The next couple of readings focus on the impact of information technology on society. Computers and artificial intelligence are another “hybrid” where science, religion, and society intersect. In fact, the development of computers and information technology overall has long been an interdisciplinary issue, beyond the specific natural science disciplines as we discussed earlier in terms of the origin of the word computer. Anthropologists Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead were members of the Defense Department’s think-tank to develop computers (see Paul N. Edwards’ study (the same person who wrote A Vast Machine) study of the development of computers (The Closed World, 1996). As Edwards describes in his history of the development of computers during the Cold War, researchers needed to re-assess the nature of the “machine in the middle.” The metaphor of the “machine in the middle” derives from an early application that led to the development of computer technology – the need to more quickly adjust anti-aircraft fire to combat increasingly faster airplanes. While the detection and rate of fire of anti-aircraft guns could be increased with new mechanical technology, the calculations required to make adjustments to the aim of anti-aircraft fire became more complex. The “machine in the middle” that made these calculations was the human operator of anti-aircraft guns. Edwards thus concludes that computer technology has greatly re-defined subjectivity – what it means to be human has changed with the more widespread use of computer technology.
In 2016, information technology has become an extension of our own thinking, and through social media, cyberspace, and computer gaming, users can extend and create, new identities. But according to Edwards, the impact of science and technology is in essence a translation into the virtual world of Weber’s “iron cage” and Habermas’ “colonization of the lifeworld,” where ordinary citizens increasingly find their humanity trapped by the atomization of modern life and increasing social alienation. For me, the ultimate metaphor for the iron cage is the experience of getting a driver’s license at Department of Motor Vehicles. The cold rationality of science and technology can be seen as subordinating humanity within a mechanistic world of scientific rationality:
“Science, by virtue of its own method and concepts, has projected and promoted a universe in which the domination of nature has remained linked to the domination of man – a link which tends to be fatal to this universe as a whole. Nature, scientifically comprehended and mastered, reappears in the technical aspects of production and distribution which sustains and improves the life of individuals while subordinating them to the masters of the apparatus” (Tambiah 1990:146, emphasis in original).
Psychologist Sherry Turkle started off strongly disagreeing with the idea of the sterility of computers and the internet. In The Second Self, published in 1984, Turkle argued that computers are more than a tool, but a part of our social and psychological lives. We will talk more about this approach when we read Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborg subjectivity– an identity based on the blending of human and machine. This was a time when computers, information technology, and virtual communities were seen as heralding the liberation of people throughout the world with this new capacity to challenge the political hierarchy’s monopoly on media and truly create a new utopia (see for example Howard Rhinegold’s work in the 1980s and 1990s)
In the article for today, Turkle stressed the reshaping of self-identity through the increased use of computer technology, and, more importantly, the social immersion in the virtual worlds of computer gaming and cyberspace (which is from her 1995 book Life on the Screen). Turkle wants us to take computer games seriously, especially in terms of how people see themselves and understand social interactions. They do this because computer games are “simulations serve as emissaries for particular meanings of what it means to ‘know.’ We are increasingly accustomed to navigating screen simulations and have grown less likely to ask of them, ‘What makes you work?’ We learn to stay at the surface, taking things at (inter)face value” (Turkle 1999:544-545).
Second, computer games and online interactions allow us to experiment with who we are, through our avatars and how we represent ourselves online. The internet allows us to self-select multiple identities, a liberating aspect of cyborg subjectivity where where physicality is no longer a restraint.
In fact, the online interaction that Turkle was addressing the 1990s is nothing like what we have today. In the 1990s, as seen in the MUD snapshot above (MUD = multi user dungeon, in its original parlance, the space in which MMORPG took place). The internet was more text-based in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where the action took place in USENET’s and bulletin boards (precursor to today’s internet forums/groups). Today, much more powerful experimentation and role-playing takes place (e.g., 2011 Gay Girl in Damascus or Manti Te’o’s girlfriend)
“Today’s adults grew up in a psychological culture that equated the idea of a unitary self with psychological health, and in a scientific culture that taught that when a discipline achieves maturity, it has a unifying theory. When they find themselves cyclying through varying perspectives on themselves (as when they cycle through a sequence such as “I am my chemicals” to “I am my history” to “I am my genes”) they usually become uncomfortable. … Today’s children have learned a lesson from their cyborg objects. They cycle through the cy-dough-plasm into fluid and emergent conceptions of self and life” (Turkle 1999:552)
What’s interesting, though, is how Turkle’s thinking about the impact of information technology on people has evolved. In her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. As she explains in the video below, Turkle now sees technology as less of a liberating, healthy process and one that is negatively changing the way that people relate to each other.