Anthropomorphizing Technology

I’ve just read an extract of Clay Shirkys Cognitive Surplus book in the Times along with a very good interview about him and other web gurus. Unfortunately you have to pay to get Times articles these days (hmmm. Ironic) but there’s a good review if it in Guardian. There are lots of good videos on YouTube of him talking about the concept of cognitive surplus so I encourage you to listen to them.

Clay Shirky

…anyhow I could spend the rest of the year dissecting Shirky’s writing because I love his enthusiasm and agree with much of what he says but what I wanted to get out in this post is the fact that people are really anthropomorphizing technology. He does it and Skirky has particularly emotional prose about the internet and how when he used the internet in 1992 it was an emotional experience for him (his brain flipped out!), his compatriots do it when they write about the internet and technology and we’re all doing it as a society.

I was out drinking with Martin Weller the other week (always a bad idea) and we got to talking about the fact the friends of ours talk about a piece of technology with such irrational love and affection that to an outsider it seems bizarre but to us it’s quiet normal although we might not always share their love of a particular technology. Some people at the OU for example love FirstClass because we’ve used it at the OU since the mid 90’s and some feel a kind of ownership of it that others might not.

It’s not just ownership though but a sense that the technology is life enhancing.  Take the recent ‘buzz’ about the iPad. When all is said and done the iPad technology is not a big leap forward from that of tablet PC’s or indeed from Apple’s own iPhone but it really got into people emotionally in a way that I haven’t seen a technology do to the same extent before. It was slightly scary to see the reaction of some people to it and how they talk about it as if it is a living breathing thing.

I think there are two distinct patterns here.

1. A kind of addictive quality to new technology where it fills a gap that people never knew they had.

2. A sense of ownership and stakeholding for technology that has been around a long time and has given that person a wholesome experience over a sustained period of time so that they have become personally involved with the technology in a way they wouldn’t have imagined when they first saw it.

Both these have parallels to relationship building. The instant attraction of new lovers, and the slowly growing deep love of long term relationships.

…I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

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About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

4 Responses to Anthropomorphizing Technology

  1. Definitely technology is taking a new turn nowadays. Apple has almost cult like followers. When a new product comes out, all of a sudden it’s the best thing ever. Tablet PC’s have been out for a while like you mentioned. Good post 😀

    • willwoods says:

      Thanks Charlie, I think that this also breed another response, which is more technophobic, i.e. the very fact that technology is advancing faster and new things come along brings both a craving for and a repulsion of that technology advancement. People nowadays feel like they must know what HDMI and USB2, Bluetooth and 3DTV etc are all about and if they don’t they then feel like the ‘have nots’. If you watch the PC world ads and sit back and truly listen to it it is very techno-speak and yet people are expected to know these things.

      …And apple release a product within a space that already has tech but does it in a way that catches peoples imagination and builds on hype. So after all is said and done we’re human and perhaps we go on instinct and affection over logic even when purchasing technology?

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