The discussion about the interplay between digital technologies and human behavior is dominated by the hypothesis that the internet will radically alter our thinking and our behavior. According to this hypothesis, technologies develop quite rapidly in a certain direction and we, as persons affected, must react to the change around us – usually by assimilation, less often by reflecting critically and by reacting in ways that allow us to guide further technological developments. But even then, the idea of self-sustaining, progressive technological development dominates the discussion. Man appears not as the primary driver of progress but as a hurried passenger, scrambling to keep the pace, able at most to pull the steering wheel a few degrees into a different direction and thus enforce a slight course correction.
At the core of this hypothesis lies a deeply materialistic worldview, which serves as a reminder of the lasting effects of 150 years of Marxist influence on our society. It’s a worldview dominated by the “forces of production” and “relations of production”. Technologies, technical infrastructures and networked computer centers form the “base”, which largely conditions the “superstructure”, and thus our thinking and our behavior.
It’s undeniable that our daily communicative behavior and our ability to gather information to inform our actions are dependent on the tools to which we have access. If my computer is turned off but a printed thesaurus is within my reach, I will use the book for convenience’s sake. Someone with a smartphone might use that instead of the book. But convenience of use doesn’t explain why search engines, social networks, emails and online encyclopedias exist at all.
Yet attempts to critically reflect on current developments in the field of communication technologies ¬and on human interaction require us to inquire not only about the direction of technological progress but also about its drivers and catalysts. The phenomenon of networked technologies did not arise by pure chance or as a result of natural laws but is the result of human desires and actions. Networked culture and networked reason did not as a result of natural technological networks. To the contrary: Human striving for the possibilities of networked information gathering and networked action fueled the rise of social networks and, eventually, technological networks. Long before the advent of communication, traffic, and computational networks, a networked form of human reason existed and provided the necessary context for the rise of today’s digital networks.
Instead of being herded into a certain direction by technological progress, users are (although sometimes unconsciously) the drivers of change. This becomes evident if one considers the scores of digital projects that once started with much hype but have now sunken into oblivion or have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. Five years ago, “Second Life” lived through its heyday and generated tremendous publicity. Often, the discussion focused on how the virtual universe might affect the thoughts and actions of the next generation. Today, the initial aura has worn off. Almost nobody talks about the imaginary world of “Second Life”, it has quite literally disappeared into the shadows.
“Second Life” is the most prominent but certainly not the only example of an idea predicated on the notion of technology-driven networks that created a lot of initial buzz but failed to catch on. Its failure lies in its inability to satisfy real, lasting desires. First, users become bored. Then they move on. Even successful networks are dependent on the grace of their users – and it is often rather fleeting. If users are dissatisfied with a new feature or feel more supported elsewhere, they move on.
The fact that public discussions often focus on “disagreeable” features of social networks does not contradict this idea but merely suggests that users’ real interests must not necessarily overlap with the interests ascribed to them by opinion leaders.
The resulting arrangement should not be seen as the consequence of internal and immutable dynamics of a technological system but as the manifestation of cultural trends and demands. We can observe a positive feedback loop: The more something is offered, the more demand rises. Demand for simple social relationships that reduce one’s companion to a distinct role. Relationships that can be forged at a moment’s notice, and terminated just as quickly. The ability to voice agreement with a simple gesture. The availability of information on demand.
All these desires have deep cultural roots and ripened below the surface for a long time. Now, digital social networks have made them explicit. Old desires can no longer be ignored. The open secret is finally being acknowledged.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future