June 4th, 2010
To anticipate the social impact of future IT, it would help to be an expert sociologist with a perfect crystal ball. I don’t have such expertise, so I’ll restrict my comments to specific areas where I think I have some vague idea of what I’m talking about … and aside from that, I’ll simply recommend that you keep an eye on this general area, because I think it’s likely to be far more important than the technical aspects of future IT.
For example, we know that “social media” — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and several other examples — are becoming ever more popular, and also ever more important as an “influence” in society. As of January 2010, for example, Twitter had 75 million users (see “Twitter now has 75M users; most asleep at the mouse“, in the Jan 26, 2010 issue of Computerworld); and while Computerworld felt it was important to emphasize that “a lot of current Twitterers are inactive,” it’s also true that those who do Twitter have a disproportionate influence. It’s not just Oprah and Ashton Kutcher, with their multi-million Twitter armies, but the fact that that protesters and dissidents and ordinary citizens are using Twitter to communicate news more quickly and more effectively than the traditional media.
Cynics might well argue that 75 million is actually a very small fraction — just over 1% — of the global population. But Facebook has a user base that is estimated to be approaching 500 million. True, that’s still less than 10% of the global population; but as of April 2009, it was the fifth largest “country” in the world with a mere 200 million users (see “200 Million Strong,” in an April 8, 2009 posting on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s blog)… which means that, by now, it’s the third largest country in the world, with only China and India ahead of it.
Of course, Facebook (and MySpace, and the various others like it) is only a “virtual” country; it doesn’t have an army, it doesn’t have a Parliament, and it doesn’t have a seat at the United Nations. But maybe it should … and maybe it will. Probably not in the next 5-10 years, but it does suggest that we should start paing more attention to the blurring of “real life” and “virtual life.” Thus far, most of our attention has focused on the “virtual life” of individuals (see, for example, the excellent book, Life on the Screen, by Sherry Turkle), or relatively small “virtual communities” of individuals, in places like SecondLife.
We’ll know that things have changed irrevocably when Facebook (or MySpace or Twitter, or whatever) achieves some significant political accomplishment, such as getting a major politican elected or thrown out of office. Note that that’s completely different than the “top-down” efforts by politicians (e.g., Barack Obama) to use social media to help promote their own campaigns.
The social/political impact of future IT will, of course, become all the more important as computing becomes more ubiquitous. You’ll recall that I discussed this in part 5 of this thread of blogs (you’ve memorized all this stuff, right?), and suggested that in another 5-10 years, we might well find that a majority of the human race will have non-trivial computing devices, even if it takes the form of a mobile phone. So, if Facebook (and/or its cousins) grows from 500 million users to 5 billion users, there are bound to be some significant social/cultural consequences — the details of which I’m incapable of predicting with any specificity.
One thing is fairly obvious, though: if we’ve got 5 billion people using computers, the majority of them will be located in what we casually refer to as “third world” countries … or, more politely, “developing countries.” That means the applications that dominate the worldwide computing environment probably won’t be the ones that currently dominate the marketplace in advanced/developed countries. They might be “simple” applications that we have relegated to a back corner, like e-mail or texting; or they might be games that we’ve never seen before. Or they might be something else entirely … in any case, what creates this dominance will be culture, not technology.
One last observation, which I’ll just summarize — even though it probably deserves several blog postings on its own: the relationship between government and members of society will change, and the boundary between government and citizens will blur. I can make some educated guesses about the general nature of this change, but the details of how and when … I simply don’t know.
As for the “relationship”: recall that in part 12 of this thread, we discussed the phenomenon of resistance to change. Specifically, to the extent that new technology threatens to disrupt established political (power) structures, and/or social and religious cultures, it will almost certainly threaten to disrupt established laws, regulations, and other forms of codified behavior.
Of course, most societies have organized methods for changing their existing laws and regulations, but (a) it takes a long time, and (b) it tends to operate from the top down. Yeah, yeah, the people at the grass roots can elect new representatives, Presidents, and Prime Ministers; but unless you live in a society that operates with a “direct” town-hall-style consensus, the reality is that the day-to-day establishment of laws and codes and regulations comes from the folks at the top. And (a) they’re likely to be the same ones who were at the top five years ago, and (b) they’re likely to be 50 or 60 years old, if not older, and (c) they still haven’t figured out e-mail.
But all of that could change if you get a “Facebook army” that’s determined to make some changes. We got a minor taste of this when Twitter got used by the protesters in Iran after their controversial election last year … and I think that was just the beginning.
The other aspect of government is this: in the best of all worlds (without getting into the usual debates between liberals and conservatives), we expect government to do the things that we (individuals) cannot do for ourselves. I don’t expect a “Facebook army” to acquire guns or tanks or planes, and thus replace the government’s army and air force; and I don’t expect the “Facebook army” to start building the next generation of roads and bridges and tunnels.
But they might take on some of the responsibilities for repairing the roads and bridges and tunnels. Well, maybe even that is too much, since they’re unlikely to have the heavy equipment. But to the extent that any of this (even national defense) depends upon effective communication and collaboration — that much can be done by a Facebook army. What it means is that a lot of governmental organizations — bureaucratic committees and agencies and authorities — might find that their services were no longer needed.
Is this likely to happen in the next 5-10 years? Obviously, not completely … and maybe not at all. But it could happen little by little, without make a lot of noise, and thus without creating a lot of resistance. Want an example? Take a look at Clever Commute, and subscribe to the Clever Commute blog — I think it’s an exemplar of things to come.