Will Technology Redefine Who We Are?

Posted: July 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

Today’s digital and interactive technology is having a huge impact on psychology. It has revolutionized the way in which we relate to the world and ultimately, with ourselves. Our rational and sub-rational minds are continually under the influence of an ever-expanding world of new technology and media. Technological advancements are creating a shorter attention span and hampering our ability to recall information. Additionally, we are forming emotional relationships with technology which is causing us to reevaluate how we socialize and empathize with technology’s human counterpart. Because of the profound impact that technological progress in having on us, I believe that it may force us to redefine the current understanding of knowledge, the definition of love, and above all else, challenge the very ideology of humanity itself.

This current generation has grown up with significant developments in the areas of information technologies. It has overwhelmingly transformed people and their internal and external references of the world. Our brains are continually under the influence of an ever-expanding world of easily accessed digital information. Technology was designed to make our lives easier by helping us efficiently search out information and to manage our day-to-day tasks, but in reality, it may have propagated chronic multi-tasking and limited our attention spans. We have trained our minds to try and absorb information to try to keep up with the way the Web dispenses it (Carr, 2008, p. 2). However, this faulty notion that individuals can ever be on par with technology in this fashion is problematic. People who constantly inundate themselves with endless streams of digital information may lose the ability to concentrate on lengthy pieces of literature because of how they have accustomed their brains to merely skim and scan for information (Carr, 2008, p. 2). As we constantly jump back and forth from page-to-page and   from one device to another, will it be long before we seek treatment for a digital-driven obsessive compulsive disorder?   

Developments such as the internet, and more specifically Google, have altered the way in which we read and process information. Contrary to previously held beliefs, the brain is a changing and developing organ. Even in adulthood, our minds are significantly shaped by what we do to it and by the experiences and stimuli of daily life (Carr, 2008, p.4). How we process information may be just as important as what we process. We are reading substantially more than in the past largely because of vast amounts of available online information, social media channels, and text-messaging (Carr, 2008, p. 2).  In reading online, we become decoders of information, and thus are incapable of the “rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction.” (Black, 2012, slide 36).

There is no question of the benefits that new technologies have provided us in the forms of mass information dissemination and communication, but as long as there have been developments in technologies, there have been people who oppose them. Carr (2008) cites Socrates’ view on the quality of how text may be interpreted. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates believed that individuals who are solely dependent on the written word will eventually lose their ability to properly recall information. Furthermore, because of an abundance of available literature, people may seem knowledgeable, but without guidance and a true understanding of what has been read, individuals may take script out of context (p. 8). Socrates’s principles on the acquisition of knowledge may be evermore relevant in today’s information-overloaded culture.  The resulting effects from this ever-growing shallow ingestion of data may lead to an objectification and over-simplification of information. This is to say, that the loss of deep reading may cause a disconnection and a mere surface understanding of a profounder meaning of the message (Carr, 2008, p. 8).

Another powerful effect that digital culture is having on us is our desire to connect with inanimate objects on an emotional level. As software becomes more advanced, the relationships between individuals and technology are becoming more personal.  This shift towards technology to meet our emotional needs for genuineness, empathy, caring, and trust may be a result of a disconnected society (Black, 2012, slide 29). Moreover, it appears that in some instances, individuals may choose the company of computerized constructs for virtual empathy over that of non-trusting human companionship (Turkle, 2007, p. 502).

How do innovative technologies have such a profound psychological hold over us?  According to Turkle (2007), the answer may lie in its ability to push our “Darwinian buttons” (p. 503). These novel forms of technology that Turkle refers to as “relational artifacts” are constructed to appeal to our innate instinct to nurture. By leading us to believe that we need to take care of them, these digital artifacts have become very effective at playing on our vulnerabilities. “When a digital creature entrains people to play parent, they become attached. They feel connection and even empathy.” (Turkle, 2007, p.506).

As our pursuit to create authentic digital relationships continues, at what point do the ends justify the means? How far are we willing to go? Currently, advancements in robotic technologies have led to the creation of shockingly humanlike androids. Japanese engineers have developed life-like robots in the hopes of providing some much needed companionship and empathy to the elderly in hospitals. However, as these robots are made to look more human, our reactions to these life-like robots are counterproductive. They can instead instill a sense of uneasiness and discomfort (Black, 2012, slide 29). Their almost human-like gestures and facial expressions may cause our conscious and unconscious psyche to fall out of balance — leaving us with the impression that something is just not quite right.  This phenomenon is what Freud refers to as the uncanny. Similar to distressing reactions from contemporary human-like relational artifacts, he relates this phenomenon to disturbing impressions that wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons made on individuals in the past.  In his description, Freud (1919) stated that “…the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (p. 5). The solution to lessening these reactionary emotions from the uncanny may be even more disconcerting than the phenomenon itself. As advancements in robotic engineering continue, robots or computer-generated characters may eventually get to a stage where we can no longer distinguish them apart from humans.

As we develop a more intimate relationship to technology, it may be important to reflect on how we really want to interact with relational artifacts in the future. If robots are already demonstrating a sense of subconscious control over humans, will that force us to redefine intimate connections? Relational artifacts are becoming so human-like that perhaps one day people will fall in love with and possibly even marry them. Will we forgo the painstaking efforts it takes to find and maintain intimacy and authenticity when the alternative appears to be so much easier?

One of the defining characteristics of being human is to question what it means to be human. Artificial intelligence and technological progress towards the construction of anthropological simulation research is undoubtedly pushing the boundaries and challenging our views on existentialism. “Perhaps in the distant future, the difference between human beings and robots will seem purely philosophical.” (Turkle, 2007, p. 514). However, whether a robot can genuinely recreate authenticity or not may be purely semantics. It is only perception that makes this true or not. It is human nature to want to see in others what we see in ourselves and as we continually create these robots in our own image, it stands to reason, that we may simply ignore the limitations of these beings as we have come to ignore our own.

It is fair to assume that there may be cause for worry about our culture being intellectually and emotionally challenged by the effects of digital and interactive technology. And as an information-obsessed culture, our ability to focus and recall information may be at risk. Additionally and more tragically, we may be devoting less and less time for self-reflection.  However, one must not overlook the importance of these innovative and emerging technologies. Technology is not taking over. These are creations and extensions of our mental and physical selves. Like no other time in history, they are helping us to connect to each other. And by allowing us to instantly and collectively bond with people, technology may actually increase our humanness.

                                                                                                                                  

 

References:

  

Turkle, S. (2007). Authenticity in the age of digital companions. Interaction Studies. Vol. 8 Issue 3, pp. 501-517. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/ehost/detail?sid=1ffb18ea-434c-496e-aa44-0610af2a5891%40sessionmgr104&vid=1&hid=106&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=ufh&AN=27075929

 

Carr, N. (2008) Is google making us stupid? The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

 

Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny. Retrieved from http://media.royalroads.ca/obelix/comm365-2012/Freud-The%20Uncanny.pdf

 

Black, D. (2012). Cultural studies-Week 8. Media psychology. Retrieved form http://learner.royalroads.ca/moodle/mod/resource/view.php?id=101781

 

  

 

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