How Do You Feel About Technology: External Influences

When I initially thought about this next section, I knew I wanted to write about the personal aspects of feelings about technology. As it turned out, as with a lot of writing, once I started to type the words, those same words I was certain I controlled took over and shaped the essay, taking my thoughts and making more sense of them than I ever could. The result is an exploration of the external influences that fuel our individual fear of technology. Those external influences also fuel broader, mainstream perceptions and expectations about technology. All those influences shape, often furtively, how we feel about and deal with technology in our professional personas.

On two recent channel surfing occasions, I noticed something very odd. Well, odd to me. The first time I was watching the commercials to see what was coming next. One of the ads was about a local news show, how it is so cutting edge yet highly focused on the local issues important TO YOU. Among the many jittery shots (does anyone just hold a video camera still anymore?), there was a fleeting, if fidgety glimpse of the station’s two late night anchors, seriously discussing some highly relevant topic, while one of them was holding and pointing to one of the new tablets (now, y’all know I ain’t talking about aspirin). Now, I, the viewer, could not see if the contraption was on, but that was not the point. That anchor was cutting edge, holding a powerful talisman, a cornucopian information source. I was immediately convinced that what the commercial was saying was indeed true. The other time I stopped to rest my eyes on two hosts of one of the many entertainment news shows. Both were sitting with, need I say it, a new tablet in front them, one for each. The tablets were closed, that is, the covers were hiding the displays. Still, there was immediately no doubt in my mind that, because they had such powerful technology at their disposal, those two individuals were capable of nothing but the truth, which I was suddenly convinced they revealed objectively and in detailed depth.

I laughed.
Both times.

Whether we like it or not, we all fall prey to the hype about technology; yes, even when we fight it (I am an individual! Dammit!), we are still under its spell, reacting to the hype about it. I laughed both times because my initial reaction in both instances was a brainwashed, susurrated “Wow.” Yep. I was hypnotized by the luminosity of those little, flat, enchanted implements. They are sexy as all get out (of course, I mean the tablets, in any format), sold to us as ever sleeker life-support systems that, well, we cannot live without, especially since owning such a device is evidence of an unassailable, obviously top-of-the-food-chain über-coolness that guarantees the owner’s survival in our modern times, just like, back when I was a child, following the proper “duck and cover” process guaranteed survival. Yes, I was once a child, and yes, I believed “duck and cover” would save me. We all did.

You may not have noticed, but we live in an increasingly complex consumer culture that deifies technology as never before. And yes, it is in many instances all a matter of faith, faith in a product, product line, and/or manufacturer. We are exhorted to believe the latest technology can swath us in any given product or manufacturer’s supremacy, bestowing us with shared omnipotence with the rest of the faithful flock. We buy the products, buy into the hype, willingly becoming members of any given techno-cult. The best, and still very relevant example of this is the ongoing Apple versus the World debate. With the advent of the truly portable, miniature music devices, smartphones, and tablets, the old Mac versus PC debate is old, stale, meaningless, wistfully, perhaps even sweetly and humorously archaic, relegated to hard core, myopic, techno-geek boys and girls.

The true turning point in how technology is perceived came when, during the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple’s 1984 commercial aired. Yes, before then there were technology, products, and companies that had a certain panache, a certain yo no se que, prior to that. I would argue that one such company was Sony, and they had several products that we wanted, in a very bad way. Who had not hankered for a Walkman? And when CDs hit the streets, who was not hankering for a Discman? During that time the Sony Trinitron was the standard TV. (Just a personal aside here about falling for the hype: In 1988 I finally bought one, an early 20 inch Sony Trinitron STEREO! model, and the tube died on me just after my year-long warranty ended. It was then I did some research and learned that Sony did not have an 800 number—I mean, come on, Sony had no 800 number—and that Consumer Reports ranked several other manufacturers’ models higher.) But in 1984, just when computers were becoming a part of our quotidian milieu, Apple turned a useful technology into a symbol of power, individuality, sleek simplicity. Elegant necessity. Computers, that is, Apple computers, became cool, and Apple became the standard bearer of tech coolness.

So, forget thinking about products for a moment. Think of how the word technology has changed to mean the latest computer based-gadgetry, as opposed to its broader, original meaning: the use of science to advance any human endeavor. For example, technology is using science, or let us say a scientific method of research and experimentation, to discover a more efficient, creatively mechanized way to water your plants automatically. And one of those long glass tubes with the air bubble on top that you fill with water and then jab into the soil in the plant’s soil? Researched and mechanized, yes, but groundbreaking and sexy and necessary? Not so much. But, any technology is about improving, advancing all sorts of machines and processes. Henry Ford’s assembly line was a stellar use of new technology, and computers had nothing to do with it. The move from tubes to transistors was another technological leap, and done without the aid of computers, although, of course, that new transistor technology would speed the proliferation of computers, which at the beginning were tube based and very rare and large. But today, you say technology, and it is all about the computer, in all its guises. Computers are now everywhere, in everything, including the thermometer used to take the baking, Thanksgiving dinner turkey’s temperature.

Because of the ubiquitous consumerist push to get us to buy the latest and best, the broader issue becomes, that overall, using technology in general, knowing the latest trends, being well versed in the latest, socially networked techno-speak is a symbol of an individual’s intelligence, proficiency, professionalism. Really, who wants to be the “Amish boy” or girl? Remember, way back in the mid 1990s, in the Friends episode about Ross’ “Rachel and Julie, pros and cons” list, when Chandler has a LAPTOP! And even more significant, a LAPTOP FROM WORK! (Admit it, you thought it was cool. I know I did.) He wants to “get logical” and use the LAPTOP (sorry, but I can still recall how cool I thought it was) to “make a list.” They would “put their names in bold, with different fonts,… use different colors for each column.” When Joey suggests they “just use a pen” to make the list, instead of using the computer, the powerful, standing Chandler derisively looks down at the sitting Joseph and replies, “No, Amish boy.” Do you honestly want to be Amish girl or boy?

And consider how technology is promoted in the world of education, for example, a milieu that we have been involved for years and either recently left or are still active participants. There is a vanguard that decries the dearth of forward thinking pedagogical application of technology. One such site, Edutwist, has a fascinating and very insightful article about how Western Electric, once the only supplier of telephones, was trying to convince an old geezer (I am old, so I can say it) that the latest technology is really useful, and not to be resisted or feared. Much to her credit, educator/blogger Sharon Elin makes a wonderful statement that in many ways supports my thesis here:

Too often, we focus on the tools and forget the audience. We should, instead, direct our attention to the humans in the room. (Emphasis is based on the original text format.)

I love her statement, which reflects the general tone of her post and her blog, but there is a subtle undertone laced throughout the post that also horrifies me a bit because it reveals an elitist, if well intentioned, bias that those who are averse to adopting the latest and greatest technology are a bit loony, just geezers. (I love that word.) If being the Amish girl or boy was not bad enough, here, albeit unintentionally, and actually with the best of intentions, the non-converted are derided. Another instance, also from the world of pedagogy, uses the “Rip Van Winkle” tale as a metaphor. I am not sure about you, but to me, right about now, being called Amish boy or girl is looking pretty good, no?

Bottom-lining all this, it matters because all these influences shape our expectations, which then shape our perceptions. Thomas Kuhn, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, sites psychologist Jerome Bruner’s study of how expectations shape perception. To Kuhn, and I concur, Bruner’s study, or what I call Bruner’s card trick, “deserves to be far better known outside the” psychological “trade.”[1] In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Bruner discusses the experiment and his findings: our perceptions are made to conform to our expectations. We look at the world with a set of expectations dictating what we see and how we process it, and if we see the unexpected, we adjust the anomalous image so it conforms to our expectations. We perceive what we expect to perceive, not necessarily what is “really” around us. And what Bruner described as his “amusing demonstration experiment,” was elegant. His “subjects” were shown projected images of “of both normal playing cards,” at “only milliseconds of exposure.” The images “exposure” was prolonged gradually. However, interspersed among those normal playing cards were cards with the color suits were reversed, “red six of clubs” or a black Ace of hearts. Bruner tells us that “the reversed cards,…took longer to recognize. Far more fascinating to me, and relevant to my topic, is that “subjects went to extraordinary lengths to ‘regularize’ the reversed cards to make them conform to their canonical pattern.” A subject believed that the projected “red six of clubs was indeed a six of clubs, but that the” light bulb in the projector “was rather pinkish! In fact,” asserts Bruner, “what human perceivers do is take scraps they can extract from the stimulus input, and if these conform to expectancy, to read the rest from the model in their head.”[2]

Bruner’s card trick clarifies that we do not see what we want to see, but what we expect to see, according to our past experience. He did find that most subjects, after increasingly prolonged exposure, would recognize the anomalous playing card suits and continue “seeing them.” However, Kuhn tells us that “a few subjects,…were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories.” After having the anomalous image displayed before them for much longer than was usually necessary for recognition,
more than 10 percent of the anomalous cards were not correctly identified. And the subjects who then failed often experienced acute personal distress. “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s spade or heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!”[3] (Italics are mine.)

So, if some subjects freaked because they could never really accept the anomalous playing card projected before them, imagine what happens to us when we are constantly fed the belief that technology is perfect and that it can save our lives, that we cannot live without it. It is easy to understand why so many of us are uptight, or just plain old withdraw and/or freak out when dealing with technology. We hear endless Siren songs luring us with fabled powers and riches if we just willingly accept the treasured “realities” that technology promises. Yet there is no mention of any technical failures, of any errors, of any anomalies. There is also no mention of alternatives, because, indeed, in matters of faith it is all or nothing. And since technology is perfect (as several people I know have said at one time or another, referring to the Holy Grail: “Macs never break”), then where does the problem lie if something goes wrong? When the playing card comes up an unexpected color or the Mac freezes, how do we try to make sense of those anomalies? If we keep hearing that technology is perfect and will solve all of our problems, then what if the guaranteed promise of magic evaporates? Really, at any time, but especially during moments of duress when our expectations are shaken, how many of us are willing to acknowledge our simple lack of knowledge, or admit we think it would be more efficient to make Ross’s Rachel/Julie pros/cons list with pen and paper, especially in a world that ridicules anyone who is not a member of the faithful? Do we want to confess that we are Amish girl or boy? A rotary phone-fearing geezer? Rip Van Winkle?

I end
as I started
How do you feel about technology?


[1] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 62-4.

[2] Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, 46-7.

[3] Kuhn, 62-63.


One response to “How Do You Feel About Technology: External Influences

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