12 March 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - Technology and Changing Social Norms, Part 1

The Internet, and the changing nature of communication in the digital age, has sparked what MIT’s Technology Review calls “all manner of utopian and dystopian perceptions that, when examined closely through methodologically rigorous empirical research, turn out not to be accurate.”

The fear associated with changing technology is not new; in fact, Genevieve Bell points out that the same types of fear currently circulating about the destructive power of the Internet and social media also swept through society with the introduction of trains, steam engines, electricity, television, and radio.

Conrad Gessner first wrote about the dangers of information overload in 1545, following the introduction of the printing press.

Since then, and even before then, the introduction of technology, particularly when that technology changes the way we communicate and relate to each other, has met with significant resistance.

Slate points out that even Socrates felt some hand-wringing anxiety that new technology and media, such as writing, would harm children’s minds.

Each generation fears the losses associated with new technology - loss of time spent outdoors, of time spent with physical books, or of whatever else is considered sacrificed on the altar of technology.

But are these fears valid?

The digital age has accelerated the pace of change, and some writers worry that technology is rewiring our brains in ways we can’t always predict and may not want.

It is worth noting that all new technology “rewires our brains” – the effect of reading on brain structure is significant, and videogames have similarly significant effects on brain structure.

Television may not actually “rot your brain,” but, as Scientific American points out, sitting in front of a screen does present significant potential health problems.

Fears about social media may have echoes of earlier technology scares, but there are some real differences.

Social media tends to polarize individuals, and the algorithms that work to keep you within your bubble exacerbate this problem.

The anonymity of the internet can lead to behaviour that is disinhibited and aggressive, and the impact of this “trolling” behaviour has already resulted in multiple instances of real-world violence.

Particularly since social media has become such an important part of politics – used to spread true information and the now-ubiquitous fake news – the idea that social media is making it harder to connect with each other is legitimately fear-inducing.

In a world that feels more violent and less safe, finding community is critical.

Being within a community, one that includes membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection, is an important part of the human experience.

Humans are highly social animals, and articles that lament how smartphones are ruining relationships touch on some core vulnerabilities and fears.

But humans are adaptive, and technology moves forward, not backward.

However drastically new technology may impact communication and the sharing of information, adaptation will follow.

Novelists have already begun to adapt, and so has human behaviour in relationships.

The next article in this series will look at how some groups are adapting to new technology, and finding ways to connect across new mediums.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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