The Internet & Global Cultural Change

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Somewhere around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, over a fairly long period of time, humans gave up their hunter gatherer way of life and we slowly turned to agriculture. Around that time, anthropologists and sociologists think, we have between 100,000 and 300,000 societies around the world. It’s a wide ranging number, but it’s significant. Today, there are only around 200. Globally. What happened? What role might the internet play in the future of global societies and cultures? In macro sociocultural systems?

Some leading thinkers, like Yuval Harari, a historian, along with sociologists like Lenski and anthropologists think we may eventually become one global culture. The evidence so far would point to that. But it remains speculation.

The two key factors that influence the merging of societies are transportation and communication technologies. As we built ships that could travel greater distances, cultures that were disconnected became more connected. Ideas and cultures changed ever faster. Comfortingly, we traded more often than we conflicted. Early communications technologies, facilitated by the invention of language, such as books, newspapers and letters, aided in the transmission of societal and cultural ideas.

Over a very short period of time, we began combining technologies in novel ways. Sail power turned to steam, then coal and oil. Electricity enabled the telegraph, then radio and the telephone. Life and change got faster. Today, the internet may be the most powerful global technology since the invention of language.

Changes to sociocultural systems around the world are happening faster than ever before in the history of humanity. The internet not only speeds up our ability to communicate, it also speeds up technologies of production; Artificial Intelligence, robotic manufacturing, Internet-of-Things and the resulting volumes of data and analytics tools. This also causes an increased division of labour.

For most of human history, we used technologies to shape our physical environments. Technology helped us adapt, such as making clothing to stay warm. Extracting fossil fuels and minerals to build increasingly industrialized economies. But we still had some time and space to think about our societies and cultures.

The internet closes the time/space grace periods we had, something I wrote about earlier here. Now, we are changing our cognitive world. Digital technologies enable us to start changing the mental models and systems by which we live our internal and cultural lives. Digital technologies have proliferated faster than any other technology in human history. There are now so many of them that we struggle to adapt them to our lives.

As we enter what I call the Cognitive Age, the era where we use technologies to manipulate our inner, thinking world, our sociocultural systems will also undergo massive changes. Culture is the knowledge we use to guide our lives. Culture exists only within our minds, our pscyhe and culture is information. Digital technologies are all about information. Much of the culture wars we see today, including issues of cultural appropriation, discussions of race, LGBTQ+, women’s and human rights, are surfacing because we can communicate instantaneously and share ideas, learn. And a key aspect of human evolution is our ability to learn.

Our human societies have grown ever more complex and with that complexity, we will need technologies that can help us adapt. Not just information technologies, but ones that support our cognitive abilities. Cognitive technologies like AI and quantum computing, genetics. Climate change adds a whole other dimension where will also need these cognitive augmentation technologies. We will also have to insist, at some time in the near future, that the technologists of today, also embrace the social sciences, for they tend towards thinking technology will solve our problems. It will not. Human culture will.

So I think we can reasonably argue that yes, the internet is playing a role in our changing global culture. My hope is that we can preserve the wonderful mix of cultures and societies that we have today, somehow, yet that we can progress as well on the societal issues of today.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious