Social Structure In The Digital Age

When revolutionary technologies come along, they can have some very profound impacts on human societies, economics and social structures. The printing press, over time, lead to huge structural changes in religion as well as social organisation. Steam engines enabled profound advances in how humans moved about the planet, this also impacted societies, with one major effect being the growth of cities and the hollowing out of rural agricultural areas.

While these technological revolutions have had profound impacts, it may be in this digital age that is truly just beginning, where we see some of the most profound changes and at an incredibly fast pace. Far faster and far deeper than ever before in human history.

The digital age is largely being driven by the advent of computers and the underlying infrastructure of the internet (inclusive of the World Wide Web) and the combinations of technologies it enables. Usually there is one (but not always) major revolutionary technology that comes along and a sequence of technologies that build off it. The Ford model T car, lead to other automobiles, trucks and roads and so on.

For much of humans existence on the planet, technological revolutions and the sociocultural and socioeconomic changes that result, have taken time, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years, such as agriculture. We tend to think these changes happen suddenly and globally. They do not. Some cultures reject technologies or change them to suit their own cultural norms, traditions and behaviours.

As technologies have progressed, these periods of change have also accelerated. This is in large part because we have developed a long history of technologies that we incorporate in new ways into new technologies or advance an old technology. Take the smartphone of today. It is a combination of old (i.e. telephone) technologies that evolved and new ones, such as microchips and software.

I suspect that the digital age is ushering in unprecedented societal, politic and economic changes, which are part of what makes up human culture (it’s not just the arts!), because multiple revolutionary technologies are coming at us so fast and upending so much that it is almost impossible to see just how and in what way changes are happening, or predict how they will unfold and where we’ll end up. Futurists, the good ones, can help and be a guide. But we also need those in the social sciences to help; sociologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists.

Social media is a prime example of rapid societal change at an unprecedented scale. As it pushed out into the world, democracies decried that autocracies would die, the world would come together, people would become closer. We all know how that ideal played out. But we’re not done with social media yet. It is, in fact, changing as we evolve new social norms, behaviours and traditions. Yes it’s rather nasty right now, but it has delivered social good.

Other digital technologies are having huge sociocultural and socioeconomic impacts and thrusting change at such a rapid scale, it is hard to absorb it all. Genetic engineering is going to impact how family units are seen (lab grown babies), how we see lifespans (lab grown organs for transplant.) Artificial Intelligence will impact workplaces, job roles, disease detection, human rights, conflicts and well, every aspect of society. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain will change legal contracts, aid delivery and financial systems.

Much of all these issues are debated today in varying degrees across different parts of society; politics, economics, religion. This may be the first time however, that digital technologies have had such profound impacts across so many areas of societies and cultures at the same time. This places novel pressures on so many institutional systems simultaneously that no single approach can be taken to figure out new norms, behaviours, traditions and laws.

As digital technologies work across so many aspects of society, we need to bring to bear a number of approaches and mental models all at the same time. Complex systems thinking, design thinking, futures thinking, sociology, cultural anthropology and perhaps most importantly, critical thinking. As many of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are technologists, they’ve largely taken a problem solving approach. This has not worked. Will not, I argue, work. Not when it comes to complex interdisciplinary issues.

This is when we need a sociocultural approach. Bringing the hard and soft sciences together with legal minds, politicians, bureaucrats, races, religions, artists and so on. When all these skills and minds come together, we can begin to solve today’s complex problems. From macro sociocultural and socioeconomic issues to more localised impacts. Societal structures are critical to how humans progress.

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