Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 28, 2006

Technological Abstractions, Alienation, and Moral Integrity

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For many years I have tried to convince students in my “Cultural Dynamics of Technology” that technologies are abstractions since they ‘abstract’ or lift out certain dimensions from the fullness of human experience and amplify them to the exclusion of virtually all other dimensions of life. Many find this concept difficult to grasp. They seem have been so conditioned to think of ‘abstraction’ as a Platonic Idea that they cannot see the ‘abstraction’ sitting right in front of them. Their computer, car, television, telephone, dishwasher, and virtually all other electronic technologies, are abstractions, no matter how much silicone, metal, and plastic they possess.

In this way McLuhan’s metaphor for technologies as ‘extensions’ of human senses and abilities misleads us by failing to grasp that such technological ‘extensions’ have been completely isolated, thus abstracted, from the fullness of our embodied existence. A car, then, is not an ‘extension’ of human locomotion so much as it is a way of abstracting ‘locomotion’ from our full human experience. Such abstraction encourages us then to consider the technology apart — alienated — from all other dimensions, concerns, commitments, or obligations of what it means to be human. We focus only on the technology itself, what it will do for us, rather than on how it is embedded in our total lives.

Moral, environmental, political, physiological, or economic dimensions of our technologies are consequently very difficult for people to identify since all of these considerations have been stripped away in the very process of abstraction in much the same way that ConAgra strips away all nutrients in its foodstuffs only to give us a hollowed-out abstraction of ‘food.’ No wonder our technologies often leave us feeling alienated from a richer human experience. This tendency compels the morally alert person to continually reweave the manifold fibers of their lives that have been torn apart by their technologies into a meaningful whole — again and again. We all experience how exceedingly difficult this is to do in our technological society.

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