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“It’s Only a Tool”?

excerpt from Chapter 2 of “The Digitally Divided Self : Relinquishing our Awareness to the Internet

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“It’s Only a Tool”

If there were a law stating that “people should stay in front of a screen for most of their waking time, both indoors and out, avoiding real-life meetings as much as possible, shop without touching or seeing the product, find their soulmates through Internet announcements, consume an average of 34 gigabytes of information daily” (University of California, 2009), there would be a revolution. But if it’s seen as our “freedom,” then it’s fine. Technology can do this because it acts on a higher level than laws, rules or impositions. As Neil Postman (1993) wrote, “Technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines ‘freedom’ ‘truth,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘fact,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘memory,’ ‘history’ – all the words we live by” (p. 8). Facebook now has even transformed the meaning of “friend” and “like.”

For most of us, technology acts deeply in moving awareness away from the connection with our inner world – powerfully redefining both our inner and outer life. Sustained attention, awareness and introspection—the qualities needed to break out of the automated mind – become especially difficult when we are drowning in information, mostly brief and directed to the latest news.

Joseph Weizenbaum (1976), exploring the character of compulsive programmers as early as 1976, found them disinterested in their bodily needs and detached from the world around them. We are not surprised to meet such figures in countries where advanced technologies are part of everyday life.

Cubans I met traveling there in 2000 were usually lively people, with direct personal contact, sensual, relating to immediate reality. It was striking to see two computer technicians, on the contrary, detached, immersed in their own worlds, neglecting themselves, communicating with few words. I realized how daily contact with a tool – in this case computers and programming (tools which had been available there for only a few years) – can have a stronger impact on social attitude and personality than the collective conditioning of society.

There is probably a mutual feedback between personality and life choices, but without doubt technology also shapes psyches. Even early in history, Taoists observed that the use of instruments carries the risk of becoming mechanical ourself. Today – from Hong Kong to Brazil, from Lithuania to South Africa, from Egypt to New Zealand – wherever people use the Internet, they click on the same icons, use the same shortcuts in email and chats, connect with people through the same Facebook modalities. This is the globalization of mind.

Technology is not Questionable

Mark Slouka, in War of the Worlds (1995), conveyed how eerie it is to be permeated by the digital revolution, with no or little reflection about what it really means, “where the only concern heard in the land, by and large, is that some of us may be left behind” (p. 9).

In the history of media, there has never been much reflection about the impact on human psyches. The few who reflected negatively on it were considered against progress and innovation.

The technological person doesn’t believe he can be transformed by technology. In fact, he has been persuaded that he is the master of technology. He believes that his inner life (actually as unknown to him today as it was before Freud) cannot be modified by any tool. His mind is supposed to rise above all else; tools can at most extend the possibilities of his mind, but can never influence his choices. While this wasn’t even true for mechanical tools, it is even less true for information technologies.

The technological person is subject to the Cartesian separation between the world of matter and the world of ideas – and considers the latter superior. Much before Descartes, the Bible assigned us the role of masters of matter and God’s terrain. This unconscious belief that our mind is superior to everything else has contributed to the lack of debate about the transformation of our psyches by technology.

Knowing through the Body                            

Birds build their nests instinctively, and many animals “know” how to hunt or find food, but humans have been dispensed a limited set of instincts, such as sucking and grabbing. Everything else derives from learning – which is very much an embodied process. Despite emphasis on the 3Rs in kindergarten, the factors most likely to lead to later academic success are play and social skills. Research shows that young children learn through their bodies. For example, the child’s early understanding of geometric relationships and physics is almost physical.

A study published in Nature by researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz demonstrated that as animals learn motor tasks, connections between brain cells begin to form almost immediately and become permanently consolidated in the brain. We all know that when we learn something involving the body, like riding a bicycle, this knowledge stays with us.

Along the evolutionary trail, we first see muscles appearing, then motor function as consequence of interacting with a certain habitat, and later the associated neurophysiological functions. Motor activity acts on the brain, which in turn acts back on the body to perfect an action. Engels (1985) perceived that the opposability of the thumb and the erect position of human beings came millions of years before the further development of the brain. It was the activity that altered the brain, and not vice versa. This was later confirmed by the fossil record.

The hand especially, with its sophisticated movements, shaped our nervous systems. The “technologies” of body movement and of manual labor shaped and developed our human brain from earliest times. In mutual feedback, our brain shaped our tools with growing complexity – until we arrived at contemporary tools. These interact almost exclusively with our minds and shape our nervous system.

In a famous experiment by University College London in 2008, researchers used magnetic scanners to read the brain activity of twenty taxi drivers while they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, they obtained detailed brain images as taxi drivers delivered customers to their destinations.

Different brain regions were activated as they were planning their routes, spotting familiar landmarks, or thinking about their customers. Brain areas were activated and grew by building information needed to find the right way around complicated London streets. Earlier studies found that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – an area of the brain important in navigational abilities – than most of us.

Detailed table of contents, introduction and chapter 1.

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This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.