What Hath Our Hands Wrought?

In certain circles, it’s become popular to worry about the effects of “the Internet” on human life. The pace of technological development and the uncertainty about the long term effects of being constantly “plugged-in” both fuel our anxiety. The Atlantic alone has run two examples of this genre in the last week. First, Hanna Rosin recently wrote an Atlantic cover story about “The Touch-Screen Generation” and how early access to this technology might affect children’s development. She introduces the term “digital native” to talk about the new generation that is growing up knowing how to use modern technology even from infancy. The piece argues that tablets or television can be too all-consuming and might possibly hamper a child’s development.

Another recent article in the Atlantic began, 

We are in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic,” concluded psychologists Jean M. Twnege and W. Keith Campbell in their 2009 book. One study they describe showed that among a group of 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to the present. Fortunately for narcissists, the continued explosion of social networking has provided them with productivity tools to continually expand their reach—the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, and occasionally Google Plus.

The author, Bill Davidow, goes on to describe the ways narcissists use the constant access to others afforded by social media to promote themselves. Apparently, the person who dies with the most Facebook friends and Twitter followers wins. This article, too, indulges in an anxiety that using new technology “too much” or in a way that’s “wrong” will alter us either as a society, as individuals, or both. 

There are legitimate concerns about the way technology may amplify perennial human problems, or even affect cognitive development. But the kind of technological determinism that causes people to fret over the inevitable effects of social media and digital technology misses a few important things. 

As Davidow assures us at the conclusion of the article, all is not lost if we do use Facebook: “Social media are an important part of the lives of hundreds of millions of users around the world. If you are one of them, maintaining perspective is important. Do not let narcissists set your standards.” The narcissists, he says, should be jealous of your ability to be “normal.” In other words, it is possible to be a responsible partaker of social media—and those who use it excessively ought to aspire to reducing their intake to a more manageable level.

Similarly, Rosin writes that she decided to perform a small experiment with her own young child’s use of the tablet, allowing him for a period of several months to use the device as often and for as long as he wanted to. For a while, his usage was “extremely annoying and obviously untenable.” But that period didn’t last forever, and “after about 10 days, the iPad fell out of his rotation, just like every other toy does. He dropped it under the bed and never looked for it. It was completely forgotten for about six weeks. Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often.” In other words, making the iPad a “normal” toy resulted in her son treating the technology in just as well-balanced a way as a toddler treats anything else.

In Evgeny Morozov’s newest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, he writes,

One may hate television for excessive advertising—but then, a publicly supported broadcasting system may have no need for advertising at all; TV programs don’t always have to be interrupted by ads. Video games might make us more violent—but, once again, they can do so many other things in so many different ways that it seems unfair to connect them only to one function. 

Morozov’s point is that by focusing on how the Internet, or tablets, or television shape us, we ignore the fact that digital technologies are malleable. Their nature and effects aren’t inevitable or permanent, and the technologies are variable in themselves. We can change them, we can integrate them into our lives responsibly (Morozov’s way of doing of this is to lock up his iPhone in a safe to keep himself from using it excessively), and we can recognize the limits of what they can and cannot do.

The Internet, smartphones, and tablets are not their own separate reality. The same things that were virtues, or that uplifted us, before the personal computer were around are still virtues now. The Internet, and constant access to it, doesn’t have to make us into worse, less informed, less socialized people. Just because parents can use television or iPads as built-in “babysitters” for their children, doesn’t make ignoring kids any less excusable or make the TV or tablet an inherently bad thing for children.

If our society is changing for the worse, let’s stop blaming what our hands have wrought—and start taking responsibility for how we use it.

[Image of the Ipod Family Courtesy of Wikipedia]

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  • Charlie Clark

    I’ll register a less-than-absolute disagreement with your conclusions here. I’d continue to put the emphasis on the risk of (mal)formation posed by any technology we happen to be considering. I’d cast my vote for reading technological progress with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

    This post is essentially the negative image of a passage in Jamie Smith’s “Imaginging the Kingdom,” which I review in the upcoming issue of Fare Forward. Smith’s project is analyzing the way people are subconsciously inducted into world(view)s. One section of his book discusses iPhone-ization: “To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal–to constitute the world as ‘at hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.” In short, the iPhone teaches us, implicitly, that we are masters of the world inside our palm, and this perspective will tend to bleed over into everything we think and do.

    Having laid that foundation, Smith writes: “Now at this point I’m supposed to make the obligatory observation that no cultural artifact is necessarily evil–that cultural systems and products are latent with possibilities that can be used, proverbially, for ‘good or ill.’ Such provisos and qualifications… put the onus for disorder on users.” In other words, Smith knows the cultural script we are inclined to follow is to, like this post, downplay the danger inherent in a artifact or practice and bid the reader to “[Blank] Responsibly.”

    Smith declines to follow this script: “But shouldn’t we concede that cultural artifacts also come loaded with the intentions of their creators, and that they also take on a life of their own that can outstrip the intentions of even their creators and users? Cultural phenomena and systems can be laden with an implicit vision of the good life that is inscribed in the very structure, in the warp and woof, of the cultural artifact itself. In that case, not even the best of intentions on the part of the users will be able to undo the teleological (dis)order that is built into the system. Or at the very least, users can severely underestimate the (de)formative power of cultural artifacts, approaching them with just a little bit too much confidence, assured that they are masters of the technology when it might be the technology that is slowly mastering them.”

    Digital natives should be especially wary of this kind of liturgical influence, because (apart from an unrealistic plan of digital abs(tin)ence) the only form of resistance possible is to be constantly vigilant against corruption by a disordered technology or cultural system, and “[n]atives–that is, practitioners ‘unselfconsciously’ embedded in a community of practice–are not primarily theorists. They are not ‘thinking’ their way through the world; they are not reflecting on what they’re doing.” If we truly are “digital natives,” in our natural state, we are at the mercy of digital practices, which not only shape the user’s action but the user himself. “Like so many formative liturgies, they extort the essential by the seemingly insignificant, precisely by telling us a Story, capturing our imaginations to perceive the world in ways we don’t even realize. We imagine more than we know.”

    So, I’m not saying what you have here is “flat wrong.” It’s probably true that new technology exploits the same weaknesses in human character that have been there all along, and it’s probably true that users can resist those malformative tendencies by conscious effort. But I suspect we are more likely to underestimate the risk than to overestimate it. The choice of emphasis should reflect that.