How Technology Is Changing Our Relationship to Everything

By Tom Porter
The “lightbulb” moment for Fernando Nascimento occurred one day a few years ago when he was driving a minivan full of teenagers—his kids and their friends— back from an afternoon’s paint-balling.
meaningful tech - book launch
Fernando Nascimento (L) and Eric Chown in conversation at the Bowdoin Library

“They’re being unusually quiet,” thought the assistant professor of digital and computational studies (DCS) as he looked back to see all his passengers sitting with their heads down, apparently ignoring each other.

As a teenager, if he’d been playing paintball with his friends all afternoon, they wouldn’t be able to shut up afterward, he reasoned. What was the problem? Later, he asked one of his kids why they weren’t talking to each other on the way back. “What do you mean?” came the reply. “We were chatting the whole time— on our phones!” Nascimento described this moment as a “key insight” into the “digital metaphor,” a concept underlining the extent to which our use of devices such as smartphones and apps like Facebook and TikTok is changing not just the way we use language, but how we relate to the world.

Nascimento spoke at a recent event at the Bowdoin College Library alongside colleague Eric Chown, the Sarah and James Bowdoin Professor of Digital and Computational Studies. Chown and Nascimento were there to promote their recent book, Meaningful Technologies: How Digital Metaphors Change the Way We Think and Live (University of Michigan Press, 2023).

“Metaphors are used everywhere; they have to be,” said Chown, “in order to explain complex technological processes. We don’t think about what it means to touch a screen. Because it’s so seamless and seemingly so transparent, we forget what it’s actually doing.”

For example, teenagers today are likely to use the word “conversation” to refer to a series of database entries exchanged over a network. Meanwhile, social media apps like Facebook and Snapchat are redefining what terms like “friendship” and “memory” mean. Also consider the word “cloud,” which is where much of our data is stored, Chown added. “It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But these data centers are huge physical presences, using a lot of power and water, creating pollution.”

chown-nascimento book

Another metaphor that both explains and deceives, said Nascimento, is “streaming,” as in the streaming of data or video. “When we think about streaming, one of first things coming to mind is clean, flowing water going in one direction. No one knows upstream what you’re doing downstream. As we unpack the metaphor, however, we see that, while useful to explain certain aspects, it hides the fact that every time you stream something, someone is measuring how much ‘water’ you are taking out.”

Furthermore, these technological changes have been taking place with unprecedent rapidity. As Chown and Nascimento point out in their book, TikTok reached a billion users in just over three years, whereas it took the telephone seventy-five years to reach a tenth of that number of people.

The book is the culmination of a series of conversations that began between the two in 2017, shortly after Nascimento arrived at Bowdoin as postdoctoral teaching fellow. These conversations became more regular and structured as they talked increasingly about the importance of metaphors to describe the relationship between humans and technology.

Although both are DCS scholars, Chown and Nascimento have quite different academic backgrounds: Chown in computer science and Nascimento in philosophy—which helped inform the development of the book as they learned from each other.

“As a cognitive scientist,” said Chown, “I was initially skeptical of philosophers. ‘They just want to throw monkey wrenches, we want to make stuff’ was how I thought,” he explained. But this soon changed. “Fernando’s perspective is very different from my cognitive science perspective, and that pushed me to think in other, very productive ways.”

“Metaphors are used everywhere; they have to be in order to explain complex technological processes. We don’t think about what it means to touch a screen. Because it’s so seamless and seemingly so transparent, we forget what it’s actually doing.” Professor Eric Chown, Digital and Computational Studies.

“Did writing the book change their relationship to technology?” the two were asked. “Yes,” replied Chown, unequivocally. “Every day I go into class talking about attention and the ‘attention economy,’ and DCS reminds me I have the most addictive device invented on me at all times.” If he becomes too fond of an app, particularly a game, it has to go, he added. “My rule with games is I have to kinda like them.” Nascimento, meanwhile, described the trajectory of writing the book as “impactful” as it spurred him to think more about how metaphors are created and how they are changing the ways we interact with technology.

Perhaps the most important take-away from the book, argue Chown and Nascimento, is the provision of a critical framework to help people reexamine their relationship with technology and regain some of their agency over it.

As well as appealing to digital and computational scholars, say the authors, Meaningful Technologies is also directed at the more general educated reader, especially those interested in the increasingly important issues regarding the ethical impacts of digital technologies.

Read more about Chown and Nascimento’s work on digital metaphors