Technology Changes, People Not So Much

At the risk of sounding condescending, I found the conversation here about my AMC column this week sort of endearing. In the column, you might recall, I said that despite all the ginchy near-science fictional technology we have at our disposal, our lives are not like living in a science fiction movie, because ultimately who we are as people is not shaped by our technology; we’re (roughly) the same people we’d be without it. Whereas in a science fiction movie, technology and its impact on identity is often front and center.

At that first link above, this causes some miffication by folks who think that yes, indeed, technology is part of their identity, and I don’t get it because I’m, well, old. My favorite quote on it is this one:

So, frankly, we are living in a sci-fi movie. Gen-Y and the Millenials are digitally native and it’s shaping us in ways that the older generations, even a lot of Gen-X, simply can’t grasp yet because they *aren’t* native.

The reason it’s my favorite is that, with the slight modification of which generations are under discussion, the quote could come from the alt.society.gen-x newsgroup, circa 1994 (and in fact probably did, and most likely from me). Lots of technology has come and gone during the decade and a half between 1994 and now, but the belief that the transformational nature of technology has created a generation that other generations don’t quite get has apparently remained constant. Which is, of course, to my larger point: Technology changes, but people really don’t.

This isn’t to say that technology doesn’t affect us and our development as individuals; quite obviously it does, and sometimes in significant ways. But that effect is not necessarily because of the nature of the technology itself, but what the technology allows people to do — which is generally something they already did, just in a different way. For example, the person I’m quoting above points to a concrete example of how technology opened doors for her in terms of developing her identity as a teen: as a teen in a rural small town, she learned about queer and gender theory through the Internet.

This is fair enough, but it’s not to say avenues for similar enlightenment didn’t exist before; when I was a teenager, I learned at least a little about the same topics through my local library, which had books on these topics (as does my current rural small-town local library, for that matter). The digital world helped this woman develop her identity, to be sure; but this does not mean she could not have developed it (or something reasonably similar) without it.

What’s on exhibit here is precisely what was on exhibit in the asg-x newsgroup in 1994, and was almost certainly on exhibit in similarly then-technologically-advanced media in whatever era you might choose to look at: A communal myth of generational exceptionalism: the belief (or at least a strong suspicion) that one’s social and technological accouterments, and how one uses them, signal a wholesale break from previous generations, and that one’s generation is therefore quite obviously unique and special.

But if there’s any benefit to getting older, it’s realizing just what absolute crap this sort of thinking actually is. Technology changes, social trends change, hairstyles change, but people – the actual human animals inside all that technology, sociology and tonsorial grooming — are the same as they have been for thousands of years. Grab a time machine, go back to ancient Egypt, and swap an infant there with an infant from today, and in twenty years you’ll likely find two people perfectly well integrated into their cultures because there is no difference in the human animal between now and then. Even within generations (which are an artificial construct in themselves, but never mind that now) there’s enough variation to drive you a little batty: The same generation that gave us the hippies went for Nixon in 1972, and that same generation gave us both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Go figure.

On a more micro scale, take my daughter, age nine (ten next month). She is certainly a product of her time: she’s had her own computer since she was sixteen months old, has no real memory of television without a DVR attached (which vexes her when we go someplace she can’t pause a show), and who could type — fast — long before she could write cursive. She’s all digital, baby, and there’s very little about who she is at her core that is anything about any of that. If you were to take it all away, or go back in time so that she had none of it, I will bet you any amount you’d care to wager that who she is — her sensibility, her apprehension of the world, her notion of her own identity — would remain pretty much as it is. This is because its development of self is in her head, and through her family and friends and community, none of whom principally rely on technology to have an impact on her. There’s no doubt technology is a part of her life, but is it formative and foundational? No, or at least only to a minor degree.

To be clear: I like me some technology, and it’s equally clearly been very good to me, and a great deal of my professional life has been tied to it — and no small amount of my personal life, too. Technology enables me to do a whole lot to stay happy, connected and productive. I’m glad I live here, now, in what so many people see as a science fictional world. But for all that I have no doubt that if I were to meet a 1968 version of me, I wouldn’t have any trouble recognizing him as me; likewise versions of me from 1928, 1868 or so on. What makes me me isn’t the technology I use, it’s the brain that uses it. That’s a constant when everything else changes.

128 thoughts on “Technology Changes, People Not So Much

  1. Hmm. Both are interesting points. I definitely wouldn’t be the same person without all of the technology we have today. But I’m not sure how different I’d be, and the only way to know for certain is to go back in time and relive my life. Lol we could bring up nature versus nurture: without the environmental effects of technology, would we be the same people?

  2. Interesting points, but I have to say that I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without the internet. For one thing, I’d probably be dead. For people whose identity is suppressed (gay rural people), or who are harmed by the information gatekeepers (in my case, not having an unusual-for-my-age thyroid cancer diagnosed for 18 months because I was considered “fat and lazy”), or even just SF geeks in a town where none of my co-workers have even seen Star Wars, being able to communicate with people who have common interests or useful information when geography means that you are unlikely to meet these people yourself, is very much identity-forming.

  3. I think the major difference in today’s technology, specifically the internet, when compared to the technology of the past; is the extent to which you can be whatever you want to make yourself due to the anonymity available. Pedantic asshole on one forum? Check. Condescending asshole on another? Check. Helpful and informative on another? Check. Just a plain asshole on another? Check.

    Have there been any studies that looked at whether our behavior on the internet cares over to our behavior in real-life? If so, I would imagine that they show our behavior does carry over to at least a small degree, and the degree becomes large the more of your time is spent online.

    Concerning avenues of information gathering, yes there are others besides the internet, but none are as easy as going to wikipedia or google and letting them do all the searching for you. How many times have I wondered something and simply opened a new tab and googled the wonder? Countless. And I’m sure there were times when I was younger and did not have the internet that I wondered things and planned on going to the library to look it up, but saw something shiny and promptly forgot.

    As for whether or not I’d be the same person without the internet or modern technology, I can’t say, because I don’t know. I can guess that I might have been more quiet and less obnoxious if I had continued to do nothing but read after high school, instead of entering the world of the internet full time and only reading on the side. I’d also probably be less… worldly? But this is all guess work, for all I know, I could have been the exact same.

  4. Additionally, I can’t say that this world feels science fictiony to me, it’s the world. It changes and I accept those changes as part of the world. It just is. Now, when we get those flying cars we were promised, maybe then I’ll agree it’s science fictiony.

  5. Interesting points, Ward. But by the time we have flying cars, it won’t be science fiction, it will be science reality. So even then, it won’t feel like science fiction.

  6. “Grab a time machine, go back to ancient Egypt, and swap an infant there with an infant from today, and in twenty years you’ll likely find two people perfectly well integrated into their cultures because there is no difference in the human animal between now and then.” Maybe– gene frequencies in a population can change fairly rapidly, and a hundred generations should be more than enough time to make the average gene-mix of the ancient Egyptian different from the modern. Instant Evolution

  7. My favorite entries in the plus la change category come from back in college, when I was studying ancient Near Eastern cultures:

    1) A letter from a retired governor, father of the great general Zimri-Lim and of another son who was the governor of a small river province. In berating the younger son for sending him a whiny letter asking for advice, the father wrote “Why can you not be more like your brother, Zimri-Lim?”

    2) A letter from a thirteen-year-old Egyptian boy to his father, a scribe, who is traveling to another city on business. After wishing his father good health and the favor of the gods, the boy complains that his father did not bring him along on the exciting journey, and threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue unless his father sends for him.

  8. This is my first post on this site so first things first:
    Thank you for your insights John. And especially for your books John, I can’t praise them enough.

    What technology usually does is broaden everybody’s horizon. Information technology, self explicant.
    – Faster travel = smaller world.
    – Better health care = more time to live and experience things
    – Productivitie improvements = more time to do other things.
    – so on

    1950 I would have been a village boy in Bavaria. Half blind, with bad knees and already married to whoever. All time busy to plant/harvest and getting drunken asap in the weekends

    2008 I am sitting with my diploma in Hamburg, Germany, coordinating transports all over the world and getting beaten around by a Hawaian/ Chinese/ American martial art for fun on weekends

    Would you think of the same persons here? The experiences we make define what persons we become. And tech and progress allow us to make more experiences.
    Hey, without the internet I wouldn’t be able to read this blog form Germany!

    Cheers!

  9. Nowadays people can leave places where they feel the don’t fit in for whatever reason without actually going anywhere. 100 years ago cars began to become affordable, so leaving your home in search of somewhere you can feel more at home was a practical possibility.

    I think the internet can be seen as the latest in a long line of technologies that allowed people to communicate in faster or better ways.

  10. My academic background is in cognitive psychology (how people think, learn and problem-solve), but all my professional life I’ve applied that knowledge to the IT industry as a UI designer, analyst and technical writer. I’m old and educated enough to have seen plenty of technology come and go, but I’m all with John when he says that people are the same. Technology just helps us do the same things faster and more often.

    Of *course* each generation/demographic will have differences in their exposure to technology, their education and their expectations, but that doesn’t make them fundamentally different. They’ll have a slightly different vocabulary, and variations on culture and society, but they won’t be some new species. They will certainly have in common the belief that they are different, but that’s just part of the teen personality development cycle.

    I could go on. And on. I shall not :-)

  11. On a slight tangent, but hopefully not too far off that I’m guilty of a net crime, to get philisophical on whether “if I were to meet a 1968 version of me” – is it really you that you’d see, and vice versa?

    I only think of it because of this article on the BBC site (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7739493.stm) in honour of World Philosophy Day. (Which I missed cause I think it was on Thursday!)

    I doubt very much that the 5yr old that I would meet in 1968 would be recognisable to me as the person I was then or would become now. Can you really remember what you were like back then in enough detail to identify yourself. Suppose you looked different but it was still “you” – could you find yourself through conversing with them? And, certainly, the 5yr old wouldn’t recognise me at all. Nature/Nurture indeed.

    Which, I guess, makes me think that on an individual level we are living in a science fiction future, but we’re still just smart apes who fell out the trees.

  12. Excellent column. I think I’m going to pass this on to my Human Computer Interaction professor from fall quarter and some folks who did a very good conference session on generational differences in our profession & workplace.

  13. lilacsigil:

    “For one thing, I’d probably be dead.”

    Possibly, but that’s not an issue of who you are, other than in a very basic sense (i.e., you’re not dead). The “technology as livesaver” thing is applicable to most people, since most people have had medical procedures save their lives, or will in the course of their lives. But while certainly laudable, I’m not sure it qualifies as relevant here, since other than in a binary “you’re alive/you’re dead” sense, that’s not about development as an individual.

    Bear in mind, of course, that I’m approaching this with a very detached and general perspective, and you’re not — i.e., I didn’t have the cancer you had — so I don’t want to suggest that this access to information was not quite literally vitally important to you.

  14. Another problem with that statement is that it only applies to those members of Gen-Y & Millenials who have constant, reliable access to Sci-Fi Tech. There are lots of poor and lower middle class people who don’t.

    Oh, sure, Sci-Fi Tech is slowly changing their lives–but that’s just the incremental effect of technology on people, not anything exceptional about the current moment.

  15. My favorite example of how people really don’t change was an intro to a documentary series on the Tudors.

    “England, France, and Germany are fighting for supremacy in Europe. The English prince is treated like a rock star. England herself has a struggling economy… No, I’m not talking about the European Union.”

    He might as well have been.

    Technology makes no difference there. You just get the news faster and endlessly these days. Wait until it’s beamed into your brain.

  16. I love when the kids talk about how we don’t understand tech. Who do they think BUILT the networks they live and play on? Literally, in my case, as I worked for a university CS dept. for a while (We took Finland offline one day, thanks to a student networking project gone wrong (yes, the whole country…bandwidth was limited and expensive back in the day)) and in the telco sector after that. These days I work for a Large Defense Contractor.

  17. Jamie:

    I think the argument there would be that building the network isn’t the same as living on it, and that most of your generational cohort doesn’t have the same access/understanding of the tech.

  18. tanyad @ 12: Well, there’s yer future right there… there was no such thing as an HCI professor when I went to school. (Bummer… would have saved me all kinds of time and trouble.)

    In general, Scalzi’s got game here: the human animal is largely the same creature he ever was (for the most part, petty, shallow and vindictive) but there’s always hope that, as technology shrinks the world, we will continue to expand our universe of possibilities.

  19. This is something I have thought about lately, as someone from the tail end of gen x. I still am conflicted when it comes to technology’s effect on behavior.

    On the one hand my parents use GPS navigation, download MP3s and play the latest video games while still maintaining the same personalities that they did before.

    On the other hand, I feel a definite disconnect with the younger generations and their amazingly open lives, splayed out and pinned down for casual perusal on MySpace, Facebook, etc. I also wonder if being allowed the freedom to Twitter your every gastronomic function to the world might foster greater narcissism than in previous times.

  20. It is kinda funny watching larvae turn into the same damn idiot kid I was at their age. Fortunately, standards of adult behaviour are sufficiently slack these days that I can whinge “You’re stuuupid! You don’t understand me! You’re too YOUNG!

    If you time it right, the look on their face is priceless. And now I have to listen to JoCo singing that it’ll be the future soon.

  21. In one sense your assertion that ‘people don’t change’ is a tautology: as long as they’re anything we define as human they’re going to need and want food, shelter, security, to raise kids, etc etc.

    In another sense it’s trivially wrong: everything we come in contact with every day shapes us, and technologies that allow us to travel or learn or indulge idle curiosity more easily certainly change us, if only by allowing us to build better ideas based on the possibilities we see before us. (This, incidentally, is why building the new tech is different from growing up with it – to the builders, the tech IS the big idea. To the next generation, it’s part of the landscape and they’ll have their own Big Ideas)

  22. “Talk to the hand.

    “No, seriously. I am interested.

    “Talk to the hand, it’s where the audio processing gear is……….”

    (The “Inappropriate Six Million Dollar Man” – great concept)

  23. John, the things you point out here are my favorite aspects of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The books may be set 2000 years in the future, but human behavior still has much more in common with the era of the Napoleonic Wars than it has diverged.

  24. PJ @ 24:

    You said everything we come in contact with every day shapes us, and technologies that allow us to travel or learn or indulge idle curiosity more easily certainly change us, if only by allowing us to build better ideas based on the possibilities we see before us.

    Everything we come in contact with also allows us to build worse ideas even faster.

    Perspective, which is nothing more or less than experience plus reflection, takes time. And my friend, as communications technologies get faster and faster, which they do now and will continue to do so, time to dwell on an idea or experience is something that that the population at large seems less willing to indulge in.

  25. I agree that the human animal hasn’t changed in that our motivations, desires, fears, hopes, etc. are very basic — mostly hard-wired. And I also agree that every single new generation thinks that their generation is unique and that the older generation will never get it because they haven’t been raised in the same way as the younger generation (guilty as charged — and I came of age in the late 70s).

    But I do see one very important change that has affected me as well as my kids: our level of communication. All our motivations may be the same, but on a day to day basis, the volume of people I communicate with, and the number of ideas I encounter, have grown exponentially. My “community” is now quite different than it was 15 years ago. The community my children live in is dramatically different than the one I grew up in — and don’t mean geographically but rather how it isn’t bound by geography.

    Not being as bound by geography is a very dramatic change. Take your life, John: you can live in rural Ohio at a job that used to exist only in cities, and share ideas with people instantly when you could only do so at conferences or by expensive telephone calls. I believe we are still at its very earliest stages of how this communication revolution will affect us, but our society is changing and will continue to change as a result. People may still be people, but we will be thinking about things and in ways that we have never thought before.

  26. …the quote could come from the alt.society.gen-x newsgroup, circa 1994…

    Oh, just thinking about ‘zines like Mondo2000 raving on about how in just a few years we’d all be smart-drug enhanced post- or trans-humans with implanted connectivity. Because, you know we were different! Ah, good times.

  27. Jamie: I’m a CS major, too, and I certainly understand how most of the technology works. But there are things I just don’t get: World of Warcraft, Facebook, Live Journal, texting, etc. Sometimes I feel like an old fogey: “Why don’t you just take your cell-phone and call?” :-)

    But ultimately, I disagree with John. We do live in a science-fictional world. We just don’t notice it. Consider:

    1) Once upon a time, it was hard to get in touch with a family member. We both needed to be at home (and long-distance calls cost serious money). Now I can call my family members while I standing in the store, and ask, “Should we bring any last-minute stuff for Thanksgiving dinner?”

    2) In the 80s, knowledge was hard to get. I lived in a rural town, with a rather nice town library. But as late as 1992, it took me several months to track down basic information about C++. Today, I can literally gain more professional knowledge in an afternoon, at least for the shallow stuff. I just Google, and start reading. Sure, half the stuff on the internet is nonsense. But so was half the stuff in our town library.

    3) As late as 1994, books were hard to get. I recall driving to MIT, and walking into the MIT Press bookstore. For a geek, it was almost magical. Books on C++! And other strange languages! (And Quantum Books? Paradise on earth.) But today, I walk through these bookstores and feel frustration. Why don’t they have perfectly wonderful book X on important subject Y? Then I go home, click around on Amazon, and order some absolutely wonderful specialty book (printed “on demand” by a university press in the UK), and it arrives on my doorstep 24 hours later.

    My great-grandparents grew up with outhouses, oil lamps, and horse-drawn carriages. They lived to see a man walk on the moon. For those who have eyes to see, we live in a world crazier than any Charles Stross novel. I read science fiction to keep that sense of wonder alive in my day-to-day life.

  28. AliceB:

    Well, I certainly agree that technology makes possible things that were difficult before, and I’m glad of it, since I like where I live.

    I’m not sure that the level of communication is necessarily that much different in my life, however. What I notice is that it’s changed: I’m rather more likely to talk to friends via IM, for example, than I am by phone. The people who fifteen years ago I would talk to for 20 minutes by phone once or twice a week I now IM a little bit each day, or e-mail. And, of course, a lot of basic “how’s my life” communication is handled through me posting on the blog and in turn reading people’s blog/twitter feeds/social networking pages.

    This is in terms of talking with my actual friends, mind you. I do think one thing that is vastly different now is that it’s far easier to strike up conversations with people who are essentially strangers, like, well, I do most every day in the comment threads here. But even in that I was doing something very similar more than 20 years ago, when I would log in to a local BBS (The Citadel!) at 300 baud and read all the conversations there.

    Erik K:

    Yeah, but my point is that the people in and around the technology are the same. Come back in another 50 years, there will be tech that will make today’s stuff look like horse and buggy — but it’s a better than even bet that the people using it will be very much like you are, just as fundamentally you are like your great-grandparents.

    This is a topic which is inherently prone to drift — “Look at all this cool stuff! Surely this qualifies as science fictional!” — but what’s at the heart of it is whether these new technologies fundamentally change who we are as humans. I’m not at all convinced they do, even if they do make our day-to-day lives easier, more interesting, and more cool.

  29. My wife’s in ed tech, and she likes to open presentations with a quote about how all this new technology is going to ruin schools, that teachers will forget how to teach, and students will lose the opportunity to learn for themselves, as the tech does it for them (I’m paraphrasing).

    Then the reveal: It’s from the 1800s, and it’s someone bitching about chalkboards in the front of the room.

    Certain things about human beings do not change, but I know that my own ability to retain basic facts has atrophied through near-constant access to the global info-mat. I can still remember my best friend’s phone number from high school, but I don’t even remember his email address now, even though I use it all the time, because I have machines that remember it for me.

    It’s not my area, but my wife tells me that this shifting away from memorization and toward searching skills is an empirically verified trend among the digerati.

  30. MikeT:

    “my wife tells me that this shifting away from memorization and toward searching skills is an empirically verified trend among the digerati.”

    In the old days, this was called “research”. And I agree — it’s the hot new skill.

  31. Great point, well made. Humanity remains constant while technology changes.

    That is why ancient literature and antiquated literature remains interesting and relevent. Human nature has remained constant.

    Trey

  32. Agreed! 100%. The mistake the woman in your example is making is assuming that her internet-based queer identity is the most important aspect of herself as a person, rather than a surface affectation. That’s a mistake frequently made by the young–thinking their clothes or their music or their slang or their friends or their politics make them who they are. And because these things are changing all the time, it must be that the older folks can’t possibly understand.

    Here’s a wonderful anecdote on this theme. It comes from the book, Nurtured by Love, by Shinichi Suzuki, father of the Suzuki Violin movement. (I have to paraphrase due to fuzzy memory.) Background on Suzuki is that he worked in his father’s violin factory before world war II in Japan, and taught himself to play the instrument at the age of 19 from a record. He went to Europe later to study the violin further, and became a friend of Albert Einstein. At one soiree at which Einstein and Suzuki and others were in attendance, there was a discussion about a Japanese violinist whom they had all heard play. One woman wondered aloud how it was possible that someone from an exotic place like Japan could capture the essential GERMAN nature of the piece that he had played. Einstein’s response was, “People are the same everywhere.” And they really are. We can recognize differences between us, but it is always and ever a mistake to assume that someone else is so different from you that you could never understand each other. It just takes finding a language that you both speak, like music.

  33. gadget change, people don’t — that is until gadgets that CHANGE people become available. Already the ease of availability of phych/pharma IS changing people – (many would argue – for the better, towards weing a well adjusted personality etc – YEA prozac) how long until personality implants, brain enhancements, other types of ‘wetware’ start to change our conception of what it means to be Human or Normal? – for an excellent examination of this concept, may I suggest – The Ghost Brigades – by John Scalzi ?

  34. There’s a certain level of technology that’s undeniably identity-forming. The technology that has made me not a mother before the age of 33 (by choice; and I’m talking about the birth control pill)–easily the biggest one I can think of. Nope, I don’t care that it’s a 40-year-old technology, because they’re updating it all the time. I probably couldn’t have taken the earlier forms of the pill, and they’re making it more flexible all the time. And food technology shifts? Given my ancestors, I would be a farmer’s wife with seven kids without the world as it is today.

    I might instead be a midwife married to a lumberjack, given my ancestral predilections, but I certainly wouldn’t be an information worker married to a computer guy. If that’s not identity, I don’t know what is…

  35. It didn’t take long into that thread on dsudis’ LJ for someone to haul out the hoariest cliche of all — the proof of your thesis in less than a dozen words:

    “…I really don’t get how people survived the 60s and 70s…”

    You know, I don’t either. I just imagine them writing long, lyrical letters by candlelight to loved ones across the state, unless the neighbors came by with the new Atlantic to read aloud one of Mr. Twain’s comical sketches. Then they’d take out a fiddle and rubboard and dance and sing…

    In the 1970s we drove to the ATM, listening to mixtapes, and brought home a pizza to eat while watching cable or playing video games. Hard to imagine, I know.

  36. To the extent that brain implants are used to treat medical conditions and result in a change in behavior, I think there’s an argument that technology is truly changing people. It’s not just faster, easier access to information or technology to save/prolong life. This argument might also be made for high-tech psychotropic medications.

  37. If you want an interesting look at the negative side to the younger generations’ absorption in the internet, Mark Bauerlein ( http://www.dumbestgeneration.com/ ) wrote a book; title of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)”. Think of him as today’s Neil Postman. He sees the emphasis on getting what we want, now, as a problem, that we lack the ability to focus on any one thing for any amount of time as one of the results.

  38. The question is, will this hold true for genetic engineering? I don’t mean genetic engineering of babies, which would sort of side step the question and is likely to be rather dull anyway. Yes, yes, your child is smart and handsome and sort of predictably good-looking.

    Genetic engineering of adults is likely to be far more interesting.

  39. I think the only thing that makes us different is the communication mentioned by several others. Not just faster communication, but broader. I have had regular correspondence with an English teacher in Korea, for instance, and occasional correspondence with people whose location I don’t even know. One I thought was in California turned out to be an EU diplomat in Africa. This has two conflicting effects.

    1. Opens the mind to more ideas than you could ever have come across otherwise. This opening is not just reading about new or different ideas, but being able to talk about them, real-time, which is I think a rather different experience than writing letters that take a week or more to arrive.

    2. Provides access to a lot of others all over the place who think as you already do, giving you the opportunity to strengthen and harden your mindset. I think (or at least I hope) that this is a smaller effect than #1, but only time will tell.

    The advance of technology is rapid, and that keeps things interesting. My grandparents were all born in the 19th century, and my grandchildren (except the first) were all born in the 21st century. That fact makes me realize how fast time really goes, in spite of the drugery of making it home from work on a blizzardy Monday. Then there is the old standby, (true in my case) “my mother remembers the first crystal radio and first automobile in her town, and lived to watch men walking on the moon on her living-room color TV.”

    I think the wide access to information, interaction, and entertainment provided by the internet and television have made me a different person mentally than I would have been otherwise. And technology has certainly made my children different than they would have been. If I had lived my life as a high-school teacher (my intention when I started college) I probably would have had only 2 children because I wouldn’t have been able to support more than that. Working in the high-paying high-tech world of computers, I was able to support 5. Without new technology, the younger 3 would certainly have been different people than they are now, because they would have had different parents or not existed at all.

  40. I think there’s a disconnect here that springs from the different definitions of “science fiction” people use — definitions that are not wholly interchangeable.

    I take Scalzi’s point about “living a science fiction story” to mean living a “hard core” science fiction story. “Hard core science fiction” — as I understand the phrase in literature — means a science fiction story in which one aspect of technology or science (frequently physics) is changed or tweaked, and then the subsequent ripple effects of that change are taken to their logical conclusion. In hard core science fiction, the science itself is the crux of the story, the technological change alters everything around it, and this alteration includes humans. The main point of the story is to see how this ultimately plays out.

    Given this definition, things casually described as science fiction movies — like Star Wars or Star Trek — really are not hard core science fiction movies. This is because even though the technology is much different, it hasn’t really changed anything about humans. Humans are humans in these movies, and the story underlying the original Star Wars movie could be told equally as well as a Japanese Samurai movie, a Western, a Pirate movie, etc. etc. etc.

    (Same/same for Star Trek. Why could they get away with all those time travel episodes? Nazis, 18th Century San Francisco? Simple . . . it didn’t alter the basic storytelling.)

    So, yeah. Now we have cell phones that have taken the place of and even superseded Star Trek communicators. That doens’t mean we’re living in a science fiction movie world; it just means we have new technology. The new technology allows us to do the same old human things, it just allows us to do them in different, easier, faster ways.

    For my money, we won’t really be living in a science fiction movie world until technology has been plugged directly into our consciousness; when we’re all of us connected to some vast ethernet, effortlessly skimming through it while at the same time existing in the physical world . . . well, then that will be a true change in who we are as humans (I think), that change will result directly from the change in our technology, and that will then be us living in a hard core science fiction movie world.

    Until then, the most we might aspire to is a role in some Space Fill-in-the-Blank (Space cowboys, Space samurai, Space investment brokers, etc.) movie.

  41. I no longer brown my bread in the brick oven fire.

    I have this magic box called a toaster. It makes my bread warm and crispy. You would never understand. My life is mystical compared to yours. I have warm and crispy bread. I am different from you.

  42. I do get that being able to communicate faster and better doesn’t change the nature of people. But I think the modes of communication that exist now can.

    It’s an old saw: there’s the family me, the work me, the political me, the whatever social group(s) I belong to me. Put me in each of those contexts and I have slightly different behaviors because different behaviors are expected of me. Now add the internet. That’s the internet me. And the internet me is really not the family me, the work me or the political me. It’s yet another persona. (You know: “You don’t know me by what I’ve written on the net.”) All these mes are interconnected — of course. But the internet me requires a new set of thinking and behaviors, in addition to the regular rules of interacting with people. They aren’t exactly the same as any other social group I know of because it’s a 2-D world with only occasional sound, with a significant proportion based on the written word, and where I almost never meet the individuals on a face-to-face or phone basis.

    Now my kids have grown up with an internet me. Some of it is social networks based on geography — an extension of their day to day world. But as they’ve gotten older, some of it isn’t — they’ve met folks far away that they are never likely to meet in person. They have learned social behaviors to deal with talkative strangers, behaviors that I don’t see matched in the 3-D world. It’s not the same as going to a huge party where you carry conversations with new people, because you’re dealing with conversations over stretches of time, and you can’t hide the conversation you had yesterday, because it’s been archived.

    So, yeah, overall, they’re still the same kids like any other kid. But they also have a new set of skills and ways of thinking that I don’t think existed when I was their age.

  43. Hi John –

    I agree with your position that technology has not changed the essential Me. I can live without it, I can survive without it. I like it, that is for sure, and it has aided in my successes.

    I think you have expressed this with great clarity in OMW where the BrainPal is such a foreign entity to those people born without one that they are named some gut-splittingly funny names (I had to stop the audiobook due to raucous laughter). You also illustrated the differences in those who were born with the BrainPal incorporated.

    I’m not going to say we should / shouldn’t do anything of the sort, but I think the only level of technology that would change the essential person is having it incorporated from birth.

  44. You know, you could take this to the ultimate end point…

    …and write a transhumanist sf piece set at the end of a Singularity (a ‘hangover after the Singularity’?) that has a cast of characters who are misfits, dicks and idiots, have plot completely driven by the hideous errors ignorance and stupidities of people being people (and AI being AI, godbrains being godbrains, that sort of thing).

    I’d buy it.

  45. Saint-Guilheme-le-Desert, Herault, France – Archeologists discovered a heretofore-unknown series of rooms in the medieval Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, uncovering a trove of documents estimated to be five hundred years old. Among the documents are a series of “circular letters”, letters that were sent among various abbeys to which the learned monks would append commentary on the issues of the day. Scholars are working to translate the circular letters, which include the following:

    “So, frankly, we are living in a printed book. Modern Cistercians are textually native and it’s shaping us in ways that the older generations, even a lot of Benedictines, simply can’t grasp yet because they *aren’t* native.”

    Researchers believe that the thoughts expressed by this unnamed monk reflect how the rapid changes brought about by the invention of the movable type printing press induced a pace of societal change not seen before or since.

  46. Kids today, they’ve got it so easy man!

    Internet? HA! If we wanted to know something we had to go to this crazy place called “the library”. Email? Pffft! We had to actually write – with a pen – a letter and walk all the way to the mailbox (uphill both ways, always in a driving snowstorm), and even then it took like a WEEK to get there.

    When we were kids we didn’t have 3d systems running games with multiple levels and interactive play. NO! We had the Atari 2600. Your dude was a little freakin’ square! You had to use your imagination, man. And when you finished a level it didn’t change, it just started over again, faster and faster… until you died. Just like real life.

    And we didn’t have texting or camera-phones. Hell, we didn’t even have caller ID! When the phone rang you didn’t know who it was! It could be your parents, it could be your landlord, it could be your drug-dealer… you just didn’t know! And god forbid someone try to call while you were on the phone. Call waiting? Uh-uh, they got a terrifying thing called a “busy signal”.

    And we didn’t have MP3s and Napsters; If you wanted to steal music you had to go to the record store and shoplift it yourself. And you couldn’t just download porn, you had to bribe some homeless dude to buy you a copy of Hustler or rub one off to the lingerie section of the Sears catalog.

    Do you see what I’m saying? You got it so easy you spoiled little bastards!

    (Serious props to Ernest Cline)

  47. Although I am now an attorney, I also trained as a historian, and I can tell you that people do change–slowly and over generations. As time continues, technology changes. Society changes. Religion changes. All of these affect the people who live in a particular time, and more. It is rarely possible to tell what has had the biggest effect for centuries, even if then. Antibiotics and birth control are both biggies. Is the internet? Who knows; we’re too close to it to tell.

    Every generation has the myth that it is unique, but that myth contains a kernel of truth. The problem is that neither that generation nor those immediately around it have the detachment to tell what the exact differences really are–in other words, what’s normal, repetitive “human” stuff and what is truly new and unique. This is further compounded by the fact that changes are usually pretty incremental and gradual.

    Things change. I am 37 years old and actually attended a segregated school in the rural south (a private school was established to ensure segregation–EVERY white child went to the private school (on a sliding fee scale) (both it and the public school sucked, BTW). Fortunately, my mom had the sense to move us the hell out of there as soon as possible. Now we have a black president. Things change.

    That being said, I don’t think that any society can ever be truly “science fictional.” To the members of the society, it’s all accepted, and the gradual changes have already occured. What makes science fiction what it is is the fact that we’re observing these societies as outsiders, which can never really happen in our own society.

    Sorry for the long ramble….

  48. AAARGH. I have so many online identities I don’t know who I am today. But really, I’m the same person I’ve always been. (See how I tied my screw-up back to the topic? Aren’t I clever? … pathetic, but clever.)

  49. First, I’ll mostly echo JJS above. That’s much of what I would have had to say.

    Second, I’ll also say I agree to a certain degree with the thesis of this post: at some level, at our core, we’re all human and there probably is some central nugget of identity that would be unchanged regardless of environment. But that leads into nature v. nurture. You offer the notion of swapping babies across centuries and continents, but that’s a red herring: all you could prove by such a demonstration is that our genome is largely unchanged and does not contribute to our identity such that it would make a 21st century infant uniquely out of place in the 1st century.

    But of course our identity is so much more than that. Catherine Shaffer refers to the commenter’s queer identity as a “surface affectation.” The trouble is, I think, is that much of how we think of ourselves is a significant layering of such “surface affectations.” One’s personal identity is a conglomeration of who they are, what they do, who their friends are, their political identity, their gender identity, their sexual identity, and so on. Maybe at the base of it, drilling way down, they’re still a glib smartass, or whatever, but alter those layers and effectively you’re altering how they see themselves and how they interact with society, or whether they interact at all.

    Third, I think you’re making the opposite mistake of believing yourself or your generation to be exceptional, by believing that you and your generation are generic. Your situation might not have changed much absent technology, but it’s clear that many situations would have and many people who define themselves through or by technology would be adrift; I, for one, would have to stop calling myself an “IT guy” and that would be a huge chunk out of my aggregate identity–not to mention that it would make me unemployed and largely unemployable, which would have a non-trivial impact on my identity and personality. Again, maybe down in some indeterminate core I would be the same Dave you’ve known for years, but I would certainly be a far more desperate and bitter Dave going forward.

  50. “The digital world helped this woman develop her identity, to be sure; but this does not mean she could not have developed it (or something reasonably similar) without it.”

    Not intending any insult to the woman you mentioned, but she might even have formed a better identity without it. Maybe not her, but others may have found other, more rewarding, identities with less, or different technology.

    Sometimes those who grw up with a technology forget they would have survived and become fully functional humans without it. Technology itslef if neither good nor bad; it’s what individuals do with it that matters. The technology doesn’t care, it works either way.

  51. 1) I think a modern infant and an ancient Egyptian infant might suffer some relatively severe side-effects of different microbial agents in such severely different epochs. I mean, if we get Montezuma’s Revenge from the microbes south of the border, travelling 4,000 years plus two continents would be far more significant. The ancient Egyptian also might not have adequately evolved defenses against modern diseases. Neither of the infants would be likely to make it to the twenty-year mark.

    2) I think modern digital children are vastly different from any children that have gone before them. Take away the internet and check their problem-solving skills. They have none. I employ a digital child. She cannot read a map nor determine directions without the internet. She cannot perform research without the internet and complains if her first google search doesn’t yield the desired result. She does not read for leisure. She knows nothing about things which were deemed essential just a few decades ago: no fire-making, food preparation, cooking, sewing, certainly no hunting, gathering, gardening, canning, storing. She certainly knows nothing about mechanicals, electronics, auto maintenance, computer repair and maintenance, software or the like, so if the computer crashes she can’t fix it, can’t fix the car and can’t fix her phone. Hell, she can’t change the typewriter ribbon (yes, we still have an IBM Selectric II for some tasks). She could go for help in a crisis, but since she gets winded climbing a set of stairs, if she can’t dial for it, drive it, or access the net, whoever needs help probably isn’t gonna make it.

    The tragedy of the thing is she is typical of her generation. Her friends come to visit or have lunch from time to time and they are all the same. These children have never known adversity in any meaningful fashion, have never been tested for survival, and would be dismantled completely by children from pretty much any other era in history.

    Sure, they could probably learn, but why would they? Mr. S, you are a product of a prior time when people had to think for themselves, employ reason and logic and develop skills to cope with a world which was very large and largely unknown. If you needed to drive, you needed to be able to repair your ride. You still live in a relatively agrarian area where a lot of people learn necessary skills before they gain access to the internet. Before you, just 100 years ago, the vast majority of people had never traveled more than ten miles from their homes. They lived close to the land and each other and there was a large set of skills both personal and social which made that possible.

    Here in the urban areas, the learning opportunities for such skills are absent, and since raw information seems to be readily available to all for free anytime they want, nobody makes any effort to learn anything which isn’t required. If I asked my digital child why she wasn’t learning any of the things I mentioned above, I’m sure I would get a “Why should I?” response, and it would be a fair one. When specialists exist for everything under the sun, why should the digital children learn anything in particular outside of their career path? They don’t, and they won’t. Could they? Perhaps. I offered to pay for classes for mine to learn database management and development for a project here. She declined.

    I think what I’m trying to say here is the sheer availability of such massive quantities of data overwhelms the digital generation and makes them disinclined to learn anything which is not immediately required. They do not engage in quests for knowledge or understanding. They do what is needed and nothing more.

  52. What John said @52

    The hardware remains the same, but the software is slowly modified by the environment.

    The past (as well as the future) is another country.

    Ask anyone today if they think slavery is a good thing.

    Now imagine the reply from a sizeable slice of the population 250 years ago…………..

    Technology need not be the only driver – but even emancipation was in part driven by industrial mechanisation.

    Drop an ancient Egyptian adult into the 21st century and you have someone with a completely alien view of the world.

    We are living in science-fiction world – but can’t see it because we are too close and have been shaped by it.

  53. Ward @ 4

    “Now, when we get those flying cars we were promised, maybe then I’ll agree it’s science fictiony.”

    But that’s just it, when we get to that point, the technology that has taken us there will be so everyday that it will just seem the next logical thing to do, it won’t be science fictiony – it will be the next obvious progression.

    I read your comment and started thinking about aircraft. If you had told someone in 1850 that there would be flying machines they’d probably think you were a nut, but for our generation, it’s an everyday thing – we don’t view that as science fictiony – yet it is pretty amazing when you watch a Jumbo Jet come in to land. (I’m still awestruck by it – even though I understand all the physics that allows it to happen).

    Technology doesn’t take giant leaps, it takes tiny steps – think of telephones, the internet, email, Instant messaging, webcams, VoIP etc – so the science fiction world of tomorrow does come, it just comes at a rate that we can process and accept.

    Maybe you only get to live in a science fiction world if you live long enough to see the changes. My grandmother was born in a world without planes, lived through two world wars, saw the birth of TV and the Internet (although she didn’t have the faintest clue what the latter was). Even personally, I grew up with a TV that had four channels. If there was a viewing clash, you picked which you’d rather watch and miss the other thing. Along came VCR’s (and for the longest time my mother thought you could turn a VHS cassette over and record on the other side like an audio cassette) and now DVR’s. I’m sure if I told my daughter that as I kid I couldn’t record TV she’s think I lived in a prehistoric age.

    Just some thoughts.

    Patrick M @ 45.
    Classic. Love it. ;-)

  54. Me @57:

    Damn this no preview and not being able to edit.

    Rereading my post I realise that that was not exactly the most tasteful example I could have selected for a mainly US audience.

    If I have offended anyone at all I humbly apologise without reservation.

    (Stupid insensitive Brit…………)

  55. I don’t really agree with you John. Technology shapes our society and the way we interact with the world, and those interactions shape our self. It’s just a matter of just how much technological change you need to change your identity. The peasant of pharonic times had a radically different apprehension of the world than even the remotest peasant of a backward African country today, because the simple fact that some technologies exist, even if he himself doesn’t regularly use them, changes is understanding of reality. I don’t think a man convinced that the world is small, flat, centered on his culture with some barbarians at the fringes and run by animal-like deities who are incarnated in his ruler would have had the same pesonnality if he’d grown up in a world where we know exactly the shape and width of our world, how many different cultures and societies there are on it, where the idea of freedom and equality has radically changed, etc. Then again: would they be the same person anyway?

  56. I spent the majority of my adult life in the US military.

    When I first entered the service in the early 80’s, the previous generation (many of whom were Vietnam combat vets) bloviated on at length about how we weren’t like them. We were weak. Undisciplined. Ignorant. No attention to detail. Etc. Bunch damned kids. Stupid hippies.

    Fifteen years later as a senior NCO, and twenty years later as an Officer, I listened to my mess mates bitch endlessly about the how the new generation wasn’t like us. They were weak. Undisciplined. Ignorant. No attention to detail. Etc. Bunch of damned kids. Stupid xyz internet generation.

    Once deployed into the combat zone, however, well, those kids were exactly the same as we were. Take away network access, instant messaging, cell phones, and all the rest of it – and they were, and are, every bit as disciplined and determined and intelligent and dedicated as we were. They’re out there right now, doing the same job, with the same outlook and understanding, as their fathers and grandfathers before them. And they are, no doubt, bitching the same bitch about the latest generation.

    Technology changes. Societies change because of those technologies. People, however, remain pretty much exactly the same. Strip away the technology and you’ll see that almost instantly. There may come a time when technology changes the fundamental nature of human beings, but that time isn’t here yet.

  57. The more I think about it, the more it seems this thread is a recasting of the eternal nature vs. nurture debate. Are our behaviors solely a product of external influences, or solely a product of internal design, or some combination of both? Technology has had, and will always have, a profound effect on the external influences on human behavior. Tech in recent decades has greatly expanded the range of human behavior, allowing more of us to connect more widely and more deeply with each other.

    Need to think more about this.

  58. I disagree to a small extent.

    Communications tools? No big deal. From smoke signals to letters to the telegraph to satellite phones, the method has changed and the speed of the result has changed, but the end result remains the same–the ability to communicate over long distances.

    Knowledge storage? From a shaman to a single book, to a library to the Internet, the way we get the information has changed, and the access to the information has broadened, but they way we use it? He listen or read and take in information.

    BUT technology includes medical technology, and that has significantly altered the lives of many individuals, and I do not mean in a life saving way.

    My doctor is all but wheelchair bound due to MS, yet technology allows him to continue practicing medicine, because computer makes up for the fact he can no longer move easily–everything he needs from x-rays to blood results to MD Consult is on-line, so his inability to walk and lift has not restricted his ability to be a practicing family physician.

    Men and women who have lost legs in war or due to disease are not stuck in wheel chairs or with crutches, but are able to walk and even run. Artificial limbs are being developed to respond to nerves and muscles controlled by the brain. Individuals who might have been relegated to hospitals and asylums a century ago are now productive members of society.

    This year we had a man with no legs complete in the Olympic trials.

    And the big obvious one, without technology we would not have Stephen Hawking. Without technology he would not be able to share his brilliance with the rest of the world, and thus–eventually–profoundly change our lives.

  59. I have been reading along and thinking about this thread for awhile this morning and the only thing I can add is an example from my own family.

    My mom and Stepdad, 78 and 86 years old. They see no reason for having a computer, e-mail or even a cell phone and don’t. Could care less about tech and the changes it has brought. I can’t even convince them to keep a cell in the care for emergency use only.

    My mother and father in law, 76 and 80. Retired RN and Methodist minister. Use cell phones and the internet. My FIL suggested that they needed a wireless hub and a laptop so he could work on things at the dining room table while my MIL was using the desktop. The big change? The laptop replaced the old typewriter that he still used to type up items when the desktop was busy.

    My family, 3 desktops, 2 laptops, wireless hub, cell phones and a wireless PDA.

    The point of all of this is that the technology doesn’t make a generation different. What’s different is which people embrace and use the technology and which do not.

    I would guess that the younger generations accept the uses a little easier for reasons others have mentioned, I.E it’s already here and part of the enviroment, but I hesitate to say that makes them different from the prior generations who do accept and utilize the tech as it appears.

    Jeff S.

  60. There is a tendency for people to think that life now is uniquely “complex” and that people lived “simpler” lives back in the 1960s, or the 1930s, or the middle of the 19thC or whatever, and envy them. I suspect, in fact, that they were just differently complex times to live through, and only appear relatively simple to us because we know What Happened Next. On the technological front, sailing ships have been superseded by jetliners, but navigating and operating sailing ships demanded a hell of a lot of technical and spatial awareness skills possibly lacking from modern air-pilots using GPS systems.

    My father died a few years ago aged 86 and never “got” the Internet or indeed computers in general. It’s not that he wasn’t tech-minded in some respects – he knew his way around still and movie film and f-stops, he had built his own enlarger and printed stuff as a teen, in his 20s he was flew Liberator 4-engined bombers and he retired in the 1970s as an airline captain on 707s (pre- the electronic flight deck). But something my 12-yo nephew can do – go online and send emails and play fantasy football etc etc – conceptually defeated him. No doubt the raw material was there – had my father been 12 now he would go online too.

    Another feature of looking backwards with hindsight is the tendency to feel people in the past are “trapped” with their low levels of technology (and simple lives), forced to watch black and white squareish movies without sound. Yet at the time, it would have been great. When those of us old enough to watch live footage from the Moon on Apollo 11, as I did as an 11-yo, we said, wow, amazing, not, oh noes! it’s low-definition and black&white and rather ghostly. I should think most of us watching news reports from around the world now don’t say, this sucks, it is not in surround-3D with smells and infohotspots, I feel trapped in 2008 when I know that 2038 is going to be full of the yet-unborn laughing at our primitiveness.

    I suppose every generation is similar in that they/we all feel our experience and sense of the world is the peak of human development, and everyone from the past is trapped in some hidebound old – but simple – way of doing things and the kids just don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them, they just take it for granted and waste their time. Or something.

  61. Swampmaster@60. I never disputed that technology is *A* factor, it just is not the only one. My underlying point is that it is impossible for people in or near a time to tell what was most important to their society. Furthermore, it will vary regionally. An educated American certainly feels a greater effect from technology than, say, a rural villager in the third world. Both probably do differ from an ancient Egyptian, but attributing these effects exclusively–or even predominantly–to technology is a mistake, IMHO. The religions differ radically, and, whether a person is individually religious or not, religion does matter in defining a society. The social structures (slavery, monarchal system of government, etc) also differ radically. The amounts of personal definition caused by each factor vary, and are impossible to determine while they are occurring, if ever.

    Does the internal combustion engine define us more than desegregation? Is birth control a bigger factor in our personalities than the growth of spectatorism? These are questions that we can’t answer; in part, they’re not amenable to answering. Even if they are, we lack the detachment to do so.

    I also don’t buy that we’re really past the “barbarians at the fringes” thing, either, or ever will be. Now, it’s terrorists and criminals rather than visigoths, but the effect is still there. Being scared of dangerous outsiders is one of those things that I suspect is common to all societies.

    Getting (circuitously) back to the point, this lack of detachment which is inherent in living within a society prevents us from being in a “science fiction” world. The detachment and sense of wonder is part and parcel of science fiction. Once you see and use any technology every day, it is no longer a wonder and you are no longer detached.

  62. So you’re saying, if a community of humans were, say, dropped off onto a distant planet and stripped of all their modern technology, they would actually survive, and retain their essential humanity and personalities?

  63. No offense, John, but this seems like a rather short-sighted view of how technology impacts people. Go back far enough and we’d all be peasants and serfs. We’d either own slaves or at least think there was nothing wrong with it and that it was necessary to maintain a civilization. Our knowledge of the world would be limited to the patch of land we were born on and our attitudes about other peoples and lands would be hardened by lack of any interaction with such things. I don’t think I would be the same person. Hell, if my parents hadn’t come to America and had me here my life and personality would probably be quite different.

    Technology makes life easier so that we don’t have to worry so much about pure survival and have time of think of other things. I’m not saying that tech makes it more likely that women would be seen as equal or that people wouldn’t be treated as chattel but it helps. Those people if they were born today are likely to be less cynical and embittered people. They would have opportunities to develop their potential. It’s not the people have changed but there are more possibilities for those people to choose from if they try for it.

    I’m also curious about your idea that technology has to fundamentally change who we are as human beings to qualify as science-fictional. Not only does that disqualify most science fiction this side of the Singularity, I don’t see why that’s a necessary condition.

  64. I have to admit, John, that I am not sure I understand your argument. You seem to be saying that technology would have to fundamentally change who people were for us to be living in a science fictional world but exactly what science fiction, even expanding the discussion into written scifi, posits that?

    Most scifi seems to deal with people being people and acting accordingly (post-Singularity upload societies and most alien races are, for these purposes,not people). In fact, what I’ve taken from both scifi and real(ish) life is that people are amazingly adaptable to an endless stream of changes; that ability to adapt being essentially the defining character of humanity and the reason we made it off of the savanna.

    Pretty much any future would look like science fiction and the future we get is never any that we would imagine (as most of us here are well aware), so I’m not really sure what we’re talking about in this discussion.

  65. Vincent:

    “No offense, John, but this seems like a rather short-sighted view of how technology impacts people.”

    However, far less short-sighted than the idea that technology changes how people interact and relate in such a short period of time that other people a decade older have no understanding of it, which is silly.

    And also, I’m not sure I buy into your police work 100%. With a name like “Scalzi,” which means “barefoot,” it’d pretty clear I come from hardy peasant stock, but I have to wonder if I came across one of my 10th century forebears if he might not have a sense of humor and self that I would recognize as running in the family.

  66. The biggest difference between a medieval person isn’t cars and computers. Technologically, the greatest differences would be in agricultural technology (fertilizers, in particular) and medicine. These developments are one factor. My point is that there are others, and that these others are commonly more important. Many things combine to make us who we are. Some are technology. Some are religion. Some are language. Some are accepted social structures. Some are idiosyncratic and unique to the individual. Is the internet more important than the invention of movable type? I have grave doubts about that, although one can argue.

    And that’s the whole point. It’s not any one factor, it is several of which technology is only one. For some societies and people, it is a larger one, but it varies. Most imporantly, those living in a society cannot tell with any accuracy what has made them what they are because they lack detachment.

    As for the living in a science fiction world argument, I feel that a fundamental part of any science fiction story is within the reader/viewer–outside of the story, in other words. Barring major, highly unusual choices, we cannot totally detach ourselves from society. Thus, we cannot feel this sort of detachment and the experience is different. This is very much a subjective feeling/issue, however.

  67. Funny how many of the dissenters bring up examples of what people *do* to prove that their essential nature has changed, when a person’s nature, or human nature, is about what you *are*. You can give a person a blackberry or cure their brain cancer, or whatever, but in their heart of hearts, they are still going to pick their nose at the stoplight. Because that’s human nature. Girls will still stab each other in the back over the cutest guy. Men will forget to put the toilet seat down. Kids will smear jelly on the walls. Humans are humans.

    Some people have mentioned transplanting people from other centuries into this century. But in fact, you can do that experiment by moving people from third world countries to developed countries. It happens every day? Do they die of culture shock? Of course not. They get themselves a Blackberry and they pick their nose at the stop light. We are all born to use technology. One difference is that younger people have an easier time learning new skills. That doesn’t make them ontologically different than every other generation that comes before, any more than than their curious ability to eat whole pizzas without gaining weight. (Damn you to hell, generation Y!)

  68. Two points, though I agree with your larger statement:

    a) That kid from Egypt will be dead in 6 months – no resistance to modern germs and probably a shitty pregnancy relative to today’s riboflavin-enhanced babies.

    b) I often wonder about people doing what they’re meant to do. For instance, what if you were born with all of the physical gifts and the emotional temperament to make you an expert blacksmith? Today you’d be out of a job, a hundred years ago you’d be in demand, and 4 thousand years ago, you’d be wondering you don’t seem to be good at anything.

    Of course, many of the skills of smithing would probably transfer to other careers. But what about violists? Or more to the point that makes this all about me, me me: what about programmers?

    I have a pretty good life. I’ve got a couple great kids, a girlfriend I can’t get enough of and a pretty stable financial situation. But even 50 years ago, this wouldn’t have been likely. Geeks like me are finding brides, making lives and having babies in record numbers. Those of us who were lousy hunter-gatherers are now in great demand.

    I contend that while my essential self, if you will, may be the same as it would be had I been born 200 years ago, I wouldn’t have had any kind of life, because the skills I have a) are uniquely suited to this time, and b) not terribly transferable to anything else.

    So technology may not be the central issue of the story of my life: but like a good sci-fi movie, it’s what makes the story possible.

  69. You know, the question seems to be muddied by the whole (maddening) issue of generational difference, as well as a bit of contextual myopia. What if we frame it this way:

    Is an 18-year-old Manhattan “digital native” so fundamentally altered by technology that we could reasonably call her a different kind of human being than, say, an 18-year-old raised in rural Afghanistan?

    Most people, I think, would be hesitant to suggest that there’s some constitutional, intractable difference in the nature of the two women. They have a different set of tools and opportunities which are going to heavily influence the ways in which they live, relate, and develop.

    But are the New York digital native’s emotions, needs, ideas, and dispositions SO different that, even transplanted to Manhattan and provided all the relevant education, the Afghanistani non-native won’t be able to understand them? Of course not.

    (Anecdotal note: I’m in my twenties. I lived in Richmond, VA until I was ten, and can’t remember a time before I was allowed to play with the Richmond FreeNet. My mom developed networks with IBM through most of the 80’s, so I grew up with this stuff, and probably qualify as an early or proto-digital native. When I was eleven, we moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Appalachian stereotypes are largely misguided, but my new friends sure as hell hadn’t grown up building Godzilla fan pages. The idea that there was something constitutionally different about us is really absurd. I can’t help feeling like a relevant test subject.)

  70. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggIjrTM23Uw
    and ignore the stuff about John McCain, but pay attention to all those folks on screen whose lives are TOTALLY DIFFERENT than they would be without technology. And I would make the case that, yes, these enhanced abilities have indeed changed who they are, how they perceive themselves, how they are in the world. Beats hell out of lying in bed in a nursing home all your life, which is where a whole lot of disabled people used to end up.

  71. Has Technology fundamentally changed what it means to be human? Yes and no. Biologically we’re no different from those early homo-sapiens who ventured forth from Africa a few million years ago evolution takes place on a geological time scale so to some extent the argument stands. Yet physical evolution only accounts for a small portion of human development.

    Societal evolution specifically technological has a profound and lasting effect on us as a species. Just the development of agriculture resulted in populations that would never have been sustainable without it.
    One of the biggest concerns regarding peak oil specifically revolves around our ability to feed our existing population without the use of petroleum based fertilizers.

    I have two young children 4 and half and 7 months so I think about this quite a bit. Hell when I was there age cable didn’t even exist and I remember hating football because it would interdict my saturday monster movies. My son on the other hand has pretty much whatever age apropriate content available to him 24 hours a day, Between the DVR and on demand features. At 4 he’s playing with computers that are far in advance of what even science fiction writers were envisioning when i was his age.

    I’ve seen the change myself just in my lifetime at just shy of 40. The changes in behavior the cell phone alone has wrought are pretty profound. In my teens and early 20s mobile phones were in big bags usually kept in cars and were only used by the most afluent. Now I have a phone with computing power far beyond the most advanced supercomputers of that age.

    When I was in the Marine’s I’d have to use a pay phone with a calling card to call my parents hopefully at a time when they were home, They’d have leave a message with the duty desk and wait for me to get it or send a letter to get in touch with me. Now I just pull the phone off my hip and call at a moment. Same with my wife. I remember once when I was younger getting a concusion at school and having to lay about in pretty much misery for a couple hours until they managed to reach my mother, When my son gets sick they just call me or my wife and get us immediately on our cells.

    Hell now it’s even faster, wifes going to be in a meeting and I really really need to tell her something pop off a text lands on her phone in seconds.
    She remembers something else we need from the store after I leave booya text or call problem solved.

    Yes every generation thinks they are unique and they are both and wrong. I grew up in a world where the idea of a black man as president was something we wondered if we’d ever see. My son is going to grow in a world where they’ll wonder what the big deal was.

    Technology has already fundamentally altered politics. No longer can a politician say one thing one day then completely contradict themselves a week later. Want to know why Obama and not Clinton is the President Elect? Youtube.

    Clinton and McCain both were pre-youtube pols they were used to being able to change their positions with impunity safe in the knowledge that the evidence of previous statements were safely burried in the bowels of the CNN archives. But when they tried it this year 5 minutes later the video was going viral.

    Society has evolved and technology is part of the driver of that evolution. Would Obama have been president today without the cultural force of television, had it not been for the Cosby show, Lethal Weapon and other shows that depicted black people as human beings just like everyone else?

    It is not chance that the younger generation tends to be race/gender/sexual preference neutral, Proposition 8 passed primarily on older votes. My children will look back at all this controvery regarding gay marriage much the way my generation looks back on the civil rights movement wondering what the hell was the big deal about something that was so obviously the right thing to do.

    I had Great-Great grandfathers on both sides of my family who owned slaves, one was such a bastard that upon being freed his slaves killed him. Yet my best friend is a black man married to a white woman and I voted to make a black man the leader of the free world.

    And while I’d like to think that faced with the moral quandries of that day that I’d have been among the enlightened fighting for abolition. My own experience of growing up in a small rural Texas town for the early part of my life makes me wonder.

    Thomas Paine said that time makes more converts than reason, Well I say our technology plays no small part in this. Hell it was the printing press that made the American revolution possible to begin with.

    Technology continues to advance at an exponential rate I expect that my grandchildren will be born into a world that will look pretty damned science-fictiony from my point of view should I live that long.

  72. John,
    I think that your example of a modern baby and an Egyptian baby being switched and adopting fine is flawed because neither will have had the time to be affected by the technology of the period they are in, while the question in your post seems to be “how does technology affect us”.

    In response to that:
    1. People are essentially human no matter what age they live in. We could recognize someone from the 1800’s as human.

    2. People and culture change over time. That same 1800’s person (if American or European) would probably be extremely racist, be convinced that Western culture is superior to all others, have absolute faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, be confident that women are innately inferior, etc.
    Obviously this person would have a a very different outlook from the average person raised in today’s society. While both of them are people, they are by no means the same person

    3. To me, the question is whether this is a FUNDAMENTAL change. The answer would depend on how you define fundamental.
    Also, how much of this change is due to technology? It’s possible that technology has had indirect effects even where it can’t be directly tied to changes in society. Consider the change in the status of women. Could the increase in the importance of machines, electricity and information technology have de-emphasized the importance of physical strength, making women more able to support themselves economically, leading to a changing perception of them as equals rather than inferiors? That’s just an example off of the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of others.
    Main points: how big of a change do we need to see before we consider it to be fundamental? How much change over time can we attribute to technology?

    Also, KIA at 56:
    “She cannot perform research without the internet”
    Can you perform research without a library? While the means may have changed, the basic idea of looking for specific information in a large data base is the same.

    “Hell, she can’t change the typewriter ribbon”
    This skill is about as important as the ability to repair a cotton gin.

    “no fire-making, food preparation, cooking, sewing, certainly no hunting, gathering, gardening, canning, storing.”
    When the apocalypse comes, I’m sure I will feel my lack of fire-making skills. Until then I’ll try to get by on things that might actually get me a job which will pay enough that I won’t need to rely on a bonfire for warmth.

    “If you needed to drive, you needed to be able to repair your ride.”
    Your point here seems to be that people in the golden days were gloriously independent. And maybe you could repair an engine. But if a part was irreparably broken, could you mine ore, smelt it and forge it into a new part? Somehow I doubt it. Face it: we haven’t been truly independent since just about the invention of agriculture.

    “would be dismantled completely by children from pretty much any other era in history.”
    Again, relevant skills. If we ever hold a time-traveling Lord of the Flies style island death match, I’ll bet on the kids from Sparta. When it comes to something that matters today, like the ability to use the internet or program a computer, I’ll go with kids from now.

    Anyway, sorry about the long post. After reading 75 other comments, I wanted to get my money’s worth. Besides, it’s my first time posting.

  73. me:

    “I think that your example of a modern baby and an Egyptian baby being switched and adopting fine is flawed because neither will have had the time to be affected by the technology of the period they are in”

    Well, but that was my point — the human animal hasn’t changed, so both children would be perfect at home in either era. Humans remain the same, it’s just the technology that’s changed.

    (For the person upthread who noted that the Egyptian baby would probably be dead of disease in this era — assume it’s had its shots and is otherwise quite healthy.)

  74. No one has trotted out Hesiod yet? Maybe some Santayana?

    OK, three random thoughts about people being the same all over time:

    – Perhaps it’s proof of the original contention that every generation first says, “Your generation doesn’t understand what it’s like today…” and eventually says, “Kids today have it easy. When I was young…”

    – I was reading a vlogger’s comments that they worried about meeting people who had seen their YouTube videos because without the power of editing they wouldn’t be as funny/interesting in person. That pretty much echoed something I said 20 years ago about Usenet posts. And we only had text back then!

    – Charles Ponzi has been dead for almost 60 years, but people in Columbia are still being swindled by a pyramid fraud that mirrors his scheme.

  75. I agree @ 82%
    fundamental bottom line ceterpoint of being a human and the inherent abilities somewhat forcast the “who” that becomes.
    the expanding envelope of possibilities lends a broader pallet and more extreme extreme to thoes who would push it.
    & I applaud reality stretching.

    Peace,

  76. Thanks, John, for doing this one. It’s the sort of thing I rail against all the time, along with older generations also seeing younger generations as fundamentally different and changed, but in the negative sense — they see the younger folks as lazy, inconsiderate, selfish, disconnected, less knowledgable, etc. Such statements and worried news articles always make me laugh, because they say the same things now about the millenials as they did about people in their twenties when I was younger, and in the exact same terms, with the exact same concerns about whatever technology is being exploited at the time.

    And the people and journalists who say it about the millenials — they had the same accusations leveled at them as Generation X’ers (slackers) and Baby Boomers (hippies.) It’s not that Facebook has made young people more narcissistic — it’s that young people are always seen as being narcissistic, and prone to public displays that make their older cohorts blush. It’s like a collective amnesia on the one hand and for the younger ones calling older people clueless, it seems to be a biological process.

    But if and when we can alter our bodies and brain genetically, structurally, etc., as much of our SF has speculated, that same brains in the bodies argument may have to change. Until then, the scientists have told us that we humans appear to have stopped evolving, so new technology remains no more than a new model of pointy stick.

  77. John, while I agree that a new gadget doesn’t change people fundamentally, it seems like you’re saying that people throughout history are essentially the same. (If that’s NOT what you’re saying, then ignore the rest and I apologize for getting all academic-y.)

    I don’t think that’s true at all, even from a strictly sociobiological sense. We exist in a dialectic state between environment and biology – our environment and interactions literally change our brains, which then impact our society and environment. You can see a lot of variation in societies even today [1], despite it all just being (essentially) the same people. Why wouldn’t people in other times, with other social pressures, be just as different?

    Again, I agree with the weak form of the argument – your iPhone isn’t transformative by itself – and that change between generations may not be that large. [2] But people and societies across history have changed, and there’s no reason to think they would stop doing so. [3]

    [1] Aside from importing via globalization, some of the similarities may be due to the societal equivalent of convergent evolution.
    [2] Then again, ask my grandmother who I argued about civil rights with. My son can’t comprehend discriminating against someone for skin color or sexual preference, which thrills me to no end.
    [3] Though I’m not arguing that there’s a telelogical “end point” or “goal” for this change either.

  78. Hmm, yet another permutation on “nature vs. nurture”. I think your fundamental point is valid on the historic time scale (up to 5,000-10k years, say), but I also think it would be fairly reasonable to develop an SF premise/thought experiment going the opposite direction. I’ve read news of at least one study that modern culture and technology are actually correlated with acceleration of mutations in the human genome. The news item wasn’t clear on what mutations were developing, but given other studies that show the effects that emotional stress is a major factor in things like heart disease, cancer and depression, it would be reasonable to assume that we are mutating in order to adapt to the types of stresses found in advanced (at least as far as we know) civilization.

    I think it’s very likely that if a deus ex machina (DxM) kidnapped a large random sample of infants from modern times and swapped them with a similar group from the neolithic or holocene periods (say 10k-20k years ago), there would be some discrepancies in the life-expectancy of the transported infants vs. the native infant population, simply because the stressors in the modern environment (pace of technology change, suppression of “fight-or-flight”) are different from the stressors in the primitive environment (starvation, predators). The effect could be magnified if everyone was inoculated against communicable diseases and a control group in each era was also inoculated.

    Once you get to Egypt or Mesopotamia, the time period is probably too short and the stressors are closer to the modern variety to show any discrepancy, even for purposes of a thought experiment.

  79. I certainly qualify as a digital baby. I’m 20; we got our first computer and Internet connection when I was six. I’ve been using them ever since.

    Growing up with a computer has, I think, wrought a *fundamental* change in me. I started typing on the computer when I was six and learned to touch type when I was ten. I can type 100 WPM now. So I learned to type very fast, very young. And I learned typing as a digital exercise. Text could be easily moved, erased, and manipulated. Paragraphs could be written off to the side, then inserted into the body of an essay later.

    If I’d been writing essays for school even ten years earlier, I would have written them all by hand. When thinking through what I would write, I would have to have planned them out logically from beginning to end and then written them in that order. I wouldn’t have ever been able to write down scraps of ideas or offshoot paragraphs and then integrate them into my essay as I went. These days, when I write essays in college, I use OneNote to write pages of notes, then pages of brainstorm, and then another page that takes the best of what was on the earlier pages and corrals it into a logically ordered outline. Then I can open up a Word document and write an essay that follows the outline, all the while moving and rewriting and deleting as I please. I can copy a note over to remind me where the next paragraph is headed and then write the paragraph right over it when I get there.

    This isn’t just a change in writing method; it’s a change in how I have to think. I have to think step-by-step and logically to get to the end product, but I’m not constrained to only that sort of thinking. I think like someone who’s grown up storing ideas in random Word documents and using them on the fly. Heck, my brain is even probably wired a bit differently because I’ve had this method of thinking for so long. This is a fundamental aspect of who I am, and it’s due to the technology I’ve grown up with.

  80. @KIA: Maybe the problem with your employee isn’t that she’s a “digital child”, but that she’s an airhead.

    @jasonmitchell and @Merrie Haskell: YES. I’d argue that medications that have such a direct impact on emotional states and women’s lifeplans definitely change individuals, and perhaps humanity as a whole.

    @the IT nerds who were wondering what they would have done in a pre-digital age: There’s always the monasteries. I think that’s where pre-Reformation geeks in Europe hung out. (Of course, they didn’t breed, so the change in our culture may be making geek genes more prevalent in the long run.)

  81. Sarah@88
    I never used a word processor until college, but did the same thing that you describe using notebooks; you can still move paper around without typing or word processing. Of course, it is easier with computers, but people can (and do, and did) do the same thing with handwritten materials. The old paper notebooks of many aspiring writers have been replaced with notebook computers, but they really serve the same purpose and are used in almost the same way.

    People have wrestled with the questions of what we are and how did we get that way throughout human history. The answer is that lots of different things mold how we think and who we are. How someone writes an essay includes the tools to which they are accustomed, but also involves living in a society that promotes literacy, including for women, has certain educational theories and practices, and much, much more that goes beyond the technological add-ons. Does technology have an effect? Sure, but so do lots of other things, and we’re all too close to the situation to be able to accurately decide what they are or the precise ratios of what influences who we are more.

  82. Sarah:

    Eh. The process of cut and paste that you describe was done long before there were computers, by people who literally did cut and paste text from one section of a work to another (I did it myself in newspaper layout). It’s not as fundamental a change as you seem to think it is, although I certainly allow that having a computer makes it easier, thank God.

    In any event, I think you’re giving primacy to process, whereas I tend to think the motivation for the process is what is primary. The way I write novels is, for example, is doing something I call a “fractal draft,” in which I edit and revise as I go along, so that there’s only ever one draft of the work when I submit it, but it’s been as revised as much as a novel that’s had two or three drafts. Doing a fractal draft is really only something you can do using a computer — but there’s no doubt in my mind that even if I didn’t have a computer to write on, I would still be writing novels.

  83. Sarah @88: I know it may seem to you that your way of thinking and organizing information is new and dependent on technology, but for many of us it represents a change in speed, not method. Before personal computers my preferred method of writing was brain-dumping both ideas and researched bits of information on various colored note cards, going through them and expanding on the points that seemed interesting, trying them out in different orders, making an outline, and then writing to follow the outline. Sometimes I would start with an outline, dump ideas onto note cards, and then shift and sort. Same process, less convenient. All these methods were taught in schools and colleges. In fact, one of the most hated parts of the term-end papers was the requirement to turn in note cards at some midpoint, presumably to demonstrate that you had actually started the project and wouldn’t be pulling the whole paper out of thin air the night before it was due.

    Now, I’m not denying this was inconvenient, and I know people who worked for profs and writers playing with notecards so the VIP didn’t have to (picture the entire index of a major textbook with each entry on a note card, spread across the floor). But the pattern of thinking and organizing thoughts was not particularly different from your description. FWIW

  84. Ah John but would you be able to write them as quickly?

    I’m convinced (though my boomer mother disagrees) that there was a definite break between pre-word processor writers and post when it comes to volume size.

    In my youth novels tended to be a couple hundred page affairs with very tight concise prose. With the mamoth volumes being limited to a very small group of prolithic writers such as Steven King and L Ron Hubard.

    Even the many of the most prolithic such as Asimov wrote short (comparitive to today) novels.

    Now everyone and their dog is writing thousand page monstrosities ,I love em since I’m a voracious reader but I can definitely see a difference in style and scope.

    In fact I recently read Walter Jon Williams’s Implied Spaces (Excelent read which I highly recomend btw) and it was interesting just how much he packed into a relatively short volume I think in no small part due to his cutting his literary teeth as it were before personal computers were common tools.

    We also have some actual data from the people who do cognitive research that supports the idea that uses of technology affect how our brains wire up. This suggests that there are some very real biological consequences to new communication technologies.

    People organize idea’s differently resulting in new ways of looking at problems offering the chances of different solutions that may not have been seen in the past.

    And even your comparison to Sarah’s cut and paste methodology fails when you are comparing what was a very specialized career skill that you used in limited circumstances to what for her is just her native way of thinking which is used by a large portion of her peer group.

    Different ways of organizing thoughts and idea’s are likely to lead to different ways of interpreting data and possibly to novel solutions to existing problems.

    What will be the ultimate result of all this? it’s too early to tell but I find it unlikely that it will have no affect at all.

  85. Skex:

    “In my youth novels tended to be a couple hundred page affairs with very tight concise prose… Now everyone and their dog is writing thousand page monstrosities.”

    This has very little to do with computers and quite a lot to do with the changes in distribution of science fiction and other genre work in the 1980s, and the commensurate migration of SF/F into the hardcover market. Which is not necessarily something people would know about unless they were in the book industry.

  86. It seems to me that the point of technology isn’t to change our lives, it’s to make it easier for us to be the people we want to be, and give us the opportunity to change our own lives. Science fiction rings false when it makes the assumption that technology will change us — we can no more live our lives in a science fiction movie than we can in any Hollywood creation.

    Technology does sometimes seem to change us, but only by amplifying our existing quirks. As social animals, we have a passion for both justice and retribution. DNA testing all of a sudden gives us a tool for that, and naturally we try it out everywhere — and discover some uncomfortable facts about the people and system we’ve charged with seeking justice, and have to ask ourselves whether we’ve sought more justice or revenge. Technology wasn’t necessary for that; a dedicated and well-financed cadre of journalists could have done the same. (A mirror may help me to realize I’m no Sean Connery, but I was perfectly capable of discovering that on my own.)
    Instant messaging, telephones, and email are great, but they haven’t so much changed us as enabled us to live the chatty in-contact lives that we always wanted to. You can see that yearning back in John Adams’s letters to his wife. Making the hard choice to go to Washington instead of staying home with her? That changed him. A cell phone would have enabled him to stay the same.

  87. I should clarify that: ideas can change us. Technology can sometimes embody an idea, but I cannot think of any examples off the top of my head. My own discipline, robotics, is not a new idea. Indeed, it is a very old idea, as any slave owner or third-world factory manager will tell you. Robotics did not change us, and probably never will. Now, the idea that people ought not own each other? THAT changed us.

  88. Skex, I respectfully submit Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo as pre-word-processor authors who went on at considerable length. Of course, Dickens wrote episodically and was paid by the word, but–dude could go on. I don’t think his prose is particularly taut. And the copy of Les Miserables that I have is a book that also serves as a book-end!

  89. KIA has very accurately described roughly 70% of the people currently in the room with me (standard office in a midwestern small city). And it’s no surprise that your clueless employee has similarly clueless friends. But I could introduce you to another dozen kids her age that would blow you away with what they can do with their hands and with their minds.

    Inventions I think have fundamentally changed humanity:

    Basic tools: knife, string, pottery
    intentional fermentation
    the written word
    abstract math
    sailing ships
    the compass
    telescope/microscope
    reliable clocks
    telecommunications (from telegraph to PC)
    photography
    personal computers

    I’ve tried to eliminate from this list anything that simply allows us to do what we were already doing, but faster.

    Anyone have any additions?

  90. Janice @ 98:

    Let’s not forget the greats of Russian literature… Those guys knew how to take down forests! =)

  91. John, this is something I wrote in my own journal a few days ago:

    I have been immersed in the concept and reality of online social interaction for twenty-three years, which is longer than 80% of Facebook’s users have been alive. And yet the feeling I get when I look at the effortless way many of Facebook’s users make use of the site as a real and significant tool in their daily lives is that I have lost traction. I have reached the point where I need to learn things that younger users find intuitive. This is disturbing, as the guy who has, up ’til now, been the one who found things intuitive and had to teach them to people who didn’t.

    Basically, I don’t think you’re wrong about the fact that technology hasn’t changed who you are. But I do think you may be wrong that in a science fiction world, it would change who you are. What I get from most SF, and from real life, is that technology necessarily changes specifics, the small-scale stuff, about the way people think, but it doesn’t much change human beings in large ways.

    Take Banks’s Culture novels; that’s SF set in a post-scarcity society of incredible technological advancement, and people in this society are used to having every piece of information they could want at their fingertips, and they miss it when it’s not available — just like Athena and the DVR. But what do they do with their limitless resources and free time? They stick their noses into other people’s business as a profession, and they raft lava flows for thrills (as two examples). Which is, you know, pretty much exactly what humans would do now, if they could.

    So I think we are, in fact, living in a science-fiction world…and pretty much always have been, since we developed the capacity to imagine things that we couldn’t do yet.

  92. The best evidence supporting your point, Mr Scalzi, is the fact that when technology doesn’t work, human beings still react in the same eons-old way: They knock it upside the head.

  93. I used to think that Gen X was different because of technology before I gave birth a couple of months ago.

    A) Suddenly many things I thought were important (that made me a high maintenance and technology dependent girl) are not anymore in the stress of trying to keep a newborn and myself alive.

    B) I put up with a lot less BS. Everything is cut to the quick and many truths about people and myself came out. (This could be resulting from the extreme sleep deprivation)

    C) Many medical decisions that were considered advances and standard practices in my mother’s day have been abandoned. Routine episiotomies, enemas, even epidurals are not routine anymore. The doctors have determined that a more natural method of child birth without interventions is actually healthier for the mother and child.

  94. @Xian B:
    This is not true. We’ve advanced tremendously in this regard. We used to call it “thumping the darn thing.” Now it’s called “percussive maintenance.”

  95. “Well, but that was my point — the human animal hasn’t changed, so both children would be perfect at home in either era. Humans remain the same, it’s just the technology that’s changed.”

    I think my earlier post I was replying more to the earlier piece than this one. I completely agree that “generational exceptionalism” is a myth, as I think most anyone who looks back at youth literature from earlier eras will agree. My issue was with the framing of the essential peopleness of people, as relevant to the science fictionictyness of modern life.

    And just because I love (over)using this quote:

    Times are bad. Children no longer obey their
    parents, and everyone is writing a book.
    -Cicero

  96. I think it was Randall Garrett who wrote a story where people were looking at the current world with the sensawunda that we saw in traditional SF. (Sorry- brain cells aren’t pulling the title up.) Personally, I think that by the time we get the flying cars, we’ll be too busy complaining about the traffic to notice how amazing it all is. Personally, I’d just as soon hold off on the cars- can you imagine the effect of people talking on the cell/drinking/eating/changing the radio/etc. in three dimensions?

  97. @ 99 MikeTon:
    You missed birth control.

    I’ve a firm belief that controlled fertility has changed, and will change, the human race more than antibiotics. (We had “things that fought disease” before. Antibiotics worked better. But mass survival of flu, pneumonia and syphilis didn’t change society like the drop from 9-child families to 2.)

    Babycare turns the brains to mush. It has to; schedules and strict rules are bad for babies; you’re supposed to react immediately, with panic, to a baby’s cry. This means that, until VERY recently in high-tech areas of the world, a substantial portion of the adult population (“adult” here meaning “older than 14″) spent many or most of their waking hours in a state of worry or numb acceptance when they ran out of worry. Plus, of course, the PTSD of dealing with infants dead of illness and children dead of stupid kid accidents.

    The schism between parents and non-parents in modern society is something that never existed before. Not that there weren’t non-parents–but they were either reclusive, like orders of monks, or unique in their area.

  98. *facepalm* That’s MikeT, not MikeTon. My browser isn’t putting a space between the name and the date.

  99. You have applied an extremely rigorous standard for deciding whether someone has been fundamentally changed by technology to your real-life examples, and concluded that no, people aren’t changed. If you apply the same standard to SF books, movies etc., you have to come to the same conclusion. I can’t think of a character in SF about whom I could not make the argument that they were still, essentially, the same, whether they now have an exoskeleton or are a pattern of electrons in cyberspace or what-have-you.

    If you use a rather more generous standard (as most people here have, it seems) there are some interesting possibilities.

  100. (re. 110) Well, yes…otherwise this would be a much shorter thread.

    This may be clubbing my point to death, but I think that if (to cut-and-paste the end of the AMC column) (and paraphrase it slightly) you challenged an SF character to ask him/her/itself “If all your “science fictional” technology were taken away tomorrow, how much would your identity change?” the answer is as likely to be “not that much” as for any ‘real’ individual. And thus the SF character is also “not really living inside a science fiction movie, regardless of how many gadgets” she, he, or it has.

    That word ‘identity’ (including what one packs into it, and what one thinks is important about it) is a critical part of the argument, one way or another.

    BTW, I teach a course called Science, Technology, and Values, and the whole question of how/when/if/whether I/you/we/society is transformed by technology leads to heated, repeated debate.

  101. This argument begs the question have any SF characters been changed by the tech or are they just being who they would be regardless of what era they happened be be born into.
    I would argue that we can’t be living in a SF world because a SF world is always in the future. But I would also have to admit that from a 1900’s perspective we are living a SF life.

  102. Susan Reader:

    “if you challenged an SF character to ask him/her/itself “If all your ‘science fictional’ technology were taken away tomorrow, how much would your identity change?” the answer is as likely to be ‘not that much’ as for any ‘real’ individual.”

    Well, it depends on the character and story. Jared Dirac in The Ghost Brigades, might disagree with that argument, for example. And in the case of Jane Sagan, the entire of “The Sagan Diary” is about her reconciling herself to irreversible changes that very seriously threaten her conception of her own identity, because technology that was central to her conception of herself was withdrawn from her. This issue is also echoed with Sagan in The Last Colony.

    Certainly science fiction authors can make technology a critical identity issue, because characters are designed creatures living in a similarly designed world. Real life and real people are more complicated.

  103. (re 113) Oh, arghhhh…I wish I had more time for this! (and now I want to reread the books, and I don’t have time for that, either…)

    Having complete control over your ducks, so you can line them up in tidy rows to make your points, is one of the more useful aspects of being a creator or designer, whether of a science-fiction universe or college course….

    There’s about seventeen thousand different directions one can take this discussion…including that one you bring up about technologies central to identity. There’s a tendency to focus on (what we percieve as) the sci-fi geewhizzery (“my cellphone’s like Captain Kirk’s communicator, only much more powerful”). We tend not to see the technologies that may be far more fundamental to our identities. Take away your cute new computer, you’d still be a writer. Take away literacy, you’d still have us enthralled with stories (albeit far fewer of us). Take away language (arguably a technology, a tool for taking things out of one person’s brain and putting them into another’s)…now what?

    Which (and it’s been too long since I read the book, so I may be screwing this up) may not be so different from Jane Sagan’s story.

  104. Susan Reader @114: Yeah. Take away language, and are we human any more? Not by my definition of “human.” But that’s been one of the fascinations I’ve been getting from reading this thread–how do we define those “actual human animals inside all that technology”?

    If what makes us human is not what we do, or how we do whatever it is we do, or what or how we see . . . then what does make us human? What we feel? How we see ourselves? And how does technology relate to that–whatever it is?

    Okay, getting mystical now. Sorry. But it’s been a fun discussion.

  105. Back to Trey (a long post ago)
    “That is why ancient literature and antiquated literature remains interesting and relevant. Human nature has remained constant.”

    Ah, no. Even in the ’60s when I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey, I felt they were both totally unrealistic. No one would have reactions like that to situations like that. I did not relate to much of ancient literature. And what about all the 19th and 20th century novels that had out of wedlock children and adultery as major guilt making plot points? I think that modern students would have a hard time empathizing with the guilty protagonists. And it is not just a moving cultural scale. You can’t just say, “Well, consider them environmental polluters, or some other baddy du jure.” Because of our widening viewpoints (from the internet or simply television and movies), many of us (yes, I agree that progress is not even) have global perspectives that different cultures are just different and not necessarily wrong or bad. That is a change in human behavior.

    We even have changes in our physiology of data acquisition. Have you seen the movie “The French Connection”? At the time it was first run many people were confused and even nauseated by the quick cutting and hand held camera motion. Watching it today, it seems slow and talky. MTV and the latest action directors have conditioned us to view images at a higher bit rate.

    Yes, people are largely governed by primal needs of food, shelter and companionship, but in terms of satisfying these needs and extending these needs with other technological needs, we are different than our grandparents.

  106. @John – the difference I see is not that my life was saved by technology, but that my life was saved by my ability to connect with other people with the same symptoms. I have never personally met anyone with the same kind of tumour, several doctors failed to diagnose it (though a simple blood test would have put them on the right track), but personal connections that were simply not possible without the internet provided the solution.

  107. @107 Pam Adams Personally, I think that by the time we get the flying cars, we’ll be too busy complaining about the traffic to notice how amazing it all is.

    This is a great feature of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey… for instance, when we’re on the Moon flying to the area where the monolith was dug up, the view out of the windows shows the passing lunar landscape. But our characters aren’t gawping at that, they’re looking inside at each other and discussing their packed lunches and who’s got what in their sandwiches.

    Mind you, I’ve been in planes since I was a few months months old in 1958 and being evacuated from Beirut to London, but I still go for a window seat and look out whenever I can, though the cabin crew make you close the blinds so that everyone else can watch movies in peace or not be woken in the morning by the rising sun. So I’d be looking out the windows on the Moon too.

  108. tropo @ 117: Focusing on what you say about the protagonists of the ancient literature . . . isn’t that the question? Is a change in human behavior indicative of a change in human nature, or not? I’m tending towards “not,” at the moment.

    We still feel guilt–often socially-induced and completely illogical guilt. And I submit that while we might regard adultery, for example, as no longer quite as heinous a crime as we once did (I’ll let the married people on the thread deal with that), I at least still tend to react very badly to the breaking of promises. Especially formal promises, as in oath-taking. Out-of-wedlock children–we have a greater tendency NOT to blame or penalize the child, thank goodness, but if the whole concept were incomprehensible . . . well, the recent vice-presidential election might have been slightly different. And we are still very, very good at blaming the victim, or the bearer of bad news, or even the innocent bystander–for crimes committed by others. Aren’t we? (Unfortunately. I never said I liked everything about human nature.)

    Achilles’ triggers in the Iliad may be different from ours–but I still read about real-life mothers who don’t want their sons (or daughters, these days) to go to war . . . and about sons who insist on going, for reasons that aren’t all that different from his. The cultural context is different, but not much more different from reading, say, a modern novel written in a foreign culture. The human motivations are still accessible, on some level. That’s one reason I read science fiction/fantasy, I think: the authors give me real human characters in unreal situations, and I get to think about what it means to be human . . . even if (or maybe especially if?) the characters in question are like aliens like John’s obi.

    Now, about the physiology–I think you’ve got something there, but I’m not really qualified to consider it.

  109. Well, if I lived in the middle ages, I would have been practically half -blind (O.K, make it a quarter-blind), as I can barely see without my glasses.

    I guess it would have an awesome impact on my character and on my development as an individual.

    Regarding:
    “Grab a time machine, go back to ancient Egypt, and swap an infant there with an infant from today, and in twenty years you’ll likely find two people perfectly well integrated into their cultures because there is no difference in the human animal between now and then”

    I’m not sure what that proves, as you removed those individuals before technology had the time to impact them.

    I mean, what’s the null hypothesis in this thought experiment?

  110. A couple of thoughts that occurred to me:

    There’s a novel by John Wynham called “Trouble with Lichen”, which deals with the social impact of a substance that increases human lifespans by a factor of 2 or 3. The point it makes is that you make very different decisions if you think you’re going to live to 200 than you do if you think you’re going to die by the time you’re 70. (That’s the novel’s contention. Personally, from what I know of my own decision-making, I wouldn’t consider it a certainty.) That’s science fiction, but haven’t we done the same thing in a slower and steadier way? Life expectancies are going up, which means lives take on a different shape.

    I also thought about things like psychiatric meds, or hormone therapy for trans people. Do they change who you are, or just how you express it?

  111. It strikes me as unremarkable that characters in science fiction are still very much like us, no matter how extraordinary their tech is. After all, if they really had been changed to be post-human (whatever that is supposed to mean), they would be very difficult for us to identify with, and therefore the book would languish in obscurity. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried to read a couple of these, and given up in annoyance.

    Heck, John, even the aliens in your books are ‘human’ in many ways, if you’ve given them the honor of some first-person narrator time.

  112. When Julius Caesar invaded Gaul, he spoke of how the Barbarians to the North possessed greater strength and endurance because they did not enjoy those “luxuries” that had weakened the citizens of Rome. Some of these luxuries included the written word, running water, roads, availability of food, etc. Today we consider a nation that only provides an alphabet (and 98% illiteracy), roads and running water, a “third world” nation. We probably pay them the same left-handed complement by calling them “heartier”, “stronger”, or more “grateful” for what they have while we revel in our “advanced” technological state.

    Julius Caesar thought Rome’s advanced technological state had made his fellow Romans somehow less adept at surviving Gallic winters than their barbarian counterparts. His dependence on record-keeping had “weakened” his memory while his barbarian corollary had a strong memory for oral tradition and an ability to manage his tribe.

    One thing I’ve noticed about technology, the more our tech allows us to achieve, the more our expectations increase. I was happy with a green screen and 8-bit animation on my 286 DOS machine in ’87. My current machine can do so much more, but my expectations have increased as well. I play the same stupid strategy games, but the animations are better and the sound effects are more realistic. I don’t forget that I’m still pretending to conquer the European continent. Heck, Risk does the same thing, just not as well.

    Caesar’s methods for managing an army were necessary to command that many men. Now that we have different expectations and armies that can number in the millions, our technology only enables us to do what we’ve always done, just on a much greater scale. It changes us, but only in the scope of what we want to accomplish; it hasn’t improved or degraded what we want to accomplish. Our base instincts toward waging war, pillaging our neighbors, acquiring obscene amounts of wealth, and screwing each other (literally and metaphorically) haven’t changed a bit. I think that the only thing that technology has changed is the scale of the game, not the game itself.

  113. One other note. I think that the human animal is an interesting machine. We have our individual proclivities, but for the most part we operate according to certain rules. Run at a guy with a knife, he gets scared. Point a gun at you mom, she grounds you.

    As a practitioner of technology, I know that having written software makes me only a little bit more certain about how it responds to stimuli than other people. When it comes into contact with inputs I hadn’t anticipated, I still get that tightening of my sphincter as I anxiously fear my “baby” will fall over and stop functioning.

    To reduce the frequency of those sphincter-tightening moments, I employ a whole lot of tests. Bench tests, unit tests, user-acceptance tests, etc. As I find errors, I handle them. Basically, I learn more about the condition of my software by putting it into situations I never anticipated than I would simply by writing it.

    Humans are not altogether different. Put us into a situation, and we learn something about ourselves. Put a group of humans into a new situation, we learn about the human species. As technology makes new situations possible, we discover new responses from the human machine – sometimes ones we didn’t even anticipate based on past experience. It doesn’t mean that the human animal changed, it only means that our understanding of it has expanded.

    For instance, an overabundance of food made possible by advanced agricultural technology, improved transportation, infrastructure, logistics, and free pizza delivery have increased the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other diseases physical and psychological. The human animal was never designed to withstand the dangers of abundance. We were designed to survive starvation scenarios. We always had the ability to suffer from abundance, we only recently encountered that situation due to our technology. How many other apparent changes in the human animal are merely extant conditions brought on by abnormal environmental stimuli provided by technological advancement.

    If you’re allergic to alcohol, you would never know until you actually tried some. That’s a problem with the human animal that always existed but never surfaced until technology made the production and consumption of alcohol a reality. Technology only makes new situations or stimuli; we’re still the ones who have to respond to them.

  114. I think people are the same. But opportunities are different. And because we have more opportunities to search out the things that interest us, we are more likely to get the chance to be ‘ourselves’, whatever self we were born with.

    I don’t think human nature is any different than it was 2,000 yrs ago, but I do think that humankind has made progress, because technology gives us more choice in how we live our lives. It’s a better chance at happiness, even if it doesn’t always turn out that way.

  115. True, true

    People really do not change, it’s what they do. We are all still the same just have different procedures and do different things.

  116. Hmmmm…. well we might very well have been the same people in whatever decade in the last few hundred years, but at least back in 1750 we’d have had longer attention spans!

    I do wonder though if being “old” today is the difference, because infants are now growing up with iPhones and you have to wonder how much that is rewiring their brains – not necessarily to become someone completely different than they might otherwise be, but no doubt, a certainly less patient i want instant satisfaction NOW kind of person.

Comments are closed.