Monday, May 25, 2015

Technology Killed Nothing

Hephaestus (Vulcan) the Greek god of what we can today refer to as technology

We live in a time where not many days pass before we are reminded of how technology is killing our social lives. Obviously, what is meant by technology in this context is smart phones and social media. I still remember a time though when it meant video games, and another before when it meant a walkman. Perhaps if I were as old as my parents, it would have meant a transistor radio or a TV. For my grandparents, the “cursed” car was probably murdering the social. The point is, if we go back far enough in time, we’ll find many of the technologies we take for granted today (e.g. agriculture, writing, electricity, telephones… etc.) affecting radical reformulations of whatever organizing principles were underpinning the societies of the time, and by extension the societies themselves. This might sound a bit anecdotal, but rest assured that modern sociology confirms it.

At one point during the past century, many sociologists came to adopt an interactionist perspective on sociology, which is to say that what shapes a given society is actually the interactions going on at the level of its individuals. But then primatologists came to the same conclusion regarding the sociology of other primates. This might sound like a validation of the perspective at first, but if you look close enough, you’ll maintain otherwise. How can a human society and another of baboons be described in the same terms, yet be so different from each other? Even if the former was a tribe of bushmen who live in the wilderness, there is still a world of difference between the two.

It is true that humans and primates interact in pretty much the same way. All of our interactions are essentially social in nature, meaning we are constantly negotiating our relationships with other individuals. But whereas for a chimp these interactions can only be face to face, and are rather short lived, for a human, they have the potential to be carried out over vast temporal and geographic stretches. And it is technology that enables this, giving rise in the process to elaborate and diverse social configurations. It is because of this revelation that sociologists today speak of the socio-technical as the stuff that makes up societies.

This means that the social and the technical are enmeshed in an everlasting relationship that is constantly defining and redefining each of them along the way. The solution to social problems often times call on for the development of new technologies. But as the technology matures, it begets social problems of its own, which in turn demand new technological solutions. Alternatively, a given technological platform enables the rise of certain social configurations. However, soon enough, new groups unsatisfied with the status quo start forming, which in an attempt to disrupt it, might end up developing new technologies, or employing already existing ones in novel ways. 

Portable devices and networking technologies might be changing the way we interact (the deplorable bit of the equation, even though I don’t consider it to be so), but they are already reshaping our societies, making them more efficient. A decade ago, having a job meant long commutes and fitting one’s life around a rigid schedule. That is still the major mode of working today, but more and more people now have the option to work from the comfort of their homes or co-work spaces (whether as freelancers or employees). We are still at an early stage of experimentation, so who knows what other modes of working will emerge and how our societies will reorganize in response. There is one thing we can be sure about though. The social is intrinsically transient, and just because people used to organize their lives differently in the past, doesn’t mean we are doing it wrong today.