In the 4th Dimension We're More One-Dimensional

While theoretical physics continues to struggle with string theory, and, thus, unify space and time, technology, is already in the process of the space-time unification.  No, an individual cannot literally travel through time, but the digital footprint gathered by most babies born in western society today, carries enough residual facts, moods, and moments, to simulate, if not entirely digitally recreate, the major events of their lives.  In fact, given the current speed of technological innovation and the advancement of computer animation, a future of digitally recreated, life-like memories is more plausible than not.  One can imagine “traveling in time” to a memory in one’s past. Couple this digital memory potential with the future of embedded technologies and an ambient environment, and Rob van Kranenburg warns that the consequence just might be that “there are no more humans, only information spaces.”  Technophiles imagine the future as a space more rich and meaningful, but according to van Kranenburg, backed by Suchman’s insights into human computer interaction, the future looks more and more one-dimensional.

The idea that a human could lose their humanness sounds absurd to anyone who grew up in an analog world.  However, the generations growing up in today’s digital world are integrated so intimately with technology that many see it as an extension of self and means of self-expression.  Turkle’s experiments and analysis of teens’ cell phone usage reflects this idea.  When their cell phone is taken away, teens speak of the loss as an “anxiety of disconnection.[1]” It’s almost as severe as the loss of the companionship of another human being.  The current trend in programming languages toward more characteristically human structures only contributes to the complete acceptance of technology integrated into all aspects of life.  Indeed the computer seems more human as it “employ[s] terms borrowed from the description of human interaction – dialogue, conversation, and so forth” (Suchman).  Computer languages themselves are so abstracted that almost anyone can guess what the Ruby line ‘print “hello world'” will do. As the computer is perceived more human, and “demonstrate[s] some evidence of recognizably human abilities, we are inclined to endow [it] with the rest” (Suchman).  Humans are inclined to see themselves in the computer and therefore more likely to accept it into their lives without questioning its role.

Van Kranenburg recognizes a continued lack of critical thinking around technology through his observation that machines trend more and more toward complexity and less and less toward understandability.  Van Kranenburg sites the fact that a car manual that used to be one-hundred pages is now more than a million, unintelligible without the aid of a computer.  When the parts are unintelligible, human’s natural inclination is to “to ascribe actions to the entity rather than to it’s parts” (Suchman).  Technology is no longer seen as something made and put together, which inherently implies it can also be taken apart.  Rather, technology is seen as a whole, functioning on its own.  Because of this, its acceptance comes more easily into the fabric of everyday life.

A new world of integrated technology promises safety.  It promises that we know more about the world, but also, that more about the individual is known to the world.  Van Kranenburg claims that this results in a loss of privacy where there is no more public, but only audience.  People are only data streams to be analyzed and observed and reduced to a predictable number.  However, it is in acquiescing to these norms the very nature of humanness, with all its fallibility and unpredictable is indeed lost.   Not only are individuals reduced in this ambient world, but the mystery of Nature herself succumbs to the illusion of control.  An abundance of data creates a false sense of understanding, for it is only with mystery taken out of life’s equation, that one can also find the beauty and meaning.

While it’s easier to reduce van Kranenburg’s arguments to some Orwellian warning fit only for Luddites or science fiction enthusiasts, his assertions are backed in the history and progression of human computer interaction.   Without further intervention and an open debate about how and when technologies should integrate into everyday life, humans might are in great danger of losing their form, their essence, their three-dimensionality.


[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/turkle.html