Is Technological Determinism Making Us Stupid?

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?In a recent interview I did with the Figure/Ground project, the interviewer asked me what I thought of Stephen Marche’s recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” I had read the article when it first ran, so I replied that if you read it closely, this article doesn’t really argue for the position implied in the title and abstract. Although Marche starts with the assumption that Facebook is making people lonely, he ends up articulating a much more nuanced position by the end. After I explained what I meant by that, I concluded by saying, “the better question to ask is why are these kinds of articles so popular? Why are we seeing such a sudden rash of articles entitled ‘is pick-your-new-technology making us stupid/narcissistic/lonely/shallow/etc.?'”

Thankfully, the interviewer didn’t ask me to answer my own question. If he had, I’m not sure I could have given him a good answer at the time. These kinds of articles are, of course, nothing terribly new. I remember articles from my youth that asked if calculators were making us lazy, or if Sony Walkmans were making us socially isolated and possibly deaf. A trip through the newspaper archives would no doubt reveal similar articles surrounding the mass-adoption of just about any new technological device, especially those since the 1960s.

Instead of trying to engage the specific questions that these articles pose, I think it might be more interesting to ask, why are these authors framing their questions in this sort of yes/no, pro/con, good/bad way? And why does framing their questions in that way seem to attract a large number of readers and secondary commentary?

The economically-minded answer would probably note that these kinds of headlines are more attention-grabbing, and that the ultimate goal of any publication funded by advertising is to grab attention. I wouldn’t doubt that this is a contributing factor, and I’m happy that at least in the case of Marche’s article, he nevertheless finds a more nuanced position.

But I also wonder if technological determinism has seeped so far into the popular collective conscious that it is difficult for journalists and the public to think any other way about technology and society. This kind of framing tends to betray an underlying assumption that technology “impacts” society in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Authors may debate whether those impacts are good or bad, but they tend to assume that those impacts will always be inevitable, deterministic, and irreversible.

In the introduction to the classic book Does Technology Drive History?, Merritt Roe Smith argues that Americans in particular have always been attracted to this way of thinking because our national identity has always been wrapped up with technology and the ideology of progress. Our greatest heroes have been inventors and industrialists, not artists or humanitarians, and we commonly attribute our current global hegemony to our technological prowess.

But Americans have also become more willing since the 1960s to question the supposed benefits of new innovations, and to enquire about the often undisclosed costs. Nevertheless, this seems to happen only after the innovation becomes mass-adopted. When Google first appeared on the scene, journalists praised it for its clean look, efficiency, and uncanny ability to find what it was you were really looking for. We rooted for them as the up-and-coming underdog, and we rejoiced in their algorithms’ abilities to bring some kind of order to the ever-growing morass of information on the web. But once it became so ubiquitous that it transmogrified into its own verb, we began to see articles like Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Why do we frame the questions in these ways? And why do articles that use this kind of framing generate such interest and secondary commentary? Do they poke at some deep-seated anxieties that we have about technological change? Let me know what you think.

Update: I just found a fantastic blog post by a social media researcher named Zeynep Tufekci that offers three possible answers:

  1. We actually have become more isolated (in terms of strong ties) during the same period that social media has arisen, so we assume that the latter has caused the former, even though evidence to the contrary is legion.
  2. Online socialization really can’t entirely replace face-to-face interaction, so we also assume that increased use of social networking causes increased feelings of isolation, even though people who are social online are also social offline.
  3. “Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well [a condition she calls ‘cyberasociality’]. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.”

See her post for more details, including links to primary research that backs up what she is saying.


5 thoughts on “Is Technological Determinism Making Us Stupid?

  1. Scott Faulkner

    Dr. Stearns:

    The first thought that occurs to me is that there is an element of nostalgia involved. By that, I mean the human (or at least 21st century American) tendancy to think that things used to be better, simpler, kinder, funner, easier, slower, etc. Any article or paper that asks “Does [insert new technology here] make us [insert aspect of diminished humanity here],” I would translate or “frame” in ways such as…”Does (and if so how) are we different in the era of Facebook than before it?” “In our brave new world are we valuing the right things?” “Did we fully appreciate and engage with life before new technology came along?” “How will I act in response to my answer to the question: Am I engaging humanity better or worse with Facebook in my life?”

    It might be an interesting exercise to write the headline for the article about the next revolutionary technology that is yet to be invented. Like, “Did we adequately appreciate and utilize Facebook when we had the chance?” It makes me think about asking, in my opinion, far more important questions like: “Did we fully engage life and others in the moment?” “Did we use technological tools for ill or good?” Stuff like that.

    Thanks for another thought provoking provoking post.

    Scott Faulkner, M.M.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      As always, my friend Scott has spoken wisdom into this conversation! Are we fully appreciating and engaging with life and the things that matter? Great question to ask ourselves.

  2. Luke Fernandez

    I too am impressed by Zeynep Tufekci’s speculations on why there isn’t closure on this question and why we’re framing the question in the way we do. Still (as I think you are saying) our perennial fascination with technological determinism has a lot to do with it as well. It’s not like Facebook is the only thing that’s been represented as an “autonomous technology” (to use Langdon Winner’s term). The box office success of Frankenstein, The Terminator, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and countless other Hollywood films rest in part on exploiting our concerns about ourselves and our relationship to our inventions. Who can blame editors for trying the same tactic with their headlines? One can denigrate that tactic as mere exploitation but I think that’s unfair. We keep revisiting the question, and asking the question in the way we do because it’s a legitimate one. We shape our machines, but they in turn shape us. If we don’t ask this question in it’s various formulations (and keep asking it) we truly will become subject to what technology wants.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Good point Luke, and thanks for the comment. We do need to keep investigating the ways our tools shape us, but I am a bit leery of that phrase “what technology wants” (which I assume is a reference to Kevin Kelly’s book title). As far as I know, our devices have not yet become self-aware like Skynet (if they have, we’ll know soon!), so I don’t think they really “want” anything all on their own. I know what you mena though. Bruno Latour and the Actor-Network theorists have a good way of talking about this. They see technology as the very thing that allows one to extend a social order across time and space, but that it also acts as a mediator, which means that its results are not entirely determinative. See my post on Actor-Network Theory.

  3. Pingback: CAS 283 Blog Post 1 | bgentile08

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