Through a glass, darkly
Recently I came across a thought provoking entry by Gabriele de Seta on ‘black technology’ (heikeji 黑科技), a Chinese term used to describe cutting edge and futuristic technologies, so advanced that they defy comprehension. Researching further, I was struck by how commonplace this idea is in Chinese, while it is effectively unknown in English. To be clear, this Chinese term is distinct and separate from ‘black tech’, which examines the intersection of race, technology and oppression. Without downplaying or ignoring this important movement, there is also value in exploring heikeji, and doing so also contributes to these wider attempts at challenging dominant modes of thinking. One of the most notable features of critical scholarship on technology is how profoundly Western it is, often strongly centred on the Christian tradition. This does not invalidate many of its insights, but for work that is so thoughtful in how it reflects on the world, it feels rather odd there is such limited engagement with other cultures and traditions of thought. Concepts are prisms that refract how we see the world, and so depending on which ones we pick up and use, they show and reveal different things. With that in mind, this note builds on de Seta’s piece, further exploring what ‘black technology’ allows us to see.
Black technology is a term that came from science fiction, echoing the trajectory of concepts like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘metaverse’ that have become widely used in describing real world phenomena. One interesting aspect of these transitions is the way the origins of these terms quietly echo in their later, wider iterations. To take the present example, ‘metaverse’ is now being picked up and put to work, and in so doing, pushing us closer to the kind of dystopian future found in the original source material. Yet another reminder of the difficulty of trying to live in a post-ironic world.
The expression ‘black technology’ (ブラックテクノロジー) first appeared in a Japanese manga, Shoji Gatoh’s Full Metal Panic!, to describe ‘technology that does not exist’. This is created by a special group of people called Whispered, with unique abilities in effectively what we call STEM fields, allowing them to make technologies vastly more advanced than anyone else. From this, there are two features that carry over into how the term has developed in Chinese: first, there is a sense of futuristic technology in the present; and second, it lies beyond the comprehension of most people.
The term was translated into Chinese and emerged as a buzzword for describing impressive, futuristic technologies, and plays on the different connotations associated with ‘black’. As de Seta explains, ‘while heikeji resonates with the threatening obscurity of unofficial and secretive technologies, its connotation of unknowability and opacity is perhaps closer to the concept of “black box”’. He provides the definition from a 2018 report by the National Language and Writing Committee, explaining that heikeji covers both ‘conceptual technologies that are currently difficult to realize but may be realized in the future’ and ‘high-precision technologies and products that have been realized but surpass the understanding of most people’. These meanings echo its origins in Full Metal Panic!, conveying the sense of technology that exists on the threshold between present and future, reality and fiction.
Heikeji could crudely be described as beyond cutting edge, technologies that are not simply improved versions of things we already know and use. One list of ‘top ten black technologies’ ranges from those closer to being realisable to the more fanciful, such as: ‘self-driving new energy vehicle’, ‘early cancer screening AI’, ‘electronic devices that can be absorbed by the human body’, ‘multifunctional integrated electronic skin’, ‘mind controllable prosthesis’, and ‘medical nanorobots’. In this regard, it was interesting to also find a warning against ‘fake black technologies’, which appear as impressive but do not entail any significant breakthrough and risk impeding progress towards ‘real’ black technology. Yet it is hard to know how such a distinction can be made, given that black technology exists on the horizon between present and future, fact and fiction.
Heikeji connotes technology that it is almost magical, it can also be understood as ‘incredible technology’; what is effectively beyond belief and comprehension. While this is used to describe some of the most cutting edge and seemingly futuristic products, arguably it could be applied to most technology we use today. For example, with the shift from analog to digital phones, as well as from internal combustion engine to electric batter cars, these technologies move from the comprehensible to the unknowable. With analog, it was still somewhat possible to be able to make sense of how these machines are put together and function. In comparison, one cannot dismantle a smartphone and have much hope of understanding how it works. The more advanced our technologies have become, the more we rely on them without any capacity for understanding them. Indeed, there is remarkable, passive acceptance of so much of our world now being determined by black technologies, unknowable to us.
One of the most interesting definitions I found of heikeji fittingly comes from a Chinese language learning site: ‘technological advancements that are changing the ways we live and see the world, yet we are unaware of them.’ Here ‘unaware’ means things that are not fully observed or understood. Not only does this capture a lack of comprehension – what we cannot understand – but also a lack of recognition – what we do not see, or perhaps, choose not to see. At this point, I am perhaps venturing further than what is narrowly meant by ‘black technology’, but the ambiguity and multivalence of the term suggests something powerful.
What does it mean to be increasingly living and acting in a world that is profoundly shaped by technologies that we do not understand, that we cannot comprehend? This suggests a strange perversion of the Enlightenment: with the continued advance of science and reason, we move towards a world in which we understand less, where knowledge becomes less possible. Perhaps black technology portends a new kind of dark age as science becomes indistinguishable from magic, and we return to a world of belief and superstition.
In finishing, my thinking is pulled back into its Western orbit, but from the perspective provided by engaging with heikeji. The more that black technologies dim our vision of our world, perhaps we will only be able to see, ‘through a glass, darkly’.
This is the third in a series connecting the themes of ‘imperfect notes’ to thinking about the role of technology in society, supported by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous notes in this series: one, two.