I’m fascinated by the relationship(s) between people and technology. Not just in a what’s-going-on-in-the-market kind of way: the latest gadgets being bought and sold. There are a lot of helpful websites for that (we can talk about them if you want). And not merely in a highbrow-philosophical, possibly-put-you-to-sleep kind of way either. There are some expensive academic journals for that (we can talk about those too if you’d like).
I’m most interested in what technology does to us and for us as people in our everyday lives, what sorts of things we expect from technology, and ultimately what that says about what we think it means to be a person.
Sherry Turkel, a professor at MIT, writes in her book Alone Together:
We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask: does it serve our human purposes? It’s a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction.
It seems to me that there’s a void (and therefore an opportunity) for us to think and talk about these kinds of things in a commonsense, thoughtful and critical way. I’m not an expert on the business side of technology, nor part of any university’s pantheon of academics. But I do have a decent background in philosophy, religion, sociology, and other humanistic fields of study that might add some helpful perspective to the plain-spoken conversations we would have together if we were chatting over beers. And I’m also just a regular, confused, addicted, disappointed, frustrated, optimistic user of all the same devices you’re probably using. Let’s talk about it.
To be clear right out the gate, I don’t think all technology is evil. This blog is not Let’s Build a Band of Luddites and Burn Everything in a Fire. It’s Upgraded Humans—as in, what sorts of upgrades, literal or metaphorical, make us better people? Most technology has pros and cons—not just one or the other.
Marshall McLuhan, eccentric media theorist, famously talked about The Four Laws of Media—an intimidating name for four simple questions to ask that reveal the effects of any piece of technology. (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps is a solid resource on McLuhan’s most essential ideas, which is paraphrased here).
First, what does it extend? Every technology enhances, amplifies or extends some human capacity. A coat enhances our ability to regulate a stable body temperature in inclement weather. A telephone greatly extends the distance over which we can converse. So, when Apple or anyone else releases something, the first question to ask is what human ability does it extend? What thing can we do better, or more, or at greater distance, or faster, etc.?
Second, what does it make obsolete? Every new technology makes an older one obsolete. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the old one disappears—just that its function is different. Perhaps the most famous example is the horse and buggy, which went from the primary means of transportation to a quaint way to take a date through a park when the automobile (the “horseless carriage”) was created. Are we cool that that’s what a horse and buggy does now?
Next, what does it revert into? This is where we think most about the downside, the negative effects, or the dangers. In its extreme, any technological creation reverses into its opposite intention. A car, in its most extreme, reverses into annoying traffic jams or horrifying collisions. A smartphone in the extreme keeps us perpetually busy or anxious—always on—or, differently, becomes the preferred but shallow way of interacting with other people where we can choose how much of ourselves we want to share with them and disconnect whenever we don’t like how it’s going. Togetherness, yet solitude, as Turkel puts it. Maybe there are good reasons for a technology not to exist, or at least to make it different than what it is to prevent such regressions.
Finally, what does the technology retrieve? Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known idiom there is nothing new under the sun. No technology or other similar human creation is entirely new. Each retrieves in some way something from before. The tweet or the text message largely retrieves what the telegraph did decades ago. Surveillance cameras retrieve the city wall and its guards from the medieval era. I’m sure you can think of many more interesting examples. Are there things we need to retrieve? Is this particular thing retrieving something we were glad to be rid of?
(Still tracking with me? You’re halfway to being a communication theorist).
These are the questions I’m interested in asking. Not necessarily in a formal, thoroughly researched way. Simply, what do we learn about ourselves and about this or that thing we use if we ask questions like this? There’s good and bad. It all shapes the people we are and the kind of people we will become.
I’ll probably revisit common themes or the same piece of technology sometimes, because they’re not going away anytime soon and the issues they present won’t change overnight. The iPhone 12 will be just slightly different than the iPhone 11 (and millions of people will line up to replace their 11s), but those changes might be important to talk about. New forms of social media are emerging all the time. I’ll do everything I can to make sure I’m not boring or repetitive.
Most of all, I want to know what you want to talk about. What has technology made better for you? What has it made harder? What do you expect from technology—right now, or what it might do for you in the future? What do you care about most as a person, and how do devices and a culture saturated in technology encourage or impede those things?
Please comment, email, Tweet, and Instagram me. Sign up on the email list so you get the latest posts right away and can jump in on a conversation about them. Send me interesting or ridiculous ways people are using technology. Let me know what you care about, what you want me to write about, and what you think. I’m genuinely interested and eager to talk.
Thank you for reading and being part of the Upgraded Humans tribe.
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