This talk brought together the quite a lot of the key ideas from a bunch of texts that I’ve called ‘big ideas in tech’ on the course I teach. I’ll go through them one by one here.
Everyone is carrying a wormhole in their pocket
This idea of bending time and space is what Peter Drucker termed mental geography in an article published in The Atlantic in 1999. In it, Drucker describes the proliferation of information technology as a second industrial revolution.
In the first industrial revolution, the railroad changed the mental geography of people who had access to it – for the first time, they had mobility beyond traditional limits. A journey from one city to another now took hours, not days, and this had far-reaching impacts:
As the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out in his last major work, The Identity of France (1986), it was the railroad that made France into one nation and one culture. It had previously been a congeries of self-contained regions, held together only politically. And the role of the railroad in creating the American West is, of course, a commonplace in U.S. history.
Providence, Rhode Island was physically no closer to New York in 1846 than it ever had been, but for the first time the two cities were connected by the New York and New England railroad, and they felt closer than they ever had.
In the same way, communication between people on opposite sides of the globe were instantly improved with the development of the Internet – especially in broadband connections that allowed for voice over IP technologies like Skype. We now live in a world where a guy in Taipei can study at a college in Cork in real time (or at least pseudo-real time!), and the two places don’t feel far apart at all.
Using tools to extend the mental self
For thousands of years, tools have been extensions of the physical self – allowing us to go faster or hit things harder – but now tools have become extensions of the mental self.
For me, taking an anthropological view of computers as tools is an important first step in getting students to put a little academic distance between themselves and these devices that have been part of the landscape of their lives for as long as they can remember. Marc Weiser, in his seminal 1991 paper ‘The computer for the 21st Century’, has one of the greatest opening lines I’ve ever read:
The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.
He argued, from his viewpoint in 1991, that computers were not disappearing into the background of our lives, but forcing us to live in different, alien ways – that desktop and laptop computers changed our working habits, our working spaces, and more broadly how we live our lives. To use them, we had to change – we had to learn a complex new set of jargon, practice unnatural skills like typing on a keyboard, and sit in front of a screen while we did so; each one of which was, in his view, unnatural, and prevented technologies from becoming truly profound.
He envisioned a future in which computers become ubiquitous, and begin to disappear. He saw a world in which computers come in different sizes, each suited to a particular task:
My colleagues and I have built what we call tabs, pads and boards: inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes, foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine), and yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board.
Sound familiar? Anyone who has ever used a smartphone, tablet or interactive whiteboard would see elements of Weiser’s imagined future in 2017. Developments in user interface design and user experience add a more naturalist feel to technology use – devices are designed for us to figure out, rather than having to be taught how to use them.
Our second self
The idea of having a second self is another interesting idea that MIT professor Sherry Turkle explored in her 2012 TED talk, Connected, but alone?
She agrees with Amber Case, that the gadgets we use don’t just change what we do, they change who we are. She gives the example of maintaining eye contact becoming a new skill that is difficult to master. Why? Because we’re so used to keeping our eyes pointed at our screens that social anxieties during social interactions have become a serious problem for many people.
Turkle refers to Case’s ambient intimacy as the Goldilocks effect – that we keep people at arm’s length – not too close! – but also not totally unreachable – not too far! – that we want our friends & family at a mental distance that is just right:
“We can use technology to hide from each other, while connected with each other.”
She further describes the second self as Photoshop for personalities. Posting things online after they have happened gives us the opportunity to sanitise our thoughts & experiences. Most of us (certainly not all!) try to present our best selves online, sometimes stripping down authentic experiences to present ourselves as glowingly as possible. We can tweak, edit, revise or even delete posts that may not present ourselves in the best light.
When trying to keep up with the fire hose of updates they are bombarded with every day, young people in particular struggle to find the time for solitude and reflection, to develop their authentic selves. When they do reach out, Turkle says they use others for spare parts rather than have genuine, authentic interactions with others.
Take a look at her talk above, or check out a sketchnote I took of it here:
Drucker, P. (1999). Beyond the Information Revolution. [Online], available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/10/beyond-the-information-revolution/304658/ [audio version]
Turkle, S. (2012). Connected, but alone? [Online], available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together
Weiser, M. (1991). The computer for the 21st Century. [Online], available from: http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/SciAmDraft3.html [audio version]