The first topic of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course is dystopias and utopias. In week 1 we watched four short films (1) introducing dystopic and utopic ideas of technology. These films were supported by the core reading (2) which provided a theoretical background and arguments for and against technological determinism.
I feel like I took a very pessimistic view of how technology fits into the world following the viewing of this week’s short films. I was overwhelmed by how few visions of utopias there are – three out of the four films felt like dystopias to me and the fourth didn’t seem like much of a utopia. Even when asked to come up with other examples from popular culture I struggled to find utopias; I came up with the worlds of Minority Report and eXistenZ which both present dystopic visions in my eyes. This led me to question whether it’s easier for us to create a vision of a dystopia because people’s fears are more common; external threats, loss of control, isolation etc. Whereas people’s visions of utopias are more personal and therefore harder to define for a mass audience.
The film that resonated most with me was Thursday. It felt the closest to how our experience of technology is currently, both at home and at work. My main observation was how technology changes our experience of the world. The characters in this film pass through the world without really noticing what is going on around them. They are consumers of digital media in every aspect of their life, but don’t question how the technology that they rely on works. This leads me to question whether they are too reliant on technology, especially if they don’t know what to do to fix it when it goes wrong.
I think the reason this resonates with me is that I often consider whether technology is too big a part of my life. Whether it is distancing me from the world I live in. And this leads back to the main questions of the current topic. Does technology democratize and offer opportunities to the user, or de-democratize and control the user?
My main impression of the films selected for the film festival was that they demonstrated a non-neutral view of technology. The citizens of the Bendito world are overpowered, unable to stem their fascination with the whizzing and whirring discoveries of their spiky (perhaps demonic?) agitator. The post-apocalyptic vision in New Media, with gangly robots having taken the world unawares is truly nightmarish. Thursday, whilst benign and unemotional, shows a society blanketed, without their own knowledge, in ‘technology’.
This expectation that technology is somehow autonomous and controlling seems to me to deny humans a place in determining their own society, robs them of their opportunities for creativity, and ultimately in turn their own autonomy.
But do technologies really control and limit us in this way? Whether we look at large technological inventions, the computer, for example, or pick out a particular aspect, say social media, is the almost tragic story of ‘Inbox’ not evidence enough that technologies are themselves so limited, unreliable or transitive that they cannot fulfil this exaggerated self-determining role?
One thing some of these videos have in common is that they demonstrate just how much our ‘every day’ is affected by technology. The characters in the video naively let their exercise routines, childcare, work spaces and urban planning being dominated by technological factors (intrinsically de-democratising). Or perhaps, they more pro-actively allow the technology they have designed and chosen to widen their field of experience and enhance their day to day decisions (intrinsically democratising).
Is it a case of us finding the right tool for the job, or rather that ‘we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us…’? John Culkin (in Stearn 1968, p. 60).