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Technology Uses Us: Humans as an Ecological Niche

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More and more we use biological metaphors for our technology. Cars break and are fixed, but computers get infected. Technology evolves, competes, exploits our emotions. We are the ecological niche for technology. And its uses of us may be no more benevolent than our uses of our own ecological niches. Just as we sometimes turn grasslands into deserts, technology can alter us. Our bodies and brains become the ecology affected by technology.

Inuit asked to draw maps could draw amazing accurate maps of the areas they roamed and lived, transferring three dimensional knowledge easily to a two dimensional representation. But they drew the lands they hunted larger, out of scale, because these were the areas that loomed large in their umwelt, or self-world. We are defining our world through not literal representations—maps, chat sights. We have a cyberspace landscape. The result is some comforting illusions about space and distance. California is, in some ways, closer to Austin, Texas, than Burton, Texas, a tiny town full of boarded up buildings less than 100 miles away. I telecommute to California daily. I certainly “draw it larger” in my umwelt. These are people I don’t see, or touch. We are all familiar with the experience of meeting someone we know only from the Internet and discovering that they are nothing like what we had expected.

Already, cities and reading and writing are altering our bodies. First generation Arctic Native Americans had myopia rates of over 50%. Their parents, 2%. 70% of mainland Chinese are myopic, 90% of Taiwanese Chinese are myopic. Studies in rhesus monkeys show that it’s not central vision that’s associated with myopia, but peripheral vision—which leads to the question, are cities making us nearsighted? What else is changing us? We have talked since William Gibson’s book Neuromancer about augmenting our brains. We are holding those augmentation devices in our hands—what abilities will we transfer to our tools and stop being able to do ourselves? And if we lose an ability and become more dependent upon say, GPS, doesn’t that “benefit” the technology, insuring its continued existence?

Reading and writing altered the way people remembered things. People from oral cultures can do amazing feats of recall. But I wouldn’t give up being able to write for the ability to remember my grocery list. What happens as we become dependent on more things outside our brains to do the work of our brains? Is that to our benefit or technology’s benefit, or both?

The industrial revolution produced environmental changes we are still learning to deal with. It is reasonable to assume that technology is changing us—our neural and physical "landscape"—in ways that will become clearer over time. The benefits of smart phones, search engines, and ubiquitous memory assists from online tools are way too cool to give up. But rather than wait for a Rachel Carson Silent Spring of technology, we can be mindful that we are causing changes and be alert for them.

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Maureen McHugh

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Maureen McHugh is a Hugo Award winning science fiction writer. In the past few years she’s also written for the Webby Award winning ARGs I Love Bees and The Dark Knight. She lives in Austin Texas.

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