When Technology Disrupts Society, What Happens? Part 1

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The technologies I’m talking about here are revolutionary ones. Language, writing, printing press, radio, transportation, radio, the internet. They are so significant that they result in fundamental societal change. They upend economic systems, politics, culture and social structures. It’s happened many times throughout our history. We are undergoing such a disruption right now. While it is always messy, it has always resulted in a better world.

In this article I explore the messy part. The next will look at how it ends up better. A Golden Age.

So what are the societal disruptions we are experiencing and what will that look like for the next while? It may look dystopian right now, but it won’t be.

A warning: what I broadly summarise below may seem dark and come across as hopeless. But to understand how things will get better, we must first understand what is in turmoil now. Keep in mind, humanity is in a better place than it ever has been.

We rarely know if and how a technology may become revolutionary. Quite often, what becomes a revolutionary technology is not even invented for the purpose for which it becomes revolutionary. Edison invented the gramophone to record peoples wills. Not to create records and thus revolutionise the music industry. Twitter was invented so ambulances could share advance information with ERs en route to hospital.

It is when network effects start to build momentum that technologies become revolutionary. Ecosystems start to get built. The launch of the iPhone created a whole industry around mobile apps and various accessories. As the Android OS hit the market, more smartphones came along. And on it went to what it is today.

Often, it is entrepreneurs who see how a technology can change an industry or a part of society. Usually by adding another technology or enhancing the existing one. It was an entrepreneur that saw a chance to make a profit by moving people via railroads in addition to coal, cattle and other goods. Steve Jobs saw that the BlackBerry could evolve to something much better.

As these technologies start to become revolutionary, they cause significant societal changes. This is when they’re beginning to impact traditional norms, behaviours, customs and economics.

The Technology Disruptions Underway Today:

Political: Political systems are under pressure and beginning to evolve. Dealing with disinformation, privacy, data rights, governing Artificial Intelligence, crypto regulations, drones and more. The internet and its offspring, social media, have played a key role here. Democracies and autocracies are butting heads around these technologies and it’s translating into real-world geopolitics and national politics, conflicts and cyberwarfare. Distrust in governments is at an all time high. Democracy is the best operating system, but it too is under immense pressure even as autocracies are showing that they are an even more untenable model.

Aesthetics: This is the creative part of culture; music, literature, art, design. The rise of DALLE-2 and chatGPT are putting pressures on creative ownership, what is art and what is literature? What role do humans play? Are designer jobs done for? What about architects and urban designers? The debates are raging and law suits have already been filed.

Rule of Law: For those countries that have it, these systems are under pressure too. From genetic engineering to copyright, intellectual property, freedom speech. Artificial Intelligence lawyers. Digital technologies are pressuring them and legal minds are struggling to keep up.

Economics: Markets are doing weird things. Wealth is being generated in new ways and the pandemic messed things up. Real-estate behaving in different ways. Capital flowing around the world. Huge gaps in wealth and income equality. Inflation. The dismal science faces a dismal time. The concept of a Universal Basic Income is, in whatever form it does take, becoming likely. The expansion of the Welfare State even more likely. Libertarians will not like that. They will fight it. They will lose. Libertarianism doesn’t work in an advanced technological society. Never has. Neither does communism or pure socialism or utopianism. Economic warfare between value systems aligned economies is already happening.

Commerce: ICT (Information & Communication Technology) has already lead to what we’re calling the 4th Industrial Revolution in manufacturing. AI will likely displace more white collar than blue collar jobs. The rise of the Gig Economy. Unions are again growing in popularity. Quiet quitting, the great resignation. Wage suppression, upskilling, automation, management class versus billionaires. Shareholders versus customers. The dissolution of international trade organisations like the WTO and the rise of new bi-lateral and multi-lateral trade systems based on values alignments. Energy comes into play as well. Renewables and new storage technologies are impacting the fossil fuel industry. They are fighting back and will play dirty as they already have. They will inevitably lose. They know it.

Financial Systems & Capitalism: Tied, of course, to economics. While crypto may well be entering a winter, it will come back. Innovations like NFTs may be bubbles, but others will come along. Capital is being pulled in multiple directions to fuel multiple technology revolutions at the same time. This is putting stresses on where the bets are best placed and the degrees of risk. Some suggest we are in a crisis of capitalism. Probably. There is more wealth in the world today than ever before. Some is smart. A lot isn’t. Enough that it’s impacting the flow of capital.

Social Structure: Norms, traditions, behaviours, family units, marriage, inclusion, diversity, religion. All are up in the air. Changing. Because of the internet and again, social media, everyone has a voice. This has resulted in political violence (January 6, Brazil, Peru, France etc), the rise of social movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ rights, the Arab Spring, women’s protests in Iran, Wokeism, religious extremism. Basically, human rights. The Genie is out of the bottle. Massive human migrations play a role here too. Genetic engineering may help us live longer or order custom babies. How will cultures and societies deal with that?

All of this has not yet reached its nadir and it may be some years yet until it does. One thing we can say for certain is that it is going to be a period of turbulence. Until it isn’t. There will be more civil unrest.

Ever since the invention of the stone axe, technologies have been a part of humanity and societal shifts. And always, after we go through a period of turbulence, by using culture, we figure it out. What has always followed is a Golden Age, a period of time where things settle down. We develop new norms, behaviours, traditions and rules of the technology. Until the next revolutionary technology comes along.

The challenge we face today is that we have, as I recently wrote about, more revolutionary technologies coming at us than ever before. This in large part is why we feel so overwhelmed by technology and the underlying impacts it is having on so many parts of society all at once. What will follow however, may be a very exciting period for humanity. That’s for part two.



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

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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