In 1988, sociologist Bruno Latour (under the inconspicuous penname of Jim Johnson) published a paper in the journal Social Problems. Entitled "Mixing Humans and Non-Humans; The Sociology of a Door Closer", this obscure little musing on the relationship between humans and the built environment contained within it the seed of a radical (and controversial) new paradigm in the field of Science and Technology Studies.
Latour's point, in a nutshell, is this: humans make machines to pick up some of the slack of day to day life, to free up our hands (and minds) to focus on loftier pursuits. However, these machines often shape our world in ways that may differ from those intended by the inventor. In this way, machines possess an agency of their own, distinct from that of the humans who create or use them. Agency, for those unfamiliar with sociological lingo, is the capacity of an individual to influence his or her (or its) surrounding environment. Latour demonstrated the unique agency of non-humans by describing a hydraulic door-closer, the likes of which are found in most public buildings nationwide.
The function of a door-closer is fairly straightforward: it minimizes the loss of heat (during the winter) or cold air (during the summer) from inside a building by ensuring that the door pulls itself closed behind anyone who enters or exits. However, it also has the unintended social consequence of requiring individuals to "hold the door" for others in a close proximity.
This modicum of social etiquette, probably so ingrained in most readers as to barely merit noticing, is wholly a construction not of the door-closer's inventor, but of the mechanism itself. Thus, Latour argues, we must assign a degree of agency to such devices, and consider their unique role in shaping the world around us, from events that take place on the world stage to the smallest of daily interactions.
This begs the question, "What unintended effects could our current technologies be causing in modern life?" One possibility is the idea that, in the Internet Age, it is no longer necessary for us to memorize vast tables of information or even be thoroughly versed in the facts of any given issue, since the entirety of the world's collected wisdom waits ever-ready at our fingertips. Will this liberation from the stricture of rote memorization and exhaustive research free the human mind to pursue loftier goals, or will future generations bemoan the advent of the World Wide Web as the death-knell of an older, simpler method of coming to understand the world? Only time will tell.