Culture & Technology Tensions in the Digital Age

Image by Kohji Asakawa from Pixabay

Humans have a very long history of finding a use for a technology other than that for which it was intended. For example, Bell inventing the telephone to share opera music. Edison inventing the gramophone for people to record their wills. But we also use technologies differently depending on cultural elements and reasons. This is largely why all technologies are seen as a double-edged sword. Good and bad. As we move deeper into the Digital Age this is important for us to understand more than ever. Why?

If we better understand how different cultures see and use technologies, we can better predict some, though not all, unintended consequences as well as be prepared for where things may go wrong fast.

So why do cultures view technologies differently? It starts with the cultural elements of traditions, norms, behaviours and how we organise a society. It also comes includes economics (systems of reciprocity) and socio-geographic boundaries, what we might call a nation today.

As a technology comes into being, one person may see a use, but it’s when a technology is shared and begins to enter a culture, a social group, that additional uses are found and technologies evolve. As human societies grew and our technologies began to shape us and then we them, we also learned how to create combinations of technologies.

We also develop new norms, behaviours, rituals and traditions around some technologies. When a technology becomes pervasive is when it becomes part of the aesthetic elements of culture such as art, music and literature. Many pop songs today talk about and reference social media for example.

Country singers like to refer to large pickup trucks as well as hunting and fishing gear. While this may seem funny, it does represent how a subculture communicates how a technology might be used and helps establish cultural norms and traditions.

As we learned to make more stone axes and make them more durable, so we can assume, did rituals revolve around the axe. They became symbols of wealth, social status and likely, manhood. We saw this with bronze age technologies. A similar process has happened more recently with smartphones and now, it is starting with Artificial Intelligence.

We also found that some technologies could help us grow our societies at a macro level, through more pacifistic means such as agriculture and home building, to more violent means; conflict.

As a digital technology comes into the world today, it is likely to cross into multiple sociocultural systems much faster than ever before. This is unusual.

We can see this comparing social media to Generative AI like ChatGPT. It took most of a decade to learn the dangers and unintended consequences of social media, which have been written about extensively. Generative AI came onto the scene in mid-2022 with DALL-E 2 for images. Then came the launch of ChatGPT. Generative AI exploded into the world. Social media played a huge role.

Within a month, the unintended consequences and dangers started to hit our awareness at a global scale. It slammed into so many sociocultural systems so hard and so fast it was unprecedented. That people looked for the risks and dangers so quickly suggests that there is a growing, broader, cultural skepticism of digital technologies today. Within weeks there were copyright lawsuits alongside explorations of how it could benefit us.

This week, finance giant JP Morgan banned the use of ChatGPT because it made up facts. The very day Bing launched its ChatGPT integration, in a small beta, the same issue was broadcast. Google launched Bard and it too, made a huge mistake on launch day.

Venture Capital is pouring into almost any company that says it’s going to use AI. At the same time, the debates around the ethics of AI and economic impacts such as job losses, have become raucous and citizens have begun to push back. Never before has there been such a quick ramping up of tensions around a technology in so many cultures and societies.

This is a prime example of how we may well be developing a deeper, broader, cross-cultural awareness of the risk and benefits of a technology at the same time. It may well shape how societies see, adopt and adapt future technologies. For industry, especially Tech Giants, the need to employ more socioculturally aware methods to their technologies will become more imperative.

Soon we may see a groundswell of demand for technology companies to employ some form of framework similar to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance in the extractive resources sector. Perhaps Ethical, Social and Governance? A framework requiring greater transparency into algorithms, data collection and use, privacy and security and protection of minors and minorities.

Digital technologies from AI to nanotechnology, drones, robots, genetic engineering, because of our advanced communications technologies (internet, mobile), will face increasingly deeper scrutinisation by multiple cultures at the same time.

The upside is that citizens as cultures and societies may have a better chance to influence how these technologies are adopted, put rules and laws around them and set societal norms for their use. In freer markets and democracies, this can lead to better products and services.

Our sociocultural relationship with digital technologies is changing faster than ever before. This is creating significant tensions between the technology industry and civil society.

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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.