Technology Changing Society

Have you ever considered how technology has changed society?  How has technology changed you?  Are you aware of the influence of technology on you?

Let us look at some “old” technology.  Consider the automobile.  The automobile has allowed us personally to travel great distances whenever we desire and to wherever we want to go.  It allowed us to move out of cities and live in the suburbs.  We no longer go to the corner grocery store to get food rather we go to a large supermarket.  The automobile has had a large effect on society.  Also consider the air conditioner.  It keeps our house cool and allows us to sleep on those hot nights.  Now consider today where we drive our cars into our garages and stay in our cool homes, entertained by TV, streaming video, and electronic games.  Consider what we lost.  Over a hundred years ago, we would have known our neighbors by going to the corner grocery store and sitting out on our porches in the cool of the night.  The neighborhood would have been a small community.  Today I don’t know my neighbors very well and I can go for months without even seeing them.  That isolation was a result of technology.

Neil Postman gave a talk back in 1998 where he brought up five insightful ideas on how new technology affects society.  With these ideas are questions we need to ask ourselves.

Every technology change is a trade-off.  Besides the advantages of the technological change there are always disadvantages.  When we ask the question “What will this technology change do?”, we also need to ask the question “What will this technology change undo?”.  The first insight is there is always a cost to any technological change.

His second insight is the advantages and disadvantages are never evenly distributed among the population.  Some will take advantage of the new technology while others are unable and/or unaware.  Who benefits from the new technology?  Who is harmed?

With every new technology, there is an underlying philosophy.  To exaggerate and oversimplify things, a person with a hammer sees everything as a nail, and a person with a computer sees only data.  The new technology changes the way we see the world and how we use our minds.  How is technology affecting our thinking?  That is the third insight.

The fourth insight is that new technology is not additive, rather it changes everything.  It is not one more thing, because it will affect everything.   After the printing press was invented, it was not the same old Europe and the printing press, rather the printing press quickly changed Europe into a different society.  What will the consequences of technological change be?

The last insight is after a while technology becomes perceived as to be part of the natural order of life.  Once set, this perception is hard to change from.  What is the technology that you can not live without or would be unable to function due to societal expectations?

I am a techie and I love the web.  However, I need to be careful because the five insights make sense.  Since I am familiar with Facebook, I will use Facebook as an example.  Facebook is a great place to connect with friends and family, however the free cost is not free (Insight 1).  Facebook makes it money by targeted advertising.  Facebook works to find out as much as possible about you.   It even tracks you across the web so it can better target ads at you.  Facebook’s goal is to keep you on its site for you to see as many ads as possible.  From my experience it does a good job at keeping your attention.  It is easy to spend many addicting  hours on Facebook (Insight 5).  That is good for Facebook, and likely not so good for you (Insight 2).  It also limits interaction to your family and friends who usually have the same values you do.  By doing so it isolates groups and ideas.  It puts you in a bubble.  And that is not good for society (Insight 4).  Be aware!  This means the news you get on Facebook tends to be limited and one-sided.  Facebook does not seem to care.  You are just a point on their social graph and adjusting the algorithms to reduce divisiveness  is not in their best interests (Insights 2, 3, 4).

Am I going to leave Facebook?  No, but I will be diligent, aware of its effects on me and society.  I will especially be aware of the bubble of family and friends that hide viewpoints that I may disagree with.  (It is possible I could be wrong about some things.) I believe Facebook is here to stay (Insight 5?).

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