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Society, Politics & Law

Changing technology, changing people: Who are we now?

Updated Wednesday, 16th November 2011

Dr Wendy Maples considers the technological determinist argument and the impact of new technologies on our identities.

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For increasing numbers of people, sitting at a computer screen all day, and sometimes all night, is now 'normal'. This may mark a significant shift in the human experience, for all kinds of reasons: there are health risks associated with a largely sedentary lifestyle, our communication with others is increasingly through text, and the scope of our 'friendships' may have changed with the advent of facebook and other social media.

But arguably, this change in our daily habits – whether for work or leisure – is doing something to the very core of who we are: to our identities.

The quote, 'I write to know what I think' is attributed to various writers: E.M. Forster, Joan Didion, Steven King and Daniel Boorstein to name a few. But I like to attribute it to the latter, because Boorstein is also attributed as saying, 'Nothing is really real until it happens on television'. This connection between our ideas and our understanding of the world and the 'media', the mediation of our worlds, seems important.

While I wouldn't describe myself as a 'technological determinist', I find much of Marshall McLuhan's arguments both prescient and compelling. McLuhan famously argued that, 'In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs'.

The point that McLuhan was making was that mechanisation, and later 'mediatisation' (and now e- and m-technologies) through the practices they instil in our lives, the habits we develop and our very ways of thinking, changes what and who we are. We are the 'products', arguably, of our technologies.

But this isn't the whole story of our identities. Who we are also reflects our parents – our genes, our upbringing – and our wider environment. And part of that wider environment is the society in which we live, whether that society is 'tolerant', 'permissive', 'conservative'; homophobic, sexist, racist; egalitarian, meritocratic, hierarchical, nepotistic… I could go on and on.

Perhaps most important in this context is whether a society is ideologically 'modernist' – in other words, does it embrace the new, and does it see the world as 'progressing' from an earlier historical point where things were less 'good', to a later point, where things will have improved? By and large, we might argue, we live in a period where the new, and particularly new technologies are seen as holding the keys to the future – the future of business, education, communication, etc, etc.

We live in what Manuel Castells calls, 'the network society', or the 'digital age'. And the move to e-ing and m-ing every part of our social lives is continuing apace.

Does this matter? In evolutionary terms, human beings and cockroaches are the most successful living organisms on planet earth. Human beings have extended their populations and ability to exist in inhospitable climates and terrains due to our ability to muster technologies to deal with the risks of childbirth, disease, cold and heat, hills and seas.

We have also invented technologies that take on the rudimentary burdens of life, so we don't have to. In the wealthier nations, we have cars, trains, buses, to help us move ourselves, our children and our 'things' from one place to another. We have running water, obviating the need to carry buckets to and from a local stream. And we have computers that allow us to communicate with each other across the world, all from the safety of our home or office, or the local coffee shop.

However, machines now talk with machines, and they 'talk' to us. A Facebook reminder tells me today is Pat's birthday; an Amazon link pops up in my email to suggest a new book I might like; the GPS navigator dutifully tells me I have made a wrong turn.

Smart technologies are, in my opinion, already pretty smart, but they are getting smarter. But can the machines take over?

Can new computing technologies pick up where human evolution has left off – can 'they' be smarter than us? And, if so, what does this mean for who we are – will, as McLuhan suggests, the current evolutionary masters of the planet become the slaves?

Who are we now?





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