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Technology’s Deep Time: technology, humans and the environment

May 20, 2023 - Genevieve Bell and Andrew Meares in conversation with TCD’s Chris Morash on the Australian Overland Telegraph Line of 1872 and its parallels to contemporary technology systems.

In order to make decisions surrounding the future of technology we must shift our perception of the past. This was one of the key takeaways of “Technology’s Deep Time,” an in-person event featuring Professor Genevieve Bell, Director of the School of Cybernetics and a Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University, and her colleague Andrew Meares, celebrated press photographer and the Cybernetic Futures Lead at the Australian National University and. They were in conversation with Professor Chris Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at TCD, in an evening discussion panel organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub and the School of English.

Bell began by observing that much of modern technology is based on “a series of choices that were made somewhere between 100 to 150 years ago to solve different kinds of problems.” As we configure technologies today, she wants to be really clear about where each of these technologies came from and what were the choices made to configure them. “So as we recombine them, we are not doing so unaware of the choices that were made in building them in the first place.”

The story of “Technology’s Deep Time” was told through a series of stunning colour-saturated photographs depicting scenes in the outback on the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia, about 670km north-northwest of Adelaide, the location of Bell and Meares’ exploration from the past two years, which brought them all the way back to one of the biggest feats of nineteenth-century Australian engineering: the Overland Telegraph Line of 1872. This enterprise, which established fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world, spanned 3,200 kilometres from the south to the north of the continent.

Bell and Meares’ examination of an early mass connectivity project through their study of the original telegraphy route was also an exercise in recording the myriad echoes the telegraph line has on the Australian landscape to this day. Their project was inspiring for the event’s chair, Prof Morash, when he accompanied the two Australian researchers into the outback during their expedition.

If you could think about what it took to make the telegraphy system, what would it tell us about what we are doing now?
Prof Genevieve Bell

The discussion was based around a series of landscape photographs taken by Meares during their time spent at Strangway Springs repeater station, one of the eleven stations which relayed the telegraphic signal along the route between Adelaide and Darwin in the nineteenth century. In their conversation with Morash on the history of Strangway Springs and the surrounding Aboriginal Ngunnawal land, the two guest speakers also addressed the challenges of overcoming presentism in relation to technology, in turn encouraging the audience to consider their own relationships with, and connections between, these concepts.

As a research team they were, Bell explained, “really interested in what would happen if you understood the telegraphy system. Especially in relation to 21st century systems, like the metaverse, like artificial intelligence. If you could think about what it took to make the telegraphy system, what would it tell us about what we are doing now?” In this way, their project became a lens into the present and the future of technology. 

Indeed, the system of world explored in “Technology’s Deep Time” was most clearly highlighted in one of Meares’ landscape images, shot from above via drone and in full saturated colour from the Australian sun, which captured the parallel routes of contemporary and historical roads, power lines, fences, and railway lines, that transverse the Australian outback. This single image demonstrated the complex systems of communication and transport that have relied and built upon each other throughout the last two hundred years. Meares talked about how this photography engagement enabled him to consider the “shifting timescales” of the technology he was observing.

What really struck him regarding the The Overland Telegraph Line, he added, was the level of maintenance required to ensure a functioning telegraphy system, or indeed, any mass communication system. Every single telegraph pole (or sleeper), he explained, is the equivalent today of a photography software training module where “people have to sit there and label all these images so that we can create something. They are laying sleepers for that. I’m starting to see the world through maintenance, either high or low, on a global scale.”


Morash, meanwhile, reflected on what it was like to join the project, noting the experience of being out in the desert at night. “If you, like a lot of Aboriginal people, traditionally lived under the stars, you would have a completely different sense of this landscape and of its timescales.” This gave him, he explained, “a sense of a deep time relating to that complex technological system that we had been tracing, this overland telegraph. That suggested to me, maybe this provides us with a way of thinking about technology differently.”

“Technology’s Deep Time” was a fascinating invitation to approach technology with a new awareness of time, demonstrating how a wider appreciation of the past can better inform the choices we make for the future. Concluding with a series of images depicting the establishment of the transatlantic cable during the mid- to late-nineteenth century, including Robert Dudley’s painting of the transatlantic cable coming ashore in Valentia Island in 1865, the panellists made a further parallel between then and now: as we are placing our fibre optic cable in places that seem logical, how do we peel back to the choices that were made with earlier infrastructures and ask ourselves “are these the same decisions that need to be solved right now?”

Watch previous discussions with Professor Genevieve Bell here (Managing the Machines) and here (What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?)

To find out more about research which considers technological developments from the humanistic perspective, visit HUMAN+ here.


Written by Sarah Cullen

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