Adoption at a Rate Never Seen Before
The rate of adoption of consumer technologies since the beginning of the previous century has been rapidly increasing, so much so that today’s technology spreads at a rate never seen before. The following are U.S. stats but they also describe similar trends in other Western countries and, to a large extent, a clear global trend. Electricity reached 90% penetration of U.S. households within 50 years, the refrigerator accomplished the same in 30 years, cell phones, in about 20 years. [Source: New York Times] Additionally, even though it would have been desirable in the past by most, as it is today, to own such new innovative machines or devices (e.g. cars or phones), they were still only affordable to businesses and the wealthiest of society, which played a role in constraining their proliferation, granting society time to question, study and adapt to the tools which were about to become a part of their lives.
Chart via The New York Times
Today, in a new paradigm where the Internet is ubiquitous, adoption time can be measured in days or even hours. In the case of products deployed online, a new technology can be used by millions of people, with minimal or absolutely no understanding of its effect on the users. Our modern societies have occasionally praised the speed at which technology is moving and how, thankfully, we don’t have to wait long before reaping the marvellous benefits of latest breakthroughs. However technology is now advancing so quickly that society’s foundations in fields like ethics, legislation and privacy are struggling to evolve to reflect the changes, and in many ways failing to keep up.
Art by Kosmur (via Deviantart.)
The American futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in 1970 in his aptly titled book Future Shock that we will struggle “to cope at a progressively faster rate with situations that are, for us, decidedly unfamiliar, ‘first-time’ situations, strange, irregular, [and] unpredictable .” He warned that we are “doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown ,” describing the phenomenon as a “future shock” similar to a “culture shock” experienced by travellers but he explains that “most travellers have the comforting knowledge that the culture they left behind will be there to return to. The victim of future shock does not .” If I were to meet Mr. Toffler, I’d tell him that his “future shock” prediction was absolutely correct. It’s evident that our experience through cyberspace is marked by, what I personally prefer to call, cyberculture shock.
Our inability to foresee problems where technology could, unjustly, be viewed as the culprit is, as they say, nothing new under the sun. In mid-September, 1830, on a day of celebration of progress and industrialization, William Huskisson, a name you probably never heard, became the first railway fatality. It was the opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first inter-city passenger railway. Huskisson, a British statesman and Member of Parliament, was there among others to witness the dawn of a new era, but the celebration ended in a horrific accident when he was run down by the train, his leg mangled on the tracks, and despite all efforts he died. That story is worth a mention because the railway is a great symbol of the industrial revolution and the rapid train is an appropriate representation of technological progress that doesn’t stop or avoid collision, crushing anything or anybody on its way forward. Over the past few decades, with improved safety procedures and at a cost too high (as was often the case, human life), railway accidents have been dwindling. But around two centuries after the time of that first accident, also at the dawn of the Information Technology era, the human approach to technology is not radically different. We still develop as fast as we can and deploy everywhere possible, deferring consideration of issues to sometime in the future. We live in an age where casualties of new technologies do not lie on railway tracks with mangled limbs but find themselves victims of ruined careers, stolen identities, sullied reputations and financial losses. Today, we’re increasingly encountering more casualties of technology than ever before, where the negative impact doesn’t usually result in physical pain but an emotional one. The cost cannot be easily quantified as many respond to the damage with confusion, anger or depression.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen per year costing the victims more than 50 billion dollars . The downfalls of congressmen Anthony Weiner and Mark Foley, highlighted examples of ruined careers who flirtatiously shared with others explicit photos of themselves . NFL player Kareem Jackson and basketball player Larry Johnson struggled with social media scandals, and deservedly so. The first tweeted a picture of himself at a “to-the-death” cockfight, and the latter used gay slurs in a heated Twitter argument . Foolish mistakes that could have gone unnoticed in the past are today’s notorious blunders. Many online users are unaware of the ramifications of what’s left behind in their digital trails. The impact of that problem goes beyond adventurous politicians and half-witted athletes, but the everyday users of the Internet.
What’s needed here is an acknowledgement that there’s a fundamental problem with our approach to technology. Unless a different attitude is taken, the epidemic of insufficient understanding of technology will spread further and will exacerbate as new technologies invade your office, car, living room, kitchen and even your bathroom. The kind of knowledge we lack doesn’t require us to pursue a PhD in Computer Engineering. Not everyone will be tech-savvy but the public should be better educated, armed with some common sense tips, such as how to protect themselves on the web. Companies could be more transparent; interfaces could be simpler, minimalist and more user-friendly. When manuals and instructions are written, they should be addressing the everyday user, not only the engineers and nerds.
So Much Technology, So Fast and We’re Too Slow
Writer and creator of the legendary Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand pondered the problem in an article for Time magazine in 2000 under the title: Is Technology Moving Too Fast? “The newest technologies–computers, genetic engineering and the emerging field of nanotech–differ from the technologies that preceded them in a fundamental way. The telephone, the automobile, television and jet air travel accelerated for a while, transforming society along the way, but then settled into a manageable rate of change .” On the other hand, “[c]omputers, biotechnology and nanotech don’t work that way. They are self-accelerating; that is, the products of their own processes enable them to develop ever more rapidly.” He states that “it isn’t so easy for a free society to put the brakes on technology” and to suppress the “constant technological revolution .” His brilliant article disappointed me when he argued that “[p]erhaps what civilization needs is a NOT-SO-FAST button .”
We shouldn’t consider slowing down human progress as a solution. It’s irresponsible, impractical and delusional to think that we could or should hinder our global civilization from marching forward. We cannot turn back the clock to an idealized past simply because we’re failing. Technology is accelerating and will continue to do so, and our future will be shaped by how we cope. Could these be the ingredients that created our inconspicuous but perplexing problem: more innovation, faster adoption and less understanding? You might have heard before that it’s a matter of “too much technology, too fast.” From my perspective, it’s so much technology, so fast and we’re too slow.
A New Approach for a Fundamental Problem
I don’t claim to have a solution for this problem and I don’t believe it has to be a government initiative or more regulations. It has to be rooted in the community. Part of the solution could be new initiatives undertaken by educators, journalists, writers, scientists and sociologists. Those professionals would have to only raise the questions and possible issues in a timely fashion. Universities, places of worship, non-governmental organizations and the media can all contribute to bringing forth questions and possible answers. The media is now preoccupied with the task of bringing us the news on the latest tech fads in order to make it easier for us to chase them, and only a fraction of their time explains the impact. The media can play a better role by combining tech news with analyses of potential effects on society. Amidst the digital revolution, hundreds of careers that never existed before have emerged. Perhaps a new career could be established to help society deal with the influx of new technologies.
Art by Exhibitor Online
 Alvin Toffler, “Future Shock” (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 217.
 Ibid., p. 11
 Ibid., p. 2
 Association of American Medical Colleges. “Protect Against Identity Theft.” (Sep. 9, 2012.)https://www.aamc.org/services/first/first_factsheets/112138/protect_against_identity_theft.html
 Crime Stoppers of Gilpin/Clear Creek Counties. “Crime Stoppers of Gilpin & Clear Creek Counties to hold the second annual Shred-a-Thon.” Aug. 10, 2012 (Sep. 9, 2012.) http://www.gccc-crimestoppers.com/shred2012.htm
 Junkins, Laurie. “5 Public Figures Caught in Online & Social Media Scandals.” Naked Law by Avvo. Aug. 24, 2012. (Sep. 9, 2012.) http://nakedlaw.avvo.com/politics/5-public-figures-who-ruined-their-careers-via-social-media-scandal/
 Carlson, Dusten. “Worst Social Media Blunders Of All Time.” Social News Daily. (Sep. 9, 2012.) http://socialnewsdaily.com/2574/worst-social-media-blunders-of-all-time-infographic/
 Brand, Stewart. “Is Technology Moving Too Fast?” Time. Jun. 19, 2000. (Sep. 9, 2012.) http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,997268,00.html
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