A Ku Indeed!

Facebook, Yet Again

Posted in Fun, Life by Chris on October 2, 2008

I was discussing Facebook interaction today with my wife (a psychologist) in the car. I pointed out that, as far as I can see, many of my own students seem to think of Facebook as a neutral “tool” that their independent and autonomous selves manipulate. In other words, as a neutral tool it has no effects on the very constitutive nature of the selves using those tools, and so has no effects on the way those individuals form their own self-concepts, self-concepts that in turn affect how they behave with others, interact with the world, and so on.

Although this is a typical view to have about technology, I disagreed. Instead, technology is not neutral: we may create a technology X, but then participation in that technology turns around and itself produces particular kinds of selves, which in turn then see and interact with the world in new ways. Hardly neutral, and hardly independent. We may shape technology, but it just as ruthlessly shapes us in turn.

What do you think? Does Facebook (and similar technologies) shape the very nature of human relationships by altering the ways in which we think of ourselves, others, and the ways that we are related? Of course, this “interaction” need not always be negative or pernicious. It can also be beneficial and helpful.

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7 Responses

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  1. Million said, on October 2, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve been posting a bit on here lately but the topic deals directly with my chosen profession. So, I’ll bite. The answer, I think, depends on how you frame the question, because it’s so easy to look at technology as an active “thing.” We personify objects all the time but until recently they never really were able to take on the “traits” (if you can call them that) that social networking sites do. It’s easy to forget that the Web 1.0 stuff of the last fifteen years was static, unchanging, and very non-participatory. Facebook (something classified as Web 2.0) takes it a step farther by encouraging active involvement tied to personal (social) relations and uses web based programming to let this happen in real time.

    This is where it starts getting a little more complex. With Web 1.0 (think a plain HTML website) interaction was very straightforward. A person visited a website, the person read the website, and that was it. Sure, it broke down distance barriers and created a number of opportunities for technology that directly impacted our lives, but nobody started to do anything different other than exchange information and buy / sell goods online. From a pragmatic standpoint it’s easy to say that the technology didn’t *do* anything to us. It was static. We used it as a tool and the model was no different than with a piece of paper.

    Facebook and these Web 2.0 tools up the ante. They maximize participation and force us to us look at an even more numerous “set” of technology driven social changes. Throw in the fact that Web 2.0 tools tend to be social in nature and the “shaping” argument gains steam. Facebook certainly has shaped the way I behave socially, but ultimately these tools – active as they may be – aren’t much different than before. They aren’t alive or human and don’t enter into our social sphere as beings. Technically they’re still just tools without conciousness, intentionality, etc…

    I’d argue that until technology goes beyond being a mere “tool” then it can’t fundamentally alter our nature. Why? Because it’s not the tools that alter the way we think, act, etc… It’s others who are using that tool. Facebook, complex as it may be, is still just something being used by people. A tool that we created.

    This aside, the amount of change that we can bring upon ourselves (using such tools or on the part of another intelligent being)… well, that’s a whole new discussion. Then there is the possibility that we can’t change our nature at all. Or that changes can only happen slowly over time.

  2. Chris said, on October 2, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Million,

    Why does a “tool” need to have intentionality or consciousness to be capable of shaping us? Can’t there simply be “unintended consequences” with respect to the creation of new ways of filtering or interacting with the world?

    For example: Google and Wikipedia were originally designed as ways for lots of people to have fast access to information. I doubt the designers of these “tools” intended for it to be the case that such tools might actually result in a drop in the ability of people to patiently focus on the sophisticated aspects of a text; as a result, people unintentionally started becoming superficial “skimmers” and the ways in which you interact with the world, how it is seen as valuable, what ends are worth pursuing, how you go about pursuing them, and so on, are altered.

  3. Rob said, on October 2, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    I can’t help but think about Ghost in the Shell after reading this post.

    Aiee, hackers in mah brainz!

  4. Million said, on October 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    CP,

    I suppose I’ll explain myself just a wee bit. It depends on what you mean by “shaping.” If you mean that it’s a tool that can introduce a new degree or type of change to social environments when used then I’m fine with that. Facebook definitely does it! All technology does. But otherwise it really doesn’t bring anything special or new to the table (in regards to the fundamental capacities we have). It just changes the way things happen and how we behave… not the fundamental core of our nature.

    I think I may be seeing “nature” differently than you. See, I see that as kind of a way to describe the fundamental traits that we all share and are a given from the get-go. Are you using it to describe the general state of things as is? If so that might make a difference.

    I’m more than willing to agree that there are unintended consequences when anyone adopts a new type of technology too. There is no way that Mark Zuckenburg could have foreseen what Facebook would become. But it still seems like a long way to go to say that it is actually fundamentally shaping who we are.

  5. Chris said, on October 3, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Million,

    Yeah — we’re definitely reading “nature” differently. I surely don’t think Facebook or any other similar medium is going to change anyone’s biologically fundamental “human” traits.

    But being a human being, IMO, is more than just a bunch of biological traits. When I say “who I am” I don’t just list my biological dispositions or capacities or whatever. I talk in terms of my social identity, how I see the world, how I process information, etc. And all of these things can be heavily impacted and shaped, and are surely not fixed.

    On this level, technology, I would argue (the tools we use, how we produce things, etc) surely has an impact on our identities. And the way in which it impacts us in turn determines in some degree how we will continue to produce things, develop further tools, and so on. What I don’t think you have is a fixed self (or selves) that use tools in a neutral way. We aren’t “fully developed selves” from the get-go that reach out into the world and manipulate and use external things to get what those fully developed selves want.

    Facebook is just one component, by the way — I’m just using it as an example. The set of tools is much larger.

  6. Million said, on October 3, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    CP,

    In this regards we are on the same page. My only concern is that if you are too “loose” when arguing that technology impacts the way that people behave then you run the risk of forgetting that this is something we set in motion to begin with. Even if we agree that we aren’t “fully developed selves that reach out into the world and manipulate things” I feel like there needs to be a more precise way of talking about these things and how they impact who we are.

    The cumulative influence of technology on human behavior is huge. But, if you just chalk it up to being equal to, say, the influence of a family member, biology, or a cataclysmic environmental event then there is a problem. There are a huge variety of “external” influences in our lives and the use of technology is one of the most complex and unique.

    There really aren’t any other animals out there that create and use tools like we do. With rocks we can talk about their chemical composition and how the environment causes them to break down. With chimps we can talk about their biology and how their social relations impact a colony’s response to tropical deforestation. But with humans we are the only ones that seem to have the ability to manipulate things that in turn tend to impact ourselves. There has to be a difference between something that “turns back on us” and something we had no say in to begin with; correct?

  7. Chris said, on October 5, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Million,

    Even if it were true that somewhere “down the line” some agent set it all in motion, this doesn’t mean that agents further “up the line” don’t have the very way in which they experience things, process information, see others, behave, and so on, altered in great part.

    In some ways, this is unexpected and happens all the time. I can’t “see the world” or “interact with the world” in the way that an ancient Roman did. That world, with its concepts and ways of processing the world, are dead. I can read books about them, but I can’t _be_ them, if you get my meaning. Similarly here: it could be the case that technology alters “our world” in a similar way, subtly changing the ways we come at things until the “old ways” are dead.

    I agree with your last point: yes, I think we are the only beings who can be altered in turn by what we produce. I guess where we disagree is on the significance of the “we had a say in it” part. Sure, it’s me who turns on the computer. But every time I do — more so for every generation that does — certain “paths” for life will become more and more obscured until, over enough time, they will simply no longer exist (just as the ancient Roman life does not, and mostly as a result of a lot of choices by actual people).


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