Technology and Its Discontents: A Preface

I suppose its ironic that I’m writing a rant about the drawbacks of modern technology using modern technology. Really, though, I want to write about something I’ve ruminated on at length already: communicative strategies. More specifically, I’m concerned about the ways in which modern technology is changing communicative strategies, and along with it, our approach to the world in general. Let me preface this with a new personal goal of mine: I want to unplug, at least once a week, from electronic distractions. On the opposite pole, I want to make sure I update my electronic rants more frequently; that is, at least once a week. Are these dichotomous goals? I don’t think so; but like all things, there is a limit to both. I find myself far too distracted by modern communicative technologies but simultaneously I sometimes feel that I don’t use those technologies as constructively as I could.

So what’s the rant? This is a huge topic, but I want to start with unpacking the idea that the modern communicative technologies offered by computers, smart phones, tablets, etc., and in particular, the instant updates possible via social media, news sites, streaming video, et al., are enhancing our ability to communicate. I believe that these tools are actually decreasing our communicative abilities. How should we define communication? At the very least, it is the passing of a message from one individual to at least one other individual. That communication does not have to be face to face, or even ear to ear, but the point is that ultimately a message is transmitted. The human ability to transmit messages via what we call language is almost certainly unique to Homo sapiens; although other species do have complex forms of communication, there is tremendous debate over whether any non-human form of communication can be called language (a topic which may someday earn its own post). But if there is no one to receive the message, can the messages we send rightly be called communication? As just a small part of my overall questions about modern technology’s impact on communication, I often find myself wondering if we are mostly shouting into the dark. I would like to venture the hypothesis that modern technology is highlighting some of our species’ basest and most primitive inclinations.

We are only ten or twelve thousand years removed from the time when all humans were living in small, close-knit tribal groups in which the survival of the individual depended on the survival of the group and vice versa. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that in small, egalitarian groups there was no social striving, no quest for power, no competition. All those things existed, but in general the needs of the group would check any one person from assuming too much power. Enter agriculture and more complex technology, and some of the checks on power and status-seeking began to be eroded. Agriculture made it possible for more people to survive with less effort, and to live in much larger groups where it became increasingly difficult to know every individual, much less communicate with them regularly. When you don’t know someone, that means you don’t need them; and if you don’t need them, there is no reason to care about that person’s survival. Fast far forward to today (and skipping over, for the time being, the cultural, social, and technological changes that ultimately led to the capitalist world-system in which we now live) and status-seeking is a prime motivator of human social, economic, and political behavior.

What does any of this have to do with modern technology and modern communication? In a strange way, all these rapid-fire communication tools that are literally at our fingertips have made it possible for us to, once again, communicate with the entire group. This is not to say, of course, that every person’s status update or tweet or blog post is being transmitted to every person in the world. But, it is to say that we are able to pass messages to complete strangers, whether intentionally or not, and we are finding that those messages aren’t crafted carefully enough to avoid misunderstanding or insult or any number of misapprehensions. We are having to learn from scratch how to communicate deliberately and carefully, but all too often people are using what should be a fine-grained tool as a bludgeon. We can communicate with an enormous group, but we seem to take little, if any, responsibility, for the consequences of the messages we transmit.

We are learning a new process the hard way. I am fascinated with how our adaptation to the modern communicative age will proceed. I will have much more to say about this in future posts; consider this a preface.

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