Critical Convergence part 1, Prometheus 2.0

Previous section: Introduction || This section presents a thematic overview of the relationship between technology and society. I draw primarily from the insights I’ve picked up from the talk of Dr. Raul Pertierra, and on secondary reading into the work of historian Johan Goudsblom. This article ends by setting up the key themes of the next two parts.

Mankind has been in control of fire for at least 400,000 years – some believe that it may have even been for 1.4 million years. However, there are historians who argue that fire did not play as large a role as the emergence of agriculture, cities and writing in the dawn of human civilization 10,000 years ago. Johan Goudsblom, of the University of Amsterdam, takes a different view.

In The Civilizing Process and the Domestication of Fire, Goudsblom characterizes fire as a destructive, irreversible, purposeless and self-generating natural force whose domestication deserves to be ranked among the first ecological transformations brought about by mankind. Fire, in its multitude of applications, extended the range of food through cooking and extended the range of societies through clearing land. Fire allowed and facilitated hunting (grazed land loosed animals from their habitat), aided in enhancing the survival of settled communities (through heat, light and cooking), and ultimately enabled the earliest empires – such as the Aryans who worshipped fire – to conquer other societies and extend the reach of civilization itself.

In the CIO conference I attended last week, University of the Philippines Asian Studies professor, Dr. Raul Pertierra, introduced the notion that some sociologists and anthropologists are beginning to draw parallels between the domestication of fire and the prevalence of Internet and communication technology (ICT). The wheel, the printing press, the cotton gin and the steam engine were all just technology; the Internet is a force of nature in itself! Nonetheless, Dr. Pertierra does not necessarily agree with the hyperbole of his peers. He notes that, like how we are with fire, we may be knowledgeable in the use of technology but not necessarily responsible.

This reminds me of a presentation I delivered in the Future Summit last year. Marketing research has shown that because of the multitasking ICT enables us to do, the average Filipino family now lives 56 hours in a 24 hour day. A lot of the activities are done in tandem whether it be eating fastfood and listening to the iPod on the drive home, or watching the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother while downloading the next episode of LOST and writing an entry in one blog while editing an entry in another. Add up all the time we take to multitask and it will amount to roughly 56 hours —  a 133% increase over the ordinary day! (And thinking of the examples above, my typical day might be even above average.) Suffice to say, ICT has extended our traditional boundaries of time and space.

The theme of the Future Summit was, “Where are we taking technology, or is it taking us?” Looking at the nature of multitasking itself: Do we multitask because we need to, or does technology create the need to multitask?

That phrasing is symptomatic of the dual relationship between technology and society which, as Dr. Pertierra would agree, is very complex indeed. A professor from the University of New South Wales who has acculturated himself into our country and published several books about the transformation of our society because of text messaging, Dr. Pertierra observes that for Filipinos, “the machine becomes us.” The tricycle drivers that rule the streets along his Cubao residence are simply “motorized pedestrians” with minimal regard for the law (what law?). So are the bus drivers along EDSA who feel that their gargantuan vehicle is just as lithe as their Malay frame — or as Dr. Pertierra whimsically suggests, these drivers are henpecked at home and so they air their frustration on the road.

To underscore the gravity of this, imagine the alternative. This ethic would be dangerous if one were an airplane pilot or a ship captain. In those instances, the human person subsumes his identity to that of the machine: there are certain protocols to follow when taking off, landing, docking, or plying the air or sea; one simply can’t go where and how they please. There is a certain limit to how we should interface with technology, though it can’t be denied that the technology allows us to interface in ways we never thought possible. Case in point, text messaging.

I remember watching an enlightening independent play once entitled SubTXT. It starred my friend, Lara, and was composed of three different acts. The play revolved around the meanings we feed into messages and the first two dealt with the complexities involved in text messaging (the third was about an unread letter between an old, gray couple). In the first story, two high school kids courted, broke up and fell in love through text all in one night (not an uncommon occurrence). Time delays between messages and capitalization of certain characters apparently have inherent meanings, even if there are none. In the second, a couple argued on their date over the semantics of a text smiley and the spelling of “okay” (“k” is annoyed, “K” is shouting and annoyed, “Ok” is sarcastic, and so on). The stories should be seen by a wider audience, I believe. They illustrate the semantics of SMS very well and comment on how it has shaped the national conversation.

The mobile phone is simply the perfect example of how the machine becomes us. Dr. Pertierra also observed that it has overturned our notion of privacy. He notes that in traditional Filipino dwellings where families or several families share the same living space, the mobile phone has created a new sense of privacy for the user. It has allowed the often coy and non-confrontational Filipino to be more so in person while becoming more honest and confrontational through text. This is why romance (or sex) is still among the top functions of texting in our culture; it’s the ideal medium for the bashful and shy. In turn, this newfound privary also leads to a heightened agency for the user. It is no surprise that the mobile phone has become the preferred business medium of many and when it comes to politics, we can’t overlook how text messaging was utilized as a tool for political action against the former president Joseph Estrada.

Dr. Pertierra’s general thesis is that technology, when it was first introduced at the turn of the 20th century, did not usher in social change in the Philippines. Generally, access and consumption of technology has often been the domain of the educated and the urbanized elite. They dictated society’s preferences, consumption habits and initial investments. However, this paradigm has been completely upended by the introduction of Internet and communication technology. Thus the mobile phone, in particular, is indeed revolutionary. With its relatively low barrier to access, it has placed power in the hands of the wider Filipino population to access information, reinforce social relationships in an age of diaspora and globalization, and participate in economic and political activities.

However, in all this frantic optimism for the future, we must be cautious. If indeed the ICT revolution is as important a hallmark as the domestication of fire, there are lessons to be learned. In his paper on the domestication of fire, Johan Goudsblom also notes several caveats: that increasing control of fire also means increasing dependency, that fire needs fuel, that the control of fire is a social activity, and that fire created changes in human civilization which mankind will have to adapt to. Rounding out the metaphor, we must realize that increasing control over ICT will mean increasing dependency, ICT requires “fuel” specifically through the twin forces of innovation and investment, that harnessing and maximizing ICT can only be through collaborative efforts, and we must be prepared for the changes that ICT will bring.

Dr. Pertierra echoes this. He warns that ICT is effective at transmitting data, but that data may not necessarily lead somewhere. Deriving, analyzing, interpreting and applying the information from all the data will remain a human activity. As an example, he points to the recent TXT a Smoke Belcher campaign of the PNP. In the first week of implementation, they received 300,000 reports. But to date, only three offenders have been prosecuted in any way. Dr. Pertierra underscores that support structures must be present and that administrative structures are in place to transform the wealth of data into practical action. Government will have to fill this gap, and we must ensure that our citizens possess the education to innovate and invest in all the connections the ICT revolution has made possible. My suceeding entries will cover these topics.

If there is any point to be made with this comparison of fire and ICT, it is that the technology is a force we harness and not the other way around. It is a tool, a means to an end. Fire was a destructive, irreversible, purposeless and self-generating natural force only until man learned to harness it. However, without the proper norms and institutions in place, fire will easily revert to the force of nature that it is. It won’t take time to see whether ICT will spell the evolution or destruction of human civilization. Our choice is clear and the time is now.

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