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Social Media | Q&A

Is Your Technology Making You an 'Emerging Human?'

Technology may be making us better people. Literally. According to University of Queensland's Phillip D. Long, technology, in particular social media, may have already begun to augment the innate capabilities of human beings in new and profound ways, "not as a crutch or a proxy, but as an actual integrating force," as he explains in this interview with Campus Technology.

Is, as "technology and self" investigator Sherry Turkle and others have suggested, technology changing us as we change technology? Can technology augment the intellect as interactive technology pioneer Douglas Engelbart decades ago predicted it would? Is it humanly possible for you to keep up with all your friends on Facebook, or do you need more time to emerge, or perhaps even metamorphose first?

The nature of our technology-mediated interactions and the emergence of technologies for social communications are deeply related topics that Phil Long considers daily in his role as professor and director of the Centre for Educational Innovation & Technology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Campus Technology had the chance to connect with Long in person, just following his keynote, "Technology for Emerging Humans," at the AAEEBL ePortfolio World Summit 2011 conference, co-located with Campus Technology 2011 in Boston last month. We asked him about "emerging humans."

Mary Grush: There's quite a bit of attention in the literature to questions about what we can expect from emerging technology, and it's a highly relevant area for higher education technology leaders to ponder. But you are turning the focus a bit: You've been talking recently about "technology for emerging humans"--what do you mean by that?

Phil Long: It goes back to an original assertion made in 1962, I think, by Doug Engelbart, that the real value of technologies is for augmenting the human intellect. And if you think about that, as technologies are emerging and even becoming ubiquitous, they're getting more and more capable of aligning with fundamental human engaging characteristics--whether it's our sociality, or our ability to connect with each other, or our ability to maintain relationships.

There was a period of time when there was great fear that technologies were isolating people, or that they were acting as echo chambers for people with like minds to get together and reinforce bizarre ideas. But the data is starting to show that if technologies become ubiquitous, and if they are designed so that they are both simple for the average person to use and can powerfully connect core human characteristics, then we find that they are actually improving or augmenting our humanity.

The notion that Doug started with--of augmenting the intellect--is, I think, now starting to transform into augmenting our sociality.

So when I talk about "emerging humans" I'm talking about how we can become even more than we have in the past in terms of our ability to connect socially with each other and help each other and improve our lives together using technologies not as a crutch or a proxy, but as an actual integrating force.

Grush: Then how is technology augmenting our sociality? Is there a mechanism for this integrating force? Can you connect this idea to scientific research?

Long: There's a famous example of a study by Robin Dunbar [the basis for "Dunbar's number"], an anthropologist who was looking at neocortex size, primate groups, and the development of language. The study looked at the volume of the neocortex and how large the primate groups were in their natural habitats. He then started to correlate that to the emergence of language. But what he came up with was a relationship that showed that when you start to plot out how social these groups are, how many individuals they have in them, and brain size, you see what he claims is an upper limit to the number of social interactions one can maintain in a way that involves close bonding.

In humans, it turns out, that number is 150. You can friend a thousand people on Facebook, but despite what you might think, you will interact with some subset that tends to be in the neighborhood of 150. [Dunbar's number indicates] you can't physically, mentally, or neurologically maintain [a larger number of] those kinds of relationships.

But technologies like Facebook are actually starting to be able to augment that: The average size of Facebook communities is 219. So, we've [pushed] the upper limit of Dunbar's range, suggesting that we are taking advantage of this type of intermediary technology as a mechanism for extending our need for connections and ties in a way that is very human.

Grush: What about the question of authenticity in these kinds of interactions--like those on Facebook or other online sites? There is the old idea that "on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog...." Is it a reasonable kind of concern that our technology-mediated social interactions might not be as genuine as we think?

Long: It's a reasonable hypothesis. The only thing one can do is collect data over time to see whether that's in fact what's going on. The most recent data that comes out of the Pew Internet and Society studies tends to tell a different story. It tends to suggest that what we're using these technologies for is in fact to express our humanity in ways that are more deeply connected.

The fact is that it turns out that 90 percent of the friends that we have in Facebook are friends that we consider "close confidants" in real life. There was a period of time when people thought that we'd have all these anonymous relationships with monikers, with the handles of people, and we would not know who they were. But that's not what happens. At the end of the day, you can't strip away the fact that we have millions of years of evolution behind us, and as much as the technology pessimists--along with those who are worried about the disintermediating effects of technology--would like to suggest otherwise, the reality seems to be that we express ourselves through these technologies anyway.

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