The Cultural Technology Divide
Have you ever been using a public restroom, and noticed someone talking on their cellphone while using the toilet? Or noticed someone talking on their cellphone when seated with a group of friends at a meal? These are the sorts of things which traditionally had highly evolved cultural rituals around them, in order to keep them from interfering with the operation of the rest of the culture. Cultures who used drugs in rituals or as stimulants found elaborate ways to either make them sacred to use, or used them in forms which had been deemed safe through long trial and error.
So, in the case of newly developed "technological toxic objects" like television, why are we so unable to formulate safe usage models for it? Imagine a native population of a continent which had some access to a device that caused obesity and death in children. It would certainly not be integrated fully into their culture without a proper safety measure to ensure that children were not harmed by it. Perhaps a set of stories involving evil spirits of fat which tempted weak watchers could transform television into a religious "passage to adulthood" type ritual object.
We don't mean to get down on TV. Technology is rarely inherently evil. But our culture's ability to assimilate the technology and make it meaningful takes time. Time that our current rate of development doesn't allow for. The introduction of the edged weapon among early man must have caused a huge stir. Previously, animals had to be clubbed or trapped in pits, both of which probably resulted in many deaths of hunters, and the attendant spirituality to deal with that. Then, suddenly, you could throw a sharp stone on a stick and kill a gazelle from 100 feet away. Just as easily, you could now hold a huge advantage over other humans who weren't similarly equipped. Yet somehow, rules were developed which kept everyone from killing each other now that it was so easy.
On the other end of the spectrum, look at how cellular phones, e-mail, web-pages, and SMS text messaging have allowed thousands of otherwise disgruntled youth to unite into a massive army capable of burning over 3300 cars in 11 days, and spreading their ideologies to neighboring countries before many people even knew why the riots had begun in the first place. France's riots, while probably somewhat based on a unique socio-political climate, owe their severity to the technologies which are fanning their fires. Technologies which our cultural discourse is to slow to address before they evolve into a new form.
Designers have played the riders on the bleeding edge long enough. We can no longer simply push the technological envelope at the expense of the cultural one. If our products are ever going to truly serve us (and not the other way around) we need to give at least as much consideration to building cultural infrastructure, or enhancing what exists, with or devices. Otherwise, all our most effective advantages -- team building, communication, empathy, and theory of mind -- will be lost to an ever evolving technosphere where we are just actors without destinations. And who wants that?
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team