6.21: Need to Look at Person in Center

In Chapter 3, I pointed out that one encouraging sign of the recent times is that we are beginning to go beyond the specialized views of the natural scientist focussing on the ecosphere, the social scientist focussing on the sociosphere, and the "scientist of the artificial" focussing on the technosphere, to look at the overlaps among those three great spheres. Social impact studies, which look at the overlap of the technosphere and the sociosphere, were considered in Chapter 4; technology assessment studies, which look at the overlap of the technosphere and the ecosphere, were considered in Chapter 5. As a psychologist, I would argue that we must also look at the triple overlap of all three spheres - the person in the centre. This person in the centre is the focus of the remaining chapters.

There is a tendency to consider the environment (whether ecosphere, technosphere, or sociosphere) as cause rather than merely as means.

In the case of the ecosphere, it is clear that the environment is not a cause. The minerals of which our planet is composed are just lying there minding their own business. It is people who turn them into resources and, then, into scarce resources.

In the case of the technosphere, it is less clear that the environment is not a cause. However, perhaps an anecdote may help make it clear:

A word-processor was trundled into our office. One secretary (let us call her Pollyanna) was delighted. Here was a wonderful new machine she could learn to operate, which would reduce the drudgery of her work and provide her with new marketable skills. The other secretary (let us call her Cassandra) was terrified. Here was a threatening new machine, which she could not and would not learn to use and which, working in synergy with Pollyanna, will replace her. It was the same machine, sitting innocently in the corner, promising nothing and threatening no one, yet Pollyanna saw it as a promise and Cassandra saw it as a threat.

Technology may not be neutral but any values that it embodies are the human values of those who develop and use it. Too often, technology is used as a scapegoat, by technophiles and technophobes alike, who use it, consciously or unconsciously, to divert attention from the human values it embodies.

The case that the environment is not a cause but merely a means is hardest to make with respect to the sociosphere. However, once again, perhaps an anecdote may help:

As a result of the above experience and of thinking through the role of technology in social change, the author stopped getting mad at inanimate objects. He conceded that stuck zippers and faulty connections do not have a conspiracy against him. One object, however, still aroused his ire. The showerhead was still cursed for scalding or freezing him. It was singled out, he reasoned, because there was a spatial and temporal discontinuity between the cause (turning on the water without shifting the whatdoyoucallit which switches the flow to the tap) and the effect (getting scalded or frozen). In the heat (or cold) of the moment, it appears that the showerhead is doing it. The same spatial and temporal discontinuity often make us think that other people are doing things to us whereas we are actually doing it to ourselves.

Whereas it is indeed true that many effects we assume are caused by the actions of others are actually caused by our own actions, the actions of others do indeed impinge on us. If we are looking for environmental causes in our environment, it is to the sociosphere rather than to the ecosphere and the technosphere that we should look. The important realization, so obvious in retrospect, is that social change is a function of human actions (whether your own or those of others).

Although many organizations conduct tracking exercises to gather environmental intelligence as a basis for appropriate action, ironically they tend not to consider the fact that other organizations are doing the same, if perhaps not as systematically. That is, they tend to assume that environment determines social change, whereas it is human actions that do so.