Why We Can’t Understand Technology Today

Image by Queena Deng from Pixabay

The obvious fact is that if you’re reading this, you’re using a computer to do. Either a mobile, tablet or laptop/desktop. You know fairly well how to use the device, but you’re unlikely to be using it to its fullest potential. Few of you could explain or understand all the code, let alone how firmware and middleware works and their role. Or how smartphones are a brilliant combining of multiple technologies. Nor can I explain most of the inner workings.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to understand the digital technologies of today. Even computer scientists that develop AI applications such as neural networks or machine learning often can’t explain how AI does what it does sometimes. This is unusual for our species.

Does that really even matter you might think. It does. As increasingly use technologies we don’t understand, it has implications on our economic and sociocultural systems and our brains ability to adapt over the longer term. It creates an increased division of labour, impacts our systems of kinship (family, friends, community) by leading to a more individualistic society. We are more likely to use technologies without fully understanding these impacts or really considering the long-term and unintended consequences.

It is also one significant way in which intelligent machines, Artificial Intelligence, can influence our social structures and economies in such subtle and persistent ways that one day we wake up and we are no longer in charge of ourselves, our world. The machines are. Dystopian. Possible, but probably not in the ways Hollywood would tell us.

The Rituals of Technologies

Humans relationship. especially Homo Sapiens, with technology goes back even before the neanderthals to our very distant ancestors. For many thousands of years, the stone axe was our primary tool. Around it, cultures evolved intimate rituals. The axe, often an intermediary between early (and even some current) humans and other animals was seen as a connector, a tool yes, but also an almost spiritual object. Our relationship with the animals we killed for food was intimate and we projected our thoughts onto them, while attempting to assume their thoughts.

We still have rituals with the technologies we use. I suspect that you have a case protecting your smartphone? Many take careful consideration of the case they buy, without much realising it. What signal does it send about my personality to others? Does it reflect my views on where I stand within my culture? The time we spend sorting the apps and getting things to work just the way we want. We do similar rituals with other technologies.

But whereas before, we anthropomorphised how we talked about technologies we used, we have reversed this thinking. Now we use words and phrases about ourselves that place technology terms on us. For example, we may say to someone about something they say we don’t understand as “sorry, that doesn’t compute.”

Digital Technologies are Cognitive

We are perhaps, most likely, in the process of fundamentally changing our relationship with technology. Especially digital ones. Anything you can turn into zeroes and ones. While we still develop and advance technologies that shape our physical environment, even those technologies are now intertwining with our cognitive selves.

Implications and Approaches

No longer can any one individual comprehend the inner workings of most technologies and no longer can an individual perceive and comprehend the implications, opportunities, impacts and potentials of all the digital technologies we have created and have before us. The bad they can do and the good.

Both Weber and Durkheim, sociologists, predicted over one hundred years ago, that increases in technology lead to increased individualism in societies. The tension that has arisen is that we tend to look at technologies from an individualist mindset in Western cultures and societies, but we must increasingly look at them as communities in order to find opportunity and assess risks. It is part of the reason that we’ve not done well regulating social media and Artificial Intelligence.

Our approach should be, I believe, one that stops thinking in terms of problem solving approaches, but rather in using critical thinking and understanding complex systems. For a brief period of time both the hard and soft sciences worked together on developing technologies. But that is rarely the case anymore. The soft sciences are concerned with the humanities. The leaders of the tech world are driven by the bas side of capitalism, to no longer consider that corporations should deliver a social good first, but rather profit first.

To truly harness the incredible opportunities and advances for humanity that digital technologies can offer us, we must bring back, reinforce, encourage and nurture a deeper working relationship between the hard and soft sciences. Apply critical and complex systems thinking instead of just problem solving approaches of engineers.

Humans are inextricably bound to technologies. And technology is embedded into our cultures and has been since we started using stone tools. This will not change. Humans can’t survive without technology. We used to understand this at a deep, subconscious level. We have largely forgotten it.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Chief Innovation Officer | I'm in WIRED, Forbes & National Geographic etc.