Technology and Human Nature

In their Webcam, Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan offer what they describe as a theory of attainment. While I’m not sure they’d accept my terminology, I read this as an attempt to theorise the causal powers of technology in relation to the causal powers of human beings. They start by recognising that “people have relationships with people and they have relationships with technology, and, mostly, we can’t really disentangle the two” (pg. 3) before turning to the question of how we should theorise this entanglement. Their approach resonates with me because their intention is non-conflationary – though they don’t use this term – in the sense that they see understanding the entanglement as necessitating that we understand the respective characteristics of the entities that are ‘tangled up’. In this sense, it preempts work I’d intended to do looking at tendencies towards conflation in theorising the relationship between human beings and technology: upwards conflation (social constructivism), downwards conflation (technological determinism) and central conflation (sociomateriality and co-evolution). Their account begins negatively, taking aim at what they see as a dominant tendency to juxtapose the novel meditations entailed by new technology with our putatively unmediated former state:

Any new media is first experienced as an additional and problematic mediation to our lives. We can’t help but contrast it with some imagined conversation between two people standing in a field as representing the original, unmediated and natural form of communication. A technology, by contrast, is always regarded as something artificial that imposes itself between the conversationalists and mediates that conversation. (pg. 5)

This licenses the nostalgia and despair for what’s lost that can be seen in the work of someone like Sherry Turkle, in which the (umediated) world of face-to-face relationships has been replaced by the (mediated) world of digital connections. From an anthropological standpoint however “there are no unmeditated, pure relationships” (pg. 3) to be dissolved by digital communications. There has always been material culture and, it follows from this, human relationships have never been exhausted by other human beings. Nonetheless, they seek to acknowledge that people do change in relation to technology but not in a way that can be described as becoming ‘more or less human’ (with the weirdly zero-sum relation between humanity and technology which that implies). Their concern is “to find a means of understanding the impact of new technologies that allows us to consider these as radical changes in consciousness and other basic modes of life, but without this being seen as either an increase or decrease in our essential humanity” (pg. 11).

Their theory of attainment seeks to do this by accounting for “how technology becomes an ordinary aspect of being routinely human” (pg. 13). They begin from the observation that “people who have access to a new media are at first usually concerned to use this technology to facilitate things they already had been trying to do, but had up to then been thwarted by the lack of means” (pg. 11): their focus is on ‘latency’, the situational frustrations, which can be found within any group. Technological innovation should be understood in terms of the “situation of incompleteness with respect to what we want to be or do” which invariably characterises the human condition (pg. 11). New technologies initially facilitate things people wanted to do but couldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t easily due to constraints entailed by prior analogues – with these inclinations predating the utilisation of the technology for things people didn’t know they wanted to do. Their interest is in when these technologies cease to be seen as innovations, facilitating frustrated desires before offering unimagined possibilities, instead becoming part of our background understanding of what it is to be human:

It is the next phase, when this facility becomes the merely taken-for-granted condition of what people simply assume as an integral aspect of who they are, which is the realisation of what we are calling attainment. The ability to write is a mark of attainment because we now tend to view those without that ability as though they lacked some fundamental property of being an ordinary human. Originally writing was an achievement, but by now it is considered a necessary condition. For many people, being able to type on a computer, or to drive a car, or speak on a telephone has become a similar mark of attainment. Webcam will serve as an example of this process because of the sheer speed with which it passes from an ideal we had aspired to, to a mundane technology we taken for granted. (pg. 12)

This account conceives of technology as facilitating latent capacities of human beings. As I understand it, they offer the notion of ‘an attainment’ as a way to conceptualise those capacities which rely upon a technological apparatus that we now take for granted: our technological innovations realise latent capacities and, in doing so, change what it is to be human but in a way that recognises this capacity for change as something intrinsic to humanity. This implies “a kind of latency in the human condition, but not merely a litany of pre-given imagined abilities planted in evolutionary time and then coming into being with new technology” (pg. 14):

There was no gene for writing that was frozen until the invention of the pen. Technology in and of itself transforms capacity and changes what human beings can do or can be envisaged as doing. The last of the four stages defined by Miller and Slater in examining technological change, which was called the expansive potential, concerns those aspirations that can only now be imagined thanks to these developments. Technology creates as well as realises latency. (pg. 15)

This theory of attainment offers a framework for analysing the trajectories through which technological innovations are adopted and how the adopters change in the process. It can be usefully applied to the study of individual cases or to much wider social units. This is a view of humanity “that incorporates its own potential for change” (pg. 12) and I think this is crucial: it avoids a view of infinite plasticity, where we are reshaped by technical tools, but also one of inert quiddity, where we remain stubbornly resistant to technologically induced change. It recognises the properties of technology, without leading us into the trap of either seeing the uses to which a technology is put as intrinsic to the technology or as irrelevant to the technology. 

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