This article is a preview from the Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Last year, a group of women clad in mountain-climbing gear scaled London’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard. Their stunt, which aimed to raise awareness, on behalf of Greenpeace, of oil drilling in the Arctic, generated much media coverage. One part of this was recognition of their route on the British Mountaineering Council’s online database. The entry is clearly a joke, recommending that climbers approach at night, beware of police and webcast their ascent – but nonetheless it reflects the achievement of the climb.

It’s not just activists who have turned their attention to our urban surroundings. Enthusiasts for “parkour” – a sport that involves using elements of the city landscape, such as bridges and walkways, as an obstacle course – similarly play on the physical challenges of an “urban jungle”. That today’s adventurers clamber up buildings, not mountains, says something about how our environments have changed. As writers like Diane Ackerman and Gaia Vince stress, scientists are increasingly aware we’ve entered the Anthropocene, a geological era in which human activity makes a discernible impact on the planet’s systems. Perhaps it makes sense that now, to challenge ourselves, we want to conquer things made by people instead of nature.

In the 21st century, are we more likely to be awestruck by our own scientific and technological achievements than by the glory of nature? If so, then it is perhaps part of a longer-term shift. In Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s 1959 study Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, she describes 17th-century explorers as transferring the awe once held for God onto the new and vast mountain ranges, waterfalls and rainforests they encountered. Her powerful analysis of our relationship with the natural world is still relevant: the writings these explorers inspired and produced were among the earliest forms of popular science. Today, you hear their echoes in mainstream science journalism.

Updating Nicolson’s work for a more technologically advanced age, in 1996 the historian David Nye posited the idea of the “technological sublime”, suggesting that the awe and wonder felt by explorers of a previous era has been transferred once more. It’s what happens when we encounter massive modern engineering projects like bridges or skyscrapers; Nye’s technological sublime is a kind of philosophy for going “wow” at spaceships.

Nye is drawing here on the work of Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher perhaps most closely associated with the concept of the sublime. To experience the sublime is to feel in awe of something larger than ourselves. We can feel small, weak, insignificant or reverent in comparison. But we also recover a sense of self-worth with the realisation that our minds are even able to conceive something so large and powerful. By transferring the awe once felt for God on to Nature, the sublime becomes newly knowable and controllable.

When it comes to technology, Nye argues, another layer is added: we are made to feel even more powerful, because this sublime object is human-made. We look at it and think, “Wow, it’s huge and we are tiny” as we might do when standing in front of a mountain – but we know people made this, not Nature or God. We may feel a greater connection to it, as well as the sense of having greater control over the world around us.

Yet this argument misses a social dimension. We might look at a vast new suspension bridge and think, “Humans are awesome” – but we might also think about the skills involved, or the money required to build it, and know that we are not, ourselves, in a position to make something similar. A skyscraper might symbolise human progress, or it might remind you of the arcane and possibly corrupt planning process that approved it; or how you watched it be put together from unfathomable materials, with dazzling engineering skill, all protected by a legion of uniformed guards. You might climb it, but only after you’ve paid an entrance fee and taken the lift, with no wandering off the prescribed route.

This isn’t a new idea, any more than big buildings are. Nye focuses on America’s newest structures, but he might have done well to visit some Welsh countryside, where
castles were used for centuries to scare the locals. I like Nye’s view of technology as something we could all feel connected to, via our simple humanity. But it’s not a vision of modernity we’ve yet achieved.

It’s not just the skyscrapers looking down on us. From our built environment to the little black boxes we communicate through or the “science bit” on a shampoo advert, our lives are scattered with invitations to be dazzled by other people’s technical prowess. We’re often disempowered as a result, unable to easily ascertain how things work, or whether people were exploited in their making, or whether our use of them will damage the planet. To repeat a line often attributed to the author William Gibson, “the future’s here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

But last year’s scaling of the Shard turned Nye’s argument on its head. The activists climbed an “awesome” building as if it were a mountain and in doing so, achieved something a lot more awesome. We were invited to go “wow” at the women climbing the Shard, rather than the rich men who built it. By their act, they changed the way many of us felt about that building. Every time I see the Shard poking over the skyline (and if you live in London, this happens a lot) I think of a small group of women questioning power, not being beaten down by it.

The climbers may have been supported by Greenpeace, a large NGO with its own form of power, but their achievement felt like normal people doing something extraordinary, just as any of us could. We might not climb a skyscraper, but we might find it within ourselves to scale some other metaphorical mountain or another; to have a poke at structures around us to see if they might be moved.

If we really are living in an Anthropocene, I suspect we need to work harder at finding ways to share the benefits of science and technology. A little less gawping at the awesome perhaps, and a little more questioning.

David Nye’s American Technological Sublime is published by MIT Press; Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory is published by University of Washington Press