Impact of technology on society


As Marshall McLuhan suggested in The Gutenberg Galaxy, technologies are not just tools that people use; technologies actually transform those who use them.


Beyond the obvious impact digital technology is having on our lives, there are cultural shifts that might not be so evident at first sight. As part of human evolution, perceptual and behavioural changes have always been triggered by technological advancements. As Marshall McLuhan suggested in The Gutenberg Galaxy, technologies are not just tools that people use; technologies actually transform those who use them. 

It isn't hard to imagine the impact the discovery of fire had on civilisation. It was an irreversible turning point.  The acceleration in mass production brought about by The Industrial Revolution was yet another game changer to a world where the pace of industry moved more in a few decades than in all the previous centuries.  But nothing compares to the unprecedented speed of the times we live in now. The Digital Era where things change so fast, even the technology to change it can't keep up!  

The digital revolution is also manifested in our behaviour and social conventions. For instance, our sense of short commitment has been dramatically altered since the advent of mobile phones. The pre-mobile days in which we arranged to meet someone at a place and a time and they simply showed up, are long gone.You are only a text away from last-minute changing plan. 

Smartphones have only accentuated this. Our attention span has decreased and become more fractured. Etiquette has different requirements. Rare is the meeting in which someone does not have to answer a call, an email or a Slack message. No social occasion goes by without the flashing selfie, and at dinner or lunch mobiles sit comfortably beside the cutlery. 

In order to study and understand the deep connotations of these technologically-driven behaviours, new academic disciplines such as Digital Sociology are being established. 

 But there are other less apparent shifts that shape and redefine societal structures and conventions. For instance, a recent study carried by Josue Ortega at the University of Essex, U.K., and Philipp Hergovich at the University of Vienna, Austria, shows that interracial marriages have increased notably since the emergence of online dating in the early 2000s. Furthermore, there is evidence to believe that marriages that have developed from online dating tend to be stronger. If you are interested in finding out more read this article by MIT Technology Review. 

Although machines are capable of processing data at a much higher speed than the human brain, they are not yet able to process subconsciously.

Think also of the ways we work and how we interact with our peers. In many ways the Information Age has seemlessly appropriated tasks  that in the past would have taken twice or three times the human resources. As a result our work and lifestyles have substantially changed in the past ten years. However, that also puts different demands on us when it comes to availability and flexibility. In the digital age we need to figure out our worklife  balance.    

AI’s machine learning - let’s say computers with the ability to program themselves or to learn from data rather than rules - is only at its dawn. The proliferation of chatbots is just an anticipation of what is to come. If anything robotic comes to mind, you’re rightmachines are already surpassing human ability in fields as important as medical diagnosis. And Google Translator is capable of translating Ernest Hemingway into Japanese with outstanding accuracy. For an in-depth analysis of these developments, read the New York Times’ article The Great AI Awakening

Interestingly, although machines are capable of processing data at a much higher speed than the human brain, they are not yet able to process subconsciously. Context is the key to the big AI leap. Experts such as Fei Fei Li from Google believe the human factor is vital to develop technologies that benefit society and make for a better world. Thus, we need to infuse machines with human skills such as communication and co-operation. Data transparency is also crucial and many believe blockchain systems are the answer. Superintelligence is here and it will soon have a strong impact on how we live. 

But the challenges for society are rife. Automation is replacing jobs rapidly yet we are slow in conceiving and developing new sustainable, inclusive work models. Having said that, the number of companies that operate online and manage their workforce remotely is steadily growing. However, it remains a difficult task to imagine a world in which those who aren’t digital-able or don’t have access, will have their place.

At a recent conference in Harvard Business School many pondered about the future of journalism and advertising as pillars of democracy, particularly after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In a culture in which the majority of people get their daily news through their social media feeds, it begs the question of who acts as curator?  How is news collected? 

There are many other ethical issues to consider when it comes to the proper use of these powerful technologies. Intelligence is something that sets us apart  when it comes to survival in comparison to other animals. Conversely, we often use it for self-destructing purposes. Hans Magnus Enzensberger succinctly described humans as the only species capable of killing their own systematically, developing increasingly efficient weaponry. We seem to have the same regard for our planet, essential for our very existence. 

The possibilities of new technologies are incredibly exciting and they can surely benefit and shape society in unprecedented and positive ways. They are also the big hopes for the environment and for the betterment of the world at large. But we must use it for the right purpose and in the right way. Otherwise, it could get easily out of hand. 

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