Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Technology Uses Us: Humans as an Ecological Niche

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An excellent description of modern humans and technology by Maureen McHugh. Original copy of this article here.

More and more we use biological metaphors for our technology. Cars break and are fixed, but computers get infected. Technology evolves, competes, exploits our emotions. We are the ecological niche for technology. And its uses of us may be no more benevolent than our uses of our own ecological niches. Just as we sometimes turn grasslands into deserts, technology can alter us. Our bodies and brains become the ecology affected by technology.

Inuit asked to draw maps could draw amazing accurate maps of the areas they roamed and lived, transferring three dimensional knowledge easily to a two dimensional representation. But they drew the lands they hunted larger, out of scale, because these were the areas that loomed large in their umwelt, or self-world. We are defining our world through not literal representations—maps, chat sights. We have a cyberspace landscape. The result is some comforting illusions about space and distance. California is, in some ways, closer to Austin, Texas, than Burton, Texas, a tiny town full of boarded up buildings less than 100 miles away. I telecommute to California daily. I certainly ‘draw it larger’ in my umwelt. These are people I don’t see, or touch. We are all familiar with the experience of meeting someone we know only from the internet and discovering that they are nothing like what we had expected.

Already, cities and reading and writing are altering our bodies. First generation Arctic Native Americans had myopia rates of over 50%. Their parents, 2%. 70% of mainland Chinese are myopic, 90% of Taiwanese Chinese are myopic. Studies in rhesus monkeys show that it’s not central vision that’s associated with myopia, but peripheral vision—which leads to the question, are cities making us nearsighted? What else is changing us? We have talked since William Gibson’s book Neuromancer about augmenting our brains. We are holding those augmentation devices in our hands—what abilities will we transfer to our tools and stop being able to do ourselves? And if we lose and ability and become more dependent upon say, GPS, doesn’t that ‘benefit’ the technology, insuring it’s continued existence? Reading and writing altered the way people remembered things. People from oral cultures can do amazing feats of recall. But I wouldn’t give up being able to write for the ability to remember my grocery list. What happens as we become dependent on more things outside our brains to do the work of our brains? Is that to our benefit or technology’s benefit, or both?

The industrial revolution produced environmental changes we are still learning to deal with. It is reasonable to assume that technology is changing us—our neural and physical ‘landscape’—in ways that will become clearer over time. The benefits of smart phones, search engines, and ubiquitous memory assists from online tools are way too cool to give up. But rather than wait for a Rachel Carson Silent Spring of technology, we can be mindful that we are causing changes and be alert for them.

-Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh is a Hugo Award winning science fiction writer. In the past few years she’s also written for the Webby Award winning ARGs I Love Bees and The Dark Knight. She lives in Austin Texas.

First I want to praise the writer's treatment of umwelt. This is a good counter to the currently hip preoccupation with bioregions and also drawing maps that more accurately depict the Earth's landmass. We need personalized Earth maps that omit the local town or creek that holds less survival relevance to us than, say, the route our internet data packets go through, or the cities we do more commerce with. Bioregional perspective is relevant for biologically bound humans. Humans, at least all humans practicing lifestyles that enable their likely survival, are not bound by biology.

Another area I like in this writer's perspective is allowing technology to disable our biological ability in order to more efficiently perform the task, and also ensuring the technology is protected and kept in existence. Oral tradition culture is mentioned and noted for superior mental abilities, then the writer deftly devalues that superiority, saying she chooses the technology of storing information in print over the biological ability to store it in her memory.

Social Justice

Where I want to go next is social justice. Social justice in the West, since World War II, has increasingly become a supporter of the very ways of human existence which we should be proactively replacing. Up until the 1960's the West unrepentantly embraced the human replacement of a biological bounded existence with a technologically enhanced existence. I am not referring solely to metal and electricity here. Included is literacy. Where there were indigenous people, the Westerner placed an unilateral valuation before them: that a literary culture is both superior and the only route to power as an equal human being on this planet. Being PROGRESSIVE was taking the stance that the less powerful human should be allowed to learn the technologies that would make them more equal and able to survive.

Then along came the postmodern progressive, practicing a social critique methodology that upended the previous progressive march. To the postmodern; the oral tradition is better than the literate, and beyond that every culture with less tech, more biological boundaries, is better. The postmodern progressive perfected a powerful rhetorical maneuver: their social critique is the only social critique, all others are retrogressive or impaired by cultural blinders.

But outside of academic or political games of my-critique-is-better the reality stands: a biologically bound, illiterate, non-technological human is always powerless and the first to die. How will they die? Not by the genocide campaigns of colonialism or Darfur type warfare, but by ignoring. This "ignoring" is not an un-Christian abandonment. It is the intrinsic behavior of networks as an UMWELT.

Time for a neo-progressivism, armed with the reflection that we are altering ourselves with technology, and reengaged as social justice activists who offer a unilateral stance to all: to say no to technology is to explicitly choose extinction, please choose technology, I will help. But for me to help, or even keep talking to you, you must see your biological existence without technology as both undesirable and a less enriched life.

1 comment:

The Serpent Lord said...

I recently watched the critic-offending, fanservice, dark romanticism gothic, cannibal-ninja-vampire fantasy film Hannibal Rising. Particularly the Good Doctor's comment that "rudeness is epidemic", spoken between the forgotten scions of two deposed dynasties in the aftermath of WWII, reminded me that our species was once part of a global, connected world. A world where the "haves" on every continent felt they were living in a global village that the "have nots" didn't even knew existed.

In the early 1800's the modern world had been fleshed out: the role of global free trade, cheap manufactured products moving from continent to continent, suburban living and internal combustion vehicles were all theoretically understood and popularly anticipated even if some of the specifics were still decades from actual deployment.

That world died in two world wars and countless revolutions. 1945 wasn't the end of the devastation of WWII, it was the bloody dawn of an age of degeneration and savagery, a conflagration which continues to spark new fires in "exotic" places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Gaza, as well as the hearts of the world's prosperous cities.

Our globalized world is something new. Something which sprouted from the ashes. A new progressive enlightenment which breaks from the mystical, cyclic perspective of the 60's like the old Enlightenment broke from the mystical, cyclic perspective of the Rennaisance.

Three hours ago our new president hit the nail squarely on the head in his inaugural address. Science shall be restored to her throne. Worn out dogmas and ineffective programs will end. Prosperity will come to every person with a willing heart - not in the spirit of charity, but for our common good.