What Has Technology Ever Done For Us?

This may seem like a silly question, but how much influence has modern communication technology had on us? That is actually a surprisingly hotly debated issue right now. The implications are vast – for society, politics, religion, and dare I say, for human consciousness.

It is widely acknowledged that real incomes in the US have been stagnant or declining since the 1970s, and the resulting discontent does much to drive political alienation. On the other hand, you might object that while actual incomes are down, the number of things you can potentially do with that money is so much greater than in previous years, and something like an IPhone is a classic illustration of that. You might be earning no more than your predecessors did in 1977, but technological improvement gives you a vast improvement in lifestyle and general standard of living. (And that says nothing about other critical improvements, such as in medical technology). In that sense, things are not as bad as the raw numbers might suggest.

Someone else might say that this argument is just seeking to deflect attention from a widespread and serious social crisis. From that perspective, stressing the impact of communications technologies can be a conservative argument, while liberals would be tempted to underplay that significance.

This all came to mind when I read a piece by James Pethokoukis in a recent National Review. Pethokoukis was notionally reviewing Marc Levinson’s well-received book An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, but he also made frequent mention of another influential recent work, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016). To oversimplify the arguments, both Gordon and Levinson are pessimistic about the future of economic growth. “Fast growth in the past was generated by significant but unrepeatable innovations, such as electrification, sanitation, and the internal combustion engine.” Those things are not coming back, and we have to get used to the idea of the end of earlier growth: we are now back to “the ordinary economy.”

Um, but what about recent communications technology, such as the smartphone? Not a bit of it, say these authors. “Levinson seems implicitly to accept Gordon’s hand wave dismissal of recent innovations as narrow – confined to communications, information and entertainment. Would you rather have indoor plumbing or a smartphone?” (my emphasis). The recent technologies, say the authors, are on nothing like the same scale or significance as (say) the Model T Ford. Pethokoukis then provides proper balance by quoting other writers who place far more stress on the impact of recent technology.

But let me turn to that sentence again, and its critical “except” clause. Those recent innovations are “narrow – confined to communications, information and entertainment.” Can we stop there a moment? If you wanted to summarize human culture, then surely communications and information are two of the key building blocks, and maybe the only two that matter? And let’s not be snobbish about entertainment. I am imagining someone writing about the Reformation, and saying that sure, it stimulated literacy, book production and fundamentally changed the means of communication and information transmission, and in fact created the modern individual consciousness. These changes also laid the foundation for modern literature. But these effects were all “narrow – confined to communications, information and entertainment.” That would be silly, would it not?

I remember the classic scene in the Life of Brian where a revolutionary foolishly asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only to receive a lengthy catalogue of enormous boons and benefits.

So fundamental have they become to shaping popular consciousness that it is difficult to recall just how very new some of the leading electronic institutions are. Amazon, Google, Wikipedia and Netflix all date from between 1994 and 2001, making them quite senior members of the Internet world. Facebook, Youtube and Twitter all debuted between 2004 and 2006, and the process of creation and innovation has continued unchecked ever since. In 2014, Facebook reached a billion users worldwide. Some of these corporations have gone on to enjoy vast wealth and power in the corporate world. In terms of revenue, Apple in 2016 ranked as the world’s twelfth largest corporation by revenue, standing alongside such goliaths as Toyota and BP. In late 2016, a listing of the world’s largest corporations by market capitalization was headed by Apple, and followed by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. Other formidable global presences included Intel, Cisco and Oracle.

Now, this power has to be put into perspective, in that high-tech companies exist alongside corporations from other sectors, including oil and gas, finance and banking, health care and pharmaceuticals, and retail, and especially by such giants as Walmart. But in every case, those other sectors depend entirely for their everyday functioning on electronic systems of a sophistication that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Today, all major economic enterprises expect that their operations will soon be transformed once more by still newer technologies based on artificial intelligence.

Quite apart from any economic impact, the new electronic worlds really have marked shifts in behavior and consciousness that have matched or exceeded any other technological innovation in centuries. The coming of mobile devices of itself has radically changed people’s access to communications and information retrieval, and done it so thoroughly that it became impossible to imagine a world where matters had ever been different, or slower. Those devices would have been far beyond the dreams of tycoons (or even of governments) in the 1970s, and they give access to an inconceivably vaster range of forms of entertainment and sources of information.

Social media have utterly changed such basic behaviors as the means of dating and forming intimate relationships, and profoundly altered concepts of friendship and acquaintance. Twitter has created a whole new environment for discussing social issues and campaigning for causes, for building and destroying reputations. The Twitterverse constitutes a vast new public space. New social media have revolutionized the worlds of political campaigning and participation, and of advertising, while the shift to the electronic world has dealt a fatal blow to many print media outlets.

By removing the need for personal interaction, new media have subverted such once basic human concepts as participation and the sense of place, and the whole idea of ‘being present.’ These are fundamental parts of consciousness. The implications for religion – for participation and attendance, for communication and debate – are potentially vast.

So radical are such changes, and so numerous, that it is hard to believe they have occurred in such a brief time, basically just a quarter century. It is still more difficult to imagine how they might develop in coming years.

And this is “narrow”?



About Philip Jenkins