In 1894 the Times of London ran a story about horse manure on the capital’s streets. If horse numbers continued to rise, it warned, then as soon as 1950 the streets would be submerged in 9ft of dung. The very thing which made the city function, its horse power, threatened it from within. If left unchecked, unstoppable waves of fecal matter from the city’s horses – so necessary for transportation– would choke and constipate its commercial systems. A new form of urban transport was required to save cities from the swelling, steaming heaps of excrement.
There are two readings of this failed prediction.
The first is optimistic. It’s underwritten by a comforting faith that humans will always be able to come up with technological advances to engineer themselves out of the predicaments they find themselves in. Or, in other words, we needn’t worry too much about our carbon footprints or air-miles because new technologies will emerge soon enough and render our petro-chemical age redundant. Just like the internal-combustion engine replaced horse power so too this will be superseded in due course. Any current anxieties about global warming will seem as quaint in 50 years time as worries about horse manure do now.
The other reading is to recognize the truth: all technology produces shit.
Both horses and motor cars generate by-products relentlessly. These are the redundant but necessary productions of their operations. Their dung. Dead bits of stuff are always left-over, and left behind. All processes of production produce surplus. From the whittlings of working in wood to the chaff of threshing and all the sawdust, stubble, and sump-oil in between; every technology will produce its own surfeits and pass its own stools. These excesses are the non-signifying elements of its processes. They are without meaning because they don’t sit obviously within a system of objects. They are rather the dross which rises to the surface. The swarf.