Digital Technology and Human Being

I’m fascinated by the impact of digital technology upon human beings. In part this comes from being someone  who has been an avid user of the internet for the last 13 years or more (since I was 13/14) and recognises, in occasional moments of reflective self-awareness, the enormous impact that digital technology has had on both the brute biographical facts of my existence and who I am as a person. Yet I find many theoretical accounts of the human consequences of digital technology profoundly unsatisfying. This stems from what I think is a basic confusion at the level of ontology. I suspect that I want to make these claims about technology in general but, for sake of clarity, I’m going to specifically talk about digital technology because it’s where my main interests lie.

What does it means to say that we are ‘shaped by’ something external to us? It suggests that over time the changes we undergo are influenced, in whatever way, by factors which emerge from ‘outside’ rather than ‘inside’. In many aspects of life, this is so mundane as to be without confusion. Our family shapes us but this does not mean that the existence of our family calls into question our independent human existence. Our schooling shapes us but this does not mean that the school(s) we attended (in their institutional, material, cultural and relational dimensions) calls into question our independent human existence. So why does the recognition that digital technology shapes us so readily lead people to talk about our ‘co-constitution’ by technology and make grandiose claims about technology calling into question, reforming, or even obliterating, ‘human nature’?

Without making claims, tacitly or otherwise, about the characteristics of the humans who are relating to/with/within technology, it’s not possible to make causally meaningfully assertions about the consequences of technology on human life. As a logical claim: if you are making an assertion about the relation which obtains between A and B, it unavoidably lacks causal content (instead becoming, say, a statement about empirical regularity) without tacitly or explicitly saying something about the characteristics of A and B. If digital technology is reshaping human nature then it’s necessary to say something about that nature for us to understand the specific modalities through which digital technology is causally acting upon it in different ways within different environments. Ironically, without affirming some at least ‘thin’ notion of human nature, accounts of how digital technology impacting upon it remain at the level of generality (which is what I think the people making these cases want to avoid i.e. talking about humans as such) rather than getting into empirical questions about how under different technologies in different contexts shape different human beings in different ways.

Digital technology is not just something which we ‘use’ in an instrumental way. It has intrapersonal effects. But so do many things. The interesting question for me is how we understand the dynamics which bring about those effects over time within the context of a lived biographical trajectory and, I wish to argue, the way to do this is by looking at the relations which obtain between human beings and digital technology at any one time. How does a given technology constrain and enable human practices and projects? How do the affordances which digital technology grants change what we want to do and who we want to be? I think the impact of technology stems from its role in shaping the field of human possibilities (in all spheres of life) in ways that are intrinsically temporal and spatial. It is this field of possibilities which limits and enables the unfolding of our human specificity as we live our embodied life out in the world with others similarly encumbered. But many things other than technology do this and, if we want to understand how we become who we are, an excessive focus on the technological dimensions to this process aren’t going to help.

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