Essays on Technology and Culture

Is All Of This Stuff Really Transforming Anything?

Near the end of episode 204 of Enough, Patrick Rhone delivers a short monologue on the transformative nature of modern technology: smartphones, social media, the web, and all of that jazz. Though, it would be a more accurate statement to say his monologue was more about how non-transformative this stuff is. Actually, it would be even more accurate to say that his point was it’s way too early to tell how much impact any of this stuff has had, or will have. It makes sense. When you’re up to your eyeballs in the sea of technological change, all you see is things changing. Only when the seas calm, do things become clearer.

Where I think Patrick’s argument falls down is comparing the impact of the Internet to that of fire, or the wheel—and arguably neither were as transformative as developing the hand-axe. The first technologies were technologies of control. They allowed us to be more than subservient to the environment. A hand-axe can cut down trees to build shelter, obviating the need for caves and other natural shelters. Fire provides light, and cooked food, allowing us to extract more nutrients. [1] The wheel was less transformative. Look at what the Olmec accomplished without it.

The changes modern technology are making are more on par with the printing press, and other democratizing communication methods. I think it was the recent episode of Quit! with Matt Haughey that discussed how the barriers have been lowered to creating things and disseminating them to a wide audience. To have a radio show, until someone came up with the podcast, you needed a license, training, internships at a college station, and a lot of luck. Now, all you need is a web server, an Internet connection, a microphone, and some free software. The more open and accessible these tools of communication are, the better it is for everyone. A small transformation is still a transformation, isn’t it?

If these democratizing communication technologies are changing society, it’s only in the sense that it’s enabling a desire innate to nearly all of us. We all share, we all communicate, we all create, but now we have new ways of doing those things, and a wider audience to do it with. We haven’t developed the next wheel, we’ve developed a better wheel. There will be social fallout from how we’ve made communication with a wide audience easy, immediate, and ubiquitous, but how much there will be has yet to be seen. It’s early days, indeed.

Technology as we know it now is merely a point along a slow, inexorable journey with no clear destination in mind. What if Google Glass, or wearable computing as a concept takes off? What if our bodies become input devices, or computers themselves? What if someone determines a new, better form of ubiquitous computing, or any device you touch becomes your computer? To pin down any existing technology as the game-changing, society-transforming inflection point to end all inflection points is to risk falling down yet another technological rathole. It behooves us to step back a bit and think about how transformative all of this stuff really is—or if it is. We could be surprised.

  1. Raw food advocates, please don’t e-mail me.  ↩