Is Technology Getting Too Far Ahead of Culture?
5 min read
We are living in one of the most exciting times in human history in terms of technological development. The invention of the microchip kicked off this current phase of technological revolution five decades ago. As with all technologies, they are a double-edged sword and riding the coattails of that truth, comes the unintended consequences. Throughout time, we have figured these challenges out, adapted and evolved using culture as our code.
But never before have we had so many technologies coming at us all at once that have impacted so many aspects of our societies at a global scale. Social media’s impact on politics and social norms, Artificial Intelligence augmenting our cognitive abilities. Smartphones putting the world’s knowledge and music, in our pockets. Genetic engineering.
With so many technologies, are they just getting too far ahead of our societies and culture’s ability to absorb them? How might this play out?
In recent years there’s been the idea of Web3, which would democratise everything and bring true decentralisation. It has fizzled and languishes in the minds of bright people, but can’t seem to get anywhere. The metaverse concept is like Web3’s best buddy that always has good ideas but can never get any of them to work. Blockchain wanders around the attic like a sullen ghost making banging noises in the night, but no one cares.
Autonomous vehicles can’t seem to find their autonomy. Artificial Intelligence hype seems more like a bunch of kids at a birthday party bashing at the piñata but they can’t quite hit it. It’s okay, the sugar is flowing from the soda.
These technologies are supposed to change the world we are told, promised even; techtopia is just around the corner the prophets of Silicon Valley assure us. Increasingly however, citizens and consumers are seeming to shrug, less enamoured with the broken promises of the Silicon Prophets and more concerned with inflation. Younger generations are buying more print books. Small bookstores are doing better than big box book stores.
This is because culture is struggling with how to adopt and adapt to these technologies. Yes, these are interesting tools and many could benefit societies, but culture can be a slow and stubborn mule at times. Right now, technology is smacking the mule’s rump, but the mule isn’t moving.
We’ve come to think today that culture is the arts; music, literature, art. That is the aesthetic element of culture. But culture includes political ideas, how we govern ourselves, our societal systems, economics and military. It is the code we use to survive.
When a technology is invented, it enters society, sometimes with giant splash like a cannonballer, at a kids pool party, other times it steps hesitantly into the shallow end. Taking its time to figure out if it can swim (Virtual Reality). Sometimes it drowns, flailing to be rescued. These would be blockchain, the metaverse and Web3. Sometimes the technology is like that kid in the pool who has to splash everyone in the face. That would be Artificial Intelligence.
As with any kids pool party, there are adults hanging around. The ones who intervene, rescue the flailing kid of blockchain and give them a nice place in the shade to hang out and feel sorry for themselves. Or they yell at the kid splashing water in peoples faces, — Artificial Intelligence — and tell them to behave. Maybe send them home or have a time-out.
Right now, there’s a lot of kids (technology) in the pool and the lifeguards and adults are trying to sort them out but the laughter, yells and screams on top of the raucous noise of the Tech Pundits proselytising by the fence make it hard. The other kids, most of society, don’t want to go for a swim in that mess. They’re either just not that interested or they’re off having tastier snacks.
Culture can only deal with so many technologies all at once. It needs time to figure out how it will impact norms, behaviours, traditions, social and economic structures.
Some technologies haven’t played nice at the party. Like social media being more of a bully than a social butterfly. Smartphones have left some kids isolated in a corner, their social skills lost. There is growing distrust of some technologies, apathy to others (blockchain), disgust at the behaviour of others (crypto) and mocking disbelief at some like autonomous vehicles and the metaverse; the joke of the party.
If you’ve ever been the one to try and change a company’s culture by bashing around management and going rogue, you know it doesn’t turn out well. It needs good change management, patience and most of all, empathy and an understanding of how change happens.
Many technologies are that person bashing around the company trying to force change. Management, in this case culture, is pushing back. Many technologies have lost sight of what they’re supposed to be doing, which is helping humans thrive.
When culture does figure it out with a technology, when the cycle of the technology changing us turns to us changing the technology, is when the magic happens. We did this with ships, cars, railroads, aeroplanes, the printing press. There’s always a period of turmoil, but eventually we end up in a sort of Golden Age. Not a Utopia, but a better place.
But we’ve always had a bit of time and space to figure things out. Just enough kids in the pool to have some fun, maybe the odd tear here and there. Today, there’s so many kids in the pool it’s almost a full scale riot.
So what’s going to happen? Some technologies will get absorbed into our sociocultural systems and they will thrive and help our societies. Others will languish in some liminal place in the shadows, perhaps helping some and finding a comfy niche. Others will come out of the shadows later to find their place.
It’s not necessarily bad this raucous pool party, it’s just where we are right now. Like it’s been before. Except it’s a bit more insane than before.