Technologist – Agents of Social Change

The other day I sat down with a colleague and recorded a podcast in which we were chatting about the ways in which technology drives social change.

Out of the back of that podcast a couple of people have asked about getting more details and this is partially a response to those requests.

One of the social changes that I became aware of recently was the way in which we now use YouTube to solve problems. We used to have a friend who we would ask and they’d show us, or we’d read a manual, now we watch a video on YouTube.

Technology has always driven social change. As I sit at this desk I overlook a street that has been tarmacked to allow cars to run on it. Many of the people around me drive to work, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before the advent of the car precipitated a social change. The arrival of the car has changed the way we now build cities and the way we interact with our neighbours. The social change caused by the car hasn’t all been positive though, decreased mobility has caused many health issues, early cars weren’t very safe,  environmental pollution is another factor, the growth of the car also lead to the creative destruction of the coach building and many horse related industries.

The people who saw the potential of the motorcar became agents of the social change that it brought. Some of those social change entrepreneurs became celebrated, others were more hidden, but eventually there were millions of people involved in that social change.

In time society recognised the change that was happening and started to build regulations around it seeking to protect against the problems being caused. Car safety tests became an industry partly because regulations demanded safer cars.

These technology driven social changes are not one-off events, they are happening all of the time, probably sparked by the first person who worked out how to create fire or perhaps even earlier than that.

As technologist we are driving changes in our society, whether we like it or not. We are the agents of social change, and that cycle of invention-change-regulation is playing out before our eyes every day.

Much of the technology change is enabling things that our parents could only dream of. I can’t imagine being in a situation where I can’t communicate with all of my family members. The Internet has enable boundless communication to almost every corner of the world, and mostly for free. Every day I talk to people from at least two other continents and often more than that. That’s changing the way that our society works. I have friends who speak to their adult children every day and sometimes multiple times a day. That wasn’t possible when I was a young adult, even if I wanted to speak to my parents every day, I couldn’t afford to.

There are technologies coming that will significantly change the way we live our lives in the future. There’s much talk about the impact of robots and jobs that will be impacted, but there’s also a whole set of new industries that are going to be enabled. Robots will give some people with medical challenges a quality of living that they can’t achieve. We’re already having conversations about the regulatory frameworks that are going to be needed for those robots.

The in-ear translator is already here, if not mainstream, a role we might have expected to be done by a fish at some point in the future 🙂 These are just the latest in a growing list of technologies that we may choose to wear about our person in the future.

There are a number of recent examples of the regulatory steps in the cycle.

The World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos is currently meeting and one of the big subjects is the impact of social media companies:

Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry”, Benioff told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Here’s a product – cigarettes – they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels.

“I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added.

Facebook should be ‘regulated like cigarette industry’, says tech CEO – The Guardian

And also:

The prime minister is to ask investors to put pressure on tech giants to deal with extremist content on social networks.

Theresa May will say at the World Economic Forum in Davos that investors should consider the social impact of the firms they invest in.

Social networks need to stop providing a platform for terror, extremism and child abuse, she will stress.

Davos: Theresa May to warn tech firms over terror content – BBC News

Which is an interesting call from Theresa May as that’s exactly what some Apple’s major investors did recently:

Two of the largest investors in Apple are urging the iPhone maker to take action against smartphone addiction among children over growing concerns about the effects of technology and social media on the youth.

In an open letter to Apple on Monday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the firm must do more to help children fight addiction on its devices.

Apple investors call for action over iPhone ‘addiction’ among children – The Guardian

Meanwhile invention continues at a pace and the agents of social change go about exploiting that technology for the benefit of customers and the cycle moves on.

An inventors moral responsibility for their invention is an long debated subject. I think that the moral responsibility on those of us who utilise a technology to do so in a way that doesn’t bring harm is a bit clearer, but what do we do about all of the unforeseen consequences? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.

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