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Sociological change – is it technology driven?

By Robin Lipscomb, - Insight

For a disruptive technologist like me to write about the part played by technology in sociological change is going to be somewhat challenging. I say this from the edge of a tipping point as we stand on the precipice of the next industrial revolution – but who knows, looking into the depths of my soul might actually prove to be quite therapeutic!

You see, for the last 28 years that I’ve been on the ‘ICT’ merry go round I’ve been driven towards a utopian ideal of automating, streamlining and harmonising services wherever possible. The idea being that these services might be offloaded one day as workloads to an ‘anthropomorphic’ type cognitive compute model.

As many of us will have observed, the current urbanized industrialisation across our cities and towns has led to millions more people on the streets (both in terms of homelessness and migrating business people) – and yet less of them now actually talk to each other on a daily basis than ever before.

And is it just me, or are our social communities disappearing as well? No, not the social communities we build on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I mean the real life communities with the interesting characters, with the streets, the houses and parks where we all used to play as kids!

All of this is substantive and, in my view, evidence of sociological change in action. It doesn’t take a huge leap to conclude that these effects are due at least in part to the increasing influence of technology on our individual lives.

More and Moore

In accordance with Moore’s Law, we have seen technology steadily and stealthily evolve over the years at a faster and faster rate. It’s developed to what is now a ‘game changing’ boom that is generational in nature and is showing no signs of slowing down.

As a technologist, it’s difficult not to find excitement in this fact.

Clearly, I am oversimplifying the development of today’s societal stance – it could easily also be commuted to other factors such as an economic crash, or even a specific natural disaster for that matter – but the point is that it will always be a culmination of causes that lead to such change, and technology has without a doubt exerted an oversized influence in this case.

Technological advancements have allowed us to become more insular. We can now run a marathon using augmented reality from our sofas. We can travel the globe in a matter of micro-seconds via the digitally-enabled superhighway that enables each and every one of us to become a potential video-conferencing TV star all from the comfort of our own living rooms. With mobile working, we don’t actually have a desk to go to at work anymore.

Analogue engagements

So has it had a negative effect? Do we feel somewhat uncomfortable when we need to engage or interact with one another now? Do we prefer it this way, or have we lost track of what’s important?

I ask the question as everywhere we now go, we see people tethered to their mobile devices, reading the news, gambling online, conducting business and even ordering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We see social change everywhere: silent discos (seriously, Google it!), online shopping, dating apps. What is it about this faceless approach to interacting with people that appears to be growing so quickly and universally appealing?

Is it the immediate, on-demand sense of satisfaction and self-gratification that is releasing the requisite endorphins that make us happy, or is it because we are less inclined these days to revert to an analogue way of engaging?

Recently, I attended an interesting breakfast meeting at which the topic of societal change in business was aired.

When one of my peers mentioned the fact that in years to come, you’ll need a master’s degree to work as a barista in a coffee house you could sense the shock and realisation in the room that the fourth industrial revolution that we’re on the cusp of is set to spark gargantuan change.

I must admit, for a moment I sat there and thought, “have I done this – am I responsible?”

Well, the answer is: we have all done this – we are all responsible!

Change is to be embraced

To borrow an insightful observation from sociologist William Ogburn: “The most wonderful and universal phenomenon of modern life is not capitalism, but science and technology and capitalism is only its by product.”

Sociological change too is a wonderful thing. I ardently believe that we must not throw out all the old ways of doing things in this bi-modal society, but equally we should also not hold back from the things that will enhance and make our lives so much more fulfilling.

So, yes there is change a coming, and at times it will be difficult to rationalise between the old and the new, modern industrialised world in which we now live. But seriously, who out there doesn’t want an autonomous vehicle or an ‘AI humanesque’ buddy that can do some of the mundane tasks that we bemoan today?

And as for us, will this mean that we’re finished as a society? Absolutely not.

I trust fully that we will continue to evolve and move further up the value chain, delivering the next technological iterations that will be needed to fuel future industrial and sociological revolutions.

This particular journey has only just begun!

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