One of the foremost contemporary social thinkers, Zygmunt Bauman, once wrote that “questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.”
His work makes for a useful starting point to engender an open and iterative discussion between specialists and non-specialists alike about technology in terms of how it influences and is influenced by people, both individually and collectively. Bauman’s comprehensive theoretical framework, Liquid Modernity, (that will no doubt be brought up in subsequent posts) describes the contemporary milieu within which we find ourselves today. His work offers important insight into our experiences of contemporary life, or at the very least poses questions that force us to ruminate upon it. In many ways it resonates with discussions about technology writ large, and is germane to the specific areas of focus constituting the core of Psychology 21C.
While I wholeheartedly acknowledge, and am thankful for the benefits and blessings of technology, and agree with many of the other contributors to Psychology 21C, I do want to pause and ruminate over some of its less sanguine dimensions. Like every other technological advancement in human history something new always carries unanticipated consequences. For instance, we cheered the automobiles ability to transport us further, father, and faster to innumerable destinations. At the same time the hours of our lives’ spent in traffic is hardly something to be festive about (this is doubly true if you have ever had the pleasure of driving the Cross Bronx Expressway at inopportune times…which seem to be most times). While perhaps traffic is not the most severe of impacts the general dynamic implied must always already be included in discussions about the benefits and potentials of technology. In fact sometimes we should wonder who is actually in the driver’s seat.
But again, this is nothing new. However, current technological developments have at least one unique feature vis-à-vis past developments that can be problematic and disruptive (if not dangerous). This is where one of Bauman’s insights concerning contemporary social life are useful. What we need to emphasize is the speed of development. It is unlike anything we have seen in the past.
Technology is an indispensable element of society, but if the rate of technological change comes so quickly there is the potential that once we ‘catch up’ to the last advancement it, and our knowledge of it, is already obsolete.
As a quick example think of two movies, one from before 2005 and anything playing or showing now (I suspect that you’d be able to pick movies from 2006-07 on – if we looked outside of the US I would guess the start and end times would be about five years earlier). Compare not only what the leads are doing with technology, but also the extras. Smartphones have done much in terms of narrative and function for stories alone. Yet, if film is supposed to, in some way, ‘show us’ the world we experience people in movies before and after the specified dates are doing things very differently. This says nothing of the chain of ‘changes’ that are set off as a result. The characters from the ‘older’ movies would see a world with similar features, but they be in a world where they would not know what we consider basics of communication technology. We are speaking about a time span of a few years where a contemporary kindergartner might very well be more savvy on a smartphone vis-à-vis our hypothetical adult from a few years past. This is but one example.
Let us move onto to something decidedly less innocuous, but equally subtle. Casually perusing job postings on major employment search sites points to a recurring insistence of technological prowess.
Do you know how to harness the latest web analytical tools? Can you navigate the most current social media platforms to create brand awareness? Are you comfortable with the software and techniques to leverage ‘big data’? You very well may be…but for how long will that knowledge keep pace? The skills which take time to learn, let alone understand and successfully put into use, come with a ‘best used by’ date. The next technological innovation will inexorably come. If you are unable to pivot and retrain at lightning speed, you may never again have the capacity to ‘catch up’. Behind the preferred qualifications of technological know-how for a given position lies the specter of obsolescence and redundancy. Perhaps one of the most nefarious and immanent features of technological progress is the disposability of labor, and the humans that embody it. Even worse, this is, at least in part, done by design.
I hesitate suggesting that technology is causing these social complications per se. I am more confident in asserting that the speed at which technology is being developed and adapted is increasing while our capacity to ‘keep up’ is lagging behind. While indispensable, the rapidity of the juggernaut of technology is a double edge sword that we should be as cautious as possible about wielding.
However, I’d like to close on a lighter note. People, individually and collectively, are far from helpless. Psychology 21c, as I understand the purpose of the organization, offers some guidance, or at least poses important questions to think about, as to how we can effectively sustain ourselves (and hopefully thrive) individually or collectively. Some pragmatic ways Psychology 21c translates this into services for different interests is already laid out!
It seems that rough seas may be out there …but Psychology21c provides a harbor to reflect (for researchers), tools to navigate (for students and early career professionals), and bigger and stronger ships (For organizations). With help from Psychology 21c it may just be possible to weather storms, and find calmer waters.
About the Author: Andrew Horvitz
Our Guest Blogger is an educator and researcher who has held positions in higher education, government, non-profits, and IT services. He writes and teaches about contemporary social issues positioned at the intersection of politics, culture, technology, and globalization. Andrew earned a BA in Political Science and Sociology, and a PhD in Sociology from the University at Albany, SUNY.