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How technology influences perception

veryard projects > kmoi > perception > technology
  • What is technology?
  • Technology extends the reach and power of the sense organs
  • Technology creates new sense data
  • Technology changes our perception of our own bodies
  • Technology changes our perception of our position on earth
  • Technology communicates itself - irresistibly
  • Technology affects our knowledge
  • Technology dominates our experience

  • What is technology

    In this piece, I want to scope technology very broadly. I shall therefore include things that you possibly don’t normally consider as technology at all. Certainly not just the latest high-tech. Just as McLuhan understood television by comparing it with the invention of printing, we can learn a lot about modern technology by comparing it with earlier technical innovations, from the middle ages or even from the stone ages.

    Thus for example, medical/clinical technology includes hypnotism and the dissection of corpses, surgery as well as pharmacology. Optical technology includes mirrors and lenses, as well as cameras and the draftsman’s technique of linear perspective.

    I shall be looking at technology exclusively from the Psychological Perspective: the way we feel about technology, and the way it affects our experience (often unconsciously). I shall ignore the other possible perspectives on technology, which I have elsewhere characterized as the Engineering Perspective, the Scientific Perspective, the Historical Perspective and the Sociological Perspective.

    Technology extends the reach and power of the sense organs

    Cane A blind man using a cane feels the cane as an extension of his arm, not as a tool but as a part of his body.
    Contact lenses Become part of the eye, forgotten by the wearer.
    Telephone Enable us to converse with far-distant friends.

    "If there is any experience more than another which conduces to open-mindedness, it is the experience of being bothered by another, of being interrupted by another. ‘We are studying being interrupted.’ Say we do not practise any spiritual discipline. The telephone does it for us. It opens us to the world ‘outside’." [John Cage]

    Metal detector Enable us to ‘see’ objects through layers of earth
    Tool-distortion "To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
    Television • • •

    Technology creates new sense data

    Audio A record producer can create a sound mix that musicians could never produce live. This can then be projected into an acoustically unreal space, via headphones or loudspeakers. (In other words, a given sound appears to be coming from a given point, but there is nothing ‘real’ at this point.)

    "A coterie of audiophiles strives to produce in their homes an exact copy of original musical performances. Audiophiles maintain that certain recordings contain in their grooves all the information needed to accomplish a miracle of sound technology: the illusion that the listener is there at the live performance of the music. … [Whereas] The case of recorded rock music presents a quite different configuration of language. … The performance that the consumer hears when the recording is playing is not a copy of an original but is a simulacrum, a copy that has no original." [Mark Poster]

    Audio-visual If you are accustomed to watching taped concerts, you may feel that there's something missing in a live concert. You don't get views from behind the drummer’s back.

    Large concerts are designed for people accustomed to video. You get the action captured from many angles - or possibly from pre-recorded material - displayed on large screens.

    In TV broadcasts of live concerts, the viewer is presented with a static audio image and a moving visual image. (The saxophone doesn't get louder when the camera gets closer.) This combination is impossible to experience in reality, and is disorientating to those used to attending live concerts. 

    Artificial flavourings Food technologists can create food experiences that don’t match anything in nature.
    "Designer" drugs LSD and ecstasy create experiences like nothing on earth.

    Technology changes our perception of our own bodies

    Surgery From early dissection of the corpse, to the latest artificial transplant operation, surgeons have used technology to take our bodies apart and reconstruct them as machines. [Romanyshyn]
    Photography Normal snapshots flatten us into two dimensions, tiny frozen images.

    "… a wonderful tale related by Charles Hampden-Taylor about a man whose wife’s portrait was being painted by Picasso. One day the man called at the artist’s studio. ‘What do you think?’ asked Picasso, indicating the nearly finished picture. ‘Well …’ said the husband, trying to be polite, ‘it isn’t how she really looks.’ ‘Oh’, said the artist, ‘and how does she really look?’ The husband decided not to be intimidated. ‘Like this!’ said he, producing a photograph from his wallet. Picasso studied the photograph. ‘Mmm …’ he said, ‘small, isn’t she?’ " [Gareth Morgan]

    (Compare with Hockney’s brilliant collages of overlapping photos.)

    Mesmerism Mesmer’s therapeutic techniques [Romanyshyn] challenged the simplistic Cartesian notion of the separation of the mind from the body, and prepared the way for Freud. (Gilbert Ryle, in his attack on Descartes, used the term Ghost in the Machine to refer to this separation.)
    Psychiatry By treating certain states of mind (such as melancholy or ambivalence) as clinical conditions, to be ‘cured’ by medical technology, these states are delegitimized. The same is true for some states of body: obesity, anorexia. (Future technology will doubtless eliminate boredom and frustration, and provide us with perpetual Happiness as a constitutional right.)
    Frankenstein Mary Shelley’s ironically anti-feminist fantasy: the creation (in a laboratory) of a man not born of woman.
    Robotics and AI High-tech substitutes for human intelligence, labour and dexterity.
    Mental models Thinkers have always described the operations of the mind in terms of the latest technology. Freud used the metaphors of hydraulics and fluid pressures. Modern writers use metaphors drawn from computers. (These models affect how we treat people, how we expect them to learn things or change themselves.)
    Mirrors The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan believes that the development of the ‘Je’ was advanced by the manufacture of mirrors.

    Lionel Trilling notes that it cannot be decided whether man’s belief that he is a ‘Je’ is the result of the Venetian craftsmen’s having learned how to make plate-glass, or whether the demand for looking-glasses stimulated this technological success.

    Technology changes our perception of our position on earth

    Perspective Linear perspective drawing created a revolution in the visual arts, established a physical and/or emotional distance between the observer and the spectacle. Some argue that this enabled both the photographic camera and pornography.
    Anti-fundamental Technology makes some modes of religious knowledge untenable. It is of course possible to remain a devout Christian, Moslem or Hindu, either by consciously rejecting science, or by acknowledging that religious truth is on a different level from scientific truth. But fundamental religion is challenged by technology, and fundamentalists are those who have felt themselves forced to respond (in one way or another) to this challenge. Fundamentalism is the response, and differs from the naive unchallenged religion in important ways (just as counter-reformation Catholicism differs from pre-reformation Catholicism).
    Outer space Photographs of the whole earth from satellites or space flights, have an important psychological effect. (Like the pleasure of spotting your own house in an aerial photograph. Why is this pleasurable?) Why was it important for the USSR to have the first man in orbit? Why did the USA in the 1960s spend so much money to get a man on the moon? Not for the scientific knowledge but for the symbolic value.

    Technology communicates itself - irresistibly

    Bombs away Warfare is not about killing people. It is about sending the message of despair and surrender to your enemies. Sometimes the threat is sufficient.

    "Until the middle of the century the force, the power, still resided in guns and in weapons. After the middle of the century the real power is in information. Even the atomic bomb is used today not as a weapon but as a message. The fact, the happy fact, that it is not used means that it is not the bomb in itself which works: it is the continuous exchange of messages between powers." [Umberto Eco]

    Schooling The school syllabus and teaching methods are geared to the availability of ‘easy’ texts, ‘safe’ experiments, ‘cheap’ machines.

    "The establishment of meanings, of what is to be understood, has to remain the business of authority. Tools of expression are provided for those who use them in the same way as spades and picks are handed out to prisoners. The pens and exercise books given to schoolchildren are tools of production, and teaching is programmed to produce only a certain type of acceptable significations. There can be no escape." [Felix Guattari]

    Advertising Advertising is a technologically sophisticated way of communicating technological sophistication.

    "The universe of advertising is entirely one of commodities and consumption. It distils the foreground of technology ideally and thus presents the technical and distinctive side of our age. In this way it has superseded art as the archetypical presentation of what the epoch is about. In advertising, the promise of technology is presented both purely and concretely and hence most attractively. Problems and threats enter only as a background to set off the blessings of technology. Thus we find ourselves archetypically defined in advertisements. They provide a stabilizing and orienting force in the complexity of the still-developing technological society." [Albert Borgmann]

    Design and language The concepts, tools and techniques of the engineer, including the design language he speaks, influences what the engineer thinks of producing.

    "Where a number of issues are being taken into account in a design decision, inevitably the ones which can be most clearly expressed carry the greatest weight, and are best reflected in the form. Other factors, important too but less well expressed, are not so well reflected. Caught in a net of language of our own invention, we overestimate the language’s impartiality." [Christopher Alexander]

    Cybernetics Cybernetics is both "the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages" and "the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society". [Norbert Wiener]

    "Cybernetics is an elitist theory. … The ‘law’ of entropy legitimates the just cause of the technocratic domination of language and the bureaucratic reduction of meaning to ‘electronic engineering’." [Mark Poster]

    Technology affects our knowledge

    Global databases The fortunate ‘knowledge worker’ has access to large webs of information, in which the rest of humanity is imprisoned. (Mark Poster analyses this, based on Foucault.)
    Availability In the Vietnam war, TV pictures of the fighting were available on US networks. (This meant that the American public had visual evidence of the horrors of war.) 

    In the Falklands war, the British army was able to prevent TV pictures of combat being screened. (This meant that broadcasters were forced to fill the screens with retired admirals and generals, talking about military strategy. As a result, the public was better informed about strategic issues than in any other modern war.)

    In the Gulf war, to prevent coverage of strategic issues (which would have been embarrassing) the US Army made lots of film available of the high-tech weaponry they were using. This film dominated the TV news.

    Technology dominates our experience

    It is quite easy for an office worker today to spend far more time ‘interacting’ with machines - computers, telephones, faxes, photocopiers, etc. - than with other human beings. This was once only true of clerks and secretaries (the ‘female’ jobs) but is now increasingly true of professional and management ‘grades’ (the ‘male’ jobs).

    It is quite easy for a child to spend more time learning knowledge and skills from machines - TV, computer games - than from human teachers. Indeed, the TV offers up-to-date and well presented information on school subjects such as geography, science and politics; few teachers have the knowledge, skills and resources to compete with this.

    (My own experience: my teachers persisted in teaching Newtonian physics, as if Einstein and Heisenberg hadn’t happened. The A-level syllabus barely acknowledged anything later than 1900, and we had no right to be aware of modernity.)

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    What we don't perceive

    veryard projects > kmoi > perception > negation

    Erasing a deeper awareness of technology

    Technology affects our thinking in numerous ways. But we refuse to think about how it does this. The pervasive influence of technology is systematically deleted from our conscious minds. So this systematic deletion itself becomes an important psychological fact.

    Freud and his followers noticed that sex and death were systematically deleted from consciousness. They speculated on the emotional pressures that caused this deletion, and attributed various symptoms to the ‘repression’ of feelings about sex and/or death. Psychoanalysis techniques have been developed to ‘surface’ and deal with repressed feelings about sex and death.

    However, technology has not been properly placed on the agenda of psychoanalysis (although it perhaps relates to issues of patriarchy and rationality, which have been explored by feminist psychoanalysts), and has therefore not been systematically surfaced.

    So this paper is about the way people repress their awareness of technology, and the impact this repression has on their thinking (and thus on their lives). It concludes with some ideas for addressing this repression, based on action at two levels: psychological and socio-technical.

    What is repression?

    Psychoanalysis is based on Freud’s original insight, that people repress certain things, and this repression can lead to unhealthy behaviour and/or psychological state. Freud identified certain things that people typically repress, and provided two kinds of explanation for this repression Functional what purpose does the repression (typically) serve

    Mechanical what mechanisms (typically) carry out and sustain the repression

    Of course, a complete theory requires both a functional explanation and a mechanical explanation.

    A therapy then needs two further elements, which Freud also claimed to provide:

    Analysis how can we trace back from the symptoms to the repression itself

    Cure how can we improve the psychological health of a person by dealing with the repression (e.g. by surfacing it into awareness)

    Psychoanalysis assumes that the analysis and the cure are the same thing. This may well be true, but there are other schools of therapy that do not make this assumption.

    Objects of repression: sex, death, class, race, gender

    As surely everybody knows (and this common knowledge is itself significant) the object of repression that was of the greatest interest to Freud was sex. He also acknowledged the importance of death, although he thought this of somewhat lesser importance. Some psychoanalysts ranked death higher in importance than sex, and this became one of the closely-fought issues differentiating the many schools of psychoanalysis that have been created during the 20th century.

    sex and death are today the most obvious objects of repression, to the extent that many psychoanalysts can operate as if these were the only ones. Open-minded clinical experience might conceivably identify other possible objects of repression, but some psychoanalysts will automatically create links back to either sex or death. (They will be helped in this by their clients, who will usually enter psychoanalysis already with the expectation that this will happen.)

    Later thinkers, seeking to find links between Freud and Marx, have suggested that class can also be an object of repression. Many people are willing to accede to the fiction that class doesn’t exist, and are easily persuaded to act against their class interests. This has been extensively analysed by sociologists and political activists, who have analysed in great detail: (i) the typical psychological motives for repressing class awareness (ii) the typical psycho-social mechanisms that effect this repression, (iii) the political consequences of this repression, and (iv) some political strategies for overcoming this repression. For some reason, however, no school of psychotherapy has been founded to deal with issues of class.

    Schools are now emerging, however, to deal with issues of race, which is of great interest to people who define themselves by their membership of ethnic groups, or think that they ought to. Schools are also emerging to deal with issues of sex from a feminist perspective; this entirely recasts what exactly is sex, as an object of repression; sex is reformulated into gender.

    It might be argued that because most psychoanalysts deal most of the time with sex and death, these are therefore the most important objects of repression. This may well be true, although an alternative explanation is that they happen to be the objects that are easiest to bring to the surface. This in turn could be either because of the prior expectations of both analyst and analysand, or because they are nearer the surface than other repressed objects and therefore easier to trace.

    Even if we think that sex and death are the most important objects of repression, we don’t have to exclude other objects of repression. A complete and general theory of psychoanalysis should cover all possible objects of repression, rather than focussing on those objects that a given writer believes to be of greatest importance.

    Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form

    Harvard University Press, 1964

    p 69  
    Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life 

    University of Chicago Press, 1984

    p 55 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    John Cage, Empty Words: Writings '73-'78 

    US Paperback (November 1981) Wesleyan Univ Press
    UK Hardcover (June 1980) Marion Boyars Publishers

    pp 180-181 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Umberto Eco, interviewed by Christopher Frayling
    The Listener, 11th Oct 1984 

    see also The Bomb and the General by Umberto Eco

    buy from amazon us
    Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics 

    English translation, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984

    p 88 out of print
    Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (Sage, 1986) 

    New full edition (1997). Avoid the abridged edition (1998).

    pp 130-131 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Mark Poster, The Mode of Information (1990) 

    For analysis of Foucault, see Chapter 3

    p 9, pp 28-9 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Robert Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream (1989)  out of print
    Gilbert Ryle, Concept of Mind (1949) buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) p 25 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Norbert Wiener, Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1954) p 15 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk

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