Facing the challenges of a digital world

What do we gain and what do we give up with the latest technological tools? From the loss of privacy to the advantages of using digital apps, Professor of Communication Ananda Mitra shares ideas about how to cope with the complex challenges caused by the widespread adoption of digital technology. Mitra, who teaches the course, “Communication and Technology,” studies the impact of new communication technologies on popular culture. His latest book, “Alien Technology,” explores the consequences of technological alienation on individuals and communities.

Q.  Are our apps watching us? How is our understanding of privacy changing because of the technological tools we use?

A. The unequivocal answer is ‘yes.’ Our apps are keeping track of our digital life. But, while they give out some of our private information, they also give us music, entertainment or help with getting organized. I would argue that the notion of privacy that has, for generations, been built around an analog existence constructed of tangible and hideable objects has to transform into a new construct of privacy where the digital self must recognize that it is far more difficult to hide when there are constant digital crumbs being distributed in virtual space. Thus, the new privacy will have to be built around greater awareness of what elements of the self are available in the virtual, and then learning how to manage those elements to create and preserve a specific virtual and language/discourse-based identity that represents the person best, knowing that the identity is open for examination. Indeed, this is precisely what happens when a person updates status on social media websites.

Q.  Should we be worried about the loss of privacy?

A.  I suggest that the issues of “worry” and “loss” will both become less critical once we are willing to accept that privacy, as defined within the boundaries of the analog, has transformed forever. We are beginning to see similar transformations when the younger digital natives speak of having 900 “friends,” whereas to many analog natives the idea of having 900 friends could appear absurd. Yet we are willing to accept such transformations, and before long we will find a redefinition of privacy as well.

Q.  How has technology changed the way we communicate with one another? Are those changes good or bad?

A.  There is no single answer to this question. Indeed many notable universities would have entire departments devoted to examining this question. However, it is safe to say that every technological innovation, starting in the early days of human civilization, has changed how we communicate with each other, with perhaps the most notable technology being the development of a shared sense of making meaning of the World using arbitrary symbols – what we call language. Regarding the value judgment, I would say that there are very few technological developments that could unequivocally be classified as good or bad. I would argue that the important question to answer is whether the technology is appropriate at a moment in time, and if the culture that uses the technology is willing to adjust itself as the technology becomes inappropriate.

Q.  What is technological alienation? What are the consequences?

A.  Simply speaking, it is the awkward moment when the car’s ‘check engine light’ comes on, and you open the hood and cannot identify the engine. More seriously, in my book, “Alien Technology,” I suggest a law of technological alienation as, “as technology gets more sophisticated the user perceives it as complicated and gets alienated from the technology.” This results in a process where the nexus of users, technologists and people who make decisions about the use of technology produce conditions where the user of the technology has little to no understanding of the tools that they use. On a cautionary note, I also suggest that the progression of technological alienation would produce a condition where the world could be living with a new factor differentiating between humans – those who are alienated and those who are not. To be sure, there is sufficient existing evidence to suggest that those who are not alienated will operate from a position of power over those who are alienated.

Q.  For those who feel alienated, how can they cope with rapid technological change?

A.  This is subject matter of my next book – the sequel to, “Alien Technology.” This book is still in the thinking and writing phase, but the key to overcoming technological alienation is gaining awareness of the technological world we live in. This awareness resists the conventional practice of accepting any technology on its face value or being persuaded that a technology is good without full understanding of what the technology is and some of the basic logic of how the technology does what it does. For instance, even at the junior level in college there are students who do not know the meaning of the terms, “binary mathematics,” and “Boolean logic.” Yet, without these concepts the entire digital world would cease to exist! Unfortunately, such vocabulary is not actively taught. I believe that overcoming alienation requires understanding the language of technology, and much like we make efforts in elementary, middle and high schools to teach “foreign” languages, we need to begin to learn the language of technology to take the steps towards overcoming alienation. I also recommend the following:

  • Pay attention to math and science – not knowing the logical nature of math and the scientific processes that govern much of technology is no longer an option.
  • Understand the history of technology – tools were not magically created, and knowing how technology has evolved allows for reducing the sense of alienation.
  • Be curious and mindful – getting into the ‘customary’ way of using tools distances us from the tools, one can reduce alienation by exploring the limits of the tool.

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