18 Feb 2017 Our digital ecology
“The invention of printing is the greatest event of history. It is the parent revolution; it is a fundamental change in humankind’s mode of expression; it is human thought putting off one shape to don another; it is the complete and definite sloughing of the skin of that serpent who, since the days of Adam, has symbolized intelligence.” Victor Hugo made this observation almost 200 years ago, in his famous novel —The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In the last several decades, human intelligence has begun to molt once again, revealing a luminescent new skin underneath: digital media – the world of computers, screens, and programs that now organizes much of human society around the globe. Most of us sense something is changing, and rapidly so. Like Hugo, we might feel that we are living in a revolutionary time. Whether that revolution is for the better or for the worse, however, is unclear.
As complicated as digital media and its effects are, the digital revolution is the result of an elegant simplicity. Where print was built on combining and recombining a set of symbols from the phonetic alphabet to produce everything from novels to modern constitutions, digital media is built on combining and recombining only two symbols, 1s and 0s, to perform everything from statistical analyses to reproducing print’s literary worlds on a backlit screen.
Hugo, living in a thoroughly print world, rightly saw the emergence of print as a fundamental transformation in human experience. Now that we find ourselves in a thoroughly digital world, we would do well to ask ourselves what this change in media means for our own experience. We can start by pushing Hugo’s observations further.
A change in dominant media, whether print or digital, is not just a change in modes of human expression. It is rather a change in the very environments in which humans live. The world we live in is not simply “natural’, but also relies on a host of human interventions that make our daily lives possible. In addition to the water, air, food, and other conditions of life we assume are natural, the human ecosystem also necessarily contains tools and technologies, languages and levers, planning and practices. And these products in turn produce us.
Canadian luminary Marshall McLuhan was the first to identify our “media ecology”, the environmental quality of our media. While it might seem like our relationship to media is determined by how we want to use those media, McLuhan showed that media radically work back on us and change who we are.
To illustrate his point, McLuhan tracked the shift between a world defined by print and a world defined by electronic media. Print, McLuhan suggested, was a medium that led us to experience ourselves as individuals, living private, interior lives, a point well-demonstrated by the rise of rights-based politics and capitalist economies. Electronic media, on the other hand, made for a more connected world through inventions like the telegraph and advances in travel technologies. The trend of electronic media, as McLuhan understood it, led to the creation of a “global village”, where humans led increasingly networked lives less and less defined by local geographies and static documents.
What McLuhan aimed to explain was that our gadgets, tools, and technologies are not simply neutral objects. They shape us in unique ways. Those of us old enough to be aware of a time before the pervasiveness of laptops and smart phones likely have an intuition about this already, witnessing the ways these tools changed both our own daily patterns of communication and the social worlds we inhabit.
Rarely do I have a question or curiosity that ruminates for more than a few minutes, cut short by a quick Google search. Over a decade of my life is archived in a variety of ways through Facebook, Twitter, online purchases, and e-mail correspondences, and many of my memories are externalized on hard drives and privately owned databases – a gold mine for advertising agencies. I often feel anxious to respond to a text message or e-mail, and the window of time between when I expect to hear from a loved one and when they might actually be available to communicate is considerably shorter now than it was in the age of land line phones.
Our technologies are extensions and transformations of ourselves in ways that are so deep we are not even cognitively aware of them. I remember the first time I thought I felt a familiar buzz on my thigh, only to discover my cell phone was not even in my pocket. It was then that I realized my phone was not just a thing I used to accomplish tasks I thought about, but it had become a phantom limb – a real part of my body.
Changes in our perceptions and relationships reveal a change in our media environment, but these changes do not happen overnight. The move from a primarily print ecology to a primarily digital ecology is not smooth, total, or complete, and our slow and implicit adjustments mean we often think about digital changes from the perspective of people formed by print.
Our private lives are being transformed by digital media in ways that we are still coming to terms with, and so, too, are our public lives. In fact, digital technologies blur the lines between the private and public spheres altogether, spheres that were demarcated by print media. If print, as Hugo thought, was a “parent revolution”, one with many diverse children, then digital media, too, are a new parent revolution.
Horizontal, but not flat
Though the digital revolution is young, we can still see the early effects of the digital drift, not just on ourselves but the world around us. McLuhan, for example, suggested the electronic age, which made digital technologies possible, was an age of decentralization. The pope no longer needs to be in Rome, and the president no longer needs to be in Washington D.C., as McLuhan liked to say. Pope Francis and President-Elect Donald Trump, as different as they are, confirm McLuhan’s observation, and the polarization of opinions on both figures also results from these media trends.
When McLuhan talked about the creation of a global village, he did not mean that everyone would come together in unity. On the contrary, by being forced into contact through communication and travel technologies, which erase the temporal and spatial limitations that used to constitute our perception, social differences become more and more obvious and exacerbated. Far from leading naturally to democratic and plural societies, the global village often encourages us to enter new silos and media bubbles based on our preferences and affinities.
Some observers of digital trends have praised what they see as an extension of opportunity and wealth to areas otherwise excluded before the digital revolution, summarized in the title of journalist Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book The World Is Flat. And, to be sure, the acceleration and democratization of digital technologies undoubtedly has transformed societies the world over.
What this optimistic view ignores, however, is that inequalities are not being erased so much as translated into the decentralized ecology of digital media. It would be better, perhaps, to speak in terms of peaks and valleys that emerge on the field of the digital. Donald Trump might not have to live at the White House, but this only means his presidential power will be transformed while it also makes use of the strategies of digital media.
Economically, the rise of computerized finance capitalism has made investments and speculation move, literally, at the speed of light, creating potentials for massive growth and massive crises. Off Wall Street, factory production has been transformed by algorithms, computer modeling, and information management, where laborers are made to conform to profit speculations and scripts determined by lines of code. How long humans will actually have these jobs, before they are replaced by automated machinery which more readily submits to these lines of code, is an open question.
Digital media also contribute to the proliferation of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “immaterial labor”, including the production of brands, maintenance of copyrights, and protection of intellectual property, creating a virtual world where our identities often derive more from brand loyalty than an experience of the common good. By reducing human beings to producers and consumers, and then further reducing them to bits of data, digital economies allow us to ignore the suffering of human beings and other members of earth’s community who become mere sequences of numbers. Without coming to terms with this change in our media ecology, the valleys and peaks of inequality in our horizontal landscape will do anything but flatten.
As our political lives try to engage our new environment, digital technologies have led in many parts of the world both to an incredibly wide-reaching surveillance state, collecting data on citizens without consent and making questions of privacy front and center, but also to new forms of horizontal organizing strategies like the Arab Spring, #OCCUPY, and Black Lives Matter. Cyber warfare is a new front for governments and activists alike, with the power of information leaks and hacks rivaling the power of traditional intimidation or firepower as means of transforming social landscapes.
While the police state has expanded with the aid of digital technologies, the availability of cameras and livestreaming has created a new public form of accountability. Traditional political theories of virtue or rights language, belonging to earlier media ecologies, may not be useless, but they are increasingly out of touch with the new forms of human beings and relationships brought into existence by digital media. Oppression and resistance are certainly nothing new in human history, but the digital revolution, built on simple 1s and 0s, has transformed the ways in which these dynamics play out.
The world is not flat after all, though the boundaries between older hierarchies are harder to make out – which is by no means to say that they will disappear any time soon. The creatures that produce and are produced by this digital world are still emerging, accompanied by new opportunities and problems alike.
“Do it with love”
As we continue to make and be made by our digital environment, we should avoid three temptations: (1) thinking media are innocent tools that only do what we tell them, (2) thinking media totally determine how we live, move, and have our being, and (3) thinking media will solve problems of social injustice on their own.
In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, the pope of the digital age, offers some helpful guidelines for avoiding these temptations. “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral,” he says, “for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”
Our own digital ecosystem provides challenges and opportunities, but without a critical and creative disposition we run the risk of contributing to an environment that is not habitable by healthy human beings who live in networks of care, building instead an environment more suited to “data” organized in networks of injustice.
Retreat from the problems of digital ecology is not an option, but the problems are not insurmountable. On the contrary, we need to find a way of relating to them with awareness and intentionality, with concern for what kinds of creatures we want to be.
When Paul Virilio, a philosopher often highly critical of technology, was asked how we should relate to the use and production of technology, he replied by paraphrasing St. Augustine: “Do whatever you want, but do it with love.” I can think of no better response, provided we take it as both a warning and a benediction. ν
Dean Dettloff is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Canada, where his research explores the connections of media, critical theory, and religion.