Friday, February 12, 2010

Dangers of the Luddite Resistance

I share a kindred spirit with the luddite approach to the ever expanding technologies in our society. I resonate strongly with the arguments about how emerging technologies are changing our social world (usually for the worse). There are numerous critiques of the impact that these new media have on our cultural frame. The most compelling of these is the problem of an alienated self in a virtual context producing inauthentic communication between subjects. Of course there are significant questions about how use of technology interferes with safety and health (i.e. radio towers and texting while driving). But these more symptomatic problems only mask the larger questions:

How is morality affected when individuals’ main interaction is in virtual formats? Is there any way to mediate the multiple representations that can potentially emerge in these virtual social frames? What are the consequences for transgressions which occur in this virtual reality?

These questions beg answers because by definition the representation that occurs within these media is seen to be a less complete form of reality than pre-technological interactions. One of the natural impulses that surfaces is the luddite sentiment that suggests that new technologies be abandoned to avoid the encroachment of these technologies on more authentic forms of representation. The argument runs this way: Avoid technologies and return to or maintain your authenticity. This argument assumes that there is, in the least a more true version of yourself (the subject) that is achieved without the use of new media forms. But this premise is only supported rhetorically and not logically. It is clear that falsification of personality is possible in any form of interactive representation.

“But,” the critics say, “what is more real? The person on facebook or the person that I sit down for coffee with at Tim Horton’s?” This seems like a legitimate challenge and suggests that the interaction of individuals within each other’s presence is more real. But the question itself is silly. Reality is the perception of a representation. This makes reality a fiction. Fortunately, it is a fiction that we can rely on with a great deal of confidence most of the time. This is not really a problematic premise until one claims that something is more real than something else. This premise (that reality is a fiction that we can have confidence in) also allows us a helpful way to solve our problem about technology.

Using this idea we can argue that a facebook personality can be just as real or unreal (authenticity) as a personally present interaction. This is true because nothing is anymore real than it is perceived to be. Of course people can misrepresent themselves on Facebook but then they can do that in person as well. The level of authenticity is left up to the person viewing the interaction. Its about our perception. So if Facebook is not any more or less real than ‘face to face’ conversations, we can turn to other ways to evaluate the role of new media in our social frames. But let’s leave that there for now.

One of the things that we can say about reality is that it functions well. That is to say that reality works and is useful. This is what allows us to live out our days in relative bliss. We ‘know’ that whatever happens in the kettle produces perceptible steam and when poured over ground coffee produces a delicious beverage. We call what happens in the kettle – boiling. Boiling is real to us because it works. From this perspective we can say some interesting things about new media. Interaction on Facebook is real because it is used (primarily as a communication tool although Farmville might be a close second) and because it is used it shapes our perception of reality. Facebook then becomes part of the perception of reality and intrinsic to it. Facebook, twitter and the like are ubiquitous in society and so have come to be significant factors relied on as useful in social interaction. To not be using Facebook then means that one is choosing to disengage from a significant tool of perception used in the public social sphere to produce reality. The argument then can be made that this disengagement is in fact an appeal to less reliable construction of reality since it is avoiding a prominent tool used to perceive reality by society.

What we can and should be doing is seeking to understand the ways that these new media inform our perceptions of reality so as to be able to participate more fully in the prevailing discourse that exists in our social frame. This begins with careful critique of the dynamics of morality, disclosure, identity construction, subjectivity, rapidity of information as produced in the systems that these emerge from these media. This could not be more relevant than to those who would seek to influence the rhetoric that runs through our society. Teachers, clergy, politicians and journalists are obligated to be present in these media or risk losing opportunity to contribute to the frames of our culture.

I return to my sentiments at the beginning. I lament the perceived changes produced by these new media forms. But I must acknowledge that these laments are perhaps my sense of loss of the exercise of power that once was available through the older forms of interaction. It is like learning a new language. In the old language there was an ability to persuade but now with new vocabulary and new sentence structure I must learn to make meaning in different ways. I must relinquish my claim on authority (which I must admit I am uncomfortable with –even if it was my own deluded sense of authority). I can choose to keep on speaking my old tongue and I will certainly get by but I will be a reduced person unless I can master the new language to regain my former identity.

I am open to critique since there is a strong underlying sentiment to reinforce my luddite sympathies. There likely is flaw in all this mess so wail away…

Here is an interesting experiment that was conducted along this vein.

Journalists perform Big Brother media experiment | Science & Technology | Deutsche Welle | 01.02.2010

CBC’s Q radio program interviewed Janic Tremblay – it was a provocative interview – i hope they post it soon. I will link to it if I see it come up…

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