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Technology and Notions of the Self: A Brief History

Updated on August 16, 2014

Fire, Prometheus, and the growth of human brains

The mastery of fire by proto-humans was perhaps the most significant development in technologies that humans have ever experienced. First of course, it offered us protection from the elements, such as cold, but also including predatory animals, and indirectly, from the results of exposure to the weather that resulted in colds, flu, or other at the time deadly diseases. This of course provided a huge advantage compared with what we had to live with prior to this, but it is not by any means the most important benefit we derive from fire. Perhaps the greatest advantage was that in enabled us to cook our food, again providing advantages in food and disease prevention, but additionally, and perhaps most importantly, cooked food is far more readily digestible. This simple fact allowed us to gain far more nutritious benefit from far wider varieties of food stuffs, especially meats and a variety of vegetables that otherwise might be indigestible.

The increase in nutrition from existing food sources had tremendous impact on our physiology and even anatomy, including an exceptionally large increase in brain size (Deacon, Bateson, Meade, Boaz, others). This of course was impossible until fire allowed for the increased metabolism of food. We simply could not generate the energy to support such a brain, what we know as the modern human brain, until we had mastered Fire. Thus the importance of Prometheus like characters in early mythologies.

With increased brain capacity, symbolic referencing skills and capacities were enhanced, including language skills, but also including abilities for passing on tool creation technologies, knowledge of food sources and processes for preparing them, and included in these things, or perhaps foundational to them, language skill. With language skill comes the ability to establish cultures in ways not previously possible. education becomes possible in an enhanced way. Paideia, as the Greeks called it, cultural education or acculturation, and the passing on of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next, was increasingly possible, in far more accurate systems. Additionally, the complexity of the tools that could be made, or used, increased (Deacon, Geertz, Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, others).

Agriculture and the invention of permanent housing

Barn | Source

From fire to agriculture...

With the mastery of fire we were able to develop techniques for raising crops and domesticating animals. This would be the second great revolution in technology, but also in psychology and culture. With the advent of agriculture, we see the slow demise of hunter gatherer cultures, and an increase in stationary (what we would call Sessile for animals, meaning located in one place and living in that one place for all or most of their life cycle) life styles, with an associated corresponding increase in territoriality, and technologies for building shelters. This led to alterations in the psyche, as well as in culture. Property issues came to be important, and notions of the self came to include in some sense notions of property and how property related to identity. These more sedentary cultures gave rise to the accumulation of goods and of power, the development of advanced tools, including irrigation and farm implements, pumps, and larger more costly (in terms of labor needed and resources used) tools.

Agriculture also altered the notion of relations between peoples both related kin, and Others, increased trade, and importantly, increased populations. Infant mortality rates, as well as mortality among adults, decreased due to better capacities for dealing with weather, disease, and food shortages. To a point... beyond which what might be called urban crowding took its toll. But availability of foods such as vegetables and meats, and the use of weather resistant shelters was a huge change.

Writing as Revolution 2000 BC to 800 BC

Increases in trade and in specialization in divisions of labor led to a need for tracking resources, calculating trade compensation, and a need for payment systems. This recruited a capacity for writing, which allowed for record keeping, and most early writing samples we have are all about inventories and trade processes. Eventually of course, writing was used for story telling, and when this happened, the record keeping function had already altered the notions of self.

History, as we know it, is a later development, but first, the human mind had to think in terms of time, something it had not previously been exposed to (Eliade) -- trade tracking implies that something happened previously, and that since then things had changed; before writing, the notion of time was perceived in more cyclical fashion, as with the seasons. Writing introuced the linearity of thinking, and the notion of history as Past. This of course is a huge change in culture and in notions of the self. Self now develops over time. Individuality and the idea that the person could be held accountable for their own actions as opposed to seeing all acts and thoughts as stemming from the gods, correlates with the advent and promulgation of writing.

Additionally, the notion of monotheism came about at around the same time as writing... this of course is what led to personal responsibility since prior to this, the gods were thought to have injected ideas into favorite peoples, poets gained inspiration (inspiration literally means breathed into) from muses, and enthusiasm (literally the god is in you) for activities was thought to derive from the gods themselves. Now, for the first time, people accepted that ideas came from within. How big a change is that? And yes, due to technological changes, we came to experience ourselves as individuals, but yes, still immersed in culture.

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Printing Press: The spread of knowledge and democratization of reading

The next big thing was the printing press which democratized knowledge to a certain extent, and with that, gave rise to the Reformation, and the degradation of the role of religious leaders in interpreting culture and religious life. In feudal times of the Middle Ages, only the clergy and a few civic leaders could read. Knowledge was truly power in this time of darkness. But along comes the printing press, and suddenly, almost, all people could read, and could thereby interpret the Bible themselves, without the need to have the clergy do so for them. By the time of King Henry VIII in England this had come a long way... The Protestant Reformation had been going on in German areas for quite some time, and once the non-clergy could access the texts of the Bible and other books, they challenged the leadership of the established Catholic Church, and with some success.

And with that challenge, increasing numbers of people learned to read. Eventually, the Bible was translated into vernacular languages, first in English, followed by many others. The political turmoil was astounding to the establishment and caused some conflicts throughout Europe. But this is only a small part of what the printing press did.

It seems to me that the printing press, in part, was responsible for the building of nation states... English as we know it did not exist until about this time, and neither did French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. These languages while written, had no real organization in grammars and dialects. These faded away as more could read. Old English, or even more, Gaelic, Celtic, and such, developed in to more cohesive and comprehensive languages, and these languages came to dominate the regions over time. This extended language commonality had a great deal to do with the cohesiveness of nations.

Books, Clocks, Time Machines

Technology | Source

Radio, Telephone, TV: Extensions Of Man

The telegraph, telephone, and radio all extended the sensory systems of humans. McLuhan delineates types for these distinctive mediums of communication, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that these all (including the previously mentioned communicative technologies such as writing and the printing press) extended outwards the notion of self, such that now our ears or books were no longer limiting. We could for all intents and purposes communicate as if the person was standing right in front of us, over thousands of miles, without noticing the distance. We could talk instantaneously with those in far off countries, and they could respond in kind. But still, this communication was linear, with a beginning a middle and an end. Never the less, the notion o self became compressed, and simulation began to take hold as a substitute for the real.

This is epitomized by television, and even more so by newer technologies such as the internet, but more on that later. for television, which included for the first time audio, video and linear time, and which as McLuhan and others would insist, created a compelling system of simulation (see also Baudrillard, Pierre Levy, and others) which was in fact difficult to take your eyes off of. But importantly, it also gave rise to a change in attention giving: reading and writing, for example, increased attention spans. TV diminished attention spans, with ever changing images and fast movement, which today, are so hyped as to give rise to ADD and ADHD. Notice for example how long, next time you watch TV, how long does the camera angle remain in one position? And if it is more than 5 seconds or so, what does this stationary camera angle generate as feelings within you? If the camera stays fixed for more than 5 seconds or so, d you feel relaxed, or heightened anxiety or anxiousness?

The changes are enormously impactful, and are not a matter of choice in our culture. But yet, things remained linear... and our thinking remained linear accordingly. Attention spans declined. A need for short fast thoughts, short happy statements, and declining requirements ofr attention all result from this level of media, and technology. This is also reflected in culture, especially when we look to advertising and its impact on culture.

What does he mean by that? You ask... the louder broadcast of advertisements on TV, the short high impact nature of them, has helped to create a consumer culture. We now consider shopping to be a valid hobby. Short is sweet. Long is boredom. Vernacular dominates. Vocabulary declines. Think about it.

Additionally, with electronic media, we see an alteration of our thinking, from the persistence of the real, to the interruption of the simulation (See Baudrilliard for more). For a time, simulation, and simulacra, ran parallel with the Real. Today we have seen a near replacement of the Real with the Simulation, not only in technology, but in our mental organization, and in our symbolic referencing systems. In fact, we have nearly replaced the Real with the Simulation... this is manifest in such things as a couple sitting at a table together but rather than talking, they are texting. This is a parallel issue to that of Dislocation, or Alienation, except it is even more telling of changes in psyche.

Internet, Text Messages, Smart Phones

And with the advent of the internet, smart phones, and especially text messaging, attention spans have further declined. Learning of facts has diminished in favor of looking things up instantly. Simulation has replaced the Real, and we no longer even notice this fact. I have seen young couples sitting at a dinner table in Disney World in Florida, both busy texting. It turned out that they were texting each other, despite actually sitting directly across the table from each other... the achievements of uniform spelling that derive from the printing press, the development of long term memory and story telling, even basic grammar have gone the way of the totem pole. We now even speak in abbreviations and say LOL when we mean to laugh.

This is not to say that developments are in some way bad, or evil, as many conservative minded folks might say. But it does mean that we need to change our learning technologies, persist in teaching reading and writing skills, and especially, persist in conveying from one generation to the other a certain amount of communication abilities... I mean, those young people at that table barely spoke to each other the entire dinner... how isolating is that?

Has technology given us the means to cease interpersonal interaction? And if so at what cost? We humans have evolved over time to be in large part dependent on culture for our notion of self. This means we are required to interact with others. Our very consciousness depends on it. Consciousness is always consciousness of a thing, or of An Other... the isolation, or as some have called it (Polanyi) dislocation, or others (Marx) alienation, is manifest in our culture today. How we deal with it will determine how we develop individually, and evolve both culturally and as a species. Let us hope some of us, with attention spans still intact, are looking into it.


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    • Paul Silverzweig profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Silverzweig 

      4 years ago from Portsmouth RI USA

      I agree that we are seeing detachment from the 'present' with technologies such as cell phones, texting, etc. and that this is problematical...

    • anweshablogs profile image


      4 years ago

      I think the proverb "necessity is the mother of invention" is a vital reason, because of which we are losing out in communication, (even though the ways of communication has such revolutionary achievements) interpersonal interaction and further voluntary thoughts.

      We Human beings are too comfortable now to move ahead, this comfort has snatched away the urges to respond to the immediate situations.


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