Author: Cal Hoag

Personifying Technology

I’ve always believed that there was a stark contrast between studying STEM and studying the humanities. Obviously that doesn’t make me unique, it seems that it’s something we all thought to one extent or another since the belief has essentially been conditioned into us from the time we were children. Whether it was the idea of being “left brained” vs. “right brained,” or the simple truth that most people are better at one realm of thought than the other; it always seemed painfully obvious that the two fields could not intersect.

My college experience has only helped to propagate the idea; I’ve spent the past two years living with a physics major and our academic experiences could not be more different. As a communication major, I tend to spend a lot of time on bigger projects as I analyze the literacy of different media and write longer papers about my thoughts. On the other hand, my roommate spends a ridiculous, consistent number of hours a week in a lab or a classroom in the ISC working on math problems and unlocking the mysteries of our natural world, demonstrating a work ethic that both impresses and horrifies me. What I’m getting at is that this experience made my mental divide between the two disciplines grow.

Enter the computer: the machine would eventually be revealed to me as the bridge between the gap.

Like everything else, the way me and my STEM roommate each use our machines is markedly different. I’m proficient in Google Docs and Microsoft Word, as those are my primary tools as I write my papers and do my work for The Lamron. I use research management software, Zotero, to help me better write my papers and overall I’d consider my use of the machine to be of a incredibly humanist nature.

Let me tell you though, I cannot even begin to comprehend how the physics major does some of the things I’ve seen on his laptop screen. Graphs, models, spreadsheets…all things that would make my stomach drop if I were ever had to produce them for a class. His use of the machine seemed so much more proper and computer-y than mine, like it was what the machine was meant to accomplish. Yet, the funniest thing happened. Last semester he had to take his Humanities class, and he completely relied on me to help him with word processing. Something that seemed so simple and second-nature to me was actually almost foreign to someone who hadn’t written a paper sense high school, which was particularly surprising considering it was someone I thought had mastery over the machine. It made me think that maybe I wasn’t so clueless with this machine after all.

I read this article earlier today which made me think of that experience I just described, this class, and humanity’s relationship with technology in general. The article is entitled “An Ode to Opportunity: We’ll Miss You, Mars Rover;” it’s a good cop/bad cop style argument about our culture’s peculiar personification of this exploratory computing marvel. Essentially, the author describes how he is bummed out about the “passing” of the rover, and then proceeds to berate himself for such a nonsensical notion which proceeds to a back-and-forth that further belabors the point. It’s funny and poignant; at one point the author lovingly refers to the rover as “Oppy” before arguing the other point and calling it “a camera on a skateboard that has no feelings.”

One of the most interesting points the article raises is that “Oppy is every bit as real as Jane Eyre or a Pixar character, but you’d never argue that people should stop having feelings about literature and art because the tools of literature and art can be exploited by brand narratives.” What an intriguing notion, that technology can be personified and thought about in a way comparable to how we humanists think of characters in literature. Is this not what this class is all about? By learning to understand and better use our own machines, we are further analyzing and interpreting the “characters” in the story that is the way we navigate our information-saturated reality. The differences between ourselves and STEM majors, the different ways we use our machine, are simply different interpretations of what the same character can represent and accomplish.

Before this class, I never really considered my computer to be anything more than means to an end. It was a convenient way to write and complete assignments that also happened to come in clutch when I was bored and wanted to watch a movie. However, what I’ve begun to realize is that once I consider the device through the imaginative lens of a humanist it can prove to be a unifying force between different people, different talents, and different schools of thought.