TED Conversations

  • Ann Lee
  • San Jose, CA
  • United States


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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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