic, closer to the pole, away from more substantial community.  I did not understand this until recently: the Aleutian and Esquimaux were not just subsisting up in the Arctic through drawn out pre-history… they were flourishing, populating, building societies, and becoming easily as complex (in some ways…) as my ancestors who were trying to figure out the Audi.  Way up in the Alaskan Arctic, the Inupiat Inuit were building small cities, creating trade networks with China and Mongolia, making significant lodge buildings that would be handed down through generations, and creating complex social hierarchies.  There are excavations that demonstrate this kind of organization going back to 1,000 and 2,000 B.C.  There have been rattan mats excavated from Inupiat sites that are 2,000 years old, clear indications that they were trading with China.  There were bustling villages with powerful chiefs and intense social hierarchies based on hunting.  There was a clear surplus along the whole coast of Alaska, extending high up into areas that are frozen for nine months of the year.  This surplus was effected by hunting the Bowhead whale, an animal who lives only in Arctic waters and often weighs as much as a laden rail road car.  A powerful chief would have proven an ability to pull down several of these animals a year, bringing provisions for light (lamp oil), buildings (the qalgiq we built this summer would have traditionally been made of Bowhead jaws), ample food provisions that would last throughout the winter and offer nourishment for many families, clothing materials, medicines, etc.  The whale offered the ability for Inuit to enter a life of surplus… and a life of surplus–being the product of specialized tooling and engineering–allows for further refinement.  There were shamans and dancers who aided spiritually in the hunting of whales, there were artists who depicted Inupiat culture, there were clothing makers and tool makers.  There was a system of specialists… in the Arctic, 2,000 years ago.  This was, to some degree, based upon the technology of the harpoon.  Along the coast there were different versions of the tool, depending on the tribe, depending on the tool maker… and there were varying degrees of success or economy, which translated directly to quality of life.  With the social complexity connected to surplus, came a host of problems and social unrest, a loss of values and, in some sense, tradition.  That is the trend the Thule were responding to when they decided to break away and explore into the high Canadian Arctic, looking for a simpler way of life.

The over tooling and over use of the harpoon led the Thule to seek a simpler way of being, like a clan of hippies striking out to start a new commune, fleeing the concrete and steel of the city.

This is a story that archaeologists are building thousands of years after the fact.  It appeals to me, though… because when you examine the causes of strife amidst the people, they appear to be technologically based: on the one hand we make things so well, we can make them so well that they offer function, then comfort, then luxury… and in the same act, we have made an object that can create social disparity and tremendous unhappiness.

There’s something akin shared by the Audi and the harpoon.  What’re your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Some Sketches on Technology

  1. What a fascinating thesis–surplus as a pain in the neck, an adversary that would drive people into the deep cold at the roof of the world. Exhaustion from the frenzy of getting and having a lot of stuff you really don’t need to survive–and malaise and discontent and just plain barn sourness from all the social strife associated therewith–that would send you packing to a place guaranteed to keep you focused on what deep joy lies in just continuing to breathe and stay warm. Intriguing. Thanks! And thanks for the great new pix. Keep them Arctic posts coming, Butch. That’s what you’re good at. Love, Pop

  2. Thanks for the notes, Ben. The question of what is lost, and what is gained with technology is compelling. We live in such a highly “advanced” technological age. It is easy to get bombarded with more gadgets and the latest software advances. I suppose there is a balance, if we understand how to use the tools we have wisely. Because there are some amazing tools in this modern age. I don’t know if we could get along without the computer and the digital realm because it is such a huge part of the modern language.
    I have always been a fan of simplicity and am often mystified by those people who have held onto their roots and still live the traditional ways. Their connection to the earth and stars is perhaps something we will never know. And that is definitely something we’ve lost. I wonder if this was more than we gambled for…
    Thank you for your intriguing thoughts.