M. Serres. Conversations on science, culture, and time / Michel Serres with Bruno Latour. University of Michigan Press, 1995.
From now on we are sterring things that, in the past, we didn’t steer. In dominating the planet, we become accountable for it. In manipulating death, life, reproduction, the normal and the pathological, we become responsible for them. We are going to have to decide about every thing, and even about Everything—about the physical and thermodynamic future, about Darwinian evolution, about life, about the Earth and about time, about filtering possibilities—candidates to be evaluated for becoming realities—a process Leibniz described as characterizing the work of God the creator, in the secret of his infinite understanding.
Thus, we are going to need a prodigious knowledge, sharpened in every detail, harmonious in its broad workings, and a sovereign wisdom—clear-sighted regarding the present and prudent regarding the future. Is this divinity?
For the world suddenly seems to place itself under the workings or the competence of our collective laws. We used to have a hard time conceiving of the existence of objective laws, independent of our human and political laws. Today these objective laws return and are part of the rules of the city. Will the Earth depend upon the city?—with the physical world depend upon the political world?
The lives and actions of our children soon will be conditioned, in fact, by an Earth that we will have programmed, decided upon, produced, and modeled. Thus, we find the consequences of our conquests weighing on our shoulders, as conditions of our future decisions. A new kind of feedback—no doubt the result of our global powers—turns practical action inside-out, like the finger of a glove. In the future, we will live only under the conditions that we will have produced in this era. (p. 173, emphasis in original)
I’ve been convinced of this for some time now, but unable to put it in as eloquent terms as Serres above. We are beginning to witness (where “beginning” exists on a time frame of decades) our ability to control our destiny as humans, from the time of the atomic bomb (the starting point for Serres) to our present digital and biological abilities. The section from which this quote comes is an extended discourse on wisdom and morality—how our ability to control “Everything” requires us to define and create a new morality. No longer can we hearken back to religion to placate ourselves when things go wrong. We must recognize our power of control, which requires us to create reigns on what we do. With power comes the need to temper that power.
This is represented in some ways in work at the lab, where we make things because we have the ability to do so. It’s perhaps done more insidiously in other departments at MIT, and elsewhere, where people create technologies whose main purpose is destruction, just because it can be done. We can’t do that anymore. We have to recognize our power, limited as it is in relation to omnipotence, powerful as it is in relation to our scientific and technological abilities of just a few decades ago.
Elsewhere Serres speaks of the new “troubadour of knowledge”, the person who realizes that “there is as much rigor in a myth or a work of literature as in a theorem or an experiment and, inversely, as much myth in these as in literature.” (p. 183) I agree with him that we all must cross unnecessary boundaries, live in the hinterlands, realize the overlapping reality of disciplines, if we are to understand the most pressing issues of the day and prevent future calamities.
I’ve always been someone interested in many things, with the hopeful desire of achieving some synthesis amongst them, and in Serres’ discussion with Latour I’ve now read an enabling motivation for why this is necessary.