Rethinking the relationship between culture and technology

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This age we live in, of instant gratification and edge-of-seat fascination with technology has led many artists, technologists, psychologists, educators, and thinkers to wonder: Are we better off without some technology? Are we intellectually wealthier when we mediate our understanding of the world through search engines and the web? What happens to art, culture, and identity as technology becomes widespread? Where are we going next?

A few months ago I published a short piece that connected, contrasted, and summarized various arguments by leading researchers and experts about the role of technology in education. What I continue to notice in discussions surrounding the topic of technology is how most of us are ill-equipped to address these questions in a meaningful and sophisticated manner.

The truth is: the current state of technology is both unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. In many ways it robs us of our humanity much more than it enhances it. Here, I engage with various stakeholders and technology aficionados to question what constitutes human advancement from three interrelated angles: cultural responsiveness, artistic expression, and existential intelligence.

Cultural Responsiveness

The general sentiment toward the web and the plethora of devices that surround us is that they have enabled and democratized human expression and access to information. Never before have people from such distant geographies and backgrounds been able to seamlessly connect, share, and collaborate.

First, while this is all evident, it can nevertheless be argued that, rather than celebrating human diversity by amplifying our idiosyncrasies and individual complexities, modern technology has thus far only increasingly flattened and reduced identity and personal expression. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality and author of You Are Not a Gadget, puts it best:

Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. … Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.

If a church or a government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form.

Second, difficult-to-digitize cultures are reduced to their closest digital resemblance. New age users and tech gurus hardly notice the dull monolith that has masked the organic nature of some of the most elaborate human cultures. We are too well distracted by the pleasures of the digital world to realize what we are missing.

Think of how wondrous traditional scripts – such as nastaliq and the myriad Eastern calligraphic styles – had to succumb to the crassness and monotony of digital type, just because they were difficult to code. Ali Eteraz laments how Urdu speakers have to use naskh, an unaesthetic pretender Arabic typeface, to express themselves in a language that contains eleven more letters than Arabic.

These are just some of many examples that show how, when looked at from a culturally informed perspective, the current digital world standardizes the human voice much more than it diversifies it.

Artistic Expression

There is an unspoken consensus among professional artists that the overall state of art nowadays is appalling – to put it gently.

Last year, Ian Brown published a thought-provoking piece in The Globe and Mail arguing how democratic access to photography has also engendered “an incredible surge in mediocrity.” In other words, proportional to the increase of storage capacity and technical access is a decrease in substance and quality.

In my previous post I quoted Fulvio Bonavia explaining how working by hand was integral to his formative training as an artist. Internationally-renowned master photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Nadav Kander, David Goldblatt, Oliviero Toscani, and Ernesto Bazan, to name a few, all share similar observations and feelings regarding the dumbing-down of art and the need to revert back to slower, inefficient, and more introspective attitudes (see Photowisdom: Master Photographers on Their Art).

From a traditional standpoint, the purpose of art is to refine the artist. Art works have been understood by its viewers to be the soul or the character of the artist, their innermost selves. This required sincerity, presence, meticulous, and patient practice over a lifetime.

But with the mass revolution of point-and-shoot, “15 minutes of fame”, and the sweeping materialistic monoculture, hobbyists, and new age artists have abandoned the deeply reflective ancient philosophies for a disconcerting hedonism, a neurotic consumerism of imagery “fuelled by an unstoppable sense of technological entitlement.”

The result is a digital miasma, not art.

Existential Intelligence

A must-read when talking about the philosophy of technology is ‘The Power of Patience’, written by Harvard professor of history of art and architecture Jennifer L. Roberts.

Roberts writes about the human imperative of teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. One of the assignments she gives her students is to stare at a work of art for three full hours, at a museum, away from their everyday surroundings and distractions. She writes:

It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. But what students learn in a visceral way in this assignment is that in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive.… What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.

Our common idea of an improved piece of technology is one that is faster than its antecedent. Yet, deceleration is essential to learning and, in the words of Roberts, “delays are not just inert obstacles preventing productivity. Delays can themselves be productive.”

Mind you, the benefits of slowness are not restricted to the arts. As psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle remarks, “we’re losing the raw, human part of being with each other.” And part of this is our inability to patiently and attentively give our full being to one another. Turkle writes in a New York Times article titled ‘The Flight From Conversation’:

Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”

Our furious attachment to the elsewhere that lies within the frame of our devices has considerably reduced our attention span and our tolerance for low-stimulation situations. We are no longer able to have authentic conversations. We no longer tolerate silent delays and, similarly, we have lost the art of engaging in quiet and prolonged immersive activities that don’t involve some sort of hyperstimulation. Distraction, absent-mindedness, and impulsiveness seem to define the latest version of Humans 2.0.

Some restaurants now offer discounts to eat without your phone.

Defining Technology in our own Terms

The prevailing paradigm seems to be concerned with technical advancement, not human advancement – and the two are not necessarily synonymous.

We are well into the digital age now. All sorts of cool gadgetry is being invented and tinkered with to fit individual needs. Yet, the underlying assumption is flawed: we wrongly assume that a technologically-fluent worldview can account for all the distinct cultural and individual nuances and represent them in an accurate and meaningful way, perhaps even substitute them.

Technology is taken for granted, and our definition of what is possible is quite limited and limiting. In order for technology to act as a useful support to real interactions, artistic expression, and cultural enrichment, we must go back to the drawing board, think anew and design innovative tools according to humanistic principles. But instead of demanding that our creative minds produce human-centered technology, we have accepted to become technology-centered humans.

At the local level, the MENA has so far imitated the Western idea of technological progress without ever stopping and asking itself if it should tread in the same path. We seem to have been misled by a conceptual mistake, thinking that using someone else’s philosophy of progress, design decisions, and tools and then putting an Arabic label on top of it all would be enough.

It is high time for brave minds and free-thinkers to rigorously study, question, challenge, and redefine progress in more humanistic and culturally responsive terms. The future of civilization depends on it.


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