Technology spins a tight web with our social structures—technology is born from systems and social structures already in place, enhances them and strengthens them. It is not the technology itself that creates a system, it is us.
“[T]echnologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out a social structure, they are grafted onto it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable.” —Ursula Franklin, 1989
In 1989, Ursula Franklin gave a series of lectures, turned in a book called The Real World of Technology (something I will be quoting often in future posts), in which she notes how communicative technology (radio, television), has disrupted the social fabric by distancing us from experiential reality. We don’t have to have the social skills of reciprocity, understanding, give-and-take—we merely consume without thinking. Of course my mind goes directly to fake news, and how decades passive consumption has lead to a unquestioning acceptance of anything written and produced.
This lack of give-and-take and social cues also gives us the masterful ability to dismiss other’s opinions and beliefs because they are so distant from us. We don’t have to really listen or try to understand, nor can we be understood. When we don’t know our neighbors because we always walk the dogs with headphones on (guilty), why would we need to try to understand them? When children can hole themselves up in their room with an endless stream of games, why would they need to cultivate social skills with other children? We can leave terrible messages to people anonymously on the internet without seeing the hurt we cause and with no repercussions.
I can recall in the 90s when the endless stream of news stories about these social misfits began. “Video games bad for kids,” especially as it pertains to violence, seemed to be a weekly debate. When the internet became wide spread, and online ordering and delivery were born, suddenly there were dramatic stories about basement dwellers who never left their house—seemingly a dire warning that all these devices were going to destroy the democracy and our society as we know it.
Of course most of us rolled our eyes and claimed “luddites” to those sending this fear-based message. They were scared of the future, technology deniers. But now I’m not sure they were wrong.
What I find peculiar is how many people dismiss discussions of the effects of technology on us, either because there’s nothing we can do it about (“it’s a free country”), or because they feel helpless in the face of it. It would seem that most of us are determinists. Whatever happens just happens to us, technology just is, as if iPhones fell from heaven.
There is a great mistrust these days for experts and professionals (“elites”). For instance, many of us don’t trust our doctors and seek multiple opinions after a thorough Google search of all possible diseases we may have (and Google usually turns up many, much to the chagrin of the medical community). And yet people lay down and roll over when it comes to technology, despite the fact that those very tools are designed by those very experts, and influence each of us and the world we live in in huge ways. Technology IS people—people’s opinions, beliefs and attitudes. Technology is both part of society and a shaper of society.
So what kind of society do we want? One where it’s all too easy to launch an anonymous attack with zero repercussions against someone online because they dare disagree with us? One where completely fabricated news stories are as widely shared and believed as factually accurate ones? I don’t think anyone wants these things, but at the same time, we believe that unless we are willing to police the internet, that’s just how it is.
But that’s not just how it is, that’s how it was designed. And that’s why people are blaming Facebook for spreading fake news, despite their protests that they aren’t a media company.
If the effects of a technology are “neither foreseen nor foreseeable”, what can we possibly do? Can we steer our ship, or are we left to float where the currents wish to take us? If technology is born from the current opinions and beliefs of society in a given moment, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and really look at ourselves and what we’ve become.