Dislocation, the Internet, and the Inescapable Physical World

Mark Prensky gave us the idea of the digital native, this notion that a younger person's experience of the world has fundamentally changed since the emergence of IT, and furthermore that we oldsters ought to change how we do things to remain relevant. (Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001) The position has rather fallen from favour in the last decade, but I still get a sense of this feeling that we are as educators out of our depth in the face of all these internet/game/digital-device-savvy young people.  This idea is wrong, to put it as simply as possible.  We are not in my generation out of our depth in particular to digital technology, although we are all at times out of our depth in some realms.  In my experience, many of those who we could call digital natives have a largely superficial, user/consumer-based relationship with digital technologies; they navigate the environment created by such technologies with great ease, but the technologies themselves, from the “soft” programming, to the “hard” physical nature of the mechanisms, largely remain opaque and intimidating.   I propose that having been born in a world without personal computers or the internet, and witnessing their emergence stage by stage as an integral part of our education and gradual maturing, may in fact provide a decisive advantage over people who were born in a world where the user-friendly graphic interface tucks all that stuff out of sight.  I’m not talking about the realms where people specialise in programming or design, but the rest of us, who use.   

To move on from Prensky and his natives, many more of us, of all ages, may be more or less affected an all pervading blindness to the absolute nature of digital technologies.  I have not yet found, and admit it may be due to a lack of research, much contemporary writing about the way consumers relate to this absolute nature: What is it? Is it the same as technological innovation of the past?  I will arrogantly assert my own analysis straight away, and I’ll wait, cringing, to be inevitably put in my place.  Digital technology is fundamentally different from anything that preceded it in the degree in which it separates the user from the concrete reality of both the technology's impact on the world at large, and the user's role in that impact.  The trick with virtual reality is that it is contained within and dependent upon a much more garden-variety reality, which is potent and almost entirely hidden.  I believe that by the end of my life, that reality, the greater reality, will be the one that will matter, not all the cool stuff we got to play with along the way. 

I’ll try to explain further.  I don't know of one person who could show me exactly what series of actions had to be taken to enable the existence of the machine on which I am currently typing. Certainly someone could tell me something of the manufacture of the constituent parts of my computer or of my iphone, the writing of the software, the development of the physical and digital graphic design, but I've not encountered an individual who can explicate all of these processes in the same way that the master craftsman could when making a violin, and certainly to a lesser degree that an engineer could in building an airplane in the 1950s.  The process as a whole has become complex beyond our reckoning.  And, sorry to be a killjoy, but it is part of the wider experiences of dislocation and isolation that has become fundamental to our current condition. If you claim to be capable of empathy, then you may find quite a lot of evidence supporting the argument that we should, well, stop using digital technology.   Indonesian tin mining is one cold tip of that particular iceberg. 

Dislocation?  Yes.  I'm starting to think that the comment box is to meaningful, empathetic human communication as pornography is to sex.  Using them responsibly isn’t necessarily wrong, but one really shouldn’t confuse one for the other. In my own personal (bitter) experience, emotional exchanges online can get WAY out of hand quickly, and this may be reduced to a lack of empathy for participants in interaction.   To put it more simply, people seem far more willing to say nasty things in a comment box than they are when in front of a real, breathing, feeling, hurt-able human being.  But it is also deeper than that; we are also creating a barrier between ourselves and our world because of the inescapable materiality of digital technology combined with the fact that it is all so damn good at making us forget about this materiality.  All this stuff has to be built by someone (yes, the cloud is not a cloud, but a bunch of machines), and someone may be pulling the strings for ends that have nothing to do with our assumedly important values, and we lap it up with awareness equal to that of a pack of hungry dogs.  It is for this reason that I just don't think we can have a simple relationship with digital technology and remain remotely morally autonomous.  And I am not concerned with pointing fingers at anyone because the first person I would point at would be myself.   I'm simply trying to be honest and clear in the assertion that we are not always able to know how our consumer decisions impact the world, and that this is particularly true when it comes to computers.  Who we are, our values, are deepest concerns, the simple things we were taught as kids, are wholly imprisoned by the structures of consumerism as a condition of our birth.  We have a choice: we can live in happy denial of this, retreating along so many typically evasive lines of argument, or we can at least start to look around and make comment on the walls and bars of our cell.  This cell has become in the modern world as unnoticed as it is insidious; it’s basically everything we consume save the most exceptional instances of local sourcing of food and simple resources.  Recently I stood in my garden, reached up and picked a blackberry and ate it, and suddenly realised that this was the most responsible, the most accountable, and the most out-of-sync act I had managed all week.  Some degree of responsibility in what we eat can be achieved with work, but it is not possible with digital technology, no matter how savvy the user.  I'm simply not going to be able to buy a locally designed and produced laptop.

This all sounds pretty dire.  It is.  Yet, Martin Heidegger's 1949 essay Die Frage nach der Technik, (The Question Concerning Technology) may point to an attitude that is surely better than wilful ignorance or outright techno-nihilism.   Heidegger never knew our digital world; he was of course writing of the zooming, clanking, roaring, comparatively blunt technologies of the 1940's, and not of the incomprehensibly fine-tuned circuitry within which the Internet lives.   He begins with the notion of essence.

… the essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translation and introduction by William Lovitt, NY: Garland Publishing Company, 1977

I’d like to dig into my own thinking about this perspective, and I’d like to address Heidegger’s deployment in “The Question Concerning Technology” of the poet Hölderlin’s words “But where danger is, grows the saving power also”.  Next time.