Technologies Used to Be Tools; Now They’re Our Environment

Yes, the digital world offers more choices — but it’s not the humans, or at least not the users, who get to make them.

In a digital media environment, it’s particularly easy for figure and ground — people and their inventions — to flip roles. Because so much of this landscape is programmed to do one thing or another, human beings often become the more passive, automatic players compared with the code that actively defines the terrain and influences our behaviors. If we don’t truly know what something is programmed to do, chances are it is programming us. Once that happens, we may as well be machines ourselves.

For example, memetic warfare treats the figure — the human — as ground. In a digital media environment, memes become more than catchy slogans or ideas; they are a form of code, engineered to infect a human mind and then to turn that person into a replicator of the virus. The meme is software, and the person is the machine.

The meme has one goal: to be reproduced. It enters the human, inciting confusion, excitement, panic, or rage and stimulating the host to pass it on. The meme is issuing one command: Make me. And whether by word of mouth, social media, or viral video link, whether in agreement with the meme or in outraged rejection, the infected human obeys.

This automation tends to reinforce itself. The more we experience people as dehumanized replicators of memes, the more likely we are to treat one another as machines to be operated rather than as peers with whom to collaborate.

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