May 12, 2013 5:44:58 am
Technologies are no longer abstract. Theyre habits.
What constitutes a habit? The gestures that you make as you read this,the way your eyes flick when you encounter somebody you like,the way you stroke your chin in a moment of reflection,or the split second decisions that you make in times of crises these are all habits. They are pre-thought,visceral,depending upon biological,social and collective memories that do not need rational thinking. Habits are the customised programming of human life.
However,habits are not natural. They are,in fact,man-made nature. They appear as natural,matter-of-fact,instinctive and intuitive,but they are built over years of shared experiences,learning and empathy. And more often than we realise,habits are formed because of the different technologies that surround us.
If you are reading this column on paper,look at the way you are holding the magazine,folding the paper and note how you can read this easily because the text has been arranged from left to right,top to bottom. If you are browsing through this piece on a digital device,look at how your fingers move on your scroll button,or on your touchscreen,helping you make sense of complex devices without a second thought.
Habits that are formed through technologies work so seamlessly because they make technologies transparent. They make us forget that there is a complex network of machines,devices,grids and information that shape our lives. Do you remember the time when you came across something online and didnt look for the Like button that is now a part of everyday internet practice? Do you remember the last time you struggled to manage the cursor on your screen using a mouse? Do you realise how the mouse has already become obsolete and is now being replaced by other touch-and-flick devices for a new generation?
I recently encountered this habit when my three-going-on-90-year-old Kindle the Amazon device I use to read books fell in the hands of a six-year-old. Like many digital natives of her time,she is unfazed by technology and,as her parents confess,is much better at operating most things digital in the house than them. She thinks nothing of streaming her favourite cartoon show from a website. She is adept at customising the many screens on her fathers smartphone and has accepted that specific movements of her fingers will produce information on brightly-lit touchscreens.
However,when she used my non-backlit,non-touch Kindle that requires buttons to be pushed,she faced acute frustration. After trying to scroll,flick,activate,zoom and pinch on the screen she flung it at me,bewildered and angry that her habits were suddenly redundant and challenged. I want to use this moment of reflection to understand how technologies are integral to our ways of living. Technologies are habits. You dont need to be online 24×7,constantly upgrading yourself to the latest version of Android to interact with technology. Instead,we need to think about technologies as outlets that allow us to think about who we are and how we relate to the world around us.
One way of looking at technology as habits is to see how we have started thinking of ourselves through metaphors of the machines that we use. For example,its quite common to hear people complain about lack of bandwidth to describe busy schedules. We now think of ourselves as systems that need upgrading. Life has long been lived on windows through which we recycle ourselves.
If technologies are such an inseparable part of ourselves,maybe it is time to stop making a distinction between the human and the technological. It is time to stop thinking about technologies only in terms of gadgets that can be removed from our biological assemblage. And indeed,if we are ready to recognise these technologies as a part of being human,then we need to think of technology politics in a new way. The questions around piracy,privacy,intellectual property,proprietary technologies,openness,etc. which are relegated to the digital world are also questions of us. They are not external problems but are centrally shaping how we construct ourselves as humans. Through habits.
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