Ideas

We're all bionic now. We've got superpowers — but who's in control?

We seem to be living in an age ​where ​our lives and ​our ​future are so intertwined with technology​ we can hardly tell where we end and the technology begins. Astra Taylor, Mark Kingwell and Sue Gardner use that most modern of technologies —videoconferencing — to talk about what happens when humans meet machines.

Figuring out technology's impact on our lives is one of the most important projects for our time.

A mobile phone screen displays the icons for the social networking apps. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on January 13, 2021.

The great Canadian scientist Ursula Franklin began her 1989 CBC Massey Lecture with the premise that technology is the house that we as a society live in — but we rarely get outside to have a look at it.

Ursula Franklin in 1980. She was the first woman ever to be given the University of Toronto's honorary title, University Professor, in 1984. (University of Toronto Archives)

When we do, there are two things we notice — first, that it is a large and mystifying house, and we must figure out its architecture and engineering, if we're going to have any chance at understanding how it works. Which in turn, will allow us to understand how we can best use it, how to fix it when it 's broken, and how it's affecting who we are and how we behave. 

Second, we realize that — to continue the 'house' metaphor — we don't actually own the house anymore; the house of modern technology is owned by mighty corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. 

We simply rent the house, and sometimes even get to stay for "free." However, nothing in a capitalist society is ever truly free: we rent the house in exchange for sharing our personal information. Information that can be used to sell us things, control the information we consume, and ultimately control how we perceive the world and act in it. 

A few thousand years ago, when technology largely consisted of tools such as spears for killing a mammoth and the fire for cooking it, what we might call the "politics of technology" most likely wasn't very significant — unless perhaps, you didn't have a spear. However, in our current era, it seems best to accept the disquieting fact that we don't have as much free will as we may think we do.

Tools are the extensions of our bodies, and perhaps the equally useful corollary is that technology is the sum of the tools we make — and we're constantly being shaped by this technology. What we handle and what we consume, affects us in quite profound ways. But — and it's a crucial "but" — the agents who control these technologies don't necessarily have our best interests at heart.

We risk the future — our own identity, the shape of our culture and society — if we ignore the water of technology we swim in. 

For a long time now, we've been teaching kids media literacy: how to understand the media we consume. It seems equally as important now to have the skills for technology literacy.

Guests in this episode: 

Sue Gardner is a media analyst, former CBC journalist and one of the very first directors of cbc.ca; she was Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation from 2007-2014.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of numerous books on politics and culture.

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker (Zizek! and What is Democracy?) fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation and author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When it's Gone.


* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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