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Posts Tagged ‘change’

The Pace, the Pace

An end-of-the-year crystal-ball statement by New York Times technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, stimulated me to muse some more about how Americans think about technological change. Manjoo wrote:

In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects. “The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. . . .

(source)

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As I discussed in an earlier post, such claims are perennial. More examples: About 60 years before Manjoo, on April 22, 1957, noted Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger warned:

The dizzy speed with which mechanical techniques are now developing leads many serious thinkers to wonder if they may not soon exceed human capacity to absorb them.

And about 25 years before that, a member of my own tribe, sociology founding father William F. Ogburn, told a panel–as reported in the Times on January 2, 1931–that:

An increasing number of inventions . . . will mean an increasing pace of change and less peace. It will become increasingly difficult for the growing person to adapt himself to an ever more complicated environment; and so in the future, . . . . the problem will be met, perhaps, by prolonging infancy to say, thirty or forty years of age or even longer.

(Parents of 20-somethings may want to comment on the prediction of prolonged infancy.)

The Genachowski-like claims that Americans today are buffeted by unprecedented social change driven by an unprecedented technological pace is, I have argued (here and here), wrong. We may yet face, but do not yet experience, the sort of machine-assisted disruptions that were common a century ago.

Still, all this is about the views of talking (or writing) heads. How have average Americans thought about the pace and dangers of technological change?

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The S-Curve of Cultural Change

Many observers have been struck by how quickly public opinion has shifted on homosexuality in the United States. A quarter-century ago, about 12 percent of Americans agreed that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” And only a decade ago, Americans opposed gay marriage by healthy 20-25 point margin. Now, most Americans support it.[1] Politically, what was once an easy winning issue for the GOP is increasingly becoming a drag on the party’s candidates.

Sigmoid (source)

Sigmoid (source)

The pattern of change on the wider question of homosexuality has also been striking. In the mid-1970s, about 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “always wrong.” In the 2010s only 46 percent did.[2] Note this, however: Americans’ views of homosexuality changed little for the first half of those years; indeed the percent who damned gay relations grew a bit. Then, in the 1990s, expressions of tolerance skyrocketed.

We see roughly a similar pattern of change in public opinion about other major issues: In most cases, a clear consensus holds for a long time. When opinions start to change, the change takes up increasing speed toward a much more even division. That is when the topic becomes socially and politically divisive. A majority forms around a new consensus and the pace of change slows again as the most committed supporters of the old view reluctantly come around; some never do. Researchers call this pattern the S-curve or, more properly, the sigmoid. Some readers will recognize this as the standard description for the diffusion of innovations. In this post, I discuss a few examples of the process and the implications it has for understanding social change. (This post draws from Century of Difference, Ch. 9, and here).

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One is always reading and being told about the pell-mell technological rush of our time and how that is upsetting our lives. One literary critic, for example, bemoans “the loneliness of our electronic caves . . .  We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.” Breathless news accounts worry about how each new technical marvel is altering Americans’ families, social lives, and personalities. Historically speaking, however, there’s really not that much going on.

LC-USZC4-4940

What sparked this post was re-hearing the introductory lyrics to an old song: “This day and age we’re living in / Gives cause for apprehension / With speed and new invention / And things like fourth dimension. / Yet we get a trifle weary / with Mr. Einstein’s theory . . . .” Some may recognize this as the lead-in to the classic “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld, published in 1931, and reprised in Casablanca a decade later.

A songwriter in 1931 might reasonably assume that his listeners felt some apprehension about and some weariness from technological change. Today not so much.

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Heavy Hand

History is not “history”; it is with us today. That is, the past constrains the present. This is obvious in one way: Conditions that developed long ago continue to shape our lives. We are ruled by old laws; we drive streets laid out in decades and centuries past; we operate technologies invented by earlier generations.

Lib. of Congress 1902

But history constrains us in a less obvious way, too: Even plans, customs, practices, and situations that long ago ended have enduring consequences far into the future.

This thought was stimulated by a recent report on the question, Why is life expectancy for older people — especially women — growing more slowly in the United States than it is in comparable countries? Why are the American elderly falling behind in the race to a long life?

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