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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


OLIVIER, Bert. Media, technology and the question about human benumbedness. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.4-1, pp.634-649. ISSN 2224-7912.

It is no exaggeration to claim that we live in a time that is dominated by the media as part of the more encompassing hegemony of technology. What is less widely known, and understood, is that people's lives are to a very large extent "mediated" by a way of living that is pervasively technology-oriented - in other words, where earlier ages experienced the social and natural reality without some or other technical device interposed between themselves and the world, the vast majority of people today relate to the world around them by means of such technical devices. Moreover, the latter are not "innocent" or neutral, but predispose their users to specific kinds of experiences, as well as to the widespread belief, that society can be technically controlled. A brief discussion is devoted to Gil Germain's contention, that in the current technologically oriented dispensation humans have forgotten what it means to be "desiring" beings, and that the social ideal of technological control has reduced human "desire" - the character of being "open" to the world - to mere, technically satisfiable "need". Under such circumstances technology mediates human experience of the world. The very fact that the American president can (and does) frequently cause an uproar in American society and beyond by means of timely and untimely "tweets" - that is, by using the social internet site, Twitter - is symptomatic of this state of affairs, as well as of the fact that we live in the era of what Manuel Castells calls the "network society". According to Castells this novel societal configuration has been made possible by the technological revolution stretching back to the invention of the radio, which led to the advent of television and multi-media, and culminated in the development of the internet. Significantly, this global technological revolution has fundamentally altered the experience of time and space, with the consequence that the traditional experience of space as "place", and time as sequential, has made way for the newly dominant modes of spatial and temporal experience, namely as "the space of flows" and "timeless time". The reconstruction of Castells's conception of the structural dynamics of contemporary society, in broad terms, as fundamentally technologically generated, sets the scene for the more specifically focused discussion that follows, beginning with Sherry Turkle's analysis of the effects of technology on human behaviour. What Turkle's recent work brings to light is that, although many people aspire to the status of (what is known as) "digital natives", this does not come without a significant cost, namely a certain deterioration in affective and intellectual functioning. Despite her initial optimism about the gains of electronic technology, particularly the internet, in the social domain, her more recent work has therefore shifted to a distinctly critical approach to the relationship between people (particularly children) and technology. Not only has the use of smartphones and electronic tablets given rise to the phenomenon of being "alone together" with one's device, and concomitantly, to keeping people at arm's length in social reality (with to-be-expected negative consequences for one's ability and willingness to negotiate complex human relationships), but the attachment of particularly young children to their smartphones has had the demonstrable effect of eroding their capacity for empathy with others, as well as more generally their ability to communicate with their peers in concrete social space. Furthermore, "doing things" on the internet has given people the wrong impression regarding the overcoming of political problems, which often require concrete social interaction and painstaking negotiation - something that people sometimes learn anew with a shock, when their "internet activism" comes to nothing. Another critical theorist concerning technology, Bernard Stiegler, radicalises Turkle's thinking by offering a critique of technology as being, on the one hand, a source of enslavement and of the "stupidification"of people, while simultaneously being a means of "critical intensification". In this respect, he argues, technology is a pharmakon - poison and cure at the same time. This means that technical devices such as smartphones inculcate an over-dependence on them in users, simultaneously - as external memory-machines - robbing them of their capacity for memory and thinking. After all, the ability to manipulate a technical device cannot be equated with critical thinking, nor can the storing of information on a smartphone or a computer be regarded as being synonymous with exercising one's own memory. On the other hand, however, Stiegler recognises the capacity of technical devices to give one access to archives of information, as well as to technically mediated experiences of the world that was not previously possible, and urges users to use technology for critical intellectual purposes, instead of being only at the receiving end of information regarding marketing and purchasing opportunities, disseminated via technical devices by capitalist agencies. He draws attention to the fact that schools have become the veritable battlegrounds where these agencies vie with teachers for the attention of students, in the process interfering with the development of their critical intellectual ability for the sake of capturing their attention for purposes of marketing. The paper concludes with a brief elaboration on some ways in which Stiegler's and Turkle's dire diagnoses may be countered with practices that give reason for hope.

Keywords : Castells; media; mediation; technology; Stiegler; Turkle.

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