When humans invent a technology that comes to influence our societies, we tend to morph our language to reflect that technology and, much like a hammer sees a nail, we, for a time at least and sometimes for a very long time, skew our language and our behaviours toward technologies. During the enlightenment clocks became very popular. This was around the time of Isaac Newton, when he derived his laws of motion and universal gravitation to predict the behaviour of earthly objects and the solar system. He called this the “clockwork universe” and so we began to adapt our language and in many respects, how we ran our societies.
Now, in the digital age, we’re changing our language again. Only it’s different this time. We’re changing it unlike we’ve ever changed it with technology before. This is curious. It may also be a warning in regards to how we will leverage digital technologies in our society and cultures.
Metaphors, like allegories, play a key role in how we communicate ideas and concepts. They’re often woven into the stories we use to explain our world, expectations of one another, explain cultures, morals, values, ethics and so on.
You’re probably familiar with metaphors like “greasing the wheels” for doing business or telling someone to “dig deeper” or describing a co-worker as “having a screw loose.” All references to machines. Driven by the Industrial Revolution as we built factories and sought to turn humans into machines as well. Ever been told to eat your breakfast to “fuel up” for the day?
For centuries with machines, we’ve tended more towards anthropomorphism, where we project human qualities onto objects. As in seeing a car grill as a face, talking to a smart speaker in your home like it was a human (many people use “please” when telling a smart speaker to turn off.) But things are changing.
Now, we are projecting machine qualities onto humans instead of the other way around. This is a significant change in use of language. It also impacts how we think of our societies and cultures with some interesting implications that we can’t quite understand yet.
For example, you’ve probably said to someone or heard someone say “she’s a great multitasker!”, but humans can’t multitask. We have only one processor, our brain, computers have multiple processors. Then there’s “levelling up” and “life hacks” or telling someone “that doesn’t compute.” This is mechanomorphism. Applying machine traits to human behaviours and activities, cultures and societies.
We’ve turned the tables from putting human attributes and qualities onto inanimate objects to putting machine qualities and attributes onto humans. In essence, to some degree, seeing ourselves as computers rather than humans. This is also reflected in how digital technology companies, especially software creators, disconnect the human as using their apps as “users”, a decidedly non-human term. An abstraction.
As the hallucination of the metaverse conversation rolls on, we already are replacing “user” with “avatar”, disconnecting the language of human one step further. Humans and technology have co-evolved together for millennia through technogenesis, but this is the first time in human history that we’ve projected the attributes of a technology onto us. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, perhaps it is inevitable.
How does this compute for you?