MAS330 Major Essay

Major Essay (Q2) How Technology Has Redistributed Human Intellect and Identity
Today technology has exponentially accelerated communication around the world and externalised the natural process of the human mind. The dawn of the internet has irreversibly begun to blur the lines between the minds of different people, their geographies and place in time. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the re-distributed nature of intellect, the potential formation of a global consciousness has taken leaps out of science-fiction towards reality. However with humanity’s increasingly globalised self-image, questions surrounding which aspects will survive or perish become some of the largest ramifications of the 21st century. This essay will analyse the greater implications of consciousness in the age of communication technology and attempt to uncover the fragility of identity in the contemporary world. The re-distribution of individual consciousness has been a long standing affect of mass communication since long before digital technologies. Arguably, its process started when writing came into practice. For the first time this meant that thoughts, culture and a sense of identity could be communicated across vast distances and places in time. The ancient philosopher Plato was perhaps amongst the first recorded academic thinkers who believed writing would change the conscious function of people with particular respect to their memory (Plato, 360BC: 275a-b). This allowed consciousness to interact beyond individuals, small communities and villages, rather allowing entire civilisations to form
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MAS330 Major Essay

mutual identities and share a repository of knowledge beyond their local geography and place in time. Consequently, this opened the door to spreading identity and culture through the mutually shared conscious experience recorded on paper. While communal practices and oral traditions had enabled localised cultures to exist, the separation of conscious thought onto paper through inscription and writing freed the formation of identities beyond the limits of communities and geographically bound populations. Beliefs, practices, doctrines, teachings and views, all of which form the foundational building blocks of human perception and sense of self, could be liberated through technologies such as writing. The creation of writing was one of the first steps in re-defining consciousness and identity about the individual. In their book Culture and Technology, Murphy and Potts claim that memory is one of the key functions of consciousness which are responsible for creating a unified identity or a central sense of ‘self’ (2003:156). They draw on some of the ideas of Steven Rose who comments that technologies such as writing are a type of artificial memory (1992 As cited in Murphie & Potts, 2003:159). Rose argues that such technologies are essential for amalgamating and sharing knowledge alongside cultural imperatives into a common repository he terms collective memory. Thus, writing not only creates an extension of the individual’s consciousness but gives way to the opportunity of bridging the elements of consciousness across groups and communities. Rose adds that this becomes one of the differentiating

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MAS330 Major Essay

elements of human consciousness as it allows us to build a historical understanding of ourselves that we can engage with (Rose, 1992:326 As Cited in Murphy & Potts). However it is not till the emergence of rapid methods of distributing the written word that the creation of these virtual conscious spaces and identities could really begin to develop. In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man one of the most influential writers on the implications and the development of mass communication, Marshall McLuhan, analyses how the introduction of faster means of communications such as the telegraph surpassed the constraints of communicating by messenger (1964:108). All technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed. Again, unless there were such increases of power and speed, new extensions of ourselves would not occur or would be discarded. (McLuhan, 1964:109) McLuhan argues that these elements are essential components to creating extensions of ourselves and human consciousness. He adds that while writing began to share thoughts and ideas it was not until the electric age that communication could alter ‘social groupings’ (ibid). This ultimately redistributed humanity’s identity and consciousness, setting the stage for a new age in cognition.

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MAS330 Major Essay

Today, what separates the digital era from the past is its immense speed coupled with its exponential adoption across the globe. Not only has mass media grown roots over the entire planet but the instantaneous nature of information technology has created a pseudo-extension of human consciousness around the world. It is estimated that roughly one third of the population of the planet is now connected to the internet, with this trend likely to accelerate in coming years (Miniwatts Marketing, 2010). The reason modern technological advancement is so formidable in the transformation of human consciousness is its instantaneous nature. While McLuhan has labelled the telegraph the “social hormone” (1964: 267), the internet has undoubtedly become part of the social nervous system. As a result, the use of technology to distribute thoughts and knowledge between individuals has founded the grounds for the rapid development of a shared consciousness. In his book, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Pierre Lévy offers a comprehensive insight into how the mass circulation of information together with the interconnectedness of the human race creates a shared ‘knowledge space’ he calls ‘collective intelligence’ (1997:154). Lévy points out that at each level a type of intelligent ‘cosmos’ emerges until the point where the individual merely becomes a part of a larger system of cognition. For Lévy this effectively meant that the emergence of cyberspace and global communication was more than another technological invention: it was the next step in the development of consciousness and cognition as part of an ancient timeline.

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MAS330 Major Essay

Similarly, the use of network technology has been said to have given rise to the notion of a collective brain. Howard Bloom writes on the ideas of having an interconnected ‘planetary mind’ in his book Global Brain (2000:1). Bloom directly focuses on the idea of the World Wide Web analysing the claims of how some visionaries, such as Peter Russell, believe network connected consciousness will unify all life on earth into a single conscious mind (ibid). While even Bloom admits that these speculations remain far removed from the present day, he recognises that recent history has offered a strong indication towards the amalgamation of individual human consciousness and identities (2000: 217). Bloom predicts that interconnectivity will only continue to increase, forming stronger bonds across how we share information between each other. Consequentially, not only will a collective consciousness begin to form across the globe but our perception on identity and sense of self will undoubtedly undergo a metamorphosis in tandem. The very process by which we identify ourselves as individuals, communities or nations will change. To a great extent this effect has already been felt throughout the process of globalisation. In his article Globalization and Cultural Identity, John Tomlinson has revealed that, “cultural identity is at risk everywhere with the depredations of globalization” (2003:269). Similarly, others such as Pinggong Zhang in Rethinking the Impact of Globalization and Cultural Identity in China believe that some mass communication needs to be regulated for this reason (2009:25). What these view-points reveal is that the re-distribution of consciousness and identity through the

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MAS330 Major Essay

implementation of mass communication holds a great deal of ramifications depending on how global communication is structured. Perhaps one of the most historically controversial examples of altering consciousness took place during the Second World War. The ascension of the Nazi party into power saw a plethora of technologies being implemented for the purposes of propaganda ensuring the party would stay in power. Their uses of cinema to affect social perception were extremely sophisticated with large scale implementations of communication technologies over the masses. The post-war ‘denazification’ process was a testament to how formidable a collective consciousness can be, concreting a way of thinking and identity within the entire nation. Therefore, while notions of a global collective consciousness might be presented as a glorified utopia by certain technocrats, the assimilation of conscious thought can often have bewildering implications for freedoms and the cultural diversity of populations. In his chapter Virtual Ethnicity, Mark Poster investigates how technologies such as the CD-ROM have threatened smaller social structures such as the Maori culture in New Zealand (1998:187). Poster draws attention to a conversation he had with a Maori reporter who was concerned about whether his culture could survive in a world where the bulk of CD-ROM content was published from United States. What Poster had uncovered was the increasing concern surrounding the Americanisation of a wide spectrum of international cultures. While writing had similar effects throughout history, interactive

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MAS330 Major Essay

multimedia technologies which boasted spoken language and visual graphics could have a far more powerful effect on the way consciousness was affected within particular communities. More formidably, rapid communication technologies have greatly facilitated the use and spread of particular languages. Jeremy Rifkin posits that one of the many reasons English is so widely spoken is because the United States has remained, “the media capital of the world.” While Rifkin fails to mention the vast number of Mandarin speakers in China, he brings to attention an important affect on consciousness as a result of contemporary communication technology. That is, people’s pattern of cognition is greatly dependent upon their native language. Peter Carruthers writes that under certain circumstances, “representations of natural language sentences have an important role to play in certain aspects of distinctively human thinking and reasoning” (2010: 15). Communication technologies not only affect how consciousness becomes interconnected socially, but also act upon the fundamental building blocks of conscious thought throughout the world. To reiterate, while communication technology can enable the amalgamation of consciousness and identity, it is not always welcome. From an ethical standpoint it becomes increasingly important to understand who controls the communication technologies available to people and how they are being used. Even from a purely technical perspective, technologies have the potential to have detrimental effects on the function of consciousness.

Mario Brce

MAS330 Major Essay

In particular, more modern technologies have been increasingly blamed for growing trends showing changes in people’s cognition. Television has been the centre of a great deal of debate surrounding its affects on the cognitive development of young children. Jean Lotus argues technologies such as television are responsible for increased risk factors that result in Attention Deficit disorders within children, leading to poor concentration and an array of behavioural problems in later life (2000). Perhaps even more prominent are concerns surrounding the infiltration of the online media environment on the population, particularly surrounding those who spend a great deal of time engaging with the web. Other academics like Hardie & Tee have found evidence in their studies that excessive internet usage can lead to neuroticism, depression and an overreliance on online social interactivity (2007:44). What makes these discoveries carry formidable importance is the implication that technology can equally inflict adverse affects on our cognition and our social communication as it can advance them. Nevertheless, while scientific debate and public opinion obscure similar issues, the rapidity of contemporary communication technologies has greatly surpassed our ability to keep track of its affects. Nevertheless, the immense changes that have taken place in the world of rapid communication technologies have given rise to great opportunities for the human race. Again, we must turn to Jeremy Rifkin and his work in investigating the rise to an empathetic civilisation. In a lecture given at the Technology Entertainment and Design conference (T.E.D.), Rifkin

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MAS330 Major Essay

brings to attention scientific research concerning the existence of ‘mirror neurons’ in human beings (2010). He points out that these neural components, which enable our consciousness to empathise with others, have been the fundamental elements of the human mind that have tied together societies from ‘blood ties’ to ‘religious institutions’ and ‘nation states’ (ibid). Rifkin exposes how the cognitive structures in human beings give us an intrinsic capability to empathise with others showing how common identities and connected communications provoke these empathetic connections. While writing technologies, improved transportation and increasing speed has created national ties amongst people, Rifkin unleashes the possibility that the contemporary world of communication could one day unify all races on the planet. Therefore, through the development of communication, the way in which human consciousness perceives both the individual and itself as a race can be greatly revolutionised. Contemporary thinkers such as Rifkin believe that technological progress will continue to act as an extension of the human mind, building new forms of media to create a global society with a unified sense of self. Rifkin uses the earthquake that hit Haiti as an example, arguing that within 2 hours internet based communications such as Twitter and Youtube enabled the entire world to come to the aid of the country (ibid: 8’). Through these advancements, technology has a great chance in revolutionising the collective consciousness of the entire world. In conclusion, technology has accelerated communication across the planet beyond any fathomable predictions of the past. With their developments there have been great changes in the way human
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MAS330 Major Essay

consciousness operates, from cognition to our sense of self. While challenges are presented with every new technology coupled with their respective risks, they have redefined the boundaries of the human mind. In the shadow of globalisation, the re-configuration of our own identity is inevitable. Nevertheless, who we are, and how we think will undoubtedly be dependent on the technology of the future.

Mario Brce

MAS330 Major Essay

Bibliography
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Carruthers, P. Language in cognition. In E.Margolis, R.Samuels, and S.Stich. Eds.
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Publishing/R. Pullins Co.

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MAS330 Major Essay Poster, M. 1998. Virtual Ethnicity: Tribal Identity in an Age of Global Communications. In Steven G. Jones Eds. Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting ComputerMediated Communication and Community. London: Sage Publications.

Rose, S. 2003. The Making of Memory: from molecules to mind. London:
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Videos
Rifkin, J. 2010. The Empathic Civilisation, RSA Animate. [ONLINE] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g Accessed 15 November 2010.

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