and the
Invisibility of Technology

Try this little exercise, which has three steps:

  1. First, before reading anything more than this paragraph, print this page onto a sheet of paper using a printer. (I'm assuming you have access to a printer, but if you do not, you will have helped make my point about the impact of the availability of technology on our ways of being in the world.) Now, take that sheet of paper, go somewhere physically away from the computer you're using right now, and read this page on paper. When you're finished reading the page, return to your computer and go to the second step of this experiment.

  2. Click this link, then close your eyes and listen. (I'm assuming your computer has the capability to play the audioclip that I'd like you to hear. If it does not, then you will have helped make my point about the impact of the availability of technology on our ways of being in the world.) When you're finished listening, go to the third step of this experiment.

  3. Now, read through this web page as you have read through the others that you've visited in this webtext--that is, read it on the screen of your computer and follow the links as you would "normally" do in reading a webtext such as this.

You probably already have a sense of where this exercise is going. If you were able to move through all three steps, you "experienced" this web page in three different ways using three different technologies: print technology (in the form of a hard copy of this page); audio technology (the audio clip you listened to); and the computer technologies required for me to create this webtext and for you to read it. I'd like to suggest that, although the point I am trying to make on this web page doesn't necessarily change with the technology you use to read or hear it, your experience of engaging that point does. You might compare this difference to the difference between listening to a sermon in a church and reading a printed version of it by yourself in your home: the "text" may be the "same" in terms of its message or theme but the experience of engaging it differs.

The point is that the technology shapes your experience of engaging a text such that it may in fact change that experience, even if the text (arguably) doesn't seem to change. (I understand, of course, that the "meaning" of the text isn't stable across technologies or even from one reading to another using the same technology, but my focus here is on how one experiences the text, not on the nature of its meaning.) More importantly, because technologies like print and audio have become so common and so thoroughly integrated into our ways of reading, writing, and communicating, they can also become invisible to us as we use them; that is, they become so fully a part of the experience of reading or listening or communicating that we stop noticing them over time.

This capacity of technology to become "invisible" has important implications, for it means that technology becomes central to how we experience and live in the world in a way that eventually comes to be seen as "natural." In this sense, the technology influences how we understand ourselves as beings-in-the-world and our relationships to each other and to the larger world we inhabit. I might illustrate this important characteristic of technology by asking you to consider how your use of the telephone affects your activity during a typical day. For instance, consider the capacity of the telephone to enable you to converse easily and in real time with others who are physically distant from you, perhaps by thousands of miles. Consider what that capacity means for your minute-by-minute experience of the world: your ability to speak to other people, no matter where they happen to be physically, more or less when you wish to speak to them, in order to conduct the affairs of your daily life. To put it another way, how would your daily life be different if you had no access to these people via the telephone? Now consider how often you actually think about that--how often you actually are conscious of the impact the telephone has on your daily experience of the world. In the year 2001, the use of a telephone as a means to extend your presence in the world is no more apparent or "visible" to you than, say, the use of a dental prosthetic such as a crown on a tooth is visible to us as a means of chewing our food.

phone3.gif (4K)

But this "invisibility" of technology goes beyond these rather obvious effects in our day-to-day activities. It is also implicated in how we understand ourselves as beings-in-the-world. For example, the daily use of the telephone (and similar technologies) to communicate with others at a distance enables you to think of yourself as being able to extend your "presence" instantly over great physical distances. In this sense, such a technology can reinforce our prevailing Western sense of self as a primarily intellectual entity whose body is separate from--and subordinate to--your minds. Admittedly, the experience of having a telephone conversation, like the experience of an online conversation, can be decidedly "physical": think, for instance, of receiving a phone call from someone who informs you of the birth of child to a close relative or the death of someone you know; in such cases, the emotional impact of that news can be experienced physically, even at a great distance and even though the only real physical activity you are engaged in at the time is holding the telephone to your ear. But your physical distance from the person you're talking to is basically immaterial (pardon the pun) to the experience of communicating with that person. In other words, your physical separateness from the other person does not really matter in terms of your ability to have the conversation. The technology enables you to experience yourself and the other person as together or proximate even though your bodies are not, in a physical sense, proximate. In this way, technologies like the telephone can implicitly underscore your sense of self as an autonomous, thinking being, because your physical presence becomes unnecessary for "you" to interact with the other person.

As I suggest elsewhere in this webtext, writing as a technology seems to have helped shape this Western sense of self in subtle but powerful ways that perhaps go beyond the influence of technologies like the telephone. But the computer, which is both a technology for writing and a technology that differs from writing, may be as important as writing itself in terms of its ability to shape our sense of self and our ways of being-in-the-world. As an incredibly powerful and increasingly ubiquitous technology that is becoming ever more fully integrated into our lives, the computer may have the capacity to affect our sense of self to an extent that no other technology can do. Perhaps the most compelling example of this capacity is the well-known case of Mr. Bungle and the "cyber-rape" on LambdaMOO, as described by Julian Dibbell in his oft-reprinted article "A Rape in Cyberspace." Although no physical contact ever occurred between "Mr. Bungle" and his victims, Dibbell describes the profound emotional and psychological impact the "rape" had on one of the women who participated in LambdaMOO. The intense identification between the woman and her MOO character, which is a textual, intellectual "being," suggests the extent to which newer online technologies can reify the prevailing Western sense of self.

Indeed, my concern--and fear--is that the primary effect of our uses of these computer technologies is to reify the Western sense of self as an autonomous, thinking being that exists fundamentally separate from the physical world; in this way, computer technologies--and I'm specifically concerned here with our uses of computer technologies for teaching writing--reinforce the disconnection between humans and their environment and thus contribute to the frightening environmental crises we face at this point in time.

To forestall that development, we must begin to rethink our uses of computer technologies in ways that go beyond the important social and political and economic concerns that have energized much scholarship in computers and writing in the past decade (e.g. see Selfe 2001); we must begin to imagine ways of using computer technologies in our teaching that challenge our disconnection from the physical world. But to do that requires, first, re-imagining the self in ways that highlight connectedness rather than separateness. That is the task I take up in the next section.

Go to Section IV, Alternatives: Nonduality, Interconnectedness, and Being-in-the-World.