Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Technophobes and Technophiles, You’ve Been Served.

MIT Siftables

I’m no diehard technophile.  My relationship with technology is rather more ambivalent.  But, of course, by saying this I am basically saying that my relationship with myself is ambivalent.  Like it or not, I am plugged in.  From the electric light to the internets, “I” exist as part of techno-matrix.  As media theorist Marshall Mcluhan would have it, technology is any extension of ourselves.  And it is Mcluhan that I would like to marshall.  Because I am fed up with a broken record that has been playing in my Culture class for the past two weeks.

It goes a little something like this: 1) the prof brings up the pervasiveness of the internet; 2) one of several students raises his-her hand and whines about how facebook and paypal destroy relationships because they take away “face-to-face” interaction and replace it with selfishness and isolation; 3) Another student retorts that we can’t judge a technology as inherently good or evil, but we must instead evaluate how people use technology.

I would deploy Mcluhan’s thought against both positions.  To the technophobes:

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense rations or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance (Understanding Media, 33).

It doesn’t matter if you don’t join facebook.  The medium of the internet has already altered our patterns of perception whether you like it or not.  The information superhighway exists and it has radically transformed the texture of society.  You will have to find another response besides “head in the sand.”

To the technophiles:

Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference.  It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light.  This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action (Understanding Media 24).

Yes, what you do with a technology matters.  But technologies can and must be judged in and of themselves, as each directly and uniquely effects human relations.  This does not mean that we make blanket statements about a certain technology (e.g. “roombas are pure evil”).  But it does mean that we evaluate the effects of a technology itself on the structure of human relations, instead of focusing solely on the human agents using (being used by) the technology.

I just had to throw this all out into the ether.  And thanks to medium of the internet this is something that I know I can do.  Are there any thoughts that will come back through the ether in response?


  1. Well, I’m going to have to read some Mcluhan, because that is an interesting proposition.

    You say to the technophobe that Facebook is the new reality whether or not we use it. That is true for the Laggard whose friends are all online. But it is only after millions have already made the individual choice to actively use it. Facebook unused would have no effect on our view of relationships.

    Does this defeatist attitude to other human endeavors? Does it do no good to take the bus when millions of others commute in their SUVs? Does it do no good to eat organic whole grains and vegetables when your neighbors dine at Mickie D’s? Are we doomed to be a planet of diabetic webaholics ala Wall-E?

  2. Is technology the new reality? Interesting. Well, I did just finish facebook chatting with a friend I haven’t physically seen in ten years. We haven’t even communicated in ten years. So that’s an interesting reality.

    However, my mom, who also has a facebook account and her friends “realized the reality” of the internet and all signed up for accounts. But, they are never on them. They still use the phone, write actual letters and visit each other. Is there group living a different reality? Ignoring reality? Or are we the generation that is ignoring reality?

  3. Right. We can’t make universal claims about the influence of a technology. Mcluhan talks about “cultures” and which kind of technologies they favor, so that an individual who lives within a culture of SUV’s is affected by them whether or not they take the bus.

    However, I would certainly not characterize his (my) position as defeatist. He writes that the only way to counter a technology is not by ignoring it but by countering it with another technology. So he would have probably said that to counter SUV’s you would do something like ride a bike.

    That is one of the points of his thought that I would modify. I do think that we SHOULD evaluate the way that people use a technology, but I think Mcluhan reminds us not to stop there. Yes, the particular way that we use the combustion engine does have positive and negative effects on our environment. However, how does the combustion engine alter human relations in general? I think it is a useful question to ask, though it is never divorced from specific localities.

  4. Good questions. Part of the challenge, like stonyhill pointed out, is generalizing too much when it comes to a technology. The last figures I saw (from the late 90s) said that only 1/3 of the world’s population has access to the internet (though this should continue to change).

    I think it is far more helpful to talk about more localized groups and the pervasiveness of technology within a specific group. In the U.S., we are seeing the vapor trails of the transition to internet technology. It is here to stay in a pervasive way. We can see the transition at work not only in private life, but in the public sphere. John McCain didn’t know how to get on the internet, but Barak has a good deal more savvy. Barak’s daughters will probably know more than he could imagine in the next few years.

    As far as “reality,” I don’t know that it is helpful to classify some spheres as real and others as unreal (?). The internet exists, really. But, and this was part of the point of the post, different extensions of our reality create new relations. Maybe that is what you meant anyway!

  5. You know how to chap my hide and soothe it with lotion all in one motion. A lotion motion…

    Humans are not the medium with which they interact with the world, and yet because our consciousness is so flexible and absorbant, we are the medium.

    Maybe its impossible to judge the progression of technology, but if so it’s because we can’t really name what a human being is, what our locus is. As you’ve pointed out to me many times, there’s no life 1.0 until you have named life 2.0.

    But, I can’t help but empathize with the students in your class who lament the loss of presence that we experience through our technological prosthetic. We’re plastic enough to adapt to new situations, but we’re also finite. If we extend ourselves too far (whatever that might mean), we end up like Bilbo: “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”

    I can’t describe the ontological locus of human being, but part of it is presence. That makes me ambivalent toward technology. But I don’t know how to judge it. Not yet.

  6. I smell that lotion. It’s not that I disagree with the “technophobes” in my class because they lament the loss of the “face to face.” No, I respect that. I disagree with them because we already have life 1.0, as you noted. The internets have changed the ratios of human relations. Ignoring it does not make it go away. In fact, I don’t know what would make it go away.

    Your (faithful) use of Bilbo’s quote suggests that humans have an essence that can get lost in translation. And if we stick to the world of the non-essential, the world of wraiths (or angels, as Mcluhan might have said), we lose the presence of that essence. I don’t think that this is such an outlandish idea, but I do think that we might find better language to describe what our intuition ostensibly senses. I will get back to you when I discover it!