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Human Activity and the Un-inevitability of Technological Change

Updated on May 31, 2014

Lewis Mumford

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Television—The Best Next Thing to Being There

Technology has the ability to unite us over great distances. This is a good thing, right? We can now be in close contact with those many miles away (although the device to connect us with those we are emotionally distant from has yet to be invented—even the Candygram isn’t a sure thing).

In 1934(!), Lewis Mumford took notice of television, which then was in its early technical experimental stage:

With the invention of the telegraph a series of inventions began to bridge the gap in time between communication and response despite the handicap of space . . . As a result, communication is now on the point of returning, with the aid of mechanical devices, to that instantaneous reaction of person to person with which it began. . . When the radio telephone is supplemented by television communication will differ from direct intercourse only to the extent that immediate physical contact will be impossible. (Technics and Civilization)

Yay, right?! This new medium—television—allowed us to “be” present in a location and to “share” the experience of being there with thousands—millions—of other people. Information transmission would be immediate—and we will be able to instantly react to what is happening in the world. To recap, this new device called television will be a box of fluffy ducks. What could go wrong?

[The] great economical abstractions of writing, reading, and drawing, the media of reflective thought and deliberative action will be weakened . . . The lifting of restrictions upon close human intercourse has been, in its first stages, as dangerous as the flow of populations into new lands: it has increased the areas of friction. Similarly, it has mobilized and hastened mass-reactions, like those on the verge of a war. (Technics and Civilization)

The Speed of Communication Technology

Do you believe that the speed in which new communication technologies (texting, IM, social media) has outpaced our ability to deal with the changes it presents?

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Communication without Communicating

Mumford, in his later writings, saw that there was a problem with increased communication—while it was possible to send messages to people, there was no guarantee that they would understand the message. The focus was put on the technics while there was little—ok, actually no—emphasis placed on the cultural understanding needed to make communication work in the first place! As he writes in Let Man take Command from 1943, “the larger the area of our communication, other things remaining the same, the more limited the area of our understanding . . . we have done little to make ourselves mental neighbors or to train ourselves in habits of courtesy, in disciplines of mutual forbearance, which would keep us in amicable relations.” Having the ability to send a message should not be confused with having the ability to communicate. Mumford points out what he calls a “bitter paradox”—“For what is the use of our being able to speak to another person instantaneously on the other side of the planet, if we have no common language, and if we have no common purpose” Technological innovations are only useful in a “society that has provided adequate social destinations and outlets.” If we do not have these outlets, it can lead to “confusion, frustration, retrogression” (read here, barbarism).

Mumford points out the perils of inadequate preparation in the development of the atomic bomb. He writes, in Anticipations and Social Adjustments in Science,

. . . mankind entered the atomic age without looking before or after, and therefore without the faintest preparation for the drastic changes in human institutions that must result, changes that might even effect the speed and direction of scientific effort itself.

Without visiting the consequences that the use of the weapon might have, or even asking the question of if developing the bomb was a good thing, we were not able to predict (well, sci-fi writers like H.G. Wells did) the repercussions. Technology and scientific advancement became an end in themselves. To some degree they appeared like and unstoppable force. “Appeared,” here, is the key word. Lewis?

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Power of Thought

There were two variables that it was imperative to bring under control, during the thirty years before the atom bomb was invented: one was the rate of scientific advance and the other was the rate of social adaptation. Neither of these variables is an impersonal, uncontrollable force of nature. (Anticipations and Social Adjustments in Science)

But they were, and still are today, treated as uncontrollable forces. As Langdon Winner points out, to question if technology is inevitable is to be called a Luddite. For some reason, this is the worst thing you can be in a modern technological world—I can think of worse. Can you, gentle reader?

Technology is Great! But . . .

Mumford, as stated above, was somewhat optimistic about the advances in communication technology. He believed that television will “refocus him [the human being] and enlarge his capacities.” But, he issued two warnings about the technology: 1) societies have “a tendency to use them [inventions] whether or not the occasion demands” and 2) that “the culture of the personality shall parallel in refinement the mechanical development of the machine.” (Technics and Civilization) We can see both of these in our choices today.

Mumford's warnings are applicable to ANY technological progress--fail to develop the social structures necessary to deal with the new technology and, well, let's just say it won't be pretty. The fact that in this case he applies the warnings to a communication technology has a special concern for us (as we shall see below).

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

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First Warning--Misuse and Overapplication

Warning number one falls under the heading of “what will this thing do?” Let’s bounce this discussion forward in time just a bit. The internet was developed as a way of linking universities and governmental agencies in an effort to share knowledge. Tim Berners-Lee, in 1989, developed a system that made it easier to share information between users. He described his vision of the internet in 1998 in "The World Wide Web: A Very Short Personal History" (http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/ShortHistory.html):

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together

When the commercial potential of the internet was recognized, firms jumped on board as a way to connect consumers with the goods they needed. Once the internet moved beyond being limited to sharing only text and small images, then, hey—cat videos! The rationale for action moves beyond “what did we create this invention to do?” or even “what would it be good for this invention to do?” and expands rapidly to “what can we do with this invention?” I am sure SIr Berners-Lee never believed that one day we would "share" music (among other forms of entertainment media) across the same protocols he designed to share data from CERN. I don't think that while he was setting up the language to quickly shift data from one computer to another, distant computer he for once imagined that we would be sending self-portraits (with duck lips) to groups of anonymous "friends." (I wonder if he did, in a clairvoyant moment, see his work twenty-five years later would he have chucked it all and become a plumber.)

Keyboard Cat Interlude

Second Warning--It's Your Choice.

Point two is more concerned with value and presents us with a fundamental question—is the pace of technological change determined by the technology or do we actively choose how quickly technology changes? Choose carefully, because the answer you choose determines whether human beings are determined by technology or do you we play an active role, and this is the important part, determines the direction of our society and culture. No pressure--think about it for a minute. (I have provided the Original Keyboard Cat to provide a musical interlude.)

Technology and Human Agency

What is the relationship between technology and human beings?

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Lewis Mumford--The City

If we accept the first proposition, that the pace of technological change is an impersonal force that moves at an independent speed, we take agency out of our hands and give it to an unyielding system. This is what Mumford feared—people giving themselves over to the logic of technology—since it indicates an inability or unwillingness on the part of humans to change the trajectory of technological development (and if you want to see how that turns out, read the section “A Brief Outline of Hell” in Mumford’s The Culture of Cities). We become destined rather than develop a destiny of our own.

Neuroscience seems to be suggesting that we ARE shaped by technology (shameless plug—see my post “Does the Internet Put Us in the 'Shallows'?” on this very topic! It needs the views). Research has shown that exposure to the internet causes our brains to physically change. This is a fact, but we also have to realize that there is a value judgment being made. By resigning ourselves to the change, we are passively agreeing that there is nothing we can do. By refusing to make a value judgment--this is good and we want this to occur/this is bad and we need to alleviate the cause--we are abdicating our role as self-determining beings. If we would, at least, actively make a choice, we could decide the path we will follow. Refusing to choose means that we see this--brain changes--as an acceptable outcome. But this does not absolve us from the responsibility for that outcome. This really isn’t brain surgery (oh, wait . . .).

Bill Gates

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Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers)

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If we accept the second proposition, that we (people involved) have made the choice to create a faster system, at least we open the debate to the type of society we want to have. This proposition allows us to avoid the belief that “this (whatever this may be) is the way it is SUPPOSED to be” and at least allows for discussion of the argument on its merits. This reasoning allows us to avoid the “naturalization” response (“it’s s’pposed to be like this”) and escape the appeals that this position requires to the moral superiority of some type of uber-being, be it God, Bill Gates or Gerry Marsden (and regardless if you believe in a higher power or not, somehow I don’t think the Supreme Being is overly concerned with my connect rate).

Speed and Communication

Let's bring this discussion to a close by returning to the beginning. Communication technology conquers distance by speed. A message can appear to millions of people nearly simultaneously through the magic of electronics (it's really complicated--think of it as magic and it makes it much more simple and fun). What has recently changed is the ability to move messages from a person to a select group of people instantly through e-mail, texts and social media. Have we developed enough to handle the repercussions of the speed?

What speeding up communication does not do and did not allow was for the sender to weigh the consequences of our words. Speeding things up and simply reacting sometimes only serves to make things worse.


Both Coasts on the Television Screen at Once--A First!

Waiting Anxiety

How long does it take before you start to worry that the person you texted hasn't texted you back yet?

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First, think about how the mass media handles breaking news. Think about the speculation that surrounds any televised disaster, either natural or human-made. The sheer amount of misinformation (noise) that gets transmitted along with the information is mind boggling. Fact checking takes time. Second, think about the relationships between nations. Sometimes, being able to carefully choose words rather than just to respond to what someone says is positive as it keeps other countries from attempting to open up a new real estate market—namely, your country. Distance, both physical and reflective, can be helpful.

When we begin to idolize speed, we make two fundamental errors. The first is the belief that more speed is better. The quicker the pace, we believe, the more convenient the service. Really? Let me quiz you, gentle readers. Record your answers to the following questions. 1) You send a text to someone. How long before you start becoming anxious that they have not responded? A day? An hour? A few minutes? A few seconds? 2) You send an e-mail to a friend. How long after you hit send do you start checking for his or her response? A day? An hour? When do you become worried that they haven’t seen it? The anxiety is real and it is only exacerbated by the expectation not of a response, but of the speed of the response.

Our technology has changed drastically. We are now tethered to the world and to each other by mobile multimedia, multimodal communication devices. This provides the expectation on the part of some that you are always available to them. We have further shrank the world and, like the early days of satellite relays which allowed two distant locations to be linked by electrons, we still don't know how to communicate.

Who decided that constant contact was a good thing? Who made the choice--I mean actively chose--to privilege quickness over content? Was it me or you?

When will we start to make these decisions?

Please comment--let's discuss!!

Agree or disagree? Have a bone to pick with what I said? Leave a comment and let's discuss it!!

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