Switching off and on again: the similarities between technology and human behavior
In my next exploration of how to ‘think like an anthropologist’ in Cambridge, I turn to technology. More specifically, the way we think about technology is bidirectionally related to the way we think about ourselves. Here I will be looking specifically at digital technology – although technology has many and diverse manifestations.
The emerging anthropology of algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence has dealt with the social values encoded in digital technology. What this means in practice is surprisingly varied. Software Engineers’ Personal Preferences Take Root When Programming Music Streaming algorithms. Corporate hunger for profit shapes software: like the moderation of offensive content on Facebook massively funded for English-speaking sites to the detriment of other languages. The software even contains specific and sometimes refuted theories, such as Harding’s tragedy of the commons informing blockchain technology. Thereby, algorithms are culture – digital technologies are inevitably shaped by the social worlds in which they are made and used. To a certain extent, they are in a way the mirror of social values.
If I stay with the metaphor of digital technology as a mirror of social values, I want to suggest that the process of looking into that mirror can come to influence how we see ourselves. In other words, not only do social values embed themselves in digital technology, but digital values embed themselves in the way we think, speak and act about ourselves and, above all, about others. To join this dynamic, cross-disciplinary conversation, let’s talk about ethnography – with life experiences from Cambridge.
I would be surprised if any of you do not have was able to solve a technological problem with the solution: turn it off and turn it back on. It is ironic and refreshing that so many problems can be solved by this seemingly simple technique. During visits to my university’s IT department asking for help, I noticed a poster on their wall with ‘Keep Calm: Turn it Off and On Again’. It’s often the first thing non-professional tech users try, and surprisingly, it’s the first thing the IT consultant asked me to do. What interests me is how the idea of turning something off and on again has permeated our way of thinking about rest and leisure for ourselves.
“Switching off” is an expression I often hear in Cambridge, and generally refers to the action of stopping work to start leisure or rest. For some people and occasions, that means physically turning off their technology, but for others, it doesn’t. Thus, “extinguish” refers to we, for humans.
Obviously, there are discrepancies with this picture. Where or what is our “button” to “turn off”? Indeed, it is a significant problem for many: if it is about sleeping, then sleep can be difficult for many (as explained in Ramlakhan’s book “Tired but trendy”); if it is to relax, that too can be difficult.
Another experience likely shared by many Cambridge students (and indeed most members of society) is a broken or temporarily broken phone, laptop or other digital technology. Recently my phone had an “off” day. That doesn’t mean I made the healthy lifestyle choice to avoid it. Instead of meaning a day off like people have days off, it just didn’t work properly. Well, that didn’t work at all. I feared this would be the end of my phone — and of life as I knew it with a phone. An additional issue was that the phone would not 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 drained, the phone screen went black again. A charge later, the phone started working normally again, as none of that had happened.
Now, just as people’s days off often follow a night’s sleep, this phone had been working for over 24 hours. I had kept it on all night to listen to the “brown noise” while I was trying to sleep. So we both walked in the next day feeling more tired – and the phone’s reaction was to stop working, drain its battery and shut down completely.
“The need to turn technology on and off can remind us of our own need to rest and relax”
Reflecting on it later, I was struck by the obvious cartoonish parallels to the human experience. This phone worked hard for an extended period of time. After that, it couldn’t work properly anymore. His crisis point was resolved by a period of downtime: after which he emerged fully functional. In the same way, rest is restorative for us humans.
Perhaps all in all, the need to turn technology off and on 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 to ourselves the functionalist perspective that many have for technology. By this I mean that turning a phone or computer off and on again is often caused by a glitch or error. We hope this fixes this issue and restores the technology to its full potential. So the analogy would suggest, by extension, that like a telephone, a human is defined by their ability to function; and by a set of standards for what this function entails. So when the phone could no longer perform what I expected of it, I deemed it dysfunctional. Although I totally disagree ethically with this framework of understanding what it means to be human, I think it is an influential narrative around us. So how we think about ourselves is partially influenced by how we think about technology. In other words, our stories about how technology works, what it is, etc. become a kind of feedback loop in which we get to build stories about how we work and what we are.
“Where humans lack the wisdom to understand each other, we can use the understanding of technology as images for ourselves”
A final shared experience that I imagine many have had is of a conference, assembly or speech being interrupted or delayed by a non-functioning PowerPoint or projector. At a lecture today, when this happened and was not resolved, the speaker ended with the words “pardon my incompetence”. Now I disagreed with her – she had been far from inept: she had given an engaging and informative talk, and it’s arguably more difficult without the prompts of a Powerpoint. But what’s important here is that her eloquence accurately portrays what we’re thinking: she had equated her ability with performing a function – and almost paradoxically, that function was mastering the PowerPoint function!
But wait, isn’t our analogy backwards? Using the phone as a picture to describe humans suggests that we know more about technology than we know ourselves. To me, that seems like a valuable heuristic – not a universal truth, but something to think about. Maybe there are times when we have blind spots for our own needs or those of others, but we know those of technology. Interestingly, the human need for rest is often described as a technological process of switching on and off.
What I want to suggest from this anecdote is this: how we think about technology can come back to how we think about ourselves. This process is often reviled in the popular media. But this anecdote, for me, seemed to give hope. Where humans lack the wisdom to understand themselves, we can use the understanding of technology as an image for ourselves.
I’ve been sitting on this article for some time. It’s finally inked on a page, because of two things I did. First, I rested – that is, this time makes it a trip home to sleep, tell and be; and second, I realized that writing this article wasn’t about creating a perfect product (which would be impossible) – it was more about the process itself, contemplative, creative and communicative. In other words, I switched off and on again – but I resisted defining myself by the fulfillment of a function.
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