Technology and social change

Reflection Paper #3

SOC 101, Glenn Booker, 11/28/12

List at least four technologies that did not exist when your parents were your age.  What social changes have these technologies generated?

My parents are 23 and 25 years my senior, so I’ll focus on technologies that have become commonly available within the last 20 years or so.  In particular I’ll examine the Internet, cell phones, digital music, and GPS technology and their impact on society.

The Internet became accessible to the general public with the invention of the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) in 1993.  Computers started in the 1940’s as really big calculators to determine bomb trajectories and later do basic accounting and other routine math chores.  They became a part of business environments in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and started merging into homes in the late 1980’s.  They have revolutionized our ability to get information quickly and easily from anywhere in the industrialized world because of the connectivity of the Internet.  Until the Internet, computers were largely very insular environments, with all of the technology for each customer coming from a single proprietary vendor (e.g. HP, IBM, Sun, etc.).  The Internet changed that by giving all computer makers a common, free language they could all speak, namely the group of protocols collectively called TCP/IP.  The Internet became for computers what Esperanto[1] was supposed to become for people – a universal language.  Esperanto largely failed because there is no culture associated with it; there is no food or music or geography or myths or tragic heroes associated with it, so it’s not very interesting to study.  In contrast, computers don’t care about social issues like that, so it’s fine that TCP/IP is completely neutral.  As a result we can now get information about any subject, or correspond in a second with anyone on Earth (or nearby) from any place with an Internet connection.  The Internet makes the world a much smaller place, because it doesn’t take days or weeks to mail a letter, or travel to visit someone.  The side effect of this is that it means interpersonal reactions occur much more quickly, and bad situations can escalate far faster than before.

Cell phones have also revolutionized our society.  I went shopping for cars in the early 90’s, and recall that BMW’s featured car phones as standard equipment, a very big deal for that time.  It took a few more years for phone technology to shrink them to pocket size, so by the late 90’s cell phones were becoming everyday devices.  I recall being with my then wife and stepson, and we were separated from my stepdaughter while shopping.  I asked my stepson to go get his sister, I think we were all about to go to a movie together, and he looked at me like I had six heads.  Instead, he pulled the cell phone out of his pocket and called her.  It never occurred to me that he didn’t have to physically go get her, because the cell technology was still so new.  Since cell phones have become commonplace, they’ve become a whole new social problem with kids living on them 24×7, texting in school, and needing seemingly constant contact with their friends[2].

Digital music has also had a strong impact on our society.  In the ancient days we had LP records and 45’s, which needed bulky record players in a very stable location to enjoy.  I last bought vinyl in about 1988, if memory serves.  I got a cassette deck just out of high school, when you could still buy an 8-track player if you wanted.  The big revolution was the music CD, starting for me in the late 80’s.  That was our first peek at digital music, and while novel, purists insisted (and still do) that analog recordings have warmth that digital recordings can’t match.  The resolution of digital recording has increased, but more significantly for society the players have shrunk to almost matchbox size.  Tiny memory cards can hold the equivalent of a dozen or more CD’s, making it possible for music to go anywhere (e.g. iPods and MP3 players).  Joggers and other bored athletes love this development, so they can be completely distracted while running around town.  As a result of digital music you can enjoy thousands of songs anywhere you go, instead of being locked down to a sensitive and sizable device.

Finally, the Global Positioning System[3] (GPS) has made a huge impact on society in the last two decades.  Developed so the military could aim nuclear missiles more accurately, GPS uses a bunch of low altitude satellites to measure your position anywhere on Earth with as much accuracy as the military wants you to have.  In times of warfare, they can deliberately make GPS less accurate if they wish, so our enemies don’t use it against us.  Initial uses of GPS beyond the military included aviation and shipping navigation.  Once GPS receivers became relatively small and cheap (under $1000) they started getting consumer interest for cars, hiking, boating, and many other uses.  Now integrated into cell phones and other pocket-sized devices, GPS makes it possible to make wrong turns into a lake[4] and blame it on the GPS.  As a result of this technology, people are becoming more dependent on technology and less able to read a map, tell which way North is, or apparently use common sense while driving.

In summary, the Internet has made our society and the world seem much smaller by allowing us to find information anywhere in the industrialized world almost instantly, cell phones have made it possible to communicate almost anywhere you go, digital music has made it possible to enjoy music anywhere, and GPS has allowed us to know where we are even in the middle of nowhere.  Technology has therefore made our society much more closely knit by allowing information retrieval and communication anywhere and anytime, has made entertainment completely portable, and allowed us to know where we are and help us navigate our new smaller world.  The price we pay is perhaps too much volatility and dependence on each other and the technology itself, and less ability to stand and function on our own.

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