What’s Behind our Technologies?
Sorry, I can’t help but keep harping on this topic. I’ll draw your attention to a little article by Marshall Poe called “The Internet Changes Nothing” on the George Mason University History News Network. As CES 2011 has just passed – with its yearly hullabaloo and wild optimism about ‘game changing’ technologies that will alter everything – Poe’s argument that “[t]here was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution.” is refreshing.
Let me, quickly, outline Poe’s argument before telling you what I find so compelling: There’s an urge to talk as if the Internet will change everything for the better (Wikinomics) or the worse (Cult of the Amateur). Despite that it is now 2011, we still speak as if the Internet was a new burgeoning technology. The Internet is now mature, and it’s high time we took a sober look at how much it has actually changed our habits and ways of life. According Poe, it’s the same story in a new guise: “The things we do” on the Internet (as opposed to the TV) “are only different; they are not new”.
Poe explains: “In terms of content, the Internet gives us almost nothing that the much maligned “traditional media” did not. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing—it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.”
Despite this, a trip to Chapters reveals an endless parade of pop-technology books that tell us otherwise. These books contend that the Internet has engendered a new and transformative way of collaborative thinking that challenges many of our archaic, dogmatic and anti-democratic tendencies. (From reading too many of these books, one might conclude that last week it was Twitter and Facebook which cast out the tyrannical, anti-democratic Tunisian government. The implication is that the revolutionaries risking their necks in vicious street battles are secondary to the democratic power unleashed by new technology. The revolutionaries out on the street used Twitter and Facebook, but was it a ‘Twitter/Facebook revolution’? Or was it a revolution by the people of Tunisia that sometimes utilized Twitter and Facebook?)
So what substantial changes has the medium of the Internet introduced? As Poe suggests: “The basic institutions of modern society in the developed world—representative democracy, regulated capitalism, the welfare net, cultural liberalism—have not changed much since the introduction of the Internet. The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then.”
This brings us to what is so interesting in the context of Cybject: We have a tendency to see new media as the agents responsible for social change when, in actuality, they were brought into being by “major historical trends already underway [and] amplified things that we already going on.” This blog has attempted, time and time again, to demonstrate this point. A technology or technique never drops out of the Ether onto planet Earth, but emerges out of a complex socio-historical fabric, and is itself a product of this fabric.
Technology externalizes short, long, or very long term trends. A given tool or technique is our current material or organizational expression of those trends. It is only intelligible against the horizon of its specific, historically contingent, horizon; but it is not explicable simply in relation to that horizon… It has a long historical backstory. The virtual technologies we use today are intelligible only against the demands of our historical predicament. They would have been unintelligible against the religious-social-cultural horizon of the Middle Ages. But, as Heidegger points out, the Gestell exists alongside long term historical changes that the Subject and the Object (World) have undergone. Virtual technologies are our current expression of these changes that the Subject and Object (World) are undergoing.
As Poe puts it: “New media don’t create big-picture trends, big-picture trends create new media.” Media technologies respond to “some big-picture demand”. For example, he regards the Internet not as the product of technical wizardry, but of commercial/advertising and the ordinary workings of advanced capitalism.
I agree with Poe that we ought to look for the message that is driving the media, instead of being caught up in celebrating, or lamenting, what the medium itself is doing to us. (For Poe, the message of the Internet – its reason for being – is “buy something”.) Cybject has tried over and over again to demonstrate the message behind the medium, whether it is asking what technologies of mobility are really about, or what the transhumanists are really after with the Singularity, or what we really mean by “augmenting” our reality.
I’ll conclude by setting you down where we left off, with a quote from an CES themed article about 3-D-TV by Virginia Heffernan in this weeks New York Times Magazine called “What’s in a Dimension?” This is one of the rare articles that considers the “message” behind the technology: Heffernan suggests a historical message behind the urge to consume media that is true to life: “3-D is part of an aesthetic evolution that has included the shift from medieval fixed-point perspective to illusionism in Renaissance painting. This makes sense. Two-dimensional art always needs devices that allow it to more convincingly suggest a third dimension. Why should movies and TV be any different?”