By Invitation

How tech is used to distance and dehumanise others

If technology does not serve a humane end, then what is its point?

It is often said that "sorry" is the hardest word to say. If that is true, then "thank you" may come as a close second.

As I stood at the back of the queue in a foodcourt recently, I noticed that there were at least a dozen customers standing in line before me. As they walked up to the counter one by one to collect their food, most of them had their eyes glued to their mobile phones, and few of them looked up until they were served. The most glaring observation was that not a single person replied to the greetings of the server, who said "thank you" to them. It was as if the servers did not exist, and the transaction had a mechanical feel to it.

Living as we do in an age of sophisticated technology and where everything we touch and feel seems smooth and seamless, human contact seems to be rarer than ever. Yet the experience at the foodcourt was not the first, nor was it an isolated case: I see this neglect or avoidance of human contact everywhere, in every country I visit these days; and it cannot be said to be an "Eastern" or "Western" phenomenon. It seems instead to be a symptom of the age we live in, where human interaction seems burdensome, a thing to be avoided if possible.

Avoiding human interaction is not new, of course.

From the 19th century, people have noted how human beings chose to hide behind their newspapers while taking public transport, and even then, we bemoaned the end of human communication. But compounding matters today has been the manner in which technology has made it easier for us to avoid actual human contact - notwithstanding the often bandied about claim that modern communications technology has connected people the world over.


So are we connected but not communicating?


It is undeniable that present-day communications technology in its myriad of forms has brought individuals and communities together. But that does not mean that we are any closer to meaningful human communication or dealing with the differences between us.

By now, it is equally clear that communications technology and social media have not created a complex world of differences but, rather, contributed to the emergence of closed in-group communities made up of like-minded individuals who seek similarity rather than complexity.

Analysts have noted how the rise of ethno-nationalist movements, hard-right extremist groups and militant organisations thrive on the insecurity and isolation of individuals, and how like-minded people can congregate virtually in cyberspace to affirm their commonalities while denying the identities of others. Rather than opening up the minds of people, the Internet can and has provided a safe haven for those who seek to confirm their biases; and those biases can range from the denial of climate change to the denial of the identity and history of other communities they happen not to like.

This has been - and will perhaps always be - the problem that lies in the use of technology itself. For no matter how sophisticated a communication platform may be - no matter how fast, how seamless, how convenient or cheap - it cannot somehow compel the user to want to engage with other human beings. Simply put, technology cannot make us love our fellow human beings, and cannot compel us to say "thank you" to someone who has done us a favour. Such behaviour, whether genuine or normative, stems from our social education and conditioning (parents, school, friends), but it also presupposes that we are social beings in the first place, who recognise the common humanity we share with others.


Those who bemoan technology's impact on the dehumanisation of society are often chided for being technophobes or Luddites at heart, but I would argue that such dismissals miss the point. Few would argue with the benefits of modern medicine, or decline the offer of anaesthetics that would make a visit to the dentist less painful.

We still choose to fly when we can as no one would walk all the way to Europe as a sign of protest against technology. But what is worrying for some is how certain forms of technology can and have been used to dehumanise the Other, and allow us to negate the complex realities of human co-existence.

Video games are perhaps the most notorious culprits in this case, and scores of critics have written about how many games continue to glorify violence, machismo and misogyny on a daily basis. Worse still, there exists on the so-called "Dark Net" games that are truly dark in nature, featuring torture and wanton slaughter as "entertainment". And by now, we have all seen how social media can be manipulated to produce desired outcomes that have nothing to do with simple human contact and communication, but rather to flood the public domain with fake news, hate speech and normalised bigotry - all with serious sociopolitical consequences that are borne by society in the long run.

Those of us who work on the domain of political violence know very well how it is never accidental or contingent; and that long before pogroms and riots occur, there is always an enormous amount of stage-setting that has to take place where targeted victims - be they individuals or communities - are singled out as potential targets first.

Part and parcel of this process of targeting is the practice of dehumanisation: where the Other is cast as somehow less-than-human, and deserving hate. This has been the case in all the conflicts that have blighted humanity but, today, this process of dehumanisation has been amplified thanks to communications technology and social media.


The question that should perhaps be asked is this: Rather than try to turn the clock back and attempt to retreat to some Luddite fantasy land, can we imagine ways by which technology can be harnessed to serve human and humane ends instead?

A "humane turn" can be seen in other industries such as mining, oil and gas, and agriculture: We have come to understand that environmental degradation is as much a responsibility of companies as it is the responsibility of consumers and, as such, their practices are regulated for the public good. An oil company that pollutes the environment, for instance, would be expected to be fined and made to clean up the mess it made. Likewise, agricultural companies that cause massive forest fires are today expected to heal the land that they have scarred.

But in the domain of social media and communications technology - where the social cost of abuse can be greater, and borne by people - there seems to be little regulation of the same kind. Over the past decade, there had been enough reports of political conflicts and crises that were fanned by fake news sites, malicious content providers and so on, to show that social media can be used for the sake of hate campaigns.

While it would be difficult to control everything that happens in this ever-expanding virtual realm, surely imaginative incentives can be thought up, to encourage the development of more humane and people-friendly uses of social media and communications technology? At some point, our thinking about technology has to take on board these concerns, for if technology does not serve a humane end, then what is its point anyway?

And for those of us who are concerned about security, violence in the public domain, and the question of social resilience, let us remember that such concerns only make sense when there is a society to speak of.

A world where people would rather speak to apps and phones is one where human communication has become secondary, and when such human bonds are weakened, conflict and distrust are often close at hand.

  • The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'How tech is used to distance and dehumanise others'. Print Edition | Subscribe