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In the past four posts I've sought to uncover some of technology's tendencies. Technology is not neutral. Nor does it only provide benefits. Fallon said, "Shovels change the way I relate to the ground."
In this post I want to summarize the observations from those posts. So if you haven't been reading for the past month, your procrastination has paid off. Below I've outlined the insights from each post. I've also added in italics some further insights and explained or extrapolated a bit more.
Technologies extend human capacities disproportionately, expanding one or a few while leaving the rest unchanged. We constantly recalibrate to this disorientation, making it the new equilibrium, the new normal. As we drive our cars, this means that our reflexes become our greatest deficit, even though, outside a car context, they are more than sufficient in their split-second timing. Now, in a world of high-speed electronics, all human capacities are at a virtual standstill—even reflexes. They are hitchhikers thumbing a ride on the information superhighway.
These disproportions happen because . . .
Technologies redistribute strengths and weaknesses, just like a cane transfers strength away from the legs to the arms, or a car makes reflexes our greatest deficit. In this distribution, old weaknesses become new strengths, and old strengths become new weaknesses. Strangely though, those old weaknesses don't perform their original tasks, but new ones. An arm becomes a leg instead of serving as a stronger arm. Eyes become better ears instead of better eyes, and in fact usually become worse eyes for the wear. (So we accommodate them with glasses.)
But technologies don't only magnify strengths. They also magnify weaknesses, which are much harder to recognize early on. This is because technologies are invented to magnify strengths, without reference to weakness. So the strengths they magnify are more readily apparent. These are "intended consequences." Weaknesses, on the other hand are "unintended consequences."
Sometimes we sheath a weakness with a strength, like a hand inside a glove. Consider prize fighters. Boxing gloves protect them from hurting their hands, which is the intended consequence of boxing gloves. Because they accomplish this purpose, fighters hit their opponents much harder. The unintended consequence is that there are more head injuries. In other words, technologies have benefits, but they also have costs. Weaknesses or costs are all the more hidden today because high-technology is dealing with mental capacities, not physical ones. New technologies are electronic more than mechanic.
Technologies change our values. Cars demand reaction, not reflection. Technologies—both mechanical and electronic—engrain new habits, physically, mentally, spiritually, especially to the degree that we are immersed in them. As they reorient strength and weakness, different things become important, if only out of necessity. Left unchecked, these values can spread into other areas of our lives without our realizing it or intending it.
This is not restricted to cars. As I quoted earlier, "Shovels change the way we relate to the ground." With shovels, we begin to move and shape ground rather than adapting to it. We begin to enforce our wills upon it, changing it rather than cooperating with it. It's the difference between European highways which adopt the contours of their topography and American highways where every mountain and hill is made low. Think of all the rivers and streams you cross when commuting to work. The fact that you can't recall them is evidence of how technologies change our values. They change what's relevant.
Different technologies modify our bodies and values in different ways. Television can work us into a frenzy of concern but leave us powerless to act meaningfully. Cars can empower us to act but distance us from those triggers for compassion. In this way, technologies restrict us in specialized ways, but these restrictions create a silo effect where sensation and reaction are divorced from one another. This results in a divided self—one desiring to act but incapable of it, or one capable of action but having no desire to. We become an emotional basket-case or a heartless tyrant. We agitate until we are calloused by the repeated stimulation, or we are numbed by the distancing insulation. In any case, we cannot feel.
This post recalls to mind the story of Peter and John, the disciples of Jesus, going up to the Temple to pray. They pass by a crippled beggar, who calls out to them asking for money. Now if Peter and John had been driving a Honda Accord or a Hyundai Genesis, they likely would've kept driving. Peter had a heavy foot. But instead, they are on foot. They are face-to-face with this beggar.
"Look at us!" Peter gets the beggar's attention. And this beggar's is not a face on television. Peter has no number to dial or website to visit. Peter can affect this man's condition immediately. In other words, Peter can create visible change by helping this man.
This is unlike the magazine advertisement I mentioned featuring children with facial deformities. Even if I do something, the ad will remain. I see no real change, even if change actually occurs.
For Peter, this man was not a face in a magazine. Peter responds because compassion and action occur in the same medium.
Technologies divorce the media in which compassion and action occur. They also divorce the object and the subject, the giver and the receiver. This is not to say that without these technologies, we would be better people. What I'm saying is that these technologies allow us to be the bad people we really are.