Friday, July 19, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Technological Devices and the Human Experience

I'm reading Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. One essay in this collection is Barbara Couture's "Modeling and Emulating," a discussion of how recognizing that writing is not merely an act that a person does to express an already formed humanity, but part of the process of becoming a human in the first place.

Hand with Pen

In other words, writing is not something you do to express the person you already are; it is something that helps you become the person you will be. Communication is a transformative act. We discover more about ourselves, the world around us, and our place in that world through a constant feedback loop of speaking and listening, writing and reading. 

The entire collection is a criticism of Process Theory, or the teaching method that boils writing down into a recursive process of prewriting (brainstorming, outlining, etc.), writing (drafting), and rewriting (proofreading, revising, editing). Couture suggests that turning writing into a "device" strips it away of its humanity and makes us lose sight of its transformative properties. 

I want to set aside her larger argument for a moment (as I certainly agree that writing is a transformative act but that pedagogical practices and the utilitarian constraints of the classroom don't always make that easy to champion in educational settings) and focus instead on something she says about devices and humanity, an idea she adapts from Albert Borgmann. 
Devices make things available to us without requiring any investment from us; they reduce human activity to the mere process of acquiring a commodity
An example is the technological advancement of forced air heat, which gives us heat "without the user's investment in the physical skill or the building of social relations to reach that goal. With the wood-burning stove comes the effort of chopping wood, involving oneself and others in keeping the wood box filled and fire tended, learning the skill of starting and maintaining fires, and incorporating these activities into the fabric of a shared family or community life."

chopping wood 

There's definitely a lot that rings true in this criticism of our devices. Being able to instantly download a single song and listen to it on my computer without ever leaving my seat is certainly a different experience than venturing out into the community and finding a live band. There is certainly an element of isolation and a lack of communal exploration involved.

This understanding that some conveniences are causing us to lose touch with communal skills and values is also something I see at the heart of things like the modern homesteading movements. Those homemade chicken coops, carefully-crafted compost bins, and hand-churned butter all point to a desire to be physically involved in the processes that make up our lives.

Of course, nothing is ever simple (not even baking homemade bread, which I think is the quintessential image of "simplicity").

As I've talked about before, there's a lot of tension between "homesteading" movements and movements focused on progress toward equality (like feminism). This NY Times piece is probably the best I've read on the interaction between those two schools of thought and one way that we could hold them simultaneously.

Here's the root of the tension. On one hand, technological advances provide an equalizing impact on society by reducing the amount of work that's needed to be done in spaces that are traditionally undervalued (and unpaid). If people (traditionally women) do not have to spend hours every day washing clothes and scrubbing floors because we have Whirlpools and Swiffers, then those people are now free to contribute to society in other ways (like by entering the paid workforce).

You can see why some feminists (especially second-wavers) would bristle at the idea of a woman who wants to go back to a time where making a jar of jam took all day instead of hopping into the store and buying one. They question what's happened to feminist ideals. They question if these women understand the cost of their desires.

Here's the thing, though, capitalism has snuck into this equation without us even questioning it. Couture warns us that devices turn our previously hard-won products into "commodities." The feminists who rail against homesteading do so because it compromises participants' economic potential. We frame all of these arguments in terms of money.

But there's another way to look at the complex intertwining of language, devices, and community.

Examining Clouds

The other day I showed my students Mark Pagel's TED Talk on language and humanity. It's really interesting and worth a watch, but if you're pressed for time, the pertinent part is at 2:55-6:20. 

He questions why chimpanzees, if they're so smart, don't just go to the store and buy a bag of pre-cracked nuts instead of hitting them with rocks (so clearly he sees our devices as an evolutionary benefit). He says that chimpanzees lack the capacity for social learning, and so they continue to do the same thing for thousands of generations, never progressing past that process because they don't learn from each other's mistakes. They don't build on each other's discoveries.

Pagel explains that the ability to learn by imitation and choices, to build on previous wisdom, to progress technology is a "cumulative cultural adaptation" situated in the use of language.

So, it may be true that turning a switch on a thermostat is a less communally-based act that going out into the forest and chopping down wood to provide heat, but that thermostat is a product of a very communal process. We only learned how to make that furnace through the sharing of collective knowledge over multiple generations. Every technological advancement that we have is a testament to the true strength of our communal abilities.

We are not like the chimpanzees, stuck using the same tools for a million years. Our tools are now changing so rapidly that we can barely keep up.

Sure, these advances can seem frightening and definitely (as the commercial above humorously captures) frustrating to consumers, but our ability to grow technologically has coincided with our ability to communicate more broadly. The more people we are able to talk to, the larger our potential social learning. From the printing press to Twitter, we've been consistently and rapidly growing our communal base, getting a broader pool of social knowledge from which to pull. 

Couture definitely points to real issues when she discusses the way that devices can isolate us from our community, but we must always remember that those devices are the products of that very community. We must balance out panic over change and recognition for traditions that work. 

I know that this is a very idealistic way to frame these issues, but I truly believe that our language adaptations have been bringing us to this moment and that they will take us beyond it. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. 

When we go forward, it will be together. 

1 comment:

  1. I find this topic fascinating and especially interesting is how we are losing physicality. Not just what you point out (though I love that) about the acts of doing things and being connected to their process, but literal physical effort. We now have to "make time" and spend money to go to a gym to get exercise, when in reality if we just lived our lives without every single modern convenience, we would get exercise naturally. I relish in the fact that riding my bike to work, making bread, playing with a friend's 3-year-old all strengthen my body and make me more able and less dependent on a big stuffy building to "get back in shape". Every time I see a commercial for a Swiffer (which I was given) or a stronger chemical product (which I am trying to stop owning), I roll my eyes thinking of the next degree of "elbow grease" they are eliminating and all of the people who will now have to find a way to "get their muscle tone back".

    I know some of these conveniences make sense, and I am just as guilty as anyone for participating in a ton of them, but I also think it's sad/ironic/hilarious that we then mourn the loss of our fitness and pay someone to spend extra of our precious time to get it back, when the Swiffer was meant to save us time and energy exertion.