The relationship between technological and social change

I'm still reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. In describing how the internet has disrupted the world of journalism and publishing, Shirky uses the example of the invention of movable type in the 15th century, and the impact that this had on scribes. The point he is trying to get across is the relationship between technological change and social change.

When researching the ICT Foresight reports I often found myself in discussions with our expert panel about technological determinism – in other words, the idea that technology is the primary force that controls how individuals and society change. Basically, some would argue that technology is changing behaviour and others would counter that technology only enhances existing behaviours and does not drive change in itself.

What Shirky argues, rather well in my opinion, is that both 'sides' of the argument are right, and they are both wrong:

Two things are true about the remaking of the European intellectual landscape during the Protestant Reformation: first, it was not caused by the invention of movable type, and second, it was possible only after the invention of movable type, which aided the rapid dissemination of Martin Luther's complaints about the Catholic Church (the 95 Theses) and the spread of Bibles printed in local languages, among its other effects. Holding those two thoughts in your head at the same time is essential to understanding any social change driven by a new technological capability. Because social effects lag behind technological ones by decades, real revolutions don't involve an orderly transition from point A to point B. Rather they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.

The last part of the above quote is interesting. The internet is still relatively young and all around us we can see old systems getting broken, but what will the new ones look like?

Another question to ask ourselves is whether we recognise which current systems are breaking. When you're inside a system it can often be hard to recognise the drivers that threaten the system's accepted ways of working, or even survival, what some would describe as disruptive drivers (for our sector, for example, organising without organisations, or the changing distribution and consumption of intellectual property). We all think about a world with our organisations at the centre, but how does that influence (or block) our understanding of how the world is changing?

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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