Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts

16 December 2011

Commodification of the Self

I HAVE WRITTEN THAT I do not believe in virtual community, that the phrase itself is a misnomer, and I have been critical of the role of technology in our lives. Recently my attention was drawn to a rave entitled Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace by Carmen 'humdog' Hermosillo posted on The Well, an early online "community" in which she talks about the commodification of the self via the Internet. If anything this phenomenon has become more ubiquitous since she wrote her essay in 1994. [1]

The self here is obviously self without any of the technical spin normally associated with a religious point of view. A single example will suffice to show how the internet commodifies and on-sells the self. This process is exemplified, and perhaps even finds it's apotheosis in Facebook and other online social networking sites. Facebook is a profit making enterprise. It exists to make the owners rich, which it has done beyond their wildest dreams, and it does this by pushing entertainment and selling advertising. The form of entertainment it uses is ersatz social relationships and commodified thoughts and emotions. Each user expresses them self by broadcasts their verbalised thoughts and emotions. This is then re-presented for our 'friends' along with a number of adverts. The friends are supposedly people we have a social relationship with, though often there is no offline relationship at all.

It is the adverts that pay for Facebook. "Free" blogs, like this one, are more or less the same business model. I broadcast my thoughts and opinions which you consume and it's paid for indirectly. I do have Google ads, and get paid about USD10 per year for them [NOTE Sept 2017 I stopped hosting Google ads some years ago, J]. Google don't mind that this is not a popular blog, as long as it's active and some people read it and see the ads. Google's business is all about aggregates of activity. There are tens of millions of blogs like mine, and 100,000s more each day, and some get massive readership. The popular ones subsidise the rest of us. If you want to write an uber blog then lists of top blogs suggest you write about celebrities, technology, politics (certainly do not write the arcane elements of early Buddhist philosophy and linguistics!)

If you don't like my opinions, you don't stop using the internet, you just go consume some other opinions that suit you better - that you find more entertaining. The Internet is an almost infinite source of entertainment. And what is entertainment? Entertainment is an activity we undertake purely in order to experience certain emotions. Emotions are the opiate of the world, which the Buddha clearly knew when he described people as intoxicated by sensory experience. We are often blind to the emotions naturally occurring in us, and only feel the kind of intense emotions evoked by more extreme stimuli. News media actively seek to stimulate our reptile brain, to induce fear, disgust and anger. Just occasionally they try to make us laugh or coo (what I call kitten stories). On the internet the range of emotional provocation is much broader. Whatever emotion you want to feel in yourself, you can turn to the internet to stimulate it. We live in environments that are highly artificial and hyper-stimulating. Modern life dulls our emotions, and so in order to feel alive we seek out artificial stimulation: we're like people who have to have chilli on every meal, and have lost any appreciation for subtle flavours.

Since these personal opinions and stories are now a product being on-sold by Facebook, Blogger, Google et al, then our inner lives have become a commodity with a commercial value. And do we ever stop to ask whether this is a good thing? Should we not be paid by social media for providing them with entertainment content for the businesses that have made them mega-rich? Facebook is basically a social parasite. It kids us that by repackaging a service we already have (email) into a broadcast medium, that we are more in touch with people. But there is no 'touch' involved in email.

In my critique of so-called "virtual community" - ersatz community would be more a more accurate name - I said that online relationships lack eyebrows, they lack the multiple dimensions of personal relationships. Psychologists have coined a term for these non-real relationships: they're called Parasocial Relationships. These can include TV and novel characters, as well as internet friends we've never met. The former are like imaginary friends. Why do we indulge in this kind of relationship? We are social primates. We thrive in small groups where we experience a sense of belonging by being involved in the lives of our community. One of the ways we express our membership of the group is grooming each other. Some people have theorised that language evolved as a form of grooming, and I imagine that language can certainly play this kind of role - especially our non-word sounds. I wonder if texting is another form of grooming.

In the absence of a community to be involved in, we find substitutes in, for example, soap operas. Even quite intelligent people can get caught up in the lives of fictional characters, or in media creations in the form of pop stars. Whether it's JR Ewing, Harry Potter, or Lady Gaga, we want to feel like they are part of our lives. We know all kinds of details about the lives of people who've never existed, because we have a faculty and a drive to be socially involved, and if we don't use it we suffer. Just like a horse or a dog kept in isolation will slowly go mad, we humans do not thrive alone. But more than this we don't thrive when we are surrounded by strangers most of the time. The individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. However our communities are no longer spatially contiguous, and we have begun to rely on technology to bridge the gap. For many people their "community" is a disparate group only loosely connected. Such a community may be no more than a series of overlapping sets of cellphone numbers. I suggest that this is why people will interrupt a face to face meeting to answer their phone. Community is a value we all share. But note how isolating relying on the one to one connection of the phone is in case of the interrupted personal conversation.

Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype. All of our selves become commodities to be bought and sold. Nowadays our electronic identity can literally be stolen, and the selves of some celebrities are being hijacked by online impersonators. And we buy into this system, I suggest, at least in part because we are no longer embedded in a community. The whole enterprise is presented to us as a remarkable leap forward in human interactions that is facilitating closer relationships and easier communication, but it only seems attractive in a world where our neighbours are strangers and people are isolated. Accept no substitute.


  1. The full text of Humdog's essay is online in many places. I consulted the version on The Alphaville Herald website.

"When girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they used IM, nothing happened. By the study’s neurophysiological measures, IM was barely different than not communicating at all." Wired Science. 7.1.12

29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.

10 December 2005

Cellphones, communications and communities.

Some years ago I started a masters degree in computing. One of the first essays I had to write was on the impact of a technology on a society. Having recently read a Wired Magazine article that talked about the Amish and their relationship with the telephone I choose that as my subject.

The Amish are a fundamentalist Christian community which fled persecution in 17th century Europe, ending up mostly in the Eastern US. They have more or less preserved their old lifestyle that involves keeping themselves apart from non-believers. The Amish live a life of strict rules and a rather sombre simplicity. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, even family members risk being shunned. Children have more freedom until they are baptised and join the community of adults.

The Amish are often seen as technophobic farmers who still ride around in horse drawn buggies. Far from being reactionary Luddites however, the Amish are frequently early adopters of technology. In the early 20th century they were amongst the first communities to get the telephone. The Amish do not simply adopt technology, they go through a well defined procedure with a trial period and evaluation of the impact of the technology on their society. They ask, for instance: “will this bring us into unwanted contact with unbelievers?” Mains electricity fails this test and so the Amish do not use it, although this does not preclude the use of electricity per se. The Amish value manual work and any technology that might put a person out of work is rejected out of hand. Another important criterion is the integrity of their community, and so they ask: “will this help bring us together, or will it take people away from the community”.

This last criterion was important in the Amish response to the telephone. It was recognised that the telephone could provide links between communities, and between distant family members. There was a clear danger, however, that the telephone would cause people to look beyond the family and local community. So they came to a compromise position: telephones were OK, but not inside a family home where it might interrupt family life; and it would be preferable if several households shared a telephone. Jump forward 100 years and not much has changed. More Amish now work in carpentry creating simple but solid furniture which they mostly sell to outsiders. These shops tend to have telephones, which are strictly for business. One or two actually have a computer, but an outsider must be employed to operate it. Howard Reingold, the Wired reporter, writes that he observed a young Amish woman talking on a cellphone.

In Western society we have been thoroughly infected with the telephone, and the cellphone is now almost endemic. Some people have two. Now we can be contacted, or interrupted, anytime and anywhere. Provided there is coverage of course. The mobile started out as a Yuppie accessory that was derided by right-thinking people. Nowadays many people still deride cellphones, lament the intrusiveness of them, and resist owning or using them.

I’m interested in the success of the cellphone. These things don’t happen by accident. My understanding of the phenomena combines two sources: Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man which contains her observations of the Gombe stream chimpanzees; and Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium Is the Massage.

We are social animals, who function best in a social group. Really large groups of us naturally fragment in to cliques. We like groups of nine plus or minus two. Negotiating the dynamics of social groups takes time and energy but the evolutionary pay-off has been enormous: language for instance!

A feature of Western societies is fragmentation. Not so many decades ago most of us would have been a member of a local community. Here in England you would have been additionally marked by a distinctive accent by which people could pinpoint your birthplace, in some cases to the actual town or village! With mobile populations and urban drift we increasingly find ourselves surrounded by strangers. This can be very stressful for us social primates. So we compensate by forming cliques based on such things as religion or a common interest such as sport. Community is not an optional extra for us, and loss of community or isolation can be devastating. Solitary confinement is considered a harsh, even cruel, punishment. The impact of loss of community on various indigenous peoples, in the wake of European colonisation, has been devastating. When you compare rates of crime, substance abuse, and mental illness with the Amish they start to look as though they might be onto something! (Which is not to suggest, by the way, that they don't have any problems at all).

Marshall McLuhan was not really a semiologist, but his most famous aphorism is “The medium is the message”. This is a semiotic statement in that he is telling us what media ‘means’. McLuhan, in trying to understand the role of technology in society, wanted to draw attention away from the content of media, towards the form of it. He considered the forms of communication media to be more significant that the content of them. He includes such things as alphabets, writing, and printing in this analysis. McLuhan saw technology as an extension of the human body or senses, but I think we need to add a dimension to this. It seems clear that the message of cellphones is “connecting to people, and creating a sense of belonging to a community”. So technology in this case is an extension, not just of an individual, but of the social aspect of human primates. It can be seen as a direct response to the collapse of local communities and our dispersal across the globe – my own family lives on three continents. These days I belong to the group defined by the numbers stored on my phone.

I see problems with this technological solution to fragmentation however. For instance there is no substitute for intimate personal contact, mutual grooming and eating each other’s ticks. We might forego the latter, but otherwise we are just like our primate cousins. Touch is an essential element in a healthy community. Without it we feel lonely and unhappy. The Amish know this and use telephones mainly to arrange face to face meetings.

The adoption of technology is relatively passive. We don’t ask the kind of penetrating questions that the Amish do about the impact of technology so we have whether it’s good or not. Perhaps we could argue that if it didn’t work then it wouldn’t be adopted. But if we have adopted the cell phone because we lack a sense of belonging, then we are just plastering over the cracks. A phone call might help us keep our community in line, but it is a simulacrum; it won’t satisfy. We aren’t addressing the real issue of alienation.

I’m a member of the community known as the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), and of its auxiliary: The Friends of the WBO (FWBO). Our community relies heavily on email and phone calls to organise and administer ourselves. Online forums are just starting to be used, and are frequently the medium of choice for dissent. Our founder, Sangharakshita, has said, “the group is always wrong”. By which he means that we must learn to think and act for ourselves, and not simply react in accord with the wishes of the majority, or from social conditioning. As Buddhists we are trying to free ourselves from stereotypical responses, to be free to make appropriate responses to the world. To do this we must bring our experience of the world into full consciousness – we must understand where our ideas and habits come from. This is not easy in a society, because groups of people are frequently intolerant of novel behaviour. The Amish practice of shunning is only a more explicit version how groups control the individuals that make them up. Isolation is painful, and we therefore will go out of our way to avoid it.

If we use technological solutions to plaster over the cracks of our feelings of alienation, then we are asking for trouble. Alienation is not the same as individuation. Spiritual growth, the revolutionary awareness that can ultimately set us free, depends on us taking responsibility for the contents of our minds. We can’t avoid taking on board social conditioning as we grow up, but we can, as self-aware adults, start to examine that conditioning. But it requires awareness. We must be prepared to sit with the pain of alienation to some extent, to see what it really is and where it comes from.

The FWBO has tended to take Sangharakshita’s aphorism a bit literally at times, and so I don’t think we cater well for the social needs of our people. We have seen groups as a literal enemy and a desire for belonging as an almost fatal weakness. It is said that one of the reasons that Buddhism died out in India, and Hinduism did not, is that the former lost touch with the common people, while the latter did not. The Amish with their strong social integrity can effectively limit the impact that technology has on them. It may be too late for the rest of us, but I think we can learn from the Amish approach to society and technology.

So I’ll finish with my own aphorism:

The best possible use of a cellphone is to arrange to meet with your friends.