An underlying thread in yesterday’s post on persistent chat rooms is that technology and culture influence each other. We usually tell the story that culture creates a technology, because that explanation seems the most natural way to understand our history and it puts our choices at the forefront, but we also have to consider the ways in which technology either influences or creates culture.
The technology that powered the industrial revolution created the industrial society.
The mass production of automobiles created a culture of commuters, vacationers, and the suburbs.
Radio created a culture of listeners and spawned jazz, big band, and fireside chats.
Television created the culture of Hollywood, MTV, always-on news, and reality TV shows.
The Internet is creating a culture that’s changing so fast that I’m afraid to give examples that may be dated by the time you read this.
As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture. If we follow this thread to its extension, technology creates itself. It’s this awareness that technology is creating itself that makes movies like The Terminator or Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron work. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Because technologists or historians are often leading the discussion on how technology creates culture, there tends to be this sense of abstractness or extremeness to it. There’s a jump from, say, cars to suburbia. Yes, I did it above, because those extremes are helpful to see. But I believe those big jumps also make the discussion seem less personal to us, because they’re the story of large social changes that we’re reacting to, rather than actively reinforcing or co-creating with others.
Let’s take the daily personal view here:
- Every time a notification pops up on your phone or desktop, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time you’re at a table with your friends and are balancing interacting with them and interacting with your phone, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time you can order something from an online vendor rather than going to a local store, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time you or your kids log on to have some social time with friends rather than going over to their houses, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time a teammate or your entire team is so buried under email that they can’t think straight, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time you go to a new place based on its Yelp profile and reviews, that’s technology influencing culture.
- Every time one of us sits down to consume our nightly on-demand entertainment, that’s technology influencing culture.
The many hundreds of small ways that technology alters our individual and collective behavior on a daily basis add up to the cultural changes the technologists and historians point to. And, of course, for each of those examples, someone’s personal behavior can alter the group’s behavior. It’s just harder to do so because of how quickly, ubiquitously, and unconsciously so many of those norms are forming.
Though it may sound like it at times, I’m not a pessimist about where these norms are leading us because they’re also enabling social change like the Arab Spring, global connectedness, new economic realities and pathways, and better government. Because of technology, we can find or create the communities and relationships that fit our version of thriving, whatever that might be. I’m eternally hopeful that we can lean into the good, minimize the bad, and consciously explore the grey areas, which exactly why I talk so much about how technology is affecting our lives, relationships, communities, and work.