Psych. 48: Technology, Self, and Society
Prof. Ken Gergen
Week 10: Technology - Freedom and Control II
"...Technologies exhibit superfluous efficacy or 'polypotency' in their functions, effects, and meanings."
--R.E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology, p.20
The word polypotency is a relevant addition to our vocabulary in our analysis of the postmodern changes currently reshaping this culture's social and technological structures. Meaning "potent in many ways," this term certainly applies to today's expanding system of communication links, from online chat rooms to cell phones to digital cameras to electronic mail. Indeed, not one of these modes of technology can be restricted to a single purpose when evaluating the scope of their influence.
An interesting example of the polypotency of communication technologies manifested for me several weeks ago when like any other Monday morning I checked my email. I was shocked to find that I had over 500 new messages -- and it had only been less than 24 hours since I had last checked my electronic mailbox. After scrolling through several emails, I realized that I was witness to a huge computer faux pas.
This September, after seeing some signs up around campus advertising a free trip to Israel for college students, I had emailed the national program called "Israel 2000," expressing my potential interest. I had missed the application deadline, but they promised to keep me updated on future events. Apparently, I wasn't the only one on their backup list.
Israel 2000 sent me an email several weeks ago giving me an update on their new programs; on it they explained that if I wanted to "unsubscribe" myself from their mailing list, I simply needed to reply to the email with my request in the subject line. The problem was that any reply message sent to Israel 2000 was also forwarded to all other recipients of the original letter (in the undisclosed "To:" list). Thus after the first dozen or so replies were sent out, people started realizing that their Eudora and Hotmail accounts were getting jammed up with unnecessary trash mail that had nothing to do with them. This in turn inspired a slew of reactionary emails commenting on the computer glitch.
Within the next couple hours, many more emails were broadcasted. Some users recognized the situation as an opportunity to communicate with a large body of people within the same specific demographic group. When else would they get to personally reach out to hundreds of other young, Jewish, computer-using college students with the same travel interests? Here they could write a message that would get into a multitude of private mailboxes. Thus I was forced to download page after page of personal ads, homepage plugs, sales pitches, and above all, brainstormed conspiracies on how to retaliate against the Israel 2000 program for letting such an obnoxious computer blunder invade all our lives. The predicament was ironic, however, since every emailer who complained about the hundreds of emails getting issued to him/her without choice was in fact forcing the hundreds of other recipients to read his/her own text. It was a cycle building in momentum with every passing minute. Israel 2000 finally brought their computer geeks to the rescue to cut off the link between the reply feature and the recipient list, saving my mailbox from any further related emails.
This chain of events displays the polypotency of the electronic mail system. Can we say that this mode of communication acted as a means of control and surveillance by a national organization -- as the travel program had the force of holding the names and personal information of hundreds (if not thousands) of potential consumers at their own disposal? Or did the email system in fact work as a democratizing agent that allowed the voices of individuals to come together in finding their own web of power? I think it can be seen as either. Or even both at the same time. Does one rule out the other? We need to be careful in our evaluations to not hold a dualistic perspective that separates everything into one category or another. Technology is no longer black and white (and was it ever?); it is an array of colors, each holding its own valid potency.
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