Tech and Society: A Complicated Relationship

Debates still center on whether new tech adoption will stick post-pandemic

By Irving Wladawsky-Berger

“Welcome to the future — not 2021, as you might have been expecting, but 2025, or even 2030, depending on whom you ask,” said The Economist in a November, 2020 article. “The adoption of new technological behaviours in response to the pandemic, from video-conferencing to online shopping, means usage has already reached levels that were not expected for many more years.”

But will it stick? For years, companies and governments found all kinds of reasons for not embracing work from home, virtual meetings, telemedicine, online learning, and other digital applications. But the pandemic forced us to accelerate the digital transformations of the economy and society to help us cope with the crisis. And, not only have these digital applications worked remarkably well, but they offer a number of important benefits — like not waiting for a straightforward doctor diagnosis in a room full of sick people, and not having to travel for hours to participate in a 45 minute meeting.

How much will things snap back when the pandemic eases, asked The Economist. “Clearly the world is not going to return to its pre-pandemic state…some new behaviours will stick, but not all, and the result will be somewhere in the middle.

There will be enormous implications for transport patterns, property prices and the layout of cities, among other things.”

The societal implications of technological transformations are difficult to anticipate, given the rapid changes we’ve been going through in the last few decades, let alone in the last two years. This topic was directly addressed in Technology’s Role in Society: It’s Complicated, the Fall 2021 issue of Footnotes, a publication of the American Sociological Association. The issue includes nine essays on the various ways technology impacts out lives. “As technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, we find ourselves constantly adapting and keeping up with the latest advancements,” said its Introduction.

“Looking ahead, technology will expectedly continue on its path of transformation, affecting individuals and society on many levels. Facebook has to create in the next five years a metaverse-a new 3D internet, connecting digital worlds where people can hang out in virtual reality. Many industries are on the cusp of technological disruption, which will lead to more change.

Experts believe that as early as 2025, our society will be more tech-driven, creating even bigger challenges related to issues such as inequality, authoritarianism, and misinformation.

… What becomes clear through these essays is that technology is socially complex, and its utility and dangers are dependent on how accessible it is and how it’s deployed by people.”

Robots can deliver food and goods without any human contact. Image: REUTERS/David Estrada

The Impact on Jobs

Let me discuss one of the essays that nicely illustrates the complex interactions between technology and society — Technology, Occupations, and (Non-) Deterministic Futures by University of Oregon professor Andrew Nelson. Nelson starts the essay by noting that for decades, social scientists have been unified in their rejection of technological determinism — the notion that a society’s technology will have predictable effects in the development of its social structure and cultural values. Instead, “technology must be understood in relation to its interaction with a particular social context.”

Nelson argues that while there is validity in articles on whether technology destroys or creates, “they also share a problematic deterministic view in which our primary aim is to discern what technology does and will do.” But, he adds that the relationship between social and technological systems is much more complex. “We must understand technology not merely as actor, but also as something acted upon. Or, to our specific focus here, technology is not merely the destroyer of some jobs and the creator of others. Instead, the very rate and direction of technological change is dependent on its interactions with occupational considerations.”

In other words, our technologies and social systems have been co-evolving with each other since time immemorial and continue to do so.

We shape our tools and they in turn shape us,” observed author and educator Marshal McLuhan in the 1960s.

Nelson illustrates his argument with the interesting case of the music synthesizer , a technology that was first introduced in the 1960s by companies like Moog Music and ARP Instruments . “From its inception, users remained unsure of what to make of the synthesizer: Should it be sold in music stores or electronics shops? Should it be used to mimic the sounds of orchestral instruments or to make unique sounds of its own?” he wrote. “A new technology like a music synthesizer does not come into the world as one thing or another. Instead, it is shaped, interpreted, adopted, and used in ways that reflect both people and social contexts.”

“In the early 1980s, the introduction of new digital technologies enabled synthesizers to offer much more realistic emulations of orchestral instruments than earlier analog models, and the linking together of multiple synthesizers enabled a single player to sound like an ensemble. Soon, a long-simmering great synthesizer debate — which bears remarkable resemblance to current debates about technology and occupations — began to boil over: Were synthesists and their tools putting other musicians out of work?”

The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) claimed that the use of synthesizers was a threat. AFM members picketed synthesizer performances claiming that they were undermining the employment prospects and pay for musicians. But, starting in the 1990s, something unexpected happened. Even though the technology itself was more capable than ever, the use of digital synthesizers for the realistic simulation of acoustic instruments started to decrease.

“Today, in fact, the vast majority of synthesizer product offerings are analog, not digital. They feature interfaces that look and function remarkably like those of the 1970s, and not the smooth preset-laden panels of the digital offerings of the 1980s and 1990s.” As it turned out, synthesists lost interest in using their instruments to mimic and replace musicians in an orchestra performance. Instead, they started using them to make decidedly synthetic sounds and establish their own unique identity. This in turn nudged synthesizers to once more be based on the technology that best enabled their unique sounds, namely analog technologies.

What can we learn from the synthesizer debates of decades past that’s relevant to our contemporary discussion of the impact of technological change on occupations?

“First, the effect of technology is hardly a given. Synthesizers could be used to recreate orchestral sounds or to create new sounds … Far from being encoded into the technology, these applications were shaped by occupation members themselves.”

“Second, … occupations do more than react to technology; instead, they shape its development, interpretation, adoption, and use.

… as synthesists crafted an occupational identity around the creation of new and unique sounds, synthesizer manufacturers adjusted both their marketing and their products accordingly.”

Third, “if we really want to understand the relationship between technology and occupations, we’d be well served to spend at least as much time and effort studying work and occupations as we do studying science and technology.”

Finally, “if there’s an overarching lesson in the debunking of technological determinism, it’s that diverse perspectives are essential to include. And fittingly, diversity makes for better music, too.”

Originally published at https://blog.irvingwb.com.

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The IDE explores how people and businesses work, interact, and prosper in an era of profound digital transformation. We are leading the discussion on the digital economy.

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Addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: the impact of digital technology on businesses, the economy, and society.

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