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This article can be found in Issue 2 (p28) of Vhcle Magazine.
2010: Adapting to New Technology
 design fashion film music art photography global notes life
adapting to 
new technology

Tim Sunderman

The compulsion to create and explore is unstoppable. It is like the profusion of flowers in the Spring. We have all lived our lives in a period of accelerating change, particularly technological change.

And the vast majority of the most recent change has been in communication. Communication developments are to the new century as transportation was to the twentieth century. The evolution of telegraph to telephone to gramophone to radio to television more or less hit a plateau until the emergence of the internet.

The digital storage and transmission of information has such broad implications that it is changing us as a species. People are primarily social creatures and the presence of the internet connects us personally to a global social circle. The old methods of communication — broadcasting a single voice to millions of mere listeners, or private phone line dialogues have been far surpassed by social networking sites, and blog and news sites not beholden to corporate sponsors. The breadth and specificity of information truly subverts the status of authority and brings new realms of power to the common person.

But every new plateau of technological advancement comes with its own consequences.
If the core of our new technology is essentially seated in communication, then it is incumbent upon us to rise to the task of honing our communication skills as we embrace this new ascension. This is not happening. In a British study in 2009 analyzing a couple hundred thousand tweets and social posts, fully forty percent of them were as vapid as, “I am now eating a sandwich,” (directly quoted from the study).

Marshall McLuhan famously commented in 1964 that “the medium is the message.” The British study firmly proves that axiom to be wrong. If the message is content-less drivel, no medium can augment that message. But in deference to McLuhan, the point that he was making, that the message is shaped by the medium that carries it, is understood. Certainly cell phone texting is an obvious example.

It is a curious thing, and at times laughable, our innate adaptability. The flattening constraints placed on language as we adapt to things like text messaging is predictably spilling over into our spoken language. As I stood on a platform waiting for a train, I overheard a woman telling her friends a story which she concluded with, “Sad face, L.O.L.”

It is a failure of adaptation when we adapt ourselves to our devices rather than adapting our devices to us. The technological constriction of language can have the unintended consequence of also constricting our thoughts to fit the devices. I have seen this behavior repeatedly in my years of teaching art classes. Drawing used to be a formal discipline that I taught in Graphic Design. Now, our school has decided that software instruction will be the only techniques taught to demonstrate design principles. The unfortunate result of this path is that the first-hand intimate knowledge of what is a straight line or perfect circle is never internalized (not to mention more complex shapes). The design choices don’t flow from the mind-hand connection, but from the choices dictated by the familiarity with the software, creating a much more generic look.

The same difficulties arise as we adapt to electronic text as a means of communication. The computer is adaptable enough, usually, to do what it is told. So, as in all things, it is important to approach it with a certain clarity of message, and take the time to get that message through the medium with as little distortion as possible.

How often we are absorbed by the small screen, compelled to experience the world in electronic light, reflections of reflections, each iteration slightly more distorted than the last, diminishing the detail and insulating the experience. Some have argued that we are witnessing the decline of civilization. If we consider that through the context of civility, then there is probably some substantiation to that claim. Our civility is the basic cooperation and consideration with which we deal with society at large — a social platform of agreement. With the loss of personal contact comes the erosion of civility.

A study was conducted to determine why people react with greater anger when driving than when walking, and video evidence strongly showed that when eye contact was made with a person when their path had been interfered with, there was an almost instantaneous forgiveness extended to the transgressor, because of human empathy in the eye contact. But, as is typically the case in driving, there is no eye contact or opportunity for that connection, and anger escalates. We can certainly see the same outcomes on so many blog sites where people are not facing one another in a discussion and the normal presence of social accountability disintegrates into an absolute lack of civility.

Another measure of that civility is the manner in which language was used in the 1800s. Looking back to letters written from the battlefields in the Civil War by the average soldier, quite often farm boys, there is a command of English and an evident respect for life that seems far less apparent today. Now, the common use of profanity is not so much for emotional punctuation as it is filler to give the verbally challenged speaker an extra moment to figure out the rest of the sentence they are trying to utter.

And though I do not believe that civilization is collapsing, it is simply undergoing another foundational shift that inevitably will tear down certain constructs to make way for the new — good or bad.

And, so as not to simply be passively swept along by technological developments, it may become more and more important to break the electronically-induced agoraphobic trance, the nightly embalming by the glowing diodes, and return our attention to first hand experience. Spring will soon be in full bloom. How hollow 8-bit color appears when compared to the full richness of the outer world. If the majority of your daily social contacts and experience are squeezed through the bent periscope of wires, try to reverse that and make face-to-face contacts with people. The larger part of communication comes through complex facial expressions (not emoticons) and vocal inflection. There is so much depth and scope and substance in the actual world that will never fit on a screen. 

How much of your own uniqueness is expressed in your electronic communications? There is much you can do to be specific and clear in your words. The convenience of abbreviations and acronyms also have the obverse effect of making messages sound generic and conformingly trendy. There will be (and probably already is) a wake of social destruction that is a natural consequence of this emerging communication technology. And just like Persephone’s reemergence from the death of Winter and the chaotic proliferation of a new platform for life, there is an opportunity to apply direction for a social organization that is not subjugated to that technology, but that is driven by direct experience of the world from which it springs.