March 11, 2009
Technologies have a social dimension beyond their mere mechanical performance. We adopt new technologies largely because of what they do for us, but also in part because of what they mean to us. Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance reinforces, or crafts our identity.
Most of Kelly’s aticle focuses on tool cultures among Highland tribes in New Guinea, but Kelly’s also recently written about technology adoption among the Amish — which is, of course, unusually explicit about the relationship between technology and group identity.
I’m not sure about this hedge, though:
In the modernized west, our decisions about technology are not made by the group, but by individuals. We choose what we want to adopt, and what we don’t. So on top of the ethnic choice of technologies a community endorses, we must add the individual layer of preference. We announce our identity by what stuff we use or refuse. Do you twitter? Have a big car? Own a motorcycle? Use GPS? Take supplements? Listen to vinyl? By means of these tiny technological choices we signal our identity. Since our identities are often unconscious we are not aware of exactly why we choose or dismiss otherwise equivalent technology. It is clear that many, if not all, technological choices are made not on the technological benefits alone. Rather technological options have unconscious meaning created by social use and social and personal associations that we are not fully aware of.
But aren’t these choices still deeply social? Partly it’s about access: if you don’t have daylong access to the web (or access to the web at all) you ain’t twittering, son. But you’re also not likely to do it if your friends and coworkers and neighbors don’t twitter. Group identity is a lot more complex in the modernized west, sure — but pure individual choice it ain’t. In fact, our adoption of technology actually helps us form new groups and social identities that are not quite tribal/ethnic — or it helps us reinforce those bonds.
P.S.: My title, “tool culture,” isn’t from Kelly’s article, but from paleoanthropology. One of the things I love about the study of groups like the Neanderthals is that we have evidence of their tool use long after we have fossilized remains. We can actually distinguish between Neanderthal and human settlements based on their tools.
Neanderthals and homo sapiens definitely coexisted. People aren’t sure whether Neanderthals interbred with modern humans or not, which makes it hard to know when exactly the Neanderthals died out. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, if a group of anatomically modern humans adopted Neanderthal tools? That technologies could reach not just across ethnicities, but across species as well?