In thinking critically about how the dynamics of social networking technologies shape us, it’s worth keeping in mind what Albert Borgmann calls “the normative pattern of technology.”
Borgmann notes that technology has the dynamic of replacement. A technology replaces one thing with another. And it usually replaces a richly textured and layered thing with an opaque thing in the name of convenience or disburdenment.
What complicates the situation is that there’s usually something lost in this exchange that is hidden or concealed. The problem is that we’re usually so taken with the benefits that we don’t notice the price we’ve paid.
Borgmann cites Cool Whip as a playful example of this dynamic of replacement. Before the advent of Cool Whip, people needed to make their own whipped cream to serve on top of desserts.
There were skills involved in producing whipped cream. In a bygone era, housewives needed to be able to utilize various kitchen tools, have a working knowledge of how ingredients worked together, and to know the process of transforming cream into something to plop onto a piece of pie.
Such knowledge would be passed down from mother to daughter in the context of family life, fostering familial bonds in the countless subtle ways that traditions are transmitted and memories created. Borgmann calls this a tradition-rich, contextual, and commanding reality. When a grown woman takes out certain mixing bowls and serving dishes, she recalls time spent with her mother. She sees through these items to the many layers of rich and weighty realities and wonderful memories associated with them.
Cool Whip, on the other hand, is easy. It replaces the mess and burden of having to make whipped cream, and it doesn’t spoil so quickly. We can just go to the store and pick it up. When we’ve had enough, we can put it back in the refrigerator and use it again.
Borgmann calls this sort of thing an opaque thing, because it has only a surface reality. When you look at Cool Whip, you don’t see any layered or tradition-rich realities. You don’t think about who made it or what it took to produce it and bring it to your grocer’s freezer. There’s no knowledge required about how to use kitchen tools or mix ingredients. Neither do you recall the time you spent making the cream while laughing with your mother and catching up with relatives while preparing dessert for the rest of the family.
Cool Whip is inherently tradition-less.
What’s happened is that in the interest of disburdenment (it’s so easy!), a richly-textured thing is replaced by an opaque thing. A weighty and meaning-ful thing is replaced with a shallow and meaning-less thing.
That’s the normative pattern of technology.
We could also consider the technology of writing. With the advent of writing, humans had the ability to keep records and preserve for future generations the history of their people.
But consider the cost. Whereas formerly children sat around older family members to hear stories of ancestors, strengthening bonds of familiarity and affection between young and old, that’s no longer necessary. Over time, community bonds weaken. Old people lose their value. The disburdenment comes at the cost of cohesive community and much else.
As Borgmann says, technology usually conceals what is lost in the process of replacement. I just wonder if Borgmann’s discussion of technology’s dynamic of replacement can be a helpful resource for our reflection on how social media technologies affect human relationships.
If so, how? What’s being exchanged and what are the costs?