Space, Monks, and Unintended Consequences

Astronaut in space

It starts on a crisp fall day, in a large lecture hall, with a professor talking about Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would watch it later — my mouth literally agape during the final sequence. But, for the moment, back in class, we were concerned with another famous scene. The scene shows an ape smashing skeletal remains with a bone. As the ape continues his rampage, he gains more human qualities. Later, he walks on two feet and wields the bone as a weapon in battle against other apes. After the confrontation, he tosses the bone in the air. At the peak of the bone’s trajectory, the film cuts to a space station adrift in outer space. In a single cut, Kubrick captures the dramatic evolution of technology from the stone-age to the space-age.

(This clip cuts together the two sequences)

To the academic observer, the film suggests that humans not only shape tools but that tools also shape humans. In other words, part of what makes us human is our ability to manufacture tools and technologies; but these same tools and technologies shape who we are and our relation to the world. That idea leads us to the point of this short reflection: that we shape tools is clear, how our tools shape us is not always so obvious.

To start, consider conversation. It is important for personal and professional life, Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, argues, but our devices can degrade its potential and intimacy. Turkle writes, moreover, that meaningful conversation takes the time and the awkward silence that people often fill with thumbs scrolling through timelines. Our tools provide an escape from the challenge of face-to-face interaction, but we also lose its benefits. Our phones are shaped razor thin, but so too may be our patience for the slowness and silence needed for meaningful conversation.

Beyond solely affecting the quality of our conversations, technology may affect who we talk with as well. In a 1995 interview, media scholar Neil Postman voices concern about ‘cyberspace’ and its potential to erode our sense of community. Specifically, he worries that by privatizing formerly interpersonal experiences — visiting the bank, the movie theater, the store — the internet may reduce our interactions with the people who compose our town or city. In effect, we lose more than chit chat when we substitute an app for the banker; we lose more than human recommendations when we replace the movie theater attendant with Netflix. We lose our sense of community. Upon reflection, we have designed our tools for personal convenience to the detriment of communal flourishing.

(To hear Postman speak about community, click through to 2:23)

Although, Postman and Turkle have much more depth and data behind their arguments than a frustrated parent, these criticisms probably sound familiar to a younger person. For the millenial-and-younger crowd, criticisms like these might seem fossilized: old, compelling, and unimaginable. So let’s move break from people and community and turn to a less-examined way in which our tools shape us: the structures of everyday life.

At around 7:10 am each morning, my alarm clock sounds; I rise, shower, dress, brush my teeth, breakfast, and drive to work where I spend the next eight hours. Although tedious, the routine merits closer inspection. A question lurks in the dullness: What was life like before the clock that wakes me and tracks the hours until I return home?

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman takes up this question. Postman traces the origins of the mechanical clock to Benedictine monasteries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He writes:

“The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion.”

According to Postman, however, the monks likely failed to foresee the influence the clock would have on life outside the monastery. Quoting Lewis Mumford, Postman writes that “the mechanical clock .. made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” Effectively, my morning routine — and the modern world — connect conceptually through time to some especially pious monks. Their desire for regularity caused, in Postman’s words, ecological change. Viewed this way, technology does not add or subtract from the world, but changes it entirely, as a new species introduced into an ecosystem does. In new ecosystems lie potential for new ideas, and those ideas may have unintended consequences.

One such historical consequence was the confusion of means and ends. MIT professor Leo Marx, in his article “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?”, argues that somewhere between the founding fathers and the modern era the American conception of progress shifted from one where technology serves as a means to transform society towards social ends to one where technological innovation is an end unto itself.

A modern reader will no doubt find truth in this celebration of technology for its own sake — ever thinner smart phones, faster computers, new social media platforms. Yet, social problems persist. In fact, our technologies may cause new social problems and anxieties.

In the present, then, we need a way to think about the technologies we plan to develop and their potential consequences. To that end, Postman provides a set of questions:

  1. What is the problem to be solved by this technology?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. What other problems might this technology create?
  4. Which people or institutions might be harmed by a technological solution?

(In this recorded lecture, Postman discusses his questions for analyzing technologies.)

This reflection started with an idea and ends with it. Before we develop new software, design new social media platforms, manufacture new devices, or pick up bones to smash skeletons, we may want to add one final question to Postman’s list: If we make this tool, how will it make us?

  • Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman
  • Technopoly, Neil Postman
  • The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser
  • You are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier
  • The Internet is Not The Answer, Andrew Keen
  • Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle
  • “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?”, Leo Marx
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