In my next exploration of how to ‘think like an anthropologist’ in Cambridge, I turn to technology. More precisely, how we think about technology is bidirectionally related to how we think about ourselves. Here, I will look specifically at digital technology – though technology has various and diverse manifestations.
The emerging anthropology of algorithms, big data, and artificial intelligence has attended to the social values encoded into digital technology. What that means in practice is amazingly diverse. The personal preferences of software engineers become ingrained when they program music streaming algorithms. Corporate hunger for profit shapes software: such as moderation of offensive content on Facebook overwhelmingly funded for English speaking sites at the expense of other languages. The software even has specific and sometimes disproven theories embedded in it, such as Harding’s Tragedy of the Commons informing blockchain technology. Thus, algorithms are culture – digital technologies are inevitably shaped by the social worlds in which they are made and used. To an extent, they are in some ways a mirror of social values.
If I remain with the metaphor of digital technology as a mirror of social values, I want to suggest the process of looking into that mirror can come to influence how we see ourselves. In other words, not only do social values become embedded in digital technology, but digital values become embedded in the ways we think, talk, and act upon ourselves, and importantly, others. To join this dynamic and interdisciplinary conversation, let’s talk with ethnography – with experiences of Cambridge life.
I would be surprised if any of you have not been able to solve a technological issue with the solution: turn it off and on again. It is refreshingly ironic that so many problems can be solved by this seemingly simple technique. On visits to my college IT department to ask for help, I noticed a poster on their wall with ‘Keep Calm: Turn it Off and On Again’. It is often the first thing for non-professional users of technology to try and surprisingly is the first thing the IT department advisor asked me to do. What interests me, is how the idea of turning something off and on again has permeated how we think of rest and leisure for ourselves.
‘Switching off’ is a phrase I often hear in Cambridge, and generally refers to the action of stopping work to begin leisure or rest. For some people and occasions, this means physically switching off their technology, but for others, it doesn’t. Thus, ‘switching off’ refers to us, to humans.
Clearly, there are discrepancies with this image. Where or what is our ‘button’ to ‘switch off? Indeed, this is a significant issue for many: if it is to sleep, then sleep can be difficult for many (such as explained in Ramlakhan’s ‘Tired But Wired’); if it is to relax, then this too can be difficult.
Another experience likely shared by many Cambridge students (and indeed by most members of society) is a broken or temporarily broken phone, laptop, or other digital technology. Recently, my phone had an ‘off’ day. Not meaning I made the wholesome life choice to keep it off. Instead of meaning an off day as people have off days – it just didn’t work properly. Well, it didn’t work at all. I worried that this was the end of my phone – and life as I knew it with a phone. An additional problem was that the phone didn’t respond to my attempt to turn it off and on again. Thus, it continued in its dysfunctional state until it ran out of battery. Eventually, the phone saved itself – by its limited energy, its mortality. When its battery ran out, the phone screen returned to black. A recharge later, the phone was back to working normally, as none of this had happened.
Now, just as people’s off days often follow an off night’s sleep, this phone had been running for more than 24 hours. I had kept it overnight to listen to ‘brown noise’ as I tried to sleep. Both of us, then, entered the next day feeling worse for wear – and the phone’s reaction was to stop working, run itself out of battery, and switch off completely.
“The need to turn technology on and off again can remind us of our own need to rest and relax”
As I considered this later, I was struck by the cartoonishly obvious parallels to human experience. This phone worked hard for an extended period. After this, it couldn’t function properly. Its crisis point was resolved by a period of turning off: after which it emerged fully functioning. In the same way, rest is restorative for us humans.
Perhaps overall, the need to turn technology off and on again can remind us of our own need to rest and relax.
The problem, or limitation, with this analogy, is the implication for human purpose or action. There is a risk of transferring the functionalist perspective many hold for technology to ourselves. By this I mean, to turn a phone or computer off and on again is often prompted by a glitch or error. We hope doing so will solve that problem and restore the technology to its full potential. Thus, the analogy would, by extension suggest, like a phone, a human is defined by their ability to function; and by a set of norms for what that function entails. Thus, when the phone could no longer fulfil what I expected of it, I deemed it dysfunctional. Although I wholly disagree ethically with this framework of understanding what it means to be human, I think it is an influential narrative around us. Thus, how we think about ourselves is partially informed by how we think about technology. In other words, our narratives for how technology works, what it is, and so on somehow become a feedback loop in which we come to construct narratives for how we work and what we It has.
“Where humans lack wisdom for how to understand themselves, we can use understanding of technology as images for ourselves”
A last shared experience I imagine many to have had is of a lecture, assembly, or talk is interrupted or delayed by a PowerPoint or projector not working. In a lecture today, when this happened and was not resolved, the lecturer ended with the words, “forgive my ineptitude”. Now, I disagreed with her – she had been far from inept: she had given an engaging and informative lecture, and this is arguably more difficult without the prompts of a Powerpoint. But what is important here, is her eloquence portrays just what we are thinking about: she had equated her capacity with the fulfilment of a function – and almost paradoxically, that function was to master the function of the PowerPoint!
But hang on – isn’t our analogy the wrong way round? Using the phone as an image to describe humans suggests we know more about technology than we do ourselves. To me, this seems a valuable heuristic – not a universal truth, but something to think with. Maybe there are occasions when we have blind spots for our own or others’ needs but know those of technology. Interestingly, the human need for rest is often talked about as a technological process of switching on and off.
What I want to suggest from this anecdote is this: the way we think about technology can wind its way back to being how we think about ourselves. This process is often vilified in popular media. But this anecdote, to me, seemed to provide hope. Where humans lack wisdom for how to understand themselves, we can use understanding of technology as images for ourselves.
I have been sitting on this article for some time. It is finally inking onto a page, because of two things I did. First, I rested – meaning this time actually a trip home to sleep and relate and be; and second, I realized writing this article is not about creating a perfect product (which would be impossible) – instead it is about the process itself, contemplative and creative and communicative. In other words, I switched myself off and on again – but resisted defining myself by the fulfilment of a function.
Varsity is the independent newspaper for the University of Cambridge, established in its current form in 1947. In order to maintain our editorial independence, our print newspaper and news website receives no funding from the University of Cambridge or its constituent Colleges.
We are therefore almost entirely reliant on advertising for funding and we expect to have a tough few months and years ahead.
In spite of this situation, we are going to look at inventive ways to look at serving our readership with digital content and of course in print too!
Therefore we are asking our readers, if they wish, to make a donation from as little as £ 1, to help with our running costs. Many thanks, we hope you can help!