I have been thinking a lot recently about the transition of society from one era into another and how a period of change can happen faster than the people living through it can keep up.
It seems clear we have reached a point where our technological progress is vastly outpacing our societal and cultural progress. As to how long this can last, I don’t know. Will we forever be playing catch up with technology, or will it turn out that we just need time to adjust to the new world?
The ways we learn, communicate, work1 and otherwise live our lives have been so fundamentally altered by technology that I think many of the problems we’re struggling with stem from the dissonance between the modern digital world and our older cultural and societal norms.
Take our ideas of ownership, for example. In many ways, they simply don’t make sense for a digital world. What does ownership mean for something that can be perfectly and infinitely replicated at zero cost? Or how can you steal something that remains with the owner? We see these problems with copyright laws2, which are supposed to help creators protect their work but now seem to cause more problems than they solve for many creators.
A hazardous example is the use of algorithmic content promotion to spread dangerous misinformation. Is this something we just have to live with until such a time as society figures out how to responsibly handle instantaneous mass communication?
Sadly I don’t have the answers to these questions. Although I do suspect that a large part of the problem is the transition from the old analogue 20th-century world into the digital-first 21st century. Maybe we just have to identify dangerous uses of technology and minimise their risks until society catches up.
I think in particular our conception of work is going to have to fundamentally change in the coming years as automation renders huge numbers of people unemployable. ↩
The law is a big part of the problem here I think, since it tends to take significantly longer for the law to progress than technology. ↩