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The Paradox of Technology

Is technology neutral?

Reflecting on this question, I am reminded of the buffering role that many people play in a hierarchical organization. Imagine you're an employee or citizen with an idea for some project. Following procedures, you approach your immediate "superior" with your idea, complaint, suggestion. This person listens intently to your idea, may even agree with you, but defers from making a decision because someone higher up the organizational structure must make the final decision. You wait until your mediator returns with a decision made somewhere else. "Sorry, I really liked your idea, but X just doesn't see where the money will come from....(Or just doesn't see how your suggestion could be implemented in today's political climate)." Or some other reason for saying "No." The details don't matter; it's the strategy of communication that does. In this scenario, the superior acts as a buffer between your message and the person who can act on your request. Have you ever noticed how pervasive this communications structure is? I have experienced almost identical examples of this buffering function of intermediaries in the education environment, when dealing with municipal and provincial administrators and politicians, and while working in the construction industry trying to get money from banks. The intermediary acts as a buffer.

Extending this buffer analogy to communications technology, we can perceive how technology mediates between the lives we experience in our bodies--our "raw" (see Levi-Strauss), unmediated, direct experiences--and those forces of remote power which seem to have some bearing on our lives. In our desire to communicate with "higher" powers--whether political leaders, society-at-large, employers, famous people, or a divinity--communications technologies often seem to serve a paradoxical function: while they allow us to send and receive messages, they also act to distance us from the seats of power. Another example: While the national railways helped stitch this country together at the end of the last century, differential freight charges favoring the central markets fostered a lingering sense of Western alienation.

Communications Model

Arthur Kroker, the Canadian media theorist who has explored the exploitation of digital flesh in his book Data Trash, has also written about the centrality of communications technologies to the Canadian sense of national identity. From the fur trade to the transcontinental railway to the Distant Early Warning line, our sense of ourselves is often implicated in our debates over communications technologies. Kroker refers to this feature of our national psyche as "technological nationalism." Consider for a moment how this nationalism plays out when these technologies act as buffers: the on-going debate over Canadian content on CBC television, or the CRTC's attempt to regulate direct-to-home (DTH) satellite broadcasts, or the telecommunications carriers' posturing over the provision of digital bandwidth to Canadian homes. We are our communications technologies. Technology is the instrument of our governance.

In this emerging digital age, new technologies are being sold to us as enhancements that will connect us together, allowing us to go where we want today. Meanwhile, many theorists have noted that the new communications media serve to isolate us--into cars with cellphones, or home offices with networked computers--or to deluge us with too much information. Harold Innis was of the opinion that Western societies were in danger of impending decline unless they were able to manage the quantity of information in circulation. Too much information becomes noise and feedback. For McLuhan, our senses become numb to accommodate the impact of a constant barrage of messages on our psyches.

Technology as Enhancement

There are many who would argue, however, that technology is neutral. ("They're just tools!") There's some justification to this argument, since it is obvious that technology has been created by human beings, often with the best of intentions, and that tools are things to be used well or otherwise. Is a hammer a dangerous technology because it has been used as a murder weapon? Technology thus might be defined by the following equation:

Tool + Intention + Use = Technology

This equation acknowledges the interdependency of tools and humans (intention and use). It also insists that humans take responsibility for their uses of technology--for example, some might suggest that we don't have to drive our cars everywhere if we're concerned about the effects of exhaust pollution on air quality. The equation tends to undermine any arguments favoring technological determinism: the idea that new technologies drive change in human societies. Once introduced, these technologies take on a momentum of their own and eventually effect unforeseen changes that were both hard to predict and difficult to reverse. Technology promises not only to enhance the human condition, it is in turn enhanced by human consciousness and responsibility.

In The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin promotes the distinction between prescriptive and holistic technologies. Prescriptive technologies force humans into compliance with their machine language--the QWERTY layout on the typewriter--while holistic technologies foster human evolution: smallpox immunization for example. Franklin suggests that we ask the following questions of any new technology. Does it:

In many ways, this list defines the terms of the equation explored above. It also clearly indicates the nature of the technological paradox.

It is tempting to seek closure on this question of the technological paradox, to come down on one side or the other. However, in their Introduction to Essential McLuhan, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone point out that paradox may be intrinsic to technology:

McLuhan seemed to many a paradoxical man. The varied interpretive grounds brought in by mass media suggest that things were true and not true at the same time. The world of print and the world of television are realities apart. He often referred to the cultural transformation in which paradox was degraded in the interests of the growing illusion of clarity demanded by the rational biases of Empiricism. ...McLuhan showed that paradox, like metaphor, establishes the ratios of a truth, for truth cannot be just one thing, nor can reality, under electric conditions. (7)

Since communication always implies at least two perceptions in any message transaction, paradox may, in fact, be instrumental to any assessment of communications technologies. McLuhan often spoke in riddles because he intuited that there is a paradox associated with our understanding of media. As students of the media, we puzzle over these riddles because when our own time comes, when we come to the crossroads of truth and understanding, we have to go both ways.