Technological Revolution: Ushering in New Forms of Identity and Widening Chasms of Inequality

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Both Jim Porter’s “Why Technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale” and Derek Van Ittersum and Kory Lawson Ching’s “Composing Text/Shaping Process: How Digital Environments Mediate Writing Activity” discuss the role of aesthetics in the composing process. Jim Porter’s “cyberwriter’s tale” emphasizes the importance of design in Porter’s techno-literacy education, noting that his “experiences at Purdue taught [him] about writing as collaboration, as well as about writing as design” (382). Porter believes that the revolutionary potential of the computer is apparent when we take a “scenic/contextual perspective” and see writing produced on computers as having a major social impact. Further, Porter argues for a posthumanist conception of identity, which highlights connections between humankind and machines based on “fluidity and hybridity” (388).
This connection between writers and machines is also taken up implicitly in Van Ittersum and Ching’s piece, in which they examine distraction-free writing programs and practices. Van Ittersum and Ching point out “that software applications and interfaces can also be selected and structured to tune consciousness in writing activity” (“Cultural-Historical Activity Theory”). This focus on how consciousness might be “tuned” or adapted to the writing program of choice seems to draw upon Porter’s assumption that human identity is bound up with the technologies we use, and that our very consciousness might be altered or affected by our interaction with particular technologies. And just as Porter stresses the social impact of new technologies, specifically in what he sees as the “revolutionary” possibilities that emerge from social networking, Van Ittersum and Ching note that “softare applications are thoroughly ideological and rhetorical” (“Distraction-Free Writing Environments”), thereby agreeing with Porter that there are very real social and cultural effects of technological use. Once we understand the profound social impact that new technologies are having, we can analyze how they operate within particular “social and ideological context[s]” (Porter 384).
Yet it is not just the ideological, but the profound cultural effects of new technologies that sparked my interest most in this topic. As Porter states, “the revolution, if there is one, is the social one of interconnectivity. The writer and the machine have become one — the cyberwriter — but we haven’t yet engaged the full implications of the metaphor” (388). I think it is clear that interconnectivity has changed the fabric of our writing lives in indisputable ways, and that there are concrete benefits to be realized from social networking and participation in virtual communities (not the least of which is the amelioration of loneliness and isolation in an increasingly fragmented and depersonalized modern world). And yet, when I ponder the other social implications of the “technology revolution,” I cannot help but think about the profound and widening social inequalities that technological changes have fostered. Economist and New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman has spoken eloquently about how the very machines celebrated by Jim Porter may also be responsible for the displacement of workers today. So the “fluid” and seamless interconnections between writer and machine that Porter applauds, and the consciousness-tuning capabilities of distraction-free writing programs that Van Ittersum and Ching explore, may not take into account the other side of this equation: the human effects that technology has had on a national and global scale, including widespread displacement of workers in our current economy. At the same time, the creators of new technologies, the “technology moguls” like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Ellison, and Google’s Sergey Brin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Brin and Larry Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Page, continue to reap the financial benefits of this “revolution.” This widening chasm of inequality leads me to ask whether the increasing “interconnectivity” that comes from social networking may be a convenient distraction from political questions about how technological changes may be contributing to social inequity. To echo Jim Porter, we need to inquire into how we will use technology as well as the stakes that this would involve (388).

An article in The Guardian investigates this topic quite provocatively: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/jul/01/new-tech-moguls-robber-barons. What this gets me thinking about in particular, is that the very openness, freedom, and possibility that are often associated with the “technological revolution” may in fact belie a hidden truth. This truth is that we are actually not quite as free to shift our identities, or as capable of revolutionizing our relationships via the internet, when those who control these technologies remain unaccountable and removed from the concerns of everyday people. The widening chasm between haves and have-nots is only hardening and deepening, it seems to me, and this seems to undermine what may appear to be the “revolutionary” possibilities of the internet age.

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Finally, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman speaks about how technological changes have contributed to the economic divide in the following video, which I’ll leave as my final thought for your consideration:

http://www.businessinsider.com/paul-krugman-on-technology-and-inequality-2013-2

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2 comments on “Technological Revolution: Ushering in New Forms of Identity and Widening Chasms of Inequality

  1. You raise an interesting point when you discuss the social and ideological contexts of the revolutionary possibilities associated with social networking. In considering those communities or populations who lack the necessary tools to connect, we have to think about the ever-widening chasm of access to these virtual resources and to consider the ways the most isolated and economically disadvantaged are of course left behind. How might the writing classroom further advance literacy education in the digital age while also ensuring that students understand the social and economical benefits of learning how to navigate and utilize literacy in digital contexts in order to ‘network’, gather and interpret vital information to their success in any given endeavor. How might self-efficacy and digital literacies intersect and how might Composition teachers forward a curriculum that empowers students by examining this intersection?

  2. You echo a concern that Sean voiced in class: Are we concerned with “artisanal” word processors while many people are left in the digital equivalent of a food desert? Are we looking at a small corner of the internet (the gentrified corner) and ignoring those for whom things have been getting worse since the decline of industrial jobs in the US?

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