The influence of computerization on the post-industrial society
“The most crucial fact about the new technology is that it is not a separate domain (such as the label “high-tech” implies) but a set of changes that pervade all aspects of society and reorganize all older relationships.” 1
“Because new media is created on computers, distributed via computers, and stored and archived on computers, the logic of a computer can be expected to significantly influence the traditional cultural logic of media; that is, we may expect that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer.” 2
I propose that the structures and logic of computation are influencing the way we relate, think and know. In this paper, I will take a broad look at how this might be evident. Firstly by examining some of the characteristics of digital media which influence at a relational and societal level, before suggesting how the underlying structures of digital technologies may be influencing our Twenty-First Century episteme.
As a caveat, I want to clarify that I do not believe this influence is in technological deterministic sense, but rather that these changes result in propensities towards particular outcomes. I agree with Bell when he writes, “Technology does not determine social change; technology provides instrumentalities and potentialities. The ways that these are used involve social choices.”1
Some of the more obvious characteristics of digital media which afford cultural influence include their global networked nature and their reproducibility—the fact that they can be duplicated precisely and quickly. These characteristics create the “ability to disseminate the same texts, images and sounds to millions… assuring that they will have the same ideological beliefs.” (Manovich, 2001) Essential to the functioning of modern mass societies, digital media have also enabled accessible and instantaneous global communication. As well as transforming our conceptions of space and time, this updated version of the “global village” has fueled globalization and, it could be argued, conformity: a decrease in the uniqueness of local and national identities.3
Paralleling and contrasting this, it could also be argued that digital media, particularly the Internet with its peer-to-peer nature, have enabled a broad variety of subcultures to thrive. “The internet today provides another important subcultural resource and means for constructing subcultural identity.”4 This new global connectivity allows individuals with shared interest who are geographically dispersed to connect, relate and form new subcultures, in a way that has not been possible before. These new media are reshaping how and why communities form.
“[The Internet] makes possible the dissemination of subcultural information beyond the limits of the local and as a result facilitates the entry of individuals who might not join a face-to-face subcultural group.” 4
In contrast to traditional broadcast media, the Internet and other digital media require considerably less infrastructure, fewer technical skills and have a significantly lower cost of access for the producer. In contrast to aiding globalization and standardization, these affordances allow for the emergence of a myriad of social and cultural expressions and platforms.
Now, more than ever, we are relating through tools (devices and screens) and digital structures (protocols, data packets, bits and bytes) rather than directly with people. How are these new social interactions shaped by the digital medium’s strict structure? Social networking platforms, for example, use strict data structures, defined schemas and simple binary computation to enable rich, fluid interpersonal communication and relationships. Complex friendships and relationships are reduced to binary friend/non-friend or follower/non-follower definitions. Are aspects of our interpersonal interactions lost in the limiting binary nature of the digital world? And how are these limited definitions and interpersonal interactions affecting the ways in which we relate in the real world? Will these innovations bring us closer as individuals and communities? Or will they bring about greater psychological and social distance as the majority of human interactions occur through digital mediators?
Moving beyond these social changes to a more philosophical approach, how have these new technologies shaped the way we know and understand? Foucault, in The Order of Things5, describes how historical periods have possessed “certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse.”6 Foucault argues that these conditions change over time, from one period’s episteme to another. He seeks to discover “on what basis knowledge and theory become possible; within what space of order knowledge was constituted.”5
Has the dawn of the computational age shifted our episteme as Foucault describes? Is there a new ‘order of things’ influenced by these new digital structures? I believe so. For a start, the impact of the computer on scientific discovery in undeniable. The complex calculations made possible by the computer far outweigh the lesser abilities of the humble mind. Through these discoveries, made possible by computation, our understanding of the world has been transformed.
To take this further and perhaps come closer to what Foucault is addressing, we need to examine how the structures of the digital have influenced how we think, understand and perceive the world at a more fundamental level. As Manovich describes it, the process of “conceptual transfer” from computer world to culture at large.2
“While from one point of view computerized media still displays structural organization which makes sense to its human users — images feature recognizable objects; text files consist from grammatical sentences; virtual spaces are defined along the familiar Cartesian coordinate system; and so on — from another point of view, its structure now follows the established conventions of computer’s organization of data.” 2
The structure of these computational systems are influencing how and what we discover. Bell describes how “database and information retrieval systems” have reshaped how we analyze and process mentally in “decisions and intellectual work.”1 Bell describes the codification of theoretical knowledge as a shift from mechanical technology (machines) and then electrical technology (wired and wireless communications) to intellectual technology (programming, linguistics and algorithms). He notes how the new revolutions in science—quantum theory, relativity, optics, solid state physics—are all “derived from the codifications of theoretical knowledge.”1 To take an example from another field, Manovich notes that “contemporary cognitive psychologists also do not question why their models of the mind are so similar to the computer workstations on which they are constructed.”2
Perhaps, even more literally, data’s structure—comprised of bits and bytes, ones and zeros—has become a basis for understanding the world through defining its fundamental components? Could this be evident in Science’s quests to discover and define subatomic particles and activity at increasingly smaller scales?
In the examples that I’ve outlined the influence of digital technologies on society and knowledge are evident, but what will the long term results of this be? As the influence of the Digital Age, and its inherent structures, becomes more apparent, how will we look back on its effects? Will societal structures, scientific understanding, narrative and artistic structures, and the organization and decisions of governments be understood as having been influenced by the strict structures of computing and its impact on how we think?