Technology-driven values in a near-future cultural scenario

The Shifting Ground

The upcoming election in the UK has been spoken of as the most important in a generation, as well as the most uncertain in terms of outcome. Any change in the politics of the government of the country may reflect a shift in attitudes and priorities among the electorate. However, cultural trends in society in the near-future are more likely to be driven by technological change and innovation than by political ideology. The present generation in the developed world is perhaps unique in history in seeing all its cultural certainties continually overturned, not by the dislocations of war or politics, but by ever-expanding scientific knowledge and technological innovation.

Technology, specifically information technology, is rapidly changing the society we live in, in innumerable ways, changing the dynamics of human relationships as an increasing number move online and online is migrating from fixed centres to mobile handsets such as smart phones. Yet it is still difficult to imagine the transformation that this will precipitate in society and the economy when these changes are allied to advanced robotics and technologies such as 3-D printing.

Given the epochal nature of this change then, it is hardly surprising that its effect is unnerving, not just because of the pace at which it is occurring, but because of the social, cultural and economic dislocations that it leaves in its wake that has us flailing for touchstones that can act as stable anchor points on which to build our beliefs, lives and societies. These points of stability are the values of the society. They are deeply rooted in a nation’s culture, common life and belief system, and have the quality of remaining unchanged over generations despite enormous shifts in technology, society and economy.

Nevertheless, I suggest that the time we are passing through is actually a time of transformation from a cultural landscape that has been dominated by the values of industriousness, freedom and equality, driven by the technology of the industrial age, the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the spirituality of Protestant Christianity1, and which has now largely exhausted its possibilities (in the developed world), to a cultural landscape in which other values will be in the foreground of social concern. Three that will possibly fulfil this role over the next few decades are transparency, care and creativity, and I will present an argument for each in terms of the technological revolution we are passing through.

Three Transformational Values

Transparency. We live in an age of information. The greatest developments are being seen in the area of information technology. There is now an unprecedented amount of information available, and this amount is only likely to grow exponentially: information leads to the generation of even more information. This is not only being driven by technology, but also by social and political changes as people demand more access to information (such as information held by governments and private companies) that was formerly inaccessible; although this demand is itself – it can be argued – also driven by the availability of new technology. At the same time, this openness has also created a reaction in terms of demand for greater privacy. At present it is difficult to judge where the balance will settle, and although I sympathise strongly with this demand, I find it to be virtually unsustainable in an age of global information. Besides, people seem willing to share information about themselves that they would scarcely have done or been able to do in former times, such as their sexuality and their innermost convictions and desires.

Some argue that technology is creating the webs of interconnectedness that characterised society in the past2. Yet there is a need for caution. We laud the intimacy of those communal ties in the past, but conveniently forget how often that closeness engendered prejudice and spite. Similarly – though on a different scale – our fears today are more likely to centre on whether we may be disadvantaged by personal knowledge circulating among corporations and governments. Nevertheless, as long as corporations and governments are held to the same standards as individuals, I think that greater transparency will work for the benefit of society as a whole. Transparency has the power to make institutions more accountable. The danger that differentiation in levels of transparency may arise is real, though on the whole access to increasing levels of information technology makes that less likely.

Care. The demographic changes that are taking place in our societies, in particular the ageing population – which is itself the result of earlier technological breakthroughs in medicine and hygiene – entail that more people are in need of care, but also that there are relatively fewer to care for them and fewer to support the provision of care financially. There really is only one answer to this: the efficiencies that derive from economies of scale and lean production techniques, that are requiring fewer people in manufacturing and increasingly in other economic sectors, while increasing profits, have to fund an expanding care system. That will also require that caring for others should not just be a necessity forced by circumstances, frequently done by the unpaid or the poorly-paid, but involve a fundamental shift in social and economic priorities towards the creation of a highly professional and aspirational care sector.

Such a shift may seem necessary if we work within a framework of the good life. And while there is a growing realisation that something of this order must take place, it is unlikely within the existing social paradigm. One of the problems is that care is a term that is somewhat difficult to define. It is deeper than just looking after someone’s needs, although that is clearly part of it. But a lot of that can clearly be mechanised and will increasingly be so. It is also related to but more generalised than love, which has various erotic, romantic and familial overtones; care has a wider social dimension. It has also, unfortunately, taken on rather negative connotations, connected with the institutionalisation of care, such as being taken ‘into care’, and ‘care homes’, but also the individualisation of happiness and the distancing in social relations that technology has largely facilitated.

A clearer definition of care is needed. I take as the a starting point Heidegger’s3 view that Care (Sorge) is the principal modality of human Being (Dasein), and that one of the main attributes of care is presence (Zuhandlichkeit: to-hand-ed-ness), although I would interpret care to mean not only being present to someone, but also present for and present with. That is to say, being present ‘to’ means no more than being in the presence of someone. Care is founded upon such a co-existence, occupying the same space, if you like. Whether this is physical presence or mediated – through technology – presence is a moot point; arguments can be put in favour of both. I think, though, that ultimately care is attitudinal rather than operational. It means taking the time for others, being concerned with, resolving problems for and being knowledgeable about others. That is why care is also presence ‘for’ and presence ‘with’, acting for the benefit of another and sharing the viewpoint of, or at least empathising with, another. Care can be mediated or unmediated by technology but it is always ultimately about the psychic impact of one person on another.

Creativity. Technology will undoubtedly change the employment landscape in the future. Just as many, if not most, of the jobs that were prevalent a hundred or two hundred years ago have now either disappeared or are minority occupations, many of the jobs that we assume are permanent features of the economic landscape today will disappear or diminish over the next century or two. This will apply not only to occupations such as industrial operation, but also to many jobs in the service sector, such as finance, teaching, catering and security and the armed forces, which will increasingly be carried out by improved and continuously developing technology. However, in the unlikely event that computer intelligence manages to improve on the generalising features of the human brain – as opposed to its narrowly specific skills, at which they are much better – and its ability to synergise, humans will always be ahead of the curve in terms of creativity, and will therefore be the ultimate source of new technological development.

If a technological breakthrough, such as viable fusion power, were to solve the present clash between development and environmental protection and create a virtually unlimited energy source, this would unleash a new era of mechanisation which could potentially free us from the necessity of working or, for that matter, doing much at all. For some that might be an excuse for retiring to the golf course or a never-ending cruise, but is more likely to empower an unprecedented wave of creativity, in the arts, but also in the areas of technological, social and economic development. Although we would all appreciate more leisure, most people want to work as work gives context to our abilities; but the possibility that the distinction between work and pleasure might become a thing of the past is an intrinsic aspect of the technological revolution under way.

The New Values-Matrix and Social Adaptation

There is frequent talk of a ‘crisis of values’, but what I think we are seeing is the beginning of a reorientation of values around the reality of living in a post-industrial world. There is perhaps a paradox in that this reorientation is arising through changes already under way, yet seems to be facilitating them at the same time. There are, though, subtle differences in the relationships of these values to the technological changes that are driving their emergence. Creativity is a necessary condition of the technological revolution and that exists at its bow-wave; without creativity new insights into nature, new solutions to problems, invention, new opportunities to invest and new markets to exploit would not exist. Ironically, then, creativity also manifests itself in a conscious rejection of the technological and financial treadmill, in a retreat into quiescence, the pastoral and the simple, in a pursuit of low-tech pleasure through the arts and crafts. By contrast, transparency strikes me as being an unintended consequence of the technological revolution, and although it does facilitate the flow of information, catalysing development, the sheer volume can also hinder useful acquisition and implementation. There is a certain reluctance about our embrace of transparency; it is something that we favour seeing manifest in others more than being embraced by ourselves. For this reason the tension between transparency and privacy will be one of the defining motifs of the information age, as that between freedom and equality was for the modern period. Finally, care is a universal of the human condition. It both inspires technological change to alleviate human suffering, and fills the void left in the aftermath of the societal, relational and occupational displacement caused by new technologies.

Prediction is always hazardous, but I foresee that these values may force adaptive changes in our spirituality, sociality and economic viability in the near future. Greater transparency will eventually compel us to be more compassionate and more forgiving, as well as being more empowered individually, as everybody will potentially be held to the same standard of accountability. I also think issues such as social deviance may be judged against the norms of care rather than seen as issues related to freedom as they are today. In economic terms, the three most valuable human resources will be personal data, interpersonal and social skills and highly-developed technical/academic skills or knowledge. There will be little scope for unskilled or uneducated labour and little prospect of a single lifelong career. Rapid knowledge acquisition and flexibility are going to be key adaptive traits in the new reality.

Given the contemporary political and economic scene, we appear still a long way from the near-future scenario that I have outlined here, although it is, perhaps, not unrealistic in the context of what would have been the unimaginable social and cultural changes of the past 100 years. Politics, by the nature of the electoral cycle in the democratic world, tends to focus on the short term, the immediate problems and issues and – certainly if one is in opposition – upon the limitations of what can be achieved by any government; and this is as it should be. But politicians of all stripes preside over a power that was ignited in the Renaissance 600 years ago and is gathering pace. Modernity is a flame that has burned more brightly at some times than others, in one place or another, but its progress has proved unstoppable. It creates new problems as it solves old ones, but in the process is leading us gradually but ineluctably out of the darkness of ignorance, disease, poverty and servitude. Science and technology are the leading edge of this revolution. The politicians of vision will be those that not only ensure that our educational institutions equip the next generation with the requisite skills, but transmit the values that mean that generation can adapt most successfully to the new social, cultural and economic realities that are emerging as a result.

 

Notes and References

  1. Max Weber argued that the values of Protestantism, such as the belief in justification, temperance, the work ethic and thrift had a direct effect on the development of capitalism and on more widespread prosperity. Support for this hypothesis has been claimed based on research on European and Latin American economies.

Max Weber (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. London: Penguin Books.

  1. Marshall McLuhan introduced the term ‘global village’ in the 1960s, and more recent work on connectivity has developed that theme in the internet and social media age.

Marshall McLuhan (1964, 2003), Understanding Media. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

José van Dijck (2013), The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: OUP.

  1. Martin Heidegger (1962). Being and Time. Trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. London: SCM Press.
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