Technologies Used to Be Tools; Now They’re Our Environment
In a digital media environment, it’s particularly easy for figure and ground — people and their inventions — to flip roles. Because so much of this landscape is programmed to do one thing or another, human beings often become the more passive, automatic players compared with the code that actively defines the terrain and influences our behaviors.
If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.
For example, memetic warfare treats the figure — the human — as ground. In a digital media environment, memes become more than catchy slogans or ideas; they are a form of code, engineered to infect a human mind and then to turn that person into a replicator of the virus. The meme is software, and the person is the machine.
The meme has one goal: to be reproduced. It enters the human, inciting confusion, excitement, panic, or rage and stimulating the host to pass it on. The meme is issuing one command: Make me. And whether by word of mouth, social media, or viral video link, whether in agreement with the meme or in outraged rejection, the infected human obeys.
This automation tends to reinforce itself. The more we experience people as dehumanized replicators of memes, the more likely we are to treat one another as machines to be operated rather than as peers with whom to collaborate. Combined with other styles of manipulation and triggering, we end up in a world where success in business, politics, or even dating appears to depend on our ability to control others. Our essentially social activities become entirely instrumentalized, losing connection to their greater purpose. Under the pretense of optimizing probabilities or gaining broader choice, we surrender real connection and meaning. We become mere instruments.
The big reversal here is that our technologies used to be the instruments. They were extensions of our will — expressions of our autonomy as human beings. They gave us more choices. Of course, each new choice our technologies opened up to us also risked alienating us from our primal connections with nature and one another. Fire let us live in places otherwise too cold for human habitation. Electric lights let us stay up and do things late into the night. Airplanes let us travel across a dozen time zones in a single day. Sedatives let us sleep on the plane, stimulants wake us up when we arrive, and mood drugs help us cope with the stress of living that way. Sunrise and sunset are images for the computer desktop.
As we drift away from the biological clocks through which we used to find coherence, we become more dependent on artificial cues. We begin living as if we were in a shopping mall or casino, where day and night — as well as desire — are programmed by the environment. Everything is strategized by something or someone, even though the walls, lights, ceiling, and signage appear like features of the natural world. We are being optimized by something outside ourselves, toward purposes we don’t even know. The Muzak in the supermarket is programmed to increase the rhythm at which we place things into our shopping carts, while the lighting in the office changes to increase our productivity during the afternoon “lull.”
Our digital world is like the ultimate casino in this respect. It may have begun as a series of tools for specific purposes — spreadsheets, word processors, calculators, messaging, calendars, contact lists — but these tools went from being analogs or metaphors for real-life activities into being their replacements. Our technologies change from being the tools humans use into the environments in which humans function.
Think of the way video game graphics advanced from crude vectors indicating spacecrafts or asteroids to high-resolution, texture-mapped simulations of worlds. Playability has never depended on realism, any more than an authentic reproduction of a gun makes for a better game of cops and robbers than a stick. The more realistically a play world is depicted, the less play is involved and the more easily the player is manipulated to spend more time, energy, or money in the alternate world. As gaming goes from toy to simulation, the player becomes the played. Similarly, as technology goes from tool to replacement, the humans using it devolve from users to the used.
Yes, the digital world offers more choices — but it’s not the humans, or at least not the users, who get to make them.