Technology and Culture

Technology and Culture

People have not caught up to the technology they use. The technology is using them. The sheer amount of information to be processed coupled with all the avenues it comes from is a ball and chain.

This is not the statement of a luddite. Technology and progress are not only inevitable but indispensible for our well being and survival. It is however high time that we gave our interactions with it some further thought.

Constant auditory and visual stimuli completely unrelated to the environment in which one is present is certainly unnatural.

The nature of this information barrage has undergone a rapid and sweeping transformation. It began with radios giving news and entertainment and ended with telephones that could play full length feature films.

This transformation has as much to do with technical savvy as it does with our psychology. The radio you see was most obviously an intruder. When it was turned on one was patently aware that there was this clunky thing there in the living room talking about things that were happening elsewhere in a tangible sense.

Our TV phones have taken that sense of tangible other-where-ness straight to hell. We live in streams of information. Rather than coming by to nourish ourselves with little sips. Quantity in this case is most assuredly not quality.

The truth is we’re drowning. It’s high time that we found a shore, built some boats, learned to fish, and erected a dam. Though it may seem comic this analogy is done with serious intent. We absolutely must make massive efforts to understand and control how this paradigm is effecting us.

Let’s begin by talking about handwriting which is almost as antique as horse-drawn carriages. If you think that’s an exaggeration remember that people don’t even have to type if they don’t want to. They can just speak into a microphone and the words will appear on screen. If you want to call a friend or look up some bit of information you can ask the phone to do it as if it were some sort of electronic butler.

The problem with this marvel is that the easier things become the weaker we get. We also become less aware of the boundaries between our capacities and those of the devices that we rely on. Our eyes, ears, and mind become filtered through screens. In a sense we have already arrived at that old science fiction idea of merging with machines.

If you break a bone the limb in question is put in a cast. When the fracture has healed and the cast is removed you no longer have a natural range of motion. It has to be coaxed back with physical therapy.

The thing about this technology is that it acts exactly like a cast. The odd thing is most of us never take it off we simply keep buying fancier casts. It’s almost as if there is a trend for capacity expanding prosthetics.

If you think about it that’s what all technology is. Pen and paper expanded our capacity for dreaming and reasoning and the i-Phone is just a late stage iteration of this trend. Despite this cheery attribute these innovations are not of necessity expansive.

They are in fact incredibly limiting and serve to dull our capacities. This is not an inherent attribute. It is a function of how we interface with these devices.

The reason that they are limiting is threefold. Firstly the constancy and volume of data, secondly the selectivity of data, and finally the question of bio-feedback.

We are of course capable of dealing with vast amounts of information. But not a relentless universe of constant second to second info-barrage. One would think that all this info would make us better informed. However, most of us choose to listen to things which tickle our fancy and we favor novel inputs from those sources over in depth reflection on all that we’ve learned. That is a problem called selective hearing.

The question of bio-feedback has to do with the way more traditional media methods and interactions occurred versus the current trend. We are wired by nature to respond not to tweets but to human faces and voices in a five (some argue six) sense environment. We are not meant to look at a GPS schematic of the road we drive on but physical signs and landmarks.

The case of handwriting brilliantly illustrates this difference between natural (traditional) bio-feedback and (hybrid) cyber-bio-feedback. A 2012 study done by the psychologist Karin James at the University of Indiana showed that children who reproduced letters by hand showed greater brain activity than those that did so by tracing or typing. Another psychologist Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington discovered that when asked to brainstorm ideas children with better handwriting had greater activation in working memory and areas of the brain associated with writing. Handwriting notes as opposed to typing them was found to help students retain information better. This study done by Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California and Pam A. Mueller of Princeton concluded that this retention was due to handwriting stimulating greater reflection by virtue of understanding and then manually reframing the lecture on paper.


What this means is that we are handicapping ourselves by always typing. That is where a cultural change should occur. In this particular instance we can instill a love of penmanship and encourage people to handwrite their essays and dissertations at least in part before they type them.

In a general sense we must use these findings to do things like encourage an appreciation of effort and critical thought. There must be a shift from an obsession with data to a focus on understanding. That’s the only way to rescue ourselves from the relentless flood of information.

Yes, data and the capacity to access it is great. But in the context of the current society we are needlessly sacrificing depth for breadth.

– Alex V. Weir