The Web as a Social Space

Kevin Kelly's interview on the 'technium', a word that is new to me, was fascinating. The 'technium' is, as Kelly states, 'anything useful that a mind creates'. In this case, 'technology' is such a thing. But for Kelly, 'technology' is not just something that is made by humans, it is more an organic force that is part of the greater organism of the universe, even prior to the 'Big Bang'. He insists that even our 'humanity' is a construct or a type of technological advancement in the way we as humans live. Whether or not one agrees with Kelly, I suppose, would be determined by an agreed definition of the word 'technology'. If we agree to take the word back to its original Greek meaning of 'systematic treatment' (Oxford Dictionary) then applying 'technology' to mean more than gadgets and machines is quite acceptable.

The point I found most interesting in Kelly's thesis is his premise that we, as humans, have choices about the technologies we create. The technologies, according to Kelly are inevitable. There is no choice there. They are as inevitable as the Big Bang itself. The interesting part is that we, as humans, have choices about using or not using the technologies we create. We decide whether or not we want to use technologies for different reasons. In other words there is a self-determination about technology.

Deciding to use or not to use technology can have many factors associated with it. My 85 year old aunt who has been paying her bills and cashing her cheques for years at the same bank, and who knows all the names of the tellers, and has been out of the work force since 1975, refuses to use an ATM. It's not that she doesn't think it's a good idea or more convenient, rather, she is determined that she is going to do things the way she has always done them because it has always worked that way for her. Another factor for choosing not to use an ATM is, perhaps, fear. Her lack of experience has probably given her self-doubt and a bit of trepidation over what may happen if she does something wrong. Of course, another factor may be that she enjoys the social interaction of going to the bank and chatting with the tellers. It is the kind of interaction that a completely automated society will soon be bereft of. Her instinct tells her to keep doing things the way she has always done them for reasons that make sense to the way she lives her life. Perhaps, it is like the stubborn fish that refuses to evolve legs and crawled out of the sea! I'd like to hear Kelly's ideas regarding this refusal to change.

For many, choosing to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. is a similar consideration. The technology is there for the using but the choice to use it is based on the individual. How will we use it? How will it help shape our lives? Kelly's question, therefore, is not why we choose to use technologies but 'how we personally decide to refuse a technology?'. This is, perhaps, a more interesting question than why we choose to use a technology. Historically, people have rejected or refused technologies for a variety of reasons. Kelly refers to the 'ethnic dimensions' of technological rejection in areas all over the world. For example, the predominance of mobile phones in Japan compared to the USA: a phenomenom that Kelly attributes to a choice based on these kinds of 'ethnic dimensions'. The reasons, he states, are based more on the reasons why each culture chooses to use a technology and not the fact that the technology is better than another. Both Japan and the USA are avid users of mobile phone technology but the predominance of Japan may have something to do with their postwar strength in developing, applying and producing communication technologies; a conscious decision by the government to focus on specific technologies to become competative in the world marketplace.

Culturally, people, therefore aren't necessarily ready or open to changing the way they do things merely because a new or different technology does things faster or more efficiently. There needs to be some other reason for people to want to change the way they use or adopt a new technology. The Luddites, apparently, felt the same way about the technology they were using. Or was it the technology? Perhaps it was more than that? Perhaps it was one of those other 'techniums' created by a mind like 'capitalism'. The Luddites refusal of technology was a choice made because of a different kind of fear; the fear of losing their way of life due to the greed of factory owners and the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. The Japanese on the other hand, needed to regain their way of life so adopting new technologies and creating new ways of doing things beneficial to the survival of their culture and their people.
So, to Facebook or not to Facebook? Do we join in this global online organism or do we 'assert our identity' and refuse to use the technology? To answer that question I think we have to come to grips with the fact that to be human is to live with technology. It's how we choose to live with it that matters. We can live with technology if it improves the way we live but as Richard Conniff notes, 'living well with technology' is not just about the 'small things' like having a smart phone, it's also about the 'big things too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values.' It's about being ethical and moral towards how we use certain technologies and realising that it is as much a part of us as we are a part of it but we we need to be human first.

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