TED Conversations

  • Ann Lee
  • San Jose, CA
  • United States


This conversation is closed.

Are humans domesticated by technology?

We rely on technology too much and its presence permeates through all aspects our lives. We are "domesticated" by technology, the product of our own culture. I don't think it is possible for us to live without technology anymore. Do you agree?

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    Sep 15 2011: We are influenced by the biases of the technology. After the printing press was invented we had enlightenment, which was a major cultural break through for rational though. Usually this is explained by the notion that people were able to spread ideas quicker, which is part true. But then why not the spread of irrational ideas. It could have went both ways. But reading itself has a bias towards linear thought which is the major prerequisite for logic. As people read more books they were training their brains to follow one thought (word) after another in a sequential pattern. When they finished reading its only natural that this mode of thinking would persist.

    Now the dominant transmission of though is the computer, which has it's own biases. The first one that comes to mind is it is nonlocal. It does not matter where you post a web page from, you can communicate an idea as easily to your roommate via computer as you can someone halfway around the world. Well it also seems that people are becoming more transient, not staying in the towns they were born into, but rather moving around much more. the other big bias of computers are they are a binary medium. 1 and 0, either a message is sent or it is''t. There really is nothing you can do that has not been planned for. From my observation I do see a raise in black white, binary thinking. This could be again that we have a bit less time than previous generation to see nuance grew answers, but again we spend much of that time entraining ourself with a binary medium.

    So yes in an awkward way I see people being domesticated or at least in a symbiotic relation with technology. I see it a nether good or bad. I do feel we need to acknowledge how a giving piece of technology will influence us so we can put appropriate boundaries on it, something that is sadly lacking now.
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      Sep 16 2011: Just a quick thought on binary thinking and the lack of nuance you refer to. I don't believe that lack of time is the issue. Rather, it is the cultural bias inherent in our education and reinforced in popular media. In our schools (at least the ones I attended and now the ones my daughter attended here in Canada) we are not taught to think, only to memorize. The answer on the exam must be "Correct", otherwise it is "Wrong". Even essay questions have a bias toward "Correct/Incorrect". This is the source of binary thinking far more so than technology. There were no personal computers, let alone smart phones when I was in school. Yet the binary training was already in play.

      Add to this popular entertainment which constantly reinforces binary thinking. Literature, movies, television, all utilize the binary model of antagonist/protagonist, hero/villain. They try to dress it up with ideas like "anti-Hero", but at the end of the day, that's just a hero with a poor attitude. Showing me why the "villain" does the things they do may make them more nuanced, but no less "villainous".

      No, our binary approach is less to do with technology than with a built in racial bias. At heart, we are still animals and animals are binary creatures. Safety/Danger, Edible/Inedible, At peace/Scared. These are animal logic. These are binary human logic.

      Technology hasn't made us more binary. We have made our technology binary as a reflection of ourselves.

      Cheers, Winston
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        Sep 16 2011: Well I don't think lack of time is the real issue either, but a symptom, as our life span's spans have actually increased.

        I also do not think that any technology creates new patterns of thought in us, as we would need that though pattern to create the technology to begin with. If a new technology is created that operates in a particular pattern (let say binary for the sake of continuity) and we increase our use of that technology would we not also increase the use of that thought pattern. I am not saying that binary thinking is new, but it is increased through the use of computers, esp if you are not aware of this bias. You place more of the blame on schools, understandably as they have often promoted this type of thinking. Schools are pawns in this game. They only are teaching what is society deems important and perpetuate though patterns, but is certainly not the prime mover in this equation. I am not sure if technology is the cause of all this but it seems to me higher up rung of command.

        There are exceptions to every rule. For the most part I feel the conversations here at TED buck the medium a bit, but if you find yourself reading a bunch of blogs and online comments you start to see a distinct binary thought pattern. Most people are arguing (rather poorly) directly against or for something or someone. I believe a major cause for this type of confrontation is the binary medium which it is being done on. Give the same people a pen and paper and I would be willing to wager the there would be less decisiveness. Also it stands to reason as people spend more time in this state of black white thinking for what ever reason we are more likely to carry these thought patterns over into other aspects of our lives and take them the default thought setting when in reality it's one of many.

        Of course these are just my thoughts based on books I read and it is not practical to prove or disprove any of this, and I do appreciate your thoughts as well.

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          Sep 18 2011: As I said, my education was to say the least, pre-digital. It was that lack of access to other views which contributed to the binary manner in which I was taught. The computer/internet/binary information revolution actually contributes to a more nuanced understanding. Our very interaction here is proof of this. Without computers, TED would be very different. This blog wouldn't exist, and you and I would not be able to exchange ideas. Our views on this subject would be narrower and less open without that exchange.

          We cling to our binary thought patterns because they are easier. It's much less effort to know the answer than to think about the question. Right and wrong are simpler than ethical conundrums.

          I would definitely agree that the act of writing with a pen and paper is a different experience. For myself, I type faster than I can write by hand. This speed can sometimes allow me to actually type ahead of where my thoughts are fully formed. In those circumstances, there is definitely a lack of nuance and subtlety in the final product. I have used this as a writing tool wherein I start with the same basic idea and develop it once on the computer, and once by hand. The differences are interesting and usually helpful in identifying the central theme of the idea.

          For me, the medium is just a tool. The degree of nuance and subtlety depends on the mind behind the information more than on the medium of it's transmission.

          Again, this is just my opinion. I appreciate your point of view, as it gives me a new framework to examine this question on. Thank you for sharing.

          Cheers, Winston
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        Sep 18 2011: Yes it is interesting you mention the speed of pen & paper vs the speed of typing. In no way do I want to remove the responsibility of the brain making the thought's but to merely highlight how it can be influenced by how it choose to express itself.

        To Widen this discussion a bit, we can look at the effects of industrialization on people. In order to live in an industrial area, we need factories, hence factories workers. This requires a certain portion of the given population is highly adept in repetitious behavior. Now again, at the dawn of industrialization, this was not a novel trait, but one that did need to develop. So we create an education system that intensifies this trait. We eliminate down time. Where as agricultural societies had natural ebbs and flows in there work. (harvest and planting season busy, winter not so much), machines required no respite. Hence the horrific work hours of the early industrialized era. We adapted to the new machinery rather than change the machines to be more compatible with humans. Now granted we have made huge strides in this area, but it has taking a couple of hundred years of tedious effort and we still have much work to do. This is why I believe to one degree or another we have been domesticated by technology.
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          Sep 19 2011: It wasn't the machinery/technology that required the adaptation, it was the people running the new industries. The workers weren't asking for such brutal treatment. They were forced to it by their employers. The technology simply enabled the new ruling class to abuse the underclasses in a more efficient manner.

          Our domestication dates from the point we lost our ability to survive as a species without recourse to technology. Likely shortly after we allowed our physical abilities and instincts to wane as a result of our dependence on tools. Tools made our lives easier, and we as a species enjoy easier.

          It's easier for domesticated dog to get it's food from a bowl filled by a human than it is for a wolf to hunt for it's meal. On the other hand, if you remove the domestication, the wolf is rather more likely to survive. The same is true of humans. We are so used to the ease our technology has given us that if it were removed today, it is doubtful we could survive as a species.

          Sounds domesticated to me.

          Cheers, Winston
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        Sep 20 2011: Winston. I do agree with you that for the most part we are domesticated. There are still some hold outs in the world who live in a much more natural way. Like our friend the wolf it is a much harder and more perilous lot, but it might prove to be a better survival strategy in the long run. I do think we are looking at this from different perspectives though. I don't think it would matter much who the worker and who the bosses are in the grand scheme. Some people will be more generous, while others will be more greedy, but there is a base line of natural behavior we have to accept. Realistically any culture that has figure out agriculture and practices is domesticated, so we are only choosing between masters: agriculture, the factory, the computer, whatever. We learn and teach our children how to operate in whatever system has the most sway in our culture. For some this means learning how to till land, while others learn to sit at a desk and use use there computer as an extension of there brain. I'm justy trying to show how this will causes to take on traits of the computer. At any rate I am enjoying the conversation and think it's good to think about these issues as technology becomes more invasive in our lives.
    • Sep 20 2011: We think in term of yes, no and maybe i.e. we think in terms of trinary not binary code. What we see with binary code is the single greatest unregulated experiment in the history of humanity. We study the carcinogenic properties of charcoal broiled steak more thoroughly than we study the effect of binary code on humanity. Soon there will be no control groups left in the human race who have not been impacted by binary code.

      What if binary code is slowily but steadily reorganizing our minds to think in ways that may be desirable or undesirable? We know that rapid stimulation via video games can have a negative impact on small children. How much of the rudeness of modern communication e.g. "flaming" is related to the message and how much to the process i.e. can we predict where our value system will be in 25-50 years? Will we still be entralled with modern technology? It is predictable based on our love of sex and violence that automatons will be used primarily for sex and torture--until they are given rights.
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        Sep 20 2011: Richard
        I feel we as a specices have a wide aray of thought patterns. It's why we are constantly misunderstanding people. Some cultures emphasise a black white dichotomy, while others down play it. We all have that pattern in us. It will be intersting indeed to see where the computerized rabbit hole lead us all. My guess is the coorparation will replace the nationstate. People will travel more, but will be less exotic as we all become more like each other. Whether this is good or bad is beyond my abilitity to say.

        Cathy Dai

        I am wondering your opinion on all this. You been all to silent. :)
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        Sep 22 2011: Interesting point Richard. My question would be this: Do you feel that what you are reading right now in this conversation would be functionally different if it was on paper rather than on a monitor? Further to that, if you print it out and read it on paper, would the change be negated? These are the things which I feel need to be answered if we are to determine if the binary nature of computers is altering how we think and process information.

        Just something to think about.

        Cheers, Winston
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    Sep 15 2011: I think we were domesticated by vegetable growing first.
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    Sep 14 2011: We have always had technology, right from the time we invented stone axes. It is one of the primary factors to our evolutionary success. Technology is just a tool.

    Now there are two kinds of people who have existed since then, those who understand and create while others who adopt and use.

    I am sure the man who invented, repaired and sold the steam engine or the dynamite knows how to use them effectively either for his benefit or the benefit of others, while those who only buy, use or have cars or ipad have no idea how they work or how they effect their lives. Its just a factor of those who are in control of technology and those who find technology to be out of control. :)
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    Sep 13 2011: what is technology? and what do you mean by 'living without technology'?

    if by 'living without technology' you mean
    1) without your ipads and blackberrys then yes we can live without them. i have lived without them without any problems.
    2) living in a world without electricity and all electrical appliances, well thats not a big deal and its very easy to survive without them. if you have an issue with that kind of a scenario, its only in your mind.
    3) living in a rural setup, without electricity or phones, thats not an issue again.

    but, then what is technology? even a wheel has technology in it. so if you live in a rural setup drawing water from rivers and wells you are using technology. it takes proper agricultural technology to grow proper food on farms. a manual sewing machine or a hand-loom or a blacksmith uses technology. even crude bows and arrows used by Amazonian tribes have their own technology.

    So, you can't escape 'technology' but you can definitely live without the latest developments. If you haven't experienced it then I think you should at the earliest and the best way to experience that is to volunteer for something like the unicef.

    As far as, the argument for domestication by modern technology is concerned I think the very rate at with new technologies become outdated show that we definitely have not been domesticated by them. Most of modern technology is just a fad for a few years.
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      Sep 13 2011: You have a point but the "smart stuff" is not going to disappear. Smart phones, smart cars, smart homes, smart whatever but are we getting smarter with equal rate using all these smart toys or we are getting lazy and stupid
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    Sep 13 2011: Humans are domesticated by humans through technology.
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    Sky F

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    Sep 20 2011: Technology increases the carrying capacity of the world. It is, quite literally, not possible for us to live without technology.

    But maybe your question is specifically about personal computers or something. "Technology" is very broad.
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    Sep 20 2011: Richard
    I feel we as a species have a wide array of thought patterns. It's why we are constantly misunderstanding people. Some cultures emphasize a black white dichotomy, while others down play it. We all have that pattern in us. It will be inters ting indeed to see where the computerized rabbit hole lead us all. My guess is the cooperation will replace the nation state. People will travel more, but will be less exotic as we all become more like each other. Whether this is good or bad is beyond my ability to say.

    Cathy Dai

    I am wondering your opinion on all this. You been all to silent. :)
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    Sep 16 2011: It seems like the unspoken question is ultimately about modern technology. That of course begs a totally different question. At what point did we become dependent on technology beyond our ability to produce ourselves? That was the point at which we were domesticated by technology.

    Every new technology from rock hammers, to fire on up the line has only served to increase our dependence. As a species, we would be unlikely to survive without technology at some level.

    To answer your question. Yes, we have been domesticated by technology. For a very, very long time now.

    Cheers, Winston
  • Sep 15 2011: Technology ruins Man
  • Sep 15 2011: Appropriate technology will always flourish and provide great leaps forward.
    Could we live without electricity, it doesn't domesticate us,it provides time for non
    domestic pursuits,sport et cie.
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    Sep 15 2011: Depends on what "technology" you are talking about.. The way I see it, using a matchbox to light a fire can also be considered technology.. The only way to find out whether you are a slave to it, is by trying to stay away from gadgets for a week or so.. I mean, NO phones, NO computers.. Just go around plain and simple.. I'm not trying to preach.. But I do that at least once a year, especially when I feel like things are getting a bit too hectic.. Well.. This is my view point..
  • Sep 15 2011: Technology can be regarded as a set of tools you use to perform some tasks more efficiently.The performance of this tools depends on you. And if those tools are not available for some reason our common sense will start working to find a solution for a given situation.
    So i think technology cant domesticate us, cause we are the hand behind the wheel.
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    Sep 15 2011: Define: Domesticated.
    We are no more controlled by others with the advent of the internet, for example, than we were when living in little, straw huts. Instead of listening to our village elder, we may be listening to someone across the planet... so while the technology has changed, the action, itself, has not.
    Our desire, and ability, to wage violence upon our fellow man has not decreased, either. We used to kill each other with our bare hands, and now we have bombs. The technology changed, but we have not.
    I believe that if, by some freak occurance, we were stripped of our modern advances and reduced to the Stone Age, we would survive just fine. And by "we" I simply mean the human race. We would begin by closing up our social circles and returning to close-knit, family and tribal alliances in order to maintain survivability, and begin down the same path that got us here in the first place.
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    Sep 14 2011: Are bees domesticated by beehives?
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    Sep 14 2011: I have faith (not too much) in us humans. Im also noticing the struggle of having to buy almost everything to survive. gotten so caught up on the aspect of appearance, that we've lost touch with our hands. but, we are able to adapt. adjustment might be devastating to some, but wed be fine in the long run.
  • Sep 14 2011: Some humans are domesticated by technology, but some are not. I am a elementary student at Korea, but I am really in to IT and stuff. My mom took my iPhone and it was pretty disturbing. I couldn't contact anyone and I got mad. So I think that some humans are domesticated by technology but some aren't.
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    Sep 13 2011: I had my iPhone stolen 5 days ago. since then ive been walking around without a cellphone or an electric calendernote taker etc. i write everything in a little note book and the result is actually very good. every appointment i make i schedule before i leave my house and i plan my day as a single chain of events that is mostly planed ahead. i leave my house with 5 things i must finish and i actually manage to finish them, while when i had my iPhone i would rescheduled and cancel appointments all the time and would leave the house with 3 assignments and end up completing 7 other ones that hadnothing to do with my list, completely missing the 3 i wanted to get done. the down side is that im unreachable most of the time and i miss the feeling of having a strong socialtechnological device at hand which i can use at any minute to improve what im doing. but im way happier and i feel like i achieved alot with a single list and a non changeable time table, while with the iPhone i would do a million things a day and had access to answers for many problems on real time.

    i would get another smartphone but i think i will try to develop some restrictions to when i should use it and how often.
    come to think about it, i believe that if this type of technology is helping you at work and life then its a good thing. if it directs you from what you want and distracts you, then you should place boundaries on that (on yourself, of course).
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    Sep 13 2011: I would agree that it would be hard to go back.... the only way I could see us going back is with some sort of post apocalypse world that you see in the movies. At the point where we are there isn't really an easy way to transition backwards into a world without technology.
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    Sep 13 2011: Technology's very advent is for our own comfort aand development. Every technology has its own merits as well as demerits. Being domisticated by technology actually defines what I call as MISUSE Of Technology. Technology has really improved our lifestyle in a great way. Like searching for some new location using GPS, or using the lift to reach the 50th floor, better still having a building taller than 10 floors..........

    Technology is something that has actually improved the resource utilization though initially there was huge wastage (Industrial Age).

    Now misutilization of technology is actually domesticating us.... for instance calling the local grocery shop to deliver at home instead of strolling around the corner for the same, or engrossing in social networking on the digital world instead of hanging out together at public places...

    So its actually upto us whether we want technology to domisticate us or we utilize it for overall benefit of mankind.
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    Sep 13 2011: As a child still few people had television and with still one channel that broadcasted a few hours in the evening. We didn't had one but we had lots of time to play.
    Our lives are increasingly lived by technology. In work and industry they invent new things all the time and think it to be a blessing because things go faster or more easy. Then it turns out that the benefit isn't in a better life but working harder and producing more driven by competition for more income.

    But domestication goes further back in time. As people started with agriculture and livestock. With ownership of land or cattle they needed rules to protect them. Invented laws for possession and exchange of goods. You could deduce that by domesticating grains and animals they became domesticated themselves and dependent on- and obedient to all kind of things. People paid a big price for security in giving up their freedom. To be self-reliant and autonomous was over. Men chained himself by constraining nature.
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    Sep 13 2011: I agree Cathy,

    Kelly has a more nuanced view in his book "what technology wants".

    We are heavily dependent on our technology, and it's influencing our behavior more and more...
    though we (collectively) have decided (not necessarily conscious) which ones to adopt (or not)...

    I'd rather use "symbiosis"
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    Sep 13 2011: I can't imagine going anywhere without my mobile or my camera. How did I learn to need them? I guess we really take a lot of the technology around us for granted and can't live without it. And don't even get me started on the laptop. :)
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    Sep 13 2011: You make a very good point here. I may come back on this.
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    Sep 13 2011: Really interesting question. Technology could include syllabic speech and all the mental attributes that implies. Domesticated could mean made useful to a higher intelligence, which, if technology is uniquely human, means that WE are that higher intelligence.

    Are we tools of machines? I 'd say no, not any more than a bee is the tool of the honey comb it makes or any other objective of its labors, not any more than we are the tools of Nature, whose destructive whims we try to free ourselves from by making technology. I think we are domesticated more by our hopes, ideals, and modelings of a more humanely efficient civilization.