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Technology R’ Us

Sherry Turkle and our relationship to the digital

“Where are the sensitive machines …?” So goes part of a tweet reproduced on the flyleaf to Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. The lament is not new. Over 30 years ago the designer and design theorist John Chris Jones pointed to the low sensitivity of technical systems to humans and contrasted this with extreme adaptations that technical systems demanded of their human subjects. Adorno, in 1942, had already thought something of the same. Rejecting the common idea that technology is somehow “outside” of us, he insisted on the contrary that “the new human type” as he put it, “cannot be understood without awareness of what he is continually exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations.” And he added for good measure: “Technology is making gestures precise and brutal and with them men.” Walter Benjamin, even earlier put it even more pithily and profoundly when he noted in the epilogue to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that “the destructiveness of modern war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.”

Sherry Turkle, Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, is probably America’s foremost expert on how computing and the digital affect us psychologically. Alone Together, Turkle’s most recent book, is a sustained attempt to describe, ethnographically, some of the consequences of technological mediation and substitution. In order to fully appreciate the implications of Turkle’s work, it is important to recognize how unprecedented the present historical moment is in terms of the nature of our relationship to technology. Two hundred years ago our engagement with technology, in the modern sense of the term, was confined to the workshop and the factory. Not until the beginning of the 20th century did technology begin to enter the home.

Throughout the 20th century we witness not only a vast expansion of technical systems — and their increasing extension at once into that which we formerly called “nature” and into the realm of symbol formation — but also their extension, directly as it were, into consciousness and the body: radio, film, television, and the gradual sequence that runs from the transistor radio through the Sony Walkman to the iPad; reproductive chemistry, implants, plastic surgery). Today all this is intensified by the onset of communicative and distributive networks accessed not even through the computer but through small hand-held devices that are carried with us at all times. These devices are no longer separate objects, but rather extensions of the self. They are objects that are both transitional in nature (to borrow the psychoanalyst, D, W. Winnicott’s concept), and transformational in nature (i.e. they allow us to achieve desired self-states).

The traditional conceptualization of technology as “tool” is no longer conceptually adequate. In order to capture the profound impact of the new technologies on our experience of self, we need an entirely new mode of thinking…one which remains virtually uncharted. The boundary between technology and the subject is in some respects dissolving with the emergence the newer technologies that have recently become “ours,” above all the iPhone and its kindred surrogates (see, for example, the recent Spike Jonze film, Her).

There is something uncanny about the way in which the new technologies dissolve the boundaries between subject and object. As the designer Jamer Hunt puts it (borrowing from Donna Haraway), “Late twen­tieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed … our machines are disturb­ingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” — and then continued, “the designed, artificial world that envelops us is coming alive with communicative possibilities … we are drifting into a new alignment, in both mind and body, with technology that is far more immersive, encompassing, and confounding … we are entering an age of uncanny technologies.” Re-entering into an age where the artificial (rather than nature) is becoming the determining medium, horizon and condition of our lives.

The seriousness with which iPhones are clutched, the palpable relief students feel on being able to open them after a class, our inability not to check who has messaged us, all point to what can be thought of as a different condition of the subject today. This condition has its own distinctive terrors. An e-mail a few days ago from an ex-student now trying to develop an e-business speaks of being at meetings with others; would-be companies proffering such things as a gamification app for hospitals pitting doctors against each other (gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems); an automatic texting app for your girlfriend, since you can’t be bothered to actually send messages to her; an app to anonymously rate your friend’s relationship/partner; an app that facilitatestelemarketing by giving permission to companies to call you in random hours of the day.

It is clearly too early to know what the longer-term implications of the emerging digital technologies will be for the future. But for the social sciences, one is acutely clear. The regime of the subject considered in his or her interactive splendor, as if a subject disembodied and de-materialized, a subject un-impinged upon by the materiality and artificiality of the world, is over. The world has moved on. Technology R’ Us; but technology, as we have seen, is no longer what it once was. We are already beyond technology in the older, “pure” sense of the word. Today, the artificial is the prime condition of our time and hence of our subjective possibilities mediated in relation to the new historical condition (the “Anthropocene age”) we inhabit. What then are the ethnographies, sociologies, psychologies and politics of this condition? And how do we learn to act well, in relation to and with, that which we have made, and that which, as apparatus, is now a condition of our subjectivity —  indeed this is any longer the appropriate term for the “subjects” we are becoming under the impact of the digital?

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Clive Dilnot

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