17 January 2009

I'll Take the de-scrambled eggs - Separating Self and Society

It is a wonderful thing that we’re unable to predict. If we could, it would suggest a lack of control over events, a lack of autonomy for the human race. Prediction suggests determinism; unpredictability suggests freedom.

I’ve previously made the distinction between social and technological innovation. The more I try to make this distinction operational, the more it seems to me that dissecting the two is like trying to put a wedge between heads and tails.

A car is clearly a technological innovation. It has moving parts and relies on inventions as diverse as rubber tires and steel ball bearings.

Of course, a car is also clearly a social innovation. It changes the range a person can travel in a day and greatly multiplies the number of people who can be grouped daily to work on tasks like building cars. It creates a huge separation between work and home.

Any successful social innovation introduces some new technology – even if it is as silly as the dance moves in the Macarena. Any successful technological innovation moves with or drives social innovation. If 150 million people had not agreed to turn over their network of friends to Facebook, the software (the technological innovation) would have been a curiosity. If people never dared to climb into a car (social innovation), the horseless carriage would have been an historical footnote of less importance than any given outbreak of influenza.

Progress depends on the play between these two. An innovation has to enable people to do something – has to have a technological component. To matter, it has to change behavior – has to have a social component.

One of the things that I don’t know about this is how the dance works. Is technology gradually changing to allow us to express our true selves? Or is humanity - human nature itself - changing, led in new and unpredictable directions by technology? And even if it is true that the technology and humanity are now co-evolving, which is the lead in this strange dance? Does this question even make sense in a world where we’re now engaged in genetic engineering?

Has the question of human nature always been bound up in questions of culture and technology? Or are those merely manifestations of human nature? Are technology and society as intrinsic to being human as fingernails and sleep cycles?

Is it not just that it is not possible to drive a distinction between social and technological progress. Perhaps it is not even possible to drive a wedge between self and society.

Just wondering.


Anonymous said...

So many questions.
Personally, I think that if you're in touch with your 'real' self to begin with, technology (or whatever it is in question) is likely to bring you closer to that self. And vice versa.

And I do think you can drive a wedge between yourself and society. Look at Ted Kaczynski. (maybe not the relfection you were looking for...)

K-kix said...

A friend and I were just talking about life's little quirks and wondering what was going to come next. I said: hmmm life is like a new pitcher trying his hand - you never know when it will be a curve-ball or a... he finished my statement with: " a ball to the head." So, sometimes, I am not too keen about the statement "It is a wonderful thing that we’re unable to predict"