Thinking Non-Technologically About Tech Futures (Part 2)
Many of my colleagues working in the computer and information sciences are interested in sociology and anthropology. It makes me a little ashamed of my field—how many anthropologists reciprocate the attention? But, it’s what they’re interested in that is more problematic. They’re looking for—typically in social interactionist and ethnomethodology stuff from the 1960’s—insights into the universal human. How do people form friendship? Trust? How do they reciprocate communication? How do they share knowledge?
From these comparative observations, they hope to model software agents and expert systems for future humans. This is all interesting, of course, but there’s a problem: that prototypical “human” from which they’re modeling does not exist. One of the reasons has to do with culture (see my preceding post). Even “basic” units of interaction are cultural—all the way down. But the second has to do with the prevalence of our technologically enhanced lives. We’re not human any more; we’re cyborgs. Or, rather, it’s become more useful to think of humans according to their cyborg selves.
In the 1980’s, courtesy of (I’m ashamed to say) the “Terminator” movie series (and the writings of Donna Haraway), it became fashionable to consider humans qua their cyborg lives: as amalgams of technologies and altered biologies. It’s become a bit cliched in recent years, but there’s an important lesson there for people who are thinking about the future of social technologies.
When we think about how a new technology might impact human lives and human relations, there’s no “proto” human. That is, it’s not “new technology + human,” it’s “new technology + human + all previous technologies.” That new social networking app isn’t simply an enhancement of the way people interact with each other in some “natural” state, it’s a new wrinkle on the countless technologies that structure, facilitate (and even hinder) our social lives today. We can’t turn back the clock to some time before we had this stuff, and pretending that we can do so introduces a strong dose of ideologically-inflected nostalgia to technological forecasting.
Whether you like it or not, making “friends” will forever be (at least partially) impacted by our experiences of “friending”.