Emilio Horner is a political science senior and Mustang News columnist. These views do not necessarily represent those of Mustang News editorial.
Though I am largely convinced that our president, blunt in mouth and afro grown out, should have used his final State of the Union Address to declare himself a secret Kenyan-born Muslim-socialist while flipping off the Republican congressional members, I suppose I’m glad Barack Obama has a little more class than I do. Instead, he laid out his long-term goals including the question: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us?
There is this common assumption within Western society about the liberating and universal ability of science and technology to usher in a cosmopolitan future. Though I do firmly believe that technology has done a lot of good with regards to modern medicine, technologies of dissent and overall quality of life, I worry that rapid change, mixed with technological optimism, will lead to dehumanization, specifically in regard to overly mediated interpersonal communication and notions of the body.
During the Industrial Revolution, society replaced live energy with mechanical energy. Steam, oil, electricity and the atom created new industries for bosses to exploit workers. More dangerously, post-Industrial Revolution, we have seen technological advancements replace human thought with automation.
The future may very well be an era where man’s struggle for freedom and happiness cease and dehumanized individuals become unthinking and unfeeling machines. This loss of expression and humanity within the era of the machine is compounded by the fear of living within a potential nuclear holocaust; a possibility that’s a lot more real than anyone wants to admit.
We operate on the principle that something ought to be done because it is technologically possible. Just because we have the capability, does not mean that the outcome is beneficial for mankind. Reasons for innovation should matter. Additionally, technological advancement operates on the principle of maximum efficiency. This is incredibly dehumanizing because it cuts individuals down to purely quantifiable units and discourages creativity.
That being said, I’ve too commonly encountered the pseudo-intellectual, sensitive guy stereotype romanticizing the past with desires to have “real conversations” with people before our overly mediated reality ruined authentic human connection. Though this demographic is almost always using this conversation as a way to hit on women, there’s actually a large amount of truth in the argument. It is hard to interpret text or social media messages when they are largely disjointed thoughts, lacking non-verbal cues and missing overall context.
In addition to interpersonal implications, there are larger questions of how the medium impacts the message.
Technological social media has not reinvigorated the public sphere or spread knowledge so much as it has acted as a modern Huxley-esque “soma” in which the citizens’ rights are exchanged for consumer entertainment. Politics, religion and education on things like Facebook and Twitter become a packaged commodity. The medium decreases the quality in order to entertain the masses. Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” argues that television news is simply a form of entertainment programming with theme music, commercials and talking heads. Mass media devalues actual news in exchange for entertainment spectacle to get viewers.
The disjoined “and now this” format of news media reinforces notions that stories are not linked, but instead stand alone. This helps lead to people within society not thinking in a linear way. This means that people are not connecting the dots and realizing the intersectionality between structures and institutions within our society.
This is the classic millennial curse. Everyone can tell you a couple facts they learned on Wikipedia, but it’s much rarer for someone to relate those facts to an overarching set of interrelated causal factors. This is because the way we process information has been changed by the way we consume that information. Because media literacy is so important for maintaining agency within a democratic society, one ultimately contributes to their own dehumanization by being unable to check back on mass media narratives.
In addition to modern media technologies, even medical advancements can dehumanize the body. Often well-meaning engineers, with research commonly coming from military funding, attempt to create prosthetics or other technologies for disabled people. The problem becomes that the rhetoric used often portrays disabled people as objects that need to be fixed, as opposed to people who society should not view as broken just because they do not conform to notions of what a body should look like. In fact, commonly, people missing limbs do not want a prosthetic, and are using them for cosmetic reasons. The question then becomes: Is it possible to help people who are disabled without dehumanizing them through declaring their body as abnormal? There is a way to do both, but it requires a respect for disabled people as well as looking at prosthetics as tools to be used as opposed to making somebody whole again.
Often people on the left look at the morality of technology as split between military technology and technology that seeks to benefit the lives of the people. The line between problematic and non-problematic uses of technology is way more blurred and complicated. It’s not as simple as nuclear power, which is probably a good thing; nuclear weapons are probably a bad thing. WikiLeaks is probably good, the NSA’s probably bad.
A good starting question is: Does this technological change allow me to preserve my humanity, and allow me to further perform the aspects of my identity that give me meaning? Or does this change further my dehumanization into a slave of an overly mediated and technological wasteland? The answer, frustratingly, is that it often does both at different times.