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How technology dehumanises us (Part 1)

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There is nothing wrong with technology — except when it begins to stand in the way of our essential humanity. Technology experts Matthew Mitchell and Bill Davis talk about a very real danger developing in our society.

Part 1: The Problem




PERHAPS YOU, like I, was taught at school that the Romans were effective soldiers because of their willingness to maim and kill. The theory was that most humans are naturally reluctant to seriously hurt or kill others, and thus most warriors preferred to fight at a distance, using long swords, spears or arrows. The Romans, on the other hand, preferred close contact with short swords. Once up close, their enemies may hesitate, whilst the less scrupulous Roman would stab ruthlessly with short swords designed for close contact.

Historians may debate the truth of this theory, but it seems reasonable to suppose that unless trained to kill (or pathological) most people would be reluctant to kill another. Even less so, if we were familiar with the everyday sight of our victim — including playing at home with his family. But we will see, like the warriors of old, that the distancing effect of technology may play a critical role in allowing us to act in inhumane ways. Not just in matters of battle, but in everyday life; and not just in rare situations, but also in common ones.

Concerns about the dehumanising effects of technology are not new. There have long been concerns about the effects that violent computer games may have on impressionable young men. Similar concerns have been raised in relation to violent movies. Recently one of Hollywood’s leading film makers, Harvey Weinstein, stated that he has often been worried by this and, following the recent shootings in the US, he has called for Hollywood film makers to be more aware of these risks. Regardless of whether or not violent films or games desensitise young people, there can be little doubt that the use of computer technology has moved more and more into the arena of entertainment. Max Igan is one who believes that this constant distraction by technology and other media is, in itself, a concern as it prevents young people from thinking deeply about who they are and, presumably, what they value and, thus, how they should behave.



As technology has become more and more ingrained in our everyday life, what once would have seemed miraculous is now commonplace. The video phone is not only here, but it is small and portable and, using GPS technology, can also tell you exactly where you are.  It must seem to many people that there are no limits to the power of science and technology. In fact, this faith in the power of science and technology has lead some modern thinkers to claim that these things, which have dispelled so much superstitious thinking, have in fact created a new superstition: that nothing is impossible to science and technology — and that it is through these arts that all mankind’s problems can ultimately be solved. Jensen and Draffan (2004) make the following claim in relation to this:
“[O]ur culture today is not secular, but just as religious (in the pejorative sense of superstitious, unconscious, assumed) as ever. Only today, science is the religion, experts are the priests, bureaucrats are the gatekeepers, and research and development institutions are the cathedrals.”

Other recent authors also appear to question whether we have an irrational faith in science and technology. Ozzie Zehner, the author of the recently released book “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism” seems to be one such person. Zehner believes that the future will be based on renewable energies, but argues that what most people cannot accept is that these energies cannot support our current way of life given our levels and patterns of consumption. Howard Kunstler, author of the book “Too Much Magic” goes a step further.  Kunstler suggests that people are being delusional in expecting science and technology to solve our problems in a way that does not require a major change in lifestyles and behaviour.

In fact these attitudes are not new. A similar point was made by social critic Ivan Illich in 1973:
It has become fashionable to say that where science and technology have created problems, it is only more scientific understanding and better technology that can carry us past them. The cure for bad management is more management. The cure for specialised research is more costly interdisciplinary research […] The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation” (Illich 1973).

In this quote Illich associates technology with management. And he is not alone, as many technological critics consider organisational forms as another type of technology: a technology of production.



Leaving aside our possible delusions in relation to the potential of technology, let us now return to the discussion of its very clear drawbacks. In particular, the dehumanising effects it has on both people and institutions. We can start with the issues emphasised by Heffernan (2011) regarding the various ‘distancing effects’ of technology; that is, the various ways in which technology removes us from the reality of many problems and thus inhibits our ability to emphasise with people and their concerns.

As an example, Heffernan discusses the response by FEMA (the US Federal Emergency Management Agency) to Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans. The director of FEMA at that time was Michael Brown. Researchers of that event conclude that on the day that the hurricane hit, Louisiana Brown seemed very relaxed and reminded emergency services personnel not to respond to hurricane impacts unless dispatched by authorities. Two days later, Brown was informed by email that:
"Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water. Hundreds are still being rescued from homes. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome." (pg 224).

Brown responded, seemingly unworried:
"Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?" (pg 225)

Four days later, in a television interview, he stated that he was unaware that 20,000 to 25,000 refugees were stranded at the city's convention centre without food or water. The interviewer, Koppel, at this time queried whether Brown had been watching the news at all. In his response Brown mentioned that when he did learn about it, he wanted to get someone in there and get the truth on the ground. Brown then stated:
"... we are going to take care of these victims. We are going to make it right ... and [help] get their lives back in order" (pg 225).

Heffernan describes Brown's responses on this occasion as remote, confident and extraordinarily abstract. There are no individuals, only abstract victims. Koppel seems to have drawn a similar conclusion as, following these statements by Brown, he expressed his disbelief along with some real details — including mentioning that some of the victims were now dead and, therefore, beyond help.



According to Heffernan (2011), an emotional distance might be seen as desirable for decision making as it keeps one removed from the messy, human details. However, Heffernan argues that the claimed benefits of eliminating proximity to clarify the mind and facilitate objective decision-making can also blind one to the details they would prefer not to see.

This is perhaps summarised by Heffernan’s following observation:
‘It's extremely hard to communicate well with people you don't really know whose concerns you cannot see.’ (pg 220)

Heffernan (2011) seems to identify the source of the problem as follows:
‘Why do we build institutions and corporations so large and so complex that we can't see how they work? In part, it is because we can. Human hubris makes us believe that if we can imagine something; and if we can build it, we can understand it. We are so delighted with our own ingenuity and intelligence it gives us a sense of mastery and power. But the power is problematic as it takes us further and further from the reality we have built. Like Daedalus, we build labyrinths of such cunning complexity that we cannot find our own way out. And we are blind to the blindness these complex structures necessarily confer. So we forget all about it.’ (pg 239).

Postman (1993) also talks about the willingness of people to see solutions and problems. He argues that people's willingness to accept that some things can (or cannot) be done because the computer will (or will not) allow them is analogous to Stanley Milgram's "agentic shift", whereby people assign responsibility to a more abstract agent. For example, a bank teller may say you cannot get a balance for your account because "the computer is down" — implying that no-one at the bank is responsible. Postman (1993) argued that bureaucrats are attracted to the ability to create an illusion that decisions are not under their control, to detract attention from themselves to the computer, as though it is the authority not them. Perhaps, in many cases, the bureaucracy itself can be used in this same way?

Postman quotes the famous author CS Lewis who, in 1943, seemed to identify, rather chillingly, the source of many of our modern problems:
‘I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin”. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.’ (C.S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pg 84.)

Some modern critics, such as Jensen and Draffan are equally forthright in their judgment. Here is Jensen and Draffan (2004)’s take on science:
‘What does science do? It calls for everything to be measured. It calls for everything that cannot be measured to be ignored or destroyed.’
‘What is science for? To analyse. Why? To predict. Why? to reduce risk [...] and to control those about whom these predictions are being made.’
‘Under this rubric what is power? It is the ability to control outcomes.’

And bureaucracy:
‘What then is bureaucracy? It is administration by rules, efficiency and quantification. It is the administration of control.’
‘What then is a culture administered by a bureaucracy?
It is a machine.’

And Machines:
‘Why are machines more efficient than human-beings? Because machines do not give back [...] By definition machines – and people and cultures that have turned themselves into machines – do not give back. They use. And they use up. That gives them short term advantages in power over the ability to determine outcomes. They outcompete. They overwhelm. They destroy.’



Jensen and Draffan (2004) also quote other critics, one famous one was Lewis Mumford who thought of "…large hierarchical organizations as megamachines; a machine using humans as its components”:
"... technocratic society ... [with] its plans for accelerated technological progress, even though man's vital organs [and the rest of the world] will all be cannibalized in order to prolong the megamachine's meaningless existence".

Since 2004, there is even more evidence supporting the critics above in relation to one pathological culmination of our developments of hardware, software and organisational technologies. One example is provided by Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times in her article: ‘A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away’. In this article Bumiller describes how the operators of Remote Control Drones survey the families and daily activities of those they are assigned to assassinate. Here is an extract:
“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.

When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant — and only, Colonel Brenton said, when the women and children are not around — the hair on the back of his neck stands up, just as it did when he used to line up targets in his F-16 fighter jet. 

Afterward, just like the old days, he compartmentalizes. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty.”

This disturbing scenario seems to arise from of a culmination of several technologies. First is the hardware and software technology that makes the use of Remote Drones possible in the first place. Second, is the organisational technology that allows the bureaucratic structures and segregated roles that enables individuals to conduct such executions (quite possibly unlawfully) without scruple. Equally disturbing is the logo used by the U.S. Navy’s executive offices for its drone planes (according to Greenwald (2012)) featured below. At its centre is a Grim Reaper. It appears that America now has a bureaucracy that regards itself as a dispenser of death for America’s enemies. And it seems it is. One danger of such an approach is that in a bureaucratic organisation where accountability is spread among many a change in behaviour requires only a change in its impersonal rules or procedures. Thus, the definition of enemy can easily morph so as to include its own citizens (see for example: Healy 2010) — citizens whom, in the absence of terrorist laws, would otherwise be subject to habeas corpus and for whom a death sentence would be illegal.

Above is the logo for the U.S. Navy’s executive offices for its drone planes. Currently this can be reproduced here under the “fair use” clauses of copyright. However, even this right may be removed under the terms of the secret TPP negotiations.


Given the current state of technology and its unpredictable and undesirable outcomes, perhaps we should consider Plato’s Legend of Thamus as reproduced by Postman (1993). In this story, Thamus is king of a city in Upper Egypt who entertains the god Theuth. Theuth was the inventor of many things (such as writing, geometry, astronomy and more) and presented each of his inventions to King Thamus claiming they should be made widely known and available to all Egyptians. Postman (1993) extracts from Plato as follows:
Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, accordingly as he judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth's inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, "Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom." To this Thamus replied, "Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom, instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.

Postman (1993) criticises this story as being a bit too simplistic. The reality is more complicated. Thamus claims that writing (as a metaphor) will be a burden to society, whereas, in fact, it also provides many benefits. Thus, Postman's claim that assessing the impacts of a technology is complicated by the fact that is often both a burden and a blessing. However, Postman argues, we are surrounded by Technophiles (lovers of technology) who, like Theuth, are one-eyed prophets who can only see what technology will do, and not what it will undo. He continues to point out that every culture must negotiate with technology to arrive at a bargain between what is gained and what is lost. However, he warns:
"The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed.” (pg 5)

Postman emphasises that he is not a technophobe (afraid of technology) but is merely highlighting the fact that technology is not neutral — the uses of a technology are determined by the structure of the technology (its function follows its form). This implies that arguing that a technology would be great if it was just used in certain ways is futile. Once a technology is admitted to a culture, it plays its full hand with both good and bad consequences according to its design. The problem, according to Postman is determining beforehand what that design is so that when the technology is admitted the consequences are clear up front.

And this question – how to manage technology – is the topic of Part II.



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