Societal Change in the Digital Age

Image by Stéphane from Pixabay

A rather long time ago, we figured out that fire wasn’t just good for making mastodon ribs much tastier and keeping us warm, it also helped keep us safe from other animals that liked our tasty ribs. Since then we started to form societies and use culture as the code to evolve. Our societies have been constantly evolving and changing and continue to do so.

As we begin the Digital Age, we are undergoing huge societal changes again. This next time of societal transition may prove to be as profound as when we slowly shifted from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies. The social changes we are undergoing may also prove to be much faster than the agrarian one which evolved over thousands of years.

We tend to think that major societal changes such as foraging to hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial happen overnight. They do not. They can take a long time and underlying them all is technology. The most radical societal changes happen when we invent communication and transportation technologies.

With the arrival of Generative AI (i.e. ChatGPT, Midjourney etc.) the world suddenly gained an understanding and awareness of AI unlike ever before. Lest it seem that now AI is top of everyones mind, it isn’t. Our main concerns today remain putting food on the table, paying the mortgage and avoiding a global war.

But profound changes are underway, driven by digital technologies such as AI, robotics, genetic engineering, the internet and so on. These are being used by various societies and nations in different ways, largely based on cultural behaviours, norms and traditions.

Dictatorships view these digital technologies as a means to control their societies in a political sense and to maintain and control wealth using variations on capitalism, such as oligarchies. In the West, digital technologies are largely used in the more free market capitalism model.

I’m going to focus here on the tension arising between technologists, neo-Luddites and to some degree, Christianity, through a Western lens.

“It is our western societies who have recently made man an ‘economic animal.’ …for a very long time man was something different…removed from this constant, icy, utilitarian calculation” — Marcel Mauss, Sociologist, 1925

On the technologists front, there is a prevailing view that technology can solve all our social problems and is best applied in a sort of Libertarian model with sprinkles of socialism. That view is if we ensure everyone has equal access to technology, poverty can be wiped out and society will reap the rewards of everyone being able to participate in capitalism and new wonderful things will happen. This ideology is driven largely by such techno elites as Peter Thiel, Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

Diamandis has framed this in terms of the “bottom 4 billion people” that create a “force of abundance.” This all arose from a seminal article written by the late business professor C.K. Prahalad titled “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” in 2002. It has played a key role in the ideology of how techno elites see human society developing in the future. The leading source of thinking and ideological promotion for this group is through the Singularity University, a for-profit institution where students can pay upwards of $15,000 for a week of learning about this approach and viewpoint.

The above mentioned and many others tend to be part of the transhumanist or Humanity+ movement. A superb anthropological book looking at this movement is Dr. Jenny Huberman’s “Transhumanism, From Ancestors to Avatars.”

There are also members of the transhumanism movement that don’t quite share the view of those more Libertarian in nature. The best known of these is James Hughes, Ph.D and the non-profit think tank The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), which takes a more whole of society approach to our technological future. They see that the welfare state idea will have a bigger role, that capitalism is fine, but can’t be left ungoverned. As history has proven time and again, neither trickle down economics or industry self regulation is effective.

The Humanity+ ideology is that we can, using technology, have extended lives and perhaps one day, even upload our minds to a storage device and “live” forever torturing our descendants with really bad puns and pranks. Or that you can go on an app on your phone with your partner/spouse and order up a baby that will be super smart and strong, have no diseases and be gestated in a lab. Delivered by Baby-Dash. These are two of several elements in this concept of humanity’s future.

Then there are those who are opposed to any such ideas. In the West, these tend to be driven more by religious ideologies and beliefs. At one end is more traditional Christianity such as Catholicism, Anglicans, while at the more extreme end is Evangelical Christianity.

Their concerns relating to what I stated above are on the topic of death and of course, what happens to the soul if you upload your mind to a Cloud server. How human cultures view death varies widely by culture, but it is an important part of what it means to be human. Then of course, there’s babies. Most Christian religions (and others), believe that babies should be born naturally, from a female womb through copulation with a male. So one can see where these two issues collide with religious beliefs. There are other issues that are causing tensions. More than I have space for in this article.

Because digital technologies are moving so fast, evolving at a pace humanity has never been confronted with before, tensions between different social groups are heating up faster as well. These are playing into the divisions we already see in the United States and other democracies and autocratic leaning countries. The views of the citizens aren’t really top of mind in autocracies and oligarchies. But that’s why they tend to eventually get toppled.

So what happens next? Can we find a path forward? Most likely, since we have before. This is where political systems such as democracy can play a vital role along with societal structures such as Rule of Law. In a pluralist society, all voices deserve to be heard. The digital technologies we have put out into the world will only continue to evolve. As always and with all technologies, they can be used for good and bad.

As we have before, the code we will use to write our future, to continue to leverage technology for our survival, will be culture. It is our genetic evolutionary pattern that we figured out thousands of years ago. The time of transition ahead will at times be messy, confusing, perhaps at times even violent, but we will find a way. In fact, we may well be headed to one of humanity’s greatest periods.

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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.