Molly and I were having drinks with our friends and next-door neighbors Michael and Joy a couple of nights ago and I started pontificating on my current thoughts about people's relationship to technology. As is often the case, when forced to vocalize ideas, they're clearer, so I decided to capture some of that clarity (which I admit may still be far from clear) in writing.
Anyway, the two interesting thoughts of the evening were:
1. Ubiquitous communication technology is recreating interpersonal relationships that existed before transportation technology and growing populations caused human contact to become much more attenuated. Sure it's the Global Village thing, but I think that it's deeper than just the "everyone can talk to everyone" interpretation that's been the traditional global village take I've heard. Gillette take pictures of who buys their razors and Japanese office ladies send photos of the dates their to their friends for discussion and advice (as described by Justin Hall last year). At the same time, a reality TV channel is set to be launched. That kind of pervasive observation (I hesitate to all it panoptic because that term is too absolute) doesn't seem all that different to me than what was possible in a tiny village. Village boundaries are close, and everyone knows all the nooks and crannies, so every corner is pretty much visible and what people do in those corners is pretty well known (if not always acknowledged). That doesn't seem all that different than the tracking of acquaintance clusters that these new technologies are enabling, except now the boundaries aren't physical, but social (how many people you know, the circumstances by which you're connected to them, etc.). Of course all kinds of things are different between a geographically-bound village and an acquaintance cluster, but in terms of the relationship of the individual to the people they know, it seems like a return to a situation that existed fairly recently, until transportation technologies allowed people to loose site/track of each other, so maybe it's not so new and different after all?
2. There's a parallel between people's relationships to computers and ways of interacting with religion. I don't mean this in a "computers and spirituality" way, but there seems like an interesting--maybe only superficial--similarity. There's an old description of mainframe operators as a kind of priesthood. In this relationship the priests are the only ones who can commune with the higher intelligence. Similarly, the one-to-one relationship between personal computers and their users is not unlike that of a "personal savior" and worshippers. Here, the priesthood has been removed and the communion with the higher power is up to each individual, but the assumption is that there's still only a single entity, even though everyone now has access to it. So what happens when there's not a single entity (per household, or for all "computational" tasks), but a distributed set of intelligent devices, none of which may be as powerful as a single entity, but all of which exhibit some kind of intelligence? I believe that the relationship in that case becomes animist.
So what causes these attitudes? Are people projecting their understanding of religion onto technologies? I bet not, though I think that religious metaphors do influence the ways we relate to the world, if only because they're so prevalent and act as models that we build on when trying to understand new phenomena. This is an incredibly broad characterization, but I suspect that there is a single kind of process at work here which leads to priesthood-style models when a resource is scarce (or made scarce) and to animist models when it's pervasive (or defined as such). What does that mean? Well, maybe we--as designers--need to be more attuned to people's attitudes and the larger models they're part of when designing experiences.
[I'm indebted to Genevieve for her introduction of religion into discussions of people's relationships with technology--I think we're coming at it from somewhat different directions, but she's lecturing about it and that makes me think that maybe I'm not totally crazy for even bringing this up. I also wish I could attend the UbiComp 2003 workshop for which she's one of the sponsors: Intimate Ubiquitous Computing. Good luck!]