The Shape of Our Tools, The Shape of Our Souls

When, a few weeks ago, I suggested that the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, I cited a story about the strange and disturbing world of children’s YouTube. Today, you can read more about YouTubers who made hundreds of thousands of dollars creating and posting these videos until YouTube started shutting them down.

There’s one line in this story to which I’ll draw your attention. One prominent “content creator” described his method this way:  “We learned to fuel it and do whatever it took to please the algorithm.”

I submit to you that this line is as good a slogan for our emerging social reality as any you’re likely to find: do whatever it takes to please the algorithm.

It reminded me of the bracingly honest and cheery slogan associated with the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Or Carlyle’s complaint that people were becoming “mechanical in head and heart.”

It is true, of course, that we will bend to the shape of any number of external realities: natural, social, and technological.* To be human is to both shape and be shaped by the world we inhabit.

But what is the shape to which our tools and devices encourage us to conform?

Who or what do we seek to please by the way we use them?

Do they sustain our humanity or erode it?

These are the questions we do well to ask.


* It is also true that the boundaries between those categories are blurry.

4 thoughts on “The Shape of Our Tools, The Shape of Our Souls

  1. Last week I worked for 2 days at a company making plastic bags. Most of the time I was wrapping rolls of polythene bags in more polythene and then stacking them on pallets. I worked with more or less complete autonomy. I controlled my workspace, worked at a pace that suited me, decided what to do next. For about an hour I helped a workmate pack plastic bags for LPs (vinyl records) where the machine produced batches of 100 bags which then had to be picked up and put in another bag, sealed and put in a box. We then turned around to wait for the machine to produce another 100 bags. We could neither speed up or slow the machine down. The first job was physically strenuous (the rolls of polythene weigh up to 40 kgs each and have to carried to the wrapping table, and then carried to the pallet) but I genuinely enjoyed it. The second job was very light work and just involved standing around. But in the second job, I was completely determined by the algorithm of the machine, in the first I was doing something that required physical strength, some skill in wrapping, and considerable mental effort both in managing what I was doing and working out how to do it most efficiently. I was using, to some extent, all my capacities as a human being. Both jobs paid the same, and in fact the second job was higher status, because it involved operating the machine and was less physically demanding. Guess which one I preferred? Even with the subsequent back ache.

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