Epistemic Opacity

Michelle Freeman 05/24/2012 English 101 Epistemic Opacity Computers, tablets, I-phones, I-pads, cellular phones, e-readers and more are now considered daily necessities as well as pleasure apparatus’ that society relies on exponentially to get through each day. From the time we wake until we lie our heads down at night, society is constantly “plugged in” to some sort of technological advance. Due to this dependency on these electronic devices, society has succumb to a world of bits and bytes with no real consideration to how these tools work or provide the connection(s) we have come to count on.
Sherry Turkle, an Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology states in her essay How Computers Change the Way We Think, “Some thinkers argue that the new opacity is empowering, enabling anyone to use the most sophisticated technological tools and to experiment with in complex and creative ways. But it is also true that our tools carry the message that they are beyond our understanding. It is possible that in daily life, epistemic opacity can lead to passivity” (568).
Epistemic opacity is a fancy way of saying that the understanding of how something actually works does not mean that you don’t know how to use or work that same something. Take a lawnmower for example; a person of general intelligence understands that gasoline needs to be put into the engine in order for it to run. That same person understands that depositing of oil is equally important for the engine to maintain lubrication and cooling. A turning of a sharp blade that is powered by the engine is what cuts the grass.

Intellectually we understand not only how to use the lawnmower but how the lawnmower actually works. Typically we are not passive in our acceptance of such general day to day use items, such as said lawnmower. Technology however, is different. The intellectual understanding of technology and how it actually works does not seem to be a priority for the masses of today. The importance of understanding of personal technologies is key to counteracting this opacity that appears to be more and more prevalent as technological developments continue to progress.
By not paying attention to the basic understanding of technology, we are willingly and openly allowing ourselves to be directed and manipulated in a way that removes individual opportunity for growth and understanding where technology is concerned; our development in this arena is left to creators of technology to decide. Intellectual lack and lesser intelligence regarding these tools of technology does not appear to be the consensus opinion among our fellow citizens but rather there is the general thought that we are all part of a growing technological wave that makes us all smarter and more advanced.
However, in all actuality, it is more that cognitively people are running the risk of intellectual deficiency and passivity as Turkle expresses. Turkle states that soon after she joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 70’s, which was coincidentally the end of an era of the slide rule and the beginning of the era of personal computers, she witnessed several senior professors in engineering complaining that the transitions from slide rule (a mechanical analog computer used primarily for multiplication and division) to calculators had affected their students ability to deal with issues of scale (564). The Professors were arguing that when students used slide rules, they had to insert decimal points themselves. They insisted that inserting the points themselves required students to maintain a mental sense of scale, whereas those who relied on calculators made frequent errors in orders of magnitude. Because of this, the students with calculators had lost their ability to do “back of the envelope” calculations, and with that, an intuitive feel for the material” (564).
It is possible that because society accepts at face value the technology that we have come to depend on, that the level of passivity is leading to a reduced intelligence as a whole. Personal experience has led me to witness many people more interested in the brand, make and model of their personal technological items than as to how these items send, receive, record and process information. The general core mechanics of each individual piece of technology should be made common public knowledge.
It is not so much that people need to understand the inner workings of every motherboard out there; as it is that we receive a general understanding of how personal technologies work. How does a touchscreen actually operate? How can picture messages float through the air and land inside another phone or make their way to someone’s email inbox? What do we know really about the implication of radiation, if any regarding consistently placing technology against the sides of our heads?
I cannot answer these questions and many others because that information is not something readily available to or sought after by the general public. Society accepts openly that these technological items do what they are marketed and sold to do. Through blind acceptance we become susceptible to a possible deprivation of necessary knowledge. It is important to comprehend the effects and/or implications of daily use, in order to facilitate continued intellectual growth that parallels the technological boom.
Charles McGrath, writer and editor for the New York Times, touches on epistemic opacity in his essay The Pleasures of the text. McGrath is referring to text-messaging when he states “text-messaging is “lateral” rather than “penetrative,” and the medium encourages blandness and even mindlessness” (474). McGrath suggests that as Americans we use text-messaging with no real consideration or thought. He is referencing a common practice among individuals who use text-messaging to convey quick, mindless jargon in an efficient and non-personal way (474).
This line of thought connects to opacity in that it shows how text-messaging is just one example of many how society has become so relaxed and comfortable in the use of technology that not only do we not consider how technology works, we have taken it even further and we don’t even truly consider what we put out into the world with our technological devices. Society has become lazy where this is concerned. Turkle supports this idea in her aforementioned essay when she expresses her personal witness to the psychological effects of computational objects in everyday life.
She states that passivity regarding technology is becoming more and more apparent in that the “people who built or bought the first generation of personal computers understood them completely. The next generation of operating systems were more complex, but they still invited that old-time reductive understanding”. Turkle states that contemporary information technology encourages different habits of mind. She goes on to say “today’s college students are already used to taking things at (inter)face value” (568). I witness this daily in my own life every time I see my children access all different types of technology.
When I ask them to explain the deeper operation of the technology they are currently using, they cannot do it. They explain it is not important to be able to use the current chosen technology. This attitude causes me concern because I worry that they are becoming a culture that does not ask the deeper questions. They just accept at (inter)face value as Turkle expressed. To grow along with the technological boom and to understand the deeper reasoning behind the operation of said technology will keep minds active and aware.
It is important that resignation to acceptance of our technological world does not continue to grow and expand. We can accomplish this by thinking for ourselves, preparing for our children and teaching future generations they must not blindly accept what is given to them. If they do, opacity and passivity will prevail to the point that we are all walking around filled with intellectual knowledge that has been directly controlled, removing individuality of thought and expression.
Technology today is an amazing and powerful thing, at times it might even be considered beautiful. I personally look forward to technological advances and the wonderful happenings that will accompany these events; however, it must not be at the cost of our own personal intellectual development. Opacity and passivity are not conducive to society maintaining an upward intellectual growth regarding technology. Let us grow with and because of, technology.

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