My students recently told me that they wanted to know more about the social, moral, ethical, cultural, and environmental implications of digital media. No kidding. Who isn’t worried about this topic these days, right?
I could have said that they should just wait a couple months until my course starts (in fact, I might have said just that…), but really that’s not a good enough answer. And in any case it isn’t up to me to provide an answer to that question. It is unanswerable.
Interrogating media technology
Scholars have a grotesque word for this kind of investigation. They call it “interrogating” the concept. In the present age, with what we know about Guantanamo Bay, I don’t think anyone can justify such brutal terminology. Nevertheless, it remains the case that we should be closely questioning our assumptions about digital media, our use of digital media, the way our relationships are affected by digital media, even our disposal of digital media devices.
Commonplace but powerful
It is difficult to form questions about something that is growing more and more commonplace. When was the last time you pondered deeply the implications of the electric light or the wheel? Are we going to become blind to computer games, mobile phones, and the Internet just because it is ubiquitous and therefore taken for granted?
Nevertheless, we must turn our attention to these technologies and their use. We need to stop and think and consider and - sometimes - reject them or modify how we use them. Questioning technology isn’t easy, and we live in a world that often gives credence to the simplistic notion that technology is “just a tool” and therefore “neutral.” Rubbish.
How to start the quest?
Even if you do undertake to do some reflection, where do you start? How can you begin? What questions should you ask? What is important and what is irrelevant? That, of course, is the real problem. But we are fortunate that a long line of scholars and philosophers and sociologists and anthropologists have taken up this challenge and created theories to help us form those questions.
Get some perspective
I often use the metaphor of “perspective” when helping students understand the importance of theory in the study of technology and society. Nothing, Kurt Lewin said, is more practical than a good theory (1952, 169). Theory gives us a place to stand when we are looking over a new technological terrain, it gives us some opening questions, and it helps shape our interpretation of the answers. To provide a simplistic example, the political economist would want to know who owns, who benefits from, and who pays for, a new technology. There are many theories that can help shape our understanding of technology and society. I will explore some of these further in future blog posts.
If there is no easy or good answer to our questions about the impact of digital media, that doesn’t mean we should stop asking those questions. I encourage everyone to question the meaning of technology, and especially digital media technologies, every day.
Lewin, K. (1952). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers by Kurt Lewin.
Dr. Richard Smith is the Director of the Master of Digital Media Program and the Centre for Digital Media.
Photo by Robert Huang