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Technological Somnambulism

noun: somnambulism
1.    sleepwalking.

Here we are, putting “technological”, e, or digital in front of a word again. The term was first coined by Landon Winner in an essay Technology as Forms of Life, where he advocates the need for a Philosophy of Technology.

Winner presents that…

“the puzzle of our time is that we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence”.

The major problems he presents with this sleepwalking are:

  • We don’t think through the affects technology has on us.
  • Vast changes in the structure of our common world due to technology are  undertaken with little attention to what they mean.
  • We only pay attention to whether or not the new technology provides a convenient or efficient service or turns a profit.
  • Technology’s broader significance only show up later as surprising “side effects” or “secondary” consequences.

Winner points out that technology affords new worlds being built, new patterns of human activity, and new human institutions created–and that should be seen as being the primary accomplishment, not secondary side effect.

Reading this (and ever-pondering the term ‘technology”) made me think of our existence in early times. When we are born into a certain technology, we might not see it as a society-transforming miracle, and more of a commons right. If we think of how we might have felt if we were alive at the time the wheel was invented–maybe we even watched it happen–how life altering that must have been. There must have been so much excitement knowing this new tool was going to help us get food and help us build. Whatever task was at hand that very moment must have been so much easier. The next generation then is born into this wheel-using world, they see it and learn how it works from infancy. They are riding around on carts with wheels by animals and that’s just the way it is. No one knows what it was like before wheels. In hindsight we can identify how that wheel changed our culture and society, but as we us it, its just a neutral tool. We think of ourselves as separate from the tool, instead of reveling in the fact that we are living within a world that would be impossible without it. Fast forward and those wheels are used to make a car, and a whole new innovation miracle occurs, only to be taken for granted later.

This concept relates to the concept of digital citizenship as we think about of own engagement (and disengagement) in our culture and the innovation that occurs within. How is it we come to take for granted the awe-inspiring world around us? What is hidden in plain site around us all the time? How could our sleepwalking affect others? What is our responsibility to wake up? What is our responsibility to pinch our neighbors and wake them up too?

How does one sleepwalk in online spaces? I think of myself scrolling Facebook on my cellphone for 5 (whole!) minutes while I’m waiting in line just to pass the time. My literal muscle memory reaches into my purse and grabs my phone when my brain triggers boredom. I’m not retaining anything I read. I’m not engaging. I’m sleepwalking. I’m so used to using my cell phone for this I can’t even remember what I did while waiting before.

Related Resources:

1. This super-touching and inspirational video relates to this very concept in our everyday lives–and in our analog citizenship. It is a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace put to great video. In it, Wallace urges the true advantage of education is an awareness that we have freedom to “consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t”- An awareness that it is our decision “how to think”.

The alternative is = unconciousness (or sleepwalking)

2. Original Essay (pdf) of Technology as Forms of Life (and really hard to read scan) first referencing Technological Somnambulism.

3.  Book review article by Scott London of The Whale and the Reactor, A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, By Langdon Winner (1986), which is the larger collection of ten essays from which Technology as Forms of Life is derived.

4. This funny clip from Louis CK on cellphones & flying points out how ridiculous we sound when we take technology for granted (Graphic Language Warning)

5. Contaminated Tap Water and Technology We Take for Granted from “Sociology in Focus”. Nathan Palmer asks you challenging questions about what would happen if we took away the technologies you depend upon for survival.

6. This is how the Urban Dictionary defines somnambulist.

7. Working Dead meme I grabbed from here


Published inGeeking Out


  1. In a comment on Dan’s post, you said you went a little “off-concept” but I don’t think you did at all! An important part of technological somnambulism is its contrast with technological determinism and I think that is an aspect of the locus of control. Technological determinism puts that locus in the technology and the tech environment, technological somnambulism puts it on the humans who are the decision makers both in making the technology (which brings to mind interesting, Elon Musk-y (eww?) questions if/when we see the emergence of true AI) and in our response to it. Tech determinism undermines our choice and agency, technological somnambulism acknowledges that it might appear that we live in a tech deterministic world but, in fact, that’s really just a symptom of our reaction (and lack of reaction) to it.

    Which is why Louis C.K. is relevant and why I think you are on just the right track in considering how quickly we take technology and its affordances for granted, whether that means making use of them without thinking about it or ignoring them with a similar lack of consciousness and conscientiousness.

    I’ve pointed people to DFW’s Kenyon Commencement address many times in many contexts, including this one. He’s pointing out a profound and difficult aspect of existence, digital or not…but even more difficult, I think, when we mix in the complexity of technology. How I wish DFW had been more interested in technology in this way—who knows what he might have come up with. But that’s just a subset of my routine wish that he’d been with us longer for so many reasons.

  2. This is a very nice, easily understandable definition. When given the choice of searching and researching a term that relates to this class, I’ll be honest: the word somnambulism intimidated me. What a complicated, long word for sleepwalking. But it was so much easier for me to wrap my head around this concept by identifying it as technological sleepwalking! So, well done (and thank you!).

    I think you make a very good point with your wheel anecdote. Even in modern times it has become so easy for us to take these technological tools for granted. My favorite example is Google. Have you ever stopped to think what our lives would be like without search engines? If we never had the luxury to say “Let me Google that.” I suppose if we never knew Google, we wouldn’t miss it. But reversely, (in the words of Joni Mitchell), “don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

    I know those words were written about a human relationship, but whose to say it’s not also applicable to human/technology relationships? I certainly feel that way when I forgot my cellphone at home sometimes! That nagging sense of disconnect and helplessness.

    I suppose technological somnambulism is also a key contributor in why digital technology is still having issues finding a place in modern day pedagogy. Perhaps we are sleepwalking because the digital world is so vast, complex, and ever-changing that it’s too overwhelming to constantly be “on,” so we go into “autopilot.” Or perhaps we’re just lazy!

    • If I’ve ever heard or read why Winner chose the word “somnambulism” I’ve long since forgotten. But I suspect that it’s more than just choosing a complicated term for complexity’s sake (though there might be some of that in there too!) I bet it’s because the connotations of “somnambulism” are different…more zombie-like, not necessarily involving sleep, more Frankensteinian. Sleepwalking sounds so benign by comparison…

      Anyway, you’re getting at something really important with the question of how pedagogy seems resistant to technology. Sometimes it is laziness. Sometimes it is an unwillingness to step outside the routine and comfortable. But when those are *not* true it can quickly become a matter of being overwhelmed. And that can lead to a paralysis. I’ve spent a good part of my life investigating these clusters of thought and the more I know, the more I don’t know. It can reach a point where it’s hard to speak/talk/write at all because every utterance carries so much with it, so many more layers that are connected.

      And I experienced this in my previous academic life as well, reaching a point where I went home to my cabin and was so overwhelmed by the implications of literary theory that I literally couldn’t understand how humans communicated with each other at all. I lay down in between two huge speakers, blasted Nirvana (shows my age) at ear-melting volume, and cried. And cried. It was just too much. And it’s hard (and probably not productive) to put back in the box again while seemingly impossible to absorb/integrate. A real bind.

      I think educators get into these binds when they really start to absorb the possibilities. It leads to the “bags of gold” quandary you’ll soon be hearing about…

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