A.I., Tech Revolutions & Society

Image by Bruno from Pixabay

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney etc., that AI is currently, or about to, completely and utterly change the world. On an almost daily basis we see news headlines forecasting massive job losses, business will never be the same or we’re all going to be living a life of luxury. These are all wrong. Which is good. And par for the course.

Some suggest that with AI, this time it’s different, that it really is a far more serious technology revolution. Perhaps, but unlikely. When revolutionary technologies have burst onto the societal scene, they’ve always seemed like “the one” that will change everything.

Everything does change. Just not as dramatically, or as quickly, as predicted. When we understand this, we can step back and take a more critical approach to understanding what’s actually going on and more clearly find the real risks and opportunities.

I’ve written before about technology and cultural change. These are the factors that come into play when a revolutionary technology knocks on our front door in the middle of the night.

Cultural Factors Influencing Technology Revolutions and Societal Awareness

Several elements of culture come into play when a revolutionary technology comes along. Culture includes economics, political systems, social governance, aesthetics (arts, literature etc.), military, norms, traditions, behaviours etc.

Economic Systems: The printing press came along as feudalism was ending and capitalism was beginning in the Western world. The automated loom was in the early centuries of capitalism. The arrival of A.I. is in a time when capitalism itself is evolving and changing.

Political Systems & Social Governance: How we run and govern societies influences the perception of a revolutionary technology as well. Western democratic systems and many Asian ones, were very quick to regulate radio. They’ve been rather lagging when it comes to the internet and largely over-reacting or dead in the water with A.I.

Bureaucratic Systems: Keep in mind that bureaucracy as a system of governance comes from industry. Government copied it. How complex and socially embedded a bureaucracy is will also influence the impact of a revolutionary technology.

Religion: When the printing press came along, Christianity was deeply embedded across all facets of life. When the internet and A.I. came along, it was not. Religions play a key role in how societies adopt technologies. And change them.

Aesthetics: When photography came along, painters thought that was the end of their world. Instead, along came artistic movements like impressionism and cubism. We can’t know yet what will happen with regard to A.I. generated art, music, literature. But there are signals.

Communications Technology: The more advanced a communications technology in a society, the faster the ideas around a revolutionary technology will spread.

Transportation Technology: The printing press and print materials spread much faster than papyrus and clay tablets largely because of advances in sailing technology. When A.I., or more specifically, what could loosely be termed the revolutionary part of AI, known as LLMs (Large Language Models), flashed across billions of screens in 2022, the thunderclap of social reaction was heard around the world. A wee bit faster than a schooner.

These are the primary factors that influence how a revolutionary technology will likely be seen in a society.

What History Tells Us About Technology Revolutions

Perhaps the biggest reality is that whatever we predict will happen, won’t. The printing press was going to destroy society and we’d all end up worshipping the devil and living a life of debauchery. The loom would destroy economies. AI.I. will wipe out all our jobs.

We’ve been there, done that and bought the book or the t-shirt. A lot. Over many thousands of years.

Technology is integral to what being Homo Sapiens, modern humans, means. We cannot survive as a species without it. As much as it could wipe us out, it can also save us. History shows it more often saves us than not. Even if it is a bit of a bumpy road at times.

How society reacted to their introduction in the prior to when we began recording history, we may never really know. But we have some clues and it was likely very similar to today. But I’m speculating.

We know the Egyptians were masters at bureaucracy and leveraging language and writing technology that changed the game, we just don’t know how they were adopted and what social change occurred. The Andean cultures had the quipu, a forerunner of blockchain.

So the only thing we really know is that society tends to get into a bit of a kerfuffle when a revolutionary technology comes along. We make a lot of predictions and forecasts and they’re all, inevitably, wrong. But still worth doing because they help us think about how we want to shape the technology.

We also know now that we would be better off if we had lots of debate and discussion across all aspects of society, learned from past experiences and applied some of those learnings. And there’s the rub.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.