The Human + Machine Culture and The Metaphor of the Ring
Posted by Rob_Henseler
As I read Bernadette Longo’s “Human+Machine Culture” in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I couldn’t help thinking of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other. It seems an obvious connection to me–both authors address the issue of whether virtual social connections are meaningful enough to satisfy our need for deep, real relationships.
In Longo’s second sentence she writes that as she works at her computer she senses that “other people lurk behind my screen–and I want a relationship with those other people, even if it is mediated by the machine that is a physical manifestation of the virtual relationship.” Near the end of her chapter, Longo writes, “Turning back to my computer, I ask myself why I simultaneously love it and distrust the community it enables. What is it that I desire in this relationship; what is it I fear?”
“Lurk”? “Love it and distrust…”? “Desire”? “Fear”? An odd choice of words I thought. Something was nagging at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to have another look at Turkle’s book to see if I could figure out what dark cloud was causing this trouble. That’s where I found it.
Part of Turkle’s book talks about always being connected, always having our mobile devices with us, and always checking them. She mentioned cyborg experiments in 1996 where people walked around campus with computers and transmitters in their backpacks, keypads in their pockets, and digital displays clipped to their glasses. One of the test subjects claimed to feel quite powerful, but there were also “feelings of diffusion.”
Diffusion! That’s it! In The Fellowship of the Ring, book one of The Lord of the Rings, before he leaves the Shire for good, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf that he feels stretched out and worn thin. Diffused, perhaps? The Ring (online technology) can leave a person feeling stretched thin and diffused.
Turkle and Longo are both talking about a fear not unlike what happens in The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Dark Lord Sauron and the Nazgul can see young Frodo when he puts on the ring, Google and Yahoo! and company can see Longo when she’s working at her computer. That explains the lurking feeling.
What of the love and distrust and the desire and fear that Longo wrote of? Isn’t that very much the way Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo feel because of the Ring? None can really part with it completely. Gollum is driven mad by his desire to regain his possession of the ring, Bilbo leaves it for Frodo, but only with great prodding from Gandalf, and Frodo can only let the Ring go when Gollum bites his ring finger right off. They all loved the Ring, couldn’t completely trust anyone else because of the Ring, and took care of the Ring as the Ring made them more dependent on its seductive power. Are we too impressed by the seductive power of the internet?
Turkle explains the love and distrust and the desire and fear through the story of Julia, a 16-year-old girl who loves texting her friends, distrusts her own judgments about her emotions, desires comments from her friends, but fears not getting an appropriate response fast enough. During the interview with Turkle, Julia even mistakenly refers to her phone as her friend. Kind of the way Gollum refers to the Ring as his Precious.
Turkle writes, “Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it.” If we forget our real relationships and communities because of our virtual communities, then Longo and all of us have good reason to fear and distrust.
One Net to rule them all, One Net to find them, One Net to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
About Rob_HenselerRob has been teaching high school English and Language Arts for 20 years. When he's not at school, he enjoys making and listening to music, woodworking, canoeing, and hands-on traditional skills.
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