Are we trapped in our technology? Does media change what it means to be human? Is some new trend in media going to alter who we are? Do you ever yearn for the days when people could talk instead of [insert use of media here]? These are common concerns that have echoed throughout the world since (at least) Socrates. Before I go any further, I don’t mean to infer that these concerns are unfounded or totally incorrect. Clearly, media does change how we communicate: go back slightly more than two decades and you wouldn’t even be able to be bored by my blog because the World Wide Web wasn’t invented yet.
The point being, I don’t think I need to convince anyone that media changes our society. What I am arguing, however, is that media doesn’t change what it means to be human.
There’s a fair amount of disagreement on what exactly humans need in our lives to be healthy and happy, but social contact with other humans is generally accepted as a fundamental part of our lives. So what gives? How can everything be different, yet nothing changed?
Here’s an aside that illuminates the idea a bit: remember how good movies used to be in the days before Michael Bay and the junk we have now? I do too. But we’re wrong. It’s just that, over time, the junk gets forgotten and the good stuff is kept. Well, they are forgotten unless you’re a masochist and love bad movies. (Hmm, that might make for a good blog post…)
Right, so bad movies are forgotten. But so are failed attempts to redefine how we communicate. This brings us to the first formal statement of the Resilient Human Hypothesis:
Communication technologies and mediums that fulfill human needs for communication are the ones that permeate society and last a long time.
This is hard to demonstrate thoroughly since it’s a negative and not a whole lot of people are willing to share their utter failures with the world. But here’s an example: the chat room.
Yes, my friends, there was a time in the early days of the internet that strangers would join a shared text space and type words at each other in a real time dialog. They were popular for a while, but mostly they’re relegated to a niche. What do we have instead? Chat rooms with people we know or are accessible to our social circle. These are typically called group messages now instead of chat rooms. People in group messages are more real to us than strangers.
So why the rise and fall of chat rooms? I’m sure there is more than one cause, but I’d be willing to bet that talking with strangers via text doesn’t quite scratch the “needs to be social” itch. It was the closest thing you could do a long time ago since group messaging a bunch of friends wasn’t possible, and not everyone was on the internet yet or as much. So it lasted as long as those circumstances lasted and then left the mainstream consciousness. Sure, we still communicate quasi-anonymously through spaces like reddit or tumblr. But usernames become recognizable as individuals, and it isn’t a real time conversation like a chat room.
What does it all mean?
What I’m driving at is this: media works for us and not the other way around. We are too complex and too old of a species to be fundamentally changed by smartphones in just a few years. We have the same needs and desires as people from hundreds of years ago, so clearly the smartphone is serving us and not changing us on a fundamental level. And it isn’t just serving the individual, it’s serving the collection of individuals in our society.
Yes, the smartphone changes our environment in a litany of ways, but it is succeeding as a communication medium because it is scratching an itch to be social. We are still the same! And I would make an identical argument for any popular medium.