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.