Living with technology

Continuing my “study preparation” series of posts, today I’ll be talking a little bit about what it means to be living with technology. But first I need to define what that is in the context I’m using it. When most people think of technology, they’ll think of things like computers, video games, cars, refrigerators, etc. But the definition of technology can be expanded into something much broader. Basically, technology can encompass anything that humans have invented in order to make their lives easier or more organized. So when a caveman first harnessed fire, that’s a technology. Capitalism is a technology. Democracy is a technology. Language is a technology.

So when you think about it, there really is no such thing as a pre-technological era. We’ve basically always been living with technology, no matter how primitive. In this day and age, our immersion in technology is much, much more noticeable. Hardly a second goes by when we’re not surfing the net through our phone or laptop. It’s an expectation, not an option, to have assignments typed up on a computer and printed to hand in.

The extent of our immersion in technology is especially pertinent to examine in the context of Canadian culture. We live right next door to the biggest producer of culture in the world, and some theorists believe(d) that it’s only a matter of time until we just become Americans ourselves.

That’s a worry that George Grant, a Canadian philosopher had. His most famous work is Lament For a Nation, in which he came to the conclusion I just mentioned; that Canada will eventually just be absorbed into the United States. While that clearly isn’t the case nearly 50 years after his book was published, he does have some very interesting views on technology.

He has a belief in what is called techno-dependency. The combined forces of liberalism and the idea of technological progress have, according to Grant, completely thrust us into a period of almost certain tyranny. While we’re not bound into slavery, we are part of a system with little options, and worse, a system that we completely buy into. Everything becomes homogenized; where in the world, for example, can you not get a Coke? Chances are very few places come to mind.

He calls this the technological dynamo, a system based on the idea of mastery and control. We want to be able to master everything, of course ourselves, but also nature. Looking at it that way, nature is just another object to be manipulated.

This is, in short, a very grim view of our association with technology. Fortunately, not all Canadian thinkers were quite as pessimistic.

Marshall McLuhan, an often-cited Canadian thinker, was more or less the complete opposite of George Grant. McLuhan was well, well aware of how immersed we all are in technology. But he sees some benefit in that. His view, in contrast to Grant’s techno-dependency, is called techno-humanism, the belief that technology is merely an extension of ourselves. So this chair I’m sitting on as I type this actually an extension of my body. The pen I use to take notes builds on my ability to record.

McLuhan saw the liberating possibilities of technology and was the guy who coined the term “global village.” To some extent, he was right. The internet is a wondrous thing, something that allows people in disparate areas of the world to communicate instantaneously. Twitter allows us to know almost the instant something happens.

Of course, I don’t think most people are taking one of those sides over the other. There are certainly harmful effects of technology just as much as their are liberating effects. Harold Innis, another Canadian, came up with a sort of synthesis of the two sides.

He says, more or less, that Canadians have not yet become Americans and probably won’t. And this is because, even if we are existing in an increasingly homogenized society, we as Canadians look at things with skepticism. We may eventually “buy in” to certain technologies, but we aren’t being blindly led on.

So there’s a lot to consider when looking at our relationship with technology. It can be liberating, it can be oppressive, and it’s usually a combination of both. Now wish me luck for tomorrow morning as I labour through two essay-style questions for my exam. I’m probably going to be so blissed-out tomorrow. Maybe I’ll try to mix things up. We’ll see.

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