Fighting Off Technological Determinism
The debate about whether we shape technology or whether technology shapes us has been waging for centuries. We are nowhere near the first generation to struggle with this dilemma. The title of this post is a direct quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson, expressing his view of the determinism of “stuff.”
Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man, put it in more harsh terms, relative to machines and technolgy. He wrote, “Human beings are the sex organs of the machine world.” Our role, in his view, is similar to that of bees. The technology can’t reproduce itself on it’s own, so we “fecundate” technology. “Until technology has the ability to reproduce itself on its own,” Nicholas Carr writes. ”At that point, we become dispensable.”
I’m not fond of this deterministic view of the role technology plays in our development. But I can see how the technology’s intellectual ethic is shaping how we communicate and relate to one another and some of the trends disturb me. They disturb me even as I sometimes march in lock step with them, sometimes following blindly as it leads me to places I end up disliking. And I refuse to simply sit back and look at technology as just a tool. It is more than that. “If the experience of modern society shows us anything,” Langdon Winner writes, “it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.”
We are not simply witnesses to a reshaping, we are being reshaped. And it is not merely the pace of technological change that is powering this reshaping, but the pervasive nature of our technology. In the past, we have been able to relegate our technology to specific places. No matter how powerful a medium television was, for example, we still had to carve out time for it. We had to go to a specific place to watch it and engage with it, and in this way it was limited.
Our new technology stays with us everywhere we go. It is always on. Always attracting us. Always influencing our behavior. And we are willing followers. We are not simply tolerant of the behaviors it spawns, we seek these behaviors out. They become desirable. “New media not only effect the way people behave,” writes Joshua Meyrowitz, “they effect the way people feel they should behave.” In fact, we are going out of our way to make sure technology has ever increasing access to every aspect of our lives.
It was with this understanding as the backdrop that I put together my keynote for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors annual convention. The subtitle for my presentation was supposed to be, “how to use emerging technology to forge deep, stronger relationships.” Instead it became, “how to ignore emerging technology to forge deeper, stronger relationships.”
Perhaps naively, I fall into the category of of an “instrumentalist.” I recognize the power of our tools to reshape how we behave, but I refuse to believe that we are powerless to control our tools. What I think needs to happen, more often than not, is for us to use these tools in ways that reduce the distance between us, literally, not figuratively. We need to stop taking the path of least resistance, the easy push button approach to connection, and opt for using the parts of the tools that require us to really see and hear each other.
That was the goal of they keynote represented by the slides below… to suggest that it’s not too late to shift our focus and put our social technology to work to help us forge deeper, stronger, more meaningful relationships. If we’re truly in control, it’s time to act like it.