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Technoculture and Human Relationships June 19, 2014

This one is an academic submission — a review of literature — to analyse the effects of technoculture in the new mediated society.

Srirekha Chakravarty

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This literature review follows the critical theory of Simon Cooper who follows in the tradition of Heidegger, to posit that it is possible to say both ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ to technology (Cooper, 2002).

In his book Technoculture and Critical Theory: In the Service of the Machine, Cooper theorizes about the hesitation most of us feel towards technological progress; and the imposing nature of technology in recreating social and cultural meanings.

Cooper theorizes that in technoculture, while we welcome the social and cultural transformation, we may set limits on technological mediation (Cooper, 2002).

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 Introduction:

“New media transforms all culture and cultural theory into an ‘open source.’ This opening up of cultural techniques, conventions, forms, and concepts is ultimately the most promising cultural effect of computerization.”– Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Manovich, 2001)

The urgency and indeed the overbearing nature of new media technology was elucidated to rather controversial reactions by Marshall McLuhan, who set off the futuristic wheels of understanding the irrevocable relationship between man and machine way back in the 1960s. McLuhan’s practical yet paradoxically deterministic approach to technology and indeed his uncanny acceptance of its effects on human society is reflected in the McLuhanism: “The most human thing about us is technology.”  (McLuhan, 1974)[1]

The unprecedented developments in Internet-enabled information and digital communication technologies beginning in the early 2000’s, and the consequent transformation of society deepened the roots of technoculture to organically branch out into digital culture and the more punkish cyberculture.

Theorists who were still wrapping up debates on early technoculture – including the brand professed by McLuhan in the 1960’s and later vilified by Neil Postman in the early 1990’s – found themselves grappling with the way society, culture and technology were radically redefining each other.

Technoculture has been adopted as a construct of the new mediated world since the Internet was opened up for public use in the early 1990’s, and spread its roots wider with digitization of information and communication technology over the past decade. The constantly evolving communications technology is a critical element of that culture, where, as Jean Baudrillard (Baudrillard, 1983) said in the context of the television, “our own body and the whole surrounding universe become a control screen.”

Technoculture refers simultaneously to the cultural dimensions of technology and to the technological dimensions of culture (Vannini, 2009).

Beginning with the 1990s, the confluence of computers and communication technologies where it is no longer about computers or laptops but about information appliances, interaction with technology has become as much about what people feel as it is about what they do (John McCarthy, 2004).

There is healthy interest in academia that is viewing technoculture as a contemporary reality – one that exists in a “continuous state of flux” whose transformations have been driven by human inventions (Kozinets, 2010).

And while some skeptics foresee a world inhabited by cyborgs (Haraway, 1991)enslaved by technology, there are others who see no boundaries between technology and culture in a world of cybernatics, bionics and interactive cyberspace (Gibson, 1984). The debate between technology and culture may then seem outdated because technoculture is seen as a “hybridization” of both (Berger, 1996).

The dynamic relationship between technology and culture then makes it necessary to not only keep up with new communicational vocabulary such as ‘googling’, ‘facebooking’, ‘twittering’, ‘texting’ ‘radio blogging’ ‘gaming’, etc., but also to understand the survivability of traditional local cultures against the forces of technology.

While McLuhan himself was never overtly opposed to a technology infused culture, his protégé, Neil Postman (Postman, 1993) took a critical stance on a culture that was becoming more pervasive than pop culture. This review then is a pertinent exercise in analyzing from a socio-techno-cultural perspective, what it means to live in a digital age; and understanding in that context, whether Neil Postman’s antithetical view that culture always pays a price for technology, (Postman, 1998)[2] really holds out.

Advent of technoculture

The advent of technoculture in human society may be traced back to the evolution of communications from the oral tradition to a written one and later to print, to the current day technological breakthrough with computers and mobile phones with broadband capacity.

Given the historical perspective, “technoculture” would map the technologically saturated worlds of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Lovlie, 2006).

 Welcome to technoculture

Taking a somewhat romanticized view, Phillip Vannini and his colleagues (Vannini, 2009) believe technoculture resides in “old docks, in toy stores, in the hobbyist’s toolbox, and in the refrigerator as much as it resides in the cathodes of an electronic tube or in the chips of a personal computer.”

A clinical view suggests that as communities are increasingly finding their common ground in cyberspace rather than on terra firma (Mitchell, 1996),real world communities are more homogenized and becoming part of a ‘big, one-world conversation’ (Robins, 1999).

What William J. Mitchell talks about is a virtual world where humans will exist as ‘disembodied and fragmented subjects, freed from the constraints of physical space’. He declares that the new technologically-mediated world will be a post-geographical world where humans effectively will put an end to the ‘tyranny of distance’.

Mitchell goes so far as to dream up a technocultural utopia of a virtual ‘transparent society’ inhabited by mutually sympathetic persons.

On a more pragmatic note, what is apparently shaping social reality is the idea that technology and culture are no longer mutually exclusive but inseparably linked in a world mediated by Internet and all the devices that allow access to it (Gibson, 1984).

Technoculture – Drivers & Riders

New statistics from the International Telecommunications Union reflect the extent to which the world is mediated by Internet and internet-enabled devices (International Telecommunications Union, 2013). 

There are over 2.4 billion Internet users in the world, and the mobile broadband market is the most dynamic with 2.1 billion subscriptions globally. More telling is ITU’s prediction that there will be 7.3 billion active cell phones in the world by 2014, which is more than the world population (approximately 7 billion).[3]

Thus, in the mediated culture, access to technology is not only narrowing the gap between digital immigrants and digital natives (Prensky, 2001) but also bridging generational divides. To define, digital natives are those that formed their first information literacy skills in the digital world with computers, videos and the Internet; and digital immigrants are those that formed their information literacy skills in the print world (Toledo, 2007).

Typical to the pedagogical orientation of a digital native student would be podcasts, vodcasts (video podcast), webcasts or PowerPoint with audio posted online – loaded into a wiki; supplemented with lectures found in iTunes; eBooks – viewable on handhelds, iPods, laptops – Wikispaces or PBWiki (Toledo, 2007).

Although it runs the risk of painting a futuristic comic book universe, David Silver’s world of technoculture as described in his annotated bibliography (Silver, 1995) is a combination of cyberspace, hyperspace, virtual space; virtual communities, virtual realities, virtual identities; cyborgs, cybernetics, science fiction; spectacles, simulations, simulacra; postcertainties and postmodernity.

Silver’s world is not dystopian though; it’s connected and intricately networked with a variety of fast moving media devices such as smart phones, webcams, TiVo, PDA, HDTV, Blue Ray, phones with cameras, WiFi-enabled wrist watches, radios with Internet, televisions with Internet, cell phones that are no longer just phones but also texting devices, MP3 players, navigational tools, Internet/WiFi enabled for accessing video (Design Education.ca, 2007).

Jurgen Habermas’ Public Sphere (Habermas, 1989) that had become a redundant concept, has since been resurrected to gain momentum on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace, Web logs (Blogs), Video logs (Vlogs), online forums, chat rooms, email, etc. in the form of social networks (Themightystork, 2009).

Looking at technoculture from a feminists’ viewpoint, Sadie Plant argues in her book ‘Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture’ (Plant, 1997) that the computer is rewriting the old conceptions of man and his world and suggests that the telecom revolution is also a sexual revolution which undermines the fundamental assumptions crucial to patriarchal culture.

Techno-feminism aside, what technoculture has irrevocably transformed are interpersonal relationships and face-to-face interactions.

To understand this phenomenon by sample, a 2012 survey conducted on 2,227 American adults found that 18-24 year olds sent or received an average of 109.5 text messages per day, which works out to be more than 3,200 text messages per month (Drussell, 2012).

In a 2007 European study of 635 participants ages 16-55 year olds, 48.9% reported preferring to use their cell phones for texting over voice calls, and 26.1% reported texting too much. This study also measured levels of loneliness, expressive control, interaction anxiousness, and conversational involvement. Further, 61% of the participants stated that they say things in text that they would not feel comfortable saying face-to-face and 64% stated they feel they are able to express their true feelings best in text messages rather than in face-to-face interactions or voice calls (Drussell, 2012).

Yet another dimension to the psycho-social aspect of online behavior is the increasing use of virtual ‘avatars’ (Cleland, 2008). Owing to interaction through images and screens, the mediated face-to-face encounter is extending, augmenting and even replacing the physical face-to face encounter. Cleland argues that through the “image avatars” the online communicators experience themselves both as physical and virtual, “as their identities migrate from the physical world to photographs, video, the Internet, games consoles, personal computers and mobile phones” (Cleland, 2008).

Critique of Technoculture

Perhaps the most vocal and insightful critiques of technology’s impact on society comes from Neil Postman for whom Technopoly (a society dictated by technology) was a state of culture that eliminates alternatives to itself, making them irrelevant (Postman, 1993).

Aris Mousoutzanis goes a step further to refer to contemporary media culture as ‘technocultural shock’ with psychopathological implications caused by “information overload” and the sense of disruption of time and space (Mousoutzanis, 2010).

But a bigger concern is that of sociologists who see the potential erosion of social values in a technoculture of highly customized and personalized access to entertainment that devices like TiVo and iPods provide. Christine Rosen (Rosen, 2004) warns of the resultant “opportunity costs” that will be felt in an individual’s relationships with families, friends and communities. Rosen also sees an erosion of civility in public space in particular and transformation of social space in general, because people increasingly are “absent present”, i.e. they are physically present, but mentally absent, owing to preoccupation with their own cell phones, iPods, portable DVDs, etc., which allow them to create little digital cocoons for themselves.

Such integrated, multi-tasking machines may be described as in Donna Haraway’s futuristic Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway, 1991) in which she says, our machines are disturbingly lively, and humans frighteningly inert.

Conclusion:

Critiques notwithstanding, it may be accepted that technoculture effectively erases the gap between domains of life and technology. And that in itself is not a bad thing because much as technoculture may seem pervasive and spread across geographies, it is not ubiquitous. Also, no one cultural manifestation of a technoculture is universally acceptable (Green, 2002).

So does technoculture lead to a universal code of human behavior? Perhaps not, because, although technoculture assumes certain universality in its components, how each of those components impacts different cultural groups in different countries, and even within a country is almost as customized as the local culture itself (Green, 2002).

The review finds merit in Kozinets’ argument that if we can accept homo sapiens and homo habilis as tool-makers and innovators, we may well accept that cyberculture is as much a part of human culture as is ‘alphabet culture’, ‘wheel culture’ or ‘electricity culture’ (Kozinets, 2010).

Vannini too chastises deterministic views that see technology as alienating. He says, “Technoculture is about making and remaking; we carve the world with our tools, and then we adapt to having to interact with what we have carved.” (Vannini, 2009)

McLuhan’s prophetic pronouncements about what he called the “electric age” talked of new media technology being an extension of the human nervous system. What he saw as a complete break from five thousand years of mechanical technology, he said was neither a good thing nor a bad thing, because “to do so would be meaningless and arrogant.”  (McLuhan, 1987).[4]

To go back to Simon Cooper’s theoretical arguments that one can stay ambivalent about technology (Cooper, 2002) and its impact on society, it may be concluded that technology and culture are dialectically integrated, and can effectively be mediated to work for contemporary human society.

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Citations:

Baudrillard, J. (1983). The Ecstasy of Communication. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture . Seattle: Bay Press.

Berger, R. (1996, December 20). Note on Techno. Retrieved August 27, 2013

Cleland, K. (2008). Image Avatars: Self-Other Encounters in a Mediated World. Doctoral Thesis, University of Technology . Sydney, Australia.

Cooper, S. (2002). Technoculture and Critical Theory – In the service of the machine? Routledge.

Design Education.ca. (2007, July 9). Mass Media vs. User-Generated Content. Retrieved July 2013, from Slide Share: http://www.slideshare.net/designeducation/mass-media-vs-usergenerated-content-75856

Drussell, J. (2012). Social Networking and Interpersonal Communication and Conflict Resolution Skills among College Freshmen. Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers, Paper 21 .

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.

Green, L. (2002). Communication, Technology and Society. Sage Publications.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge ISBN )-7456-0274-6.

Haraway, D. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto:Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge.

International Telecommunications Union. (2013, February 13). Press Release. Retrieved June 2013, from http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/press releases/2013/05.aspx#.UdxNhzs3BqU

McCarthy. J. (2004). Technology As Experience. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Robins, K. (1999). Times of the Technoculture: From the Information Society to the Virtual Life. Routledge.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Sage Publications.

Lovlie, L. (2006). Technocultural Education. International Journal of Media, Technology and Lifelong Learning, Vol.2, Issue 1 .

Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. MIT Press.

McLuhan, M. (1987). Letter to Robert Fulford, 1964. Letters of Marshall McLuhan .

McLuhan, M. (1974). Man and the Future of Organizations.

Mitchell, W. (1996). City of Bits:Space,Place,and the Infobahn. MIT Press.

Mousoutzanis, A. (2010). Cybertrauma and Technocultural Shock in Contemporary Media Culture. In A. M. Riha, New Media and the Politics of Online Communities. Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford, UK.

Vannini, P.  (2009). Toward a Technography of Everyday Life:The Methodological Legacy of James W. Carey. Sage Publications.

Plant, S. (1997). Zeroes + Ones. Doubleday Press.

Postman, N. (1998, March 17). Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. NewTech ’98 . Denver, Colorado, USA.

Postman, N. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books.

Prensky, M. (October 2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol.9 No.5 .

Rosen, C. (2004). The Age of Egocasting. The New Atlantis-Journal of Technology and Society, No.7 .

Silver, D. (1995, December 9). Exploring Technoculture: Computers, Society, Pedagogy. Retrieved June 2013, from Cyberpunk: http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/exploring technoculture.html

Designeducation.ca (2007, July 9). Retrieved June 2013, from http://www.slideshare.net/designeducation/mass-media-vs-usergenerated-content-75856

Themightystork. (2009, March 15). What is Technoculture? Retrieved July 2013, from Slide Share: http://www.slideshare.net/Themightystork/mark-2

Toledo, C. A. (2007). Digital Culture: Immigrants and Tourists-Responding to the Natives’ Drumbeat. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Vol.19, No.1 .

 

 

[1] McLuhann Quote: The most human thing about us is our technology.

Man and the future of organizations, Volume 5, School of Business Administration, Georgia State University, 1974, p. 19

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan

 

[2] Neil Postman original quote: “Idea number one is that culture always pays a price for technology.” From Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change, a speech given by Neil Postman at NewTech ’98 in Denver, Colorado, March 17, 1998

 

[3] The current and projected statistics include multiple device usage by existing users; it does not mean the digital divide between developed and under-developed societies will diminish

[4] McLuhan Quote: My main theme is the extension of the nervous system in the electric age, and thus, the complete break with five thousand years of mechanical technology. This I state over and over again. I do not say whether it is a good or bad thing. To do so would be meaningless and arrogant.” Letter to Robert Fulford, 1964. Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1987), p. 300

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan

 

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