Have digital technologies created greater individual or cultural anxieties? I will argue that the blame can not be heaped at the doorstep of technology. Hegemonic dynamics and neo-capitalist imperatives have hijacked every aspect of our lives, including the creation, dissemination, adoption of media technologies. Rather than putting digital technologies, and in this case specifically, media technologies, in the driver’s seat as technology determinists suggest, I will argue that technologies are, instead, the handmaidens and foot soldiers of those who yield economic, political and social power. What came first?: The technologies, or the worldviews, ideologies and economic imperatives that drive the creation of the technologies? I will argue for the social constructivist view of technologies, suggesting that tools are constructed by people and by groups to further their social, political and economic goals. Yet, regardless of the original motivations that propelled the creation of technological tools, human beings are creative and industrious, and will use technological innovations in surprising ways. I will explore how media technologies have served to enhance our communicative and social power, exclude and subjugate others, and still wind up being used in surprising ways to create community and connection. MacKenzie & Wajcman (1999). SST suggests that “technological change is itself shaped by the social circumstances within which it takes place” (Wajcman, 2002, p. 351).
McLuhan (1964) argued that the attempt to extend our senses through electric technologies was rather like the hubris of Icarus. With these prosthetic extensions of our senses, our nervous system has been extended too far, too fast. Our minds are roiled into a state of “helpless mental rutting” thanks to media technologies (McLuhan, 1964, p. v). In this, we are sacrificing ourselves, our peace, our natural state of affairs, because of our willing or unwitting “desperate suicidal autoamputation, without the natural protection or “buffer” of our “physical organs” (p. 111). To take this idea further, McLuhan (1964) argues we are then vaulted, as raw, naked nerve endings, alone into the oblivion of another world, one we would later come to understand as cyberspace, a space created by technology-mediated communication. In this, McLuhan (1964) seems to imply this extension of our senses is somehow unnatural and we were never truly meant to wind our consciousness around the world. At the heart of some media determinism, like that of McLuhan (1964), there is the idea that technology-mediated communication is unnatural. We’ve been exiled from Eden, with our minds and nervous systems tainted by the evils of defiling technology. To follow this line of thought further, media determinists argue technologies have ushered in an unnatural state of being for humanity itself, that we are engaged in unnatural, unhealthy practices simply by mediating our communication with technologies.
Theorists such as Turkle (2011, 2015) and Postman (1993, 1995) embrace the kernel of this idea, that technologies block us from a more natural state of affairs; technologies are an obscuring veil that we cannot pierce. Others theorists such as Baym (2015), Shirky (2008), Castells (2000), Bolter and Gromala (2003), and Jenkins (2009) take a more nuanced and, at times, favourable view of how technology enables, unlocks and even elevates our communicative abilities. More specifically, these social constructivists suggest technology-mediated communication can lend us the ability to transcend physical barriers, create intimacy, expand the limits of our expressive power, and offer moments of grace, promote empathy, and facilitate social and political change. Still other theorists give us a way to understand how technologies are created, propagated, adopted, re-mixed and evolved. These technology stories, the social constructivists argue, are deeply human ones rooted in history, emotion and connection. Theorists such as Bijker (1995), Latour (1993), Malin (2014), Mackenzie & Wajcman (1999), Noble (2018), Phillips (2015) situate technologies in historic, social, economic, geopolitical, even psychological contexts, allowing for a deeper, more systemic understanding of the social determinism and constructivism at the root of technological creation.
The functionalist theories of the Toronto School, Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964, 1998), would argue that dominant communication technologies provide the rigid framework, the hard, objectivist walls, within which psychological and sociological states of being are changed. Feeling anxious or overwhelmed in today’s world? Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964, 1998) provide a carefully traced, detailed map to the culprit behind devolving discourse, cultural and individual anxieties: media technologies. The siren call of these new communication technologies, such as the written word, began to wend their way through our history, reshaping our thought, changing the primacies of some senses and shifting the focus of our perception. The written word shifts societies away from the primacy of the ear or a life conducted in primary orality, to the primacy of the eye and the written word (Innis, 1951, p. 41). The fledgling monster we unleashed in those early communicative beginnings continues to shamble today, unbidden, reshaping our culture and perception.
Like Innis (1951), McLuhan mourns what was lost in the shift to the written word, “the break between eye and ear” that occurs in the move away from a “tribal” orality (p. 122). McLuhan (1964) picks up on painstakingly thorough accounting of communication history conducted by Innis (1951), mounting a sturdy case for the toll that electric, modern communication technology has taken on humanity. Media technology wears at our sense of self, making us “all nobodies desperate for identity” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 5). Further, electric communication technology renders us all Philistines, unable to recognize art of any value, even perverting and hijacking our natural drives turning sex into a way to sell consumer goods. For McLuhan (1964. 1998), media technologies appear on the horizon like a violent storm, a great destructive beast, and those that try to command this beast are merely “ghouls and vampires” (p. 30). This revealing cluster of ideas signals a sense of powerlessness over technology (McLuhan, 1964). We are powerless in the face of these forces of nature, in McLuhan (1964), buffeted by factors out of our control. In this, McLuhan (1964) demonstrates his belief in the primacy and dominance of the technology over humanity. Technology becomes either a “straight-jacket” or an “abstract tyrant” that “carries its ravages into the deeper recesses of the psyche than did the sabertooth tiger or the grizzly bear” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 33).
Extending from the Toronto School, we see a further refinement of media determinism with the radical structuralism of Postman (1993, 1995) and an evolved theory of media ecology theory. Postman (1993, 1995) plots a course of societal and individual change which, he argues, is being directed by technology and particularly, the dominant communication technology of the time. However, in Postman (1993, 1995), technology is no hard wall, it is mutable and becomes the evolving infrastructure in which we interact, and have agency within, but only up to a point. Our veneration of technology and the rise of the technopoly, per Postman (1993), has caused us to worship the machine to the point that we view the world and ourselves through the prism of numbers and machine values. Love of technology has blotted out the North Star of our metaphysical contemplation of reality, our culture and our introspective understanding of ourselves (Postman, 1995). In this, technology deadens our feeling for one another, creates anxieties and degrades our discourse, all of which Postman (1993, 1995) enumerates in his indictment of U.S. education, culture and political structures. If not for the fog of technology, Postman (1993, 1995) argues, we might again glimpse that which is true, good and natural.
While not the functional media determinism we find in the Toronto School, the humanist determinism of Turkle (2011, 2015) still calls to the same ideals of the purported natural state of human communication found in McLuhan (1964, 1998) and Postman (1993, 1995). Her writings are a nostalgic recall to the tribal, primitive purity of oral communication. Turkle (2015) frames her argument about needing to reclaim conversation around some of the ideas of the transcendentalist and naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau who called for a simple life of solitude in nature. She admits that she comes at the question as a social psychologist, and she venerates eye contact, intimacy, quiet introspection and unmediated, uninterrupted communication. Turkle (2015) comes not to bury technology but to warn against its over-use and abuse. With the weight of many quantitative, empirical studies, Turkle (2011, 2015) identifies the multitudinous failures of technology-mediated communication. Technologies aren’t as fearsome as “tyrants” or “sabretooth tigers” in Turkle’s thought but objects to be circled cautiously. She exhorts the reader to simply select the “right tool for the job” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 33; Turkle, 2015, p. 322). While unmediated communication is “messy and demanding” it can also be “rich” and rewarding; it alone is a purer version of communication (Turkle, 2015, p. 21). The face, the magic of eye contact is privileged in Turkle’s view, even drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in which the face-to-face encounter with another is the moment of ethical and spiritual epiphany, even eliminating the impulse to harm or murder (Levinas, 1969). Here too are, the roots of the idea that computer-mediated communication creates a state of disinhibition, giving rise to a meanness and aggression that, so goes the argument, might not be as possible in face-to-face contact. Technologies change us, in Turkle (2011, 2015), to anxious, disconnected and alienated individuals.
Social constructivists. Baym (2015) argues against the determinist divide between the ‘real-life’ of face-to-face communication and the so-called cyberspace of technology-mediated communication. There is, in fact, no sharp divide in Baym’s estimation. The solution to the essay question for Baym (2015) lies in a nuance, in a complex, intersectional view of how technology is integrated into our cultures. How does technology change our relationships? Does technology drive our affective states? For Baym (2015) the answer is, resoundingly: It depends. As Baym (2015) argues, it depends on race, gender, socioeconomic status, digital literacy, physical and cognitive abilities to engage with tools, one’s relative introversion or extroversion, and finally, on a person’s place in the world — whether you reside in First World or developing country. These are all factors in the privilege of technological access, and the nature of our relationship with these technologies. These human factors are the predominant, overriding elements that help us to determine whether technology helps or harms. It then becomes a question of privilege and deep-seated personal choices that influence whether technology changes us, our culture and our relationships. For Baym (2015), the ability to answer the question of how human relationship or our psyches have been altered by digital media lies in our ability to “wrestle with messy nuances” (p.134).
Shirky (2008) provides a long historical view, demonstrating that technology has provoked anxiety and concerns about social change since the dawn of recorded history. People, their concerns and the struggle for power persist. Human motivations and desires play a dominant role in the changes we experience as a culture. Shirky (2008) that while social media has always existed at some level, be it gossip in taverns or Gutenberg pamphlets circulating through European towns. Digital media has simply accelerated the world’s capacity for information sharing, and community creation. The dictates of political leaders, the imperatives of the neo-capitalist machinery, the drives of social power brokers these are the factors behind the creation and use of digital media today. Consalvo (2002) documented the rhetorics that sought to attract women to the early ‘frontiers’ of the Internet. Cyberspace, per Balsamo (1996), rather than being a brave new world, became a mirror image of our existing societal divides, with technology reinforcing sexism, racist and economic inequities. Consalvo (2002) concludes that the composition of the technologists and makers of these technological tools, most often male, white and of middle or upper-class economic background, create the conditions whereby the “reification of the norm of masculinity” is transferred into the digital technologies themselves, and onto the earliest versions of the Internet (p. 120).
Noble (2018) identifies the ways in which technologies have been shaped, molded and hijacked by vested corporate interests and the deep-seeded inequities of North American culture. Examining the raw power of machine algorithms in the hands of neoliberal forces, Noble (2018) argues that these tools “reinforce oppressive social relationships” (p. 1). It is the neoliberal imperative that shaped and drives the construction of so-called “neutral” online information portals. These corporate portals sell search placements to the highest bidder, distorting and manipulating information access for hegemonic and corporate gain (Noble, 2018). She notes that sexism, racism and deliberate exclusion and marginalization of publics are baked into the production of media technologies. Noble (2018) embraces social shaping of technology theory (SST), as defined by MacKenzie & Wajcman (1999). MacKenzie and Wajcman (1999) state: “…it is mistaken to think of technology and society as separate spheres influencing each other: technology and society are mutually constitutive” (p. 41). Jenkins (2009) also concedes, that the power of media technologies is not equally to organizers of social justice movements but they still manage to use these restrictive technologies to further their causes and facilitate social and political change. In this, Jenkins (2009) argues that online digital worlds have democratized access to publishing and storytelling, and can have a transformative impact on society.
Like Shirky (2008), and Jenkins (2009), Castells (2000) envisions a world where traditional national and cultural barriers are breached, our focus is global, and our identities are in a constant state of evolution. Castells (2000) shows enthusiasm for a brave new world created by the ‘space of flows’, where we are constantly in contact over time and space, interacting in an continuous, cybernetic community. Castells (2000) likened the dawning of the digital information age to a “rising star that often blinds the observer” (p. 37). Like Shirky (2008), Malin (2014) provides an historic sweep of mediated-communication and human affect. Malin (2014) helps us understand that the hand-wringing about technology changing us ‘twas ever thus. Socrates railed against the pharmakon of the written word. In the same way that technology determinists might argue that digital media are alluring, bewitching and unnatural like a drug that hijacks the mind and our world, Socrates argued against the written word (Malin, 2014). Like Socrates, 19th century commentators and pundits worried the railroad, telegraph and the burgeoning adoption of the motorcar was cursing modern society with “hyper-emotional stimulation” and “speed mania” (Malin, 2014, p. 35).
Bijker (1995) argues that the culture makes the engineer who creates the network who creates the invention; it takes an entire society to create a bicycle. In fact, it takes all we are as a social, political and economy system to create a social media platform. Also traversing between the two solitudes of science and engineering, and philosophy and culture is Latour (1998) who notes that the mythology of modernity has robbed us all of the ability to see the integration of the nature world and our culture, a unified “nature-culture” (p. 5). The ethnographer, he argues, can weave a cohesive narrative of technologies and people, showing it as actually seamless instead of separate. Latour (1998) writes we’ve lost the unified perspective and the ability to see linkages between us and our tools. Latour (1998) warns that the fabric of our analyses of culture and technology is “no longer seamless” because of our inability to see past the rift created in the Enlightenment between sciences (the natural world) and culture (arts and philosophy). Modernism’s advancement was to view all things natural, non-human, and that which is human and cultural, as completely distinct. “The past was a barbarian medley; the future a civilizing distinction” (Latour, 1998, p. 130). Overall, social constructivists represented in this survey are linked in the belief that we as human beings are fundamentally creative, adaptive, flexible and mutable beings, capable of incredible expressive power, intrinsic compassion and grace. I will return to this idea shortly.
There is a conceptual divide between the technological deterministics and the social constructivists. One side of the continuum places technology apart, singling it out for targeted, singular blame and in so doing, giving technologies more power than they truly warrants. The hard determinists contend technology, in and of itself, is a necessary and sufficient condition for sociological or psychological change. The soft determinists take a more complex, multi-faceted view that technology combines with other factors to help facilitate individual and cultural change. Likening media technologies to predators and monsters,
The social determinists and constructivists place humanity and our cultures in the driver’s seat. Social constructivists reject the reductive arguments of the technological determinists; they believe technologies do not rise out of the oceans like the Venus Anadyomene nor are they made from whole cloth. Technologies are a product of and a tool for of vast interconnected network of political systems, corporations, work teams. The social constructivists understand the geopolitical, social, economic, racial and gender dynamics that drive the creation of these technologies. Irrevocably intertwined with the culture and people from which they are designed, developed, used and evolved, technologies are merely extensions of the underlying values and requirements of pre-existing societal and individual imperatives.
The error of the media determinists is that they cede too much power to technology. This view sees technology as a shambling but all-powerful Frankenstein, an arcane, mysterious and altogether overpowered monster. The “laboratory,” the black box from which technologies emerge is something that can’t truly understood by citizen-consumers (McLuhan, 1964, p. v). It is people, with means and power, who are in in the driver’s seat, with the technologies but willing beasts of burden, pulling toward old, very familiar goals of power and domination.
I embrace the “messy” complexities and often, the uncertainties of the social constructivists. I concede that technologies, these dumb beasts, have been ensnared for neo-capitalist and hegemonic purposes. I also believe in the inherent creativity of humanity. These technological dumb beasts have been created for a purpose, but, often, as social shaping technologies (SST) envisioned by Wajcman (2002) tells us, technologies will be used in ways that were never envisioned by their creators. We must consider that many communication innovations were created by the military-industrial complex, such as the ARPANET. The initial design of this forerunner of the Internet was not necessarily purpose-built to facilitate deep human connections, providing a voice for the disenfranchised and vulnerable. The original goal was to “meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats, achieve survivable control of US nuclear forces, and improve military tactical and management decision making” (Lukasik, 2011). Yet, today’s digital technologies have increased the democratization of publishing and facilitated social network formation which can, in limited ways, give voice to the historically voiceless (Noble, 2018; Shirky, 2008; Malin, 2014). Further, Jenkins (2009) convincingly argues that digital technologies have created new capacities for community building and the mobilization of marginalized communities that can increase social justice.
I reject that there is somehow a natural state of human communication, a place where we commune in a state of face-to-face communicative purity. There’s a privilege inherent in the argument of the technological determinists, a privilege in the ability to reject technology when so many in the world desire access to these mediated-communicative tools but will never have them, nor the time to worry if their communication is somehow being tainted or diminished. I side with Baym (2015) in the experiential lived understanding of the power and beauty of technology-mediated communication. A new world created by technology-mediated tools once called cyberspace is not where societal and cultural ills are created.
These technology-mediated spaces merely hold a mirror to our culture, they act as amplifiers, connectors and remixers to existing cultural challenges and anxieties. The tools are not the cause. These technological tools are subordinate to individual, group and societal ends. Therefore, I contend that here is no digital life nor real-life. There is no sharp divide. There is no switch that one can turn on and off between our use of technology-mediated communication and that of our face-to-face interactions. Neither is better nor more pure and essentially human. As digital media becomes commonplace and frankly, invisible to those privileged enough to have access it, it becomes another communication modality with which we can express ourselves, assert our wills, assuage our worries, engage in intimacy and connection with others.
As products of culture, these technological tools are created in service to worldviews as old as recorded history itself, as identified by Consalvo (2002), Noble (2018), Phillips (2015), Malin (2014) and Shirky (2008). Technologies are merely dumb beasts enlisted into service to serve, propagate and maintain existing social, economic and political structures. While there’s an inherent complexity in arguments of the social constructivists, I embrace their intersectional, messy and nuanced arguments. Per social shaping of technology theory, I understand that media technologies are designed to exclude some publics, and privilege and empower others as is demonstrated by Noble (2018), Shirky (2008) and Phillips (2015). We can understand that people will use these technologies in unintended, creative and even subversive ways. At their core, media technologies are born of need. Technologies facilitate a need to control, to extend our senses, expand our capabilities and even allow us to dominate spheres of control. Per Castells (2000) and Jenkins (2009), I agree that digital technology has expanded our capacity to organize, connect and communicate. Digital technologies have increased the democratization of publishing which can, in limited ways, and at unique times in history, can give voice to the historically voiceless.
Technology-mediated communication tools are simply that, tools. They are a means to serve individual, group and societal ends. They fortify, enhance, support, accelerate and amplify these pre-existing and deeply human goals. As digital media becomes commonplace and frankly, invisible to those privileged enough to have access to it, it becomes another means, in a long history of communicative tools, with which we can express ourselves, assert out wills, assuage our worries, engage in intimacies and connect with others. Our thesis question has always been posed by theorists. Like Socrates warning of the loss of the communicative purity of orality and raging against the pharmakon of the written word, today we worry that our latest media tools are harming us. The reality is: Technologies are not destroying us. They are us. Technology-mediated communication is and will continue to be, woven into, manipulated by and remixed into users’ daily lives.
I have explored the conceptual continuum starting with the media determinists to the social constructivists. Some commentators and theorists take up the argument that digital technologies help to create connection, creativity and communities. Others suggest that they take us away from the natural state of human communication, that of face-to-face orality. Only this pure communication can engender communities of support and belonging. Media determinists arge technology-mediated communication is responsible for creating deep divides in our culture, generating a sense of individual isolation and social anxiety. I have argued through the perspectives of the social constructivists, particularly the perspectives of Baym (2015), Bijker (1995), Castells (2000), Jenkins (2009), Latour (1998) and Noble (2018), that technologies, while they are often created for political, economic and social reasons, do allow people to organize, express themselves and be creative in way unintended by the original creators. Malin (2014) and Shirky (2008) demonstrate that the question of whether technologies, and particularly media technologies, are destroying our relationships, creating anxieties and hurting our public discourse, have always been posed through our recorded history. Social shaping of technology (Mackenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Baym, 2015), argues, that while tools are created to support those with power and exclude marginalized others, people are creative and will often use technologies in unplanned ways. Ultimately, our tools mirror our societal divides and inequities. Technology is a Narcissus mirror, reflecting us but not responsible for creating our anxieties, disconnection and discord. Perhaps, as signalled by Shirky (2008), Jenkins (2009) and Noble (2018) signal, these media tools will give us a means to address and correct our cultural and individual ills as “the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice” (King, 1965).
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