Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Society and Technology

I read an interesting blog post today by Dominic Basulto, "Are we building a techno dystopia?" in Washington Post's ideas@innovations. Basulto explores the phenomenon that as U.S. poverty rates continue to rise, most Americans, regardless of income status use advanced technologies.

Back in 2002, I was a writer for the technology section of Black Issues Book Review. In the section we focused on the use of the Internet in book publishing, which was a new frontier at the time.  For an article, I interviewed Alondra Nelson, then a graduate student in the American Studies Program at New York University, and co-editor of the anthology, "Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life." At the time, the Digital Divide was significant for many people of color who did not own PCs or have access to the Internet. The goal of "Technicolor" was to illustrate that although the Digital Divide existed, people of color still were innovative in other areas of technology.

Ten years later, the Digital Divide has narrowed. Basulto mentions in the blog this narrowing might be due to more affordable, accessible technology, like smartphones, yet the economic divide and the War on Poverty still exists.  He offered our society might be moving toward "techno dystopia," a term coined by science fiction writers in which he states, "...individuals find themselves marginalized and alienated from society at the same time that digital technology surrounds them."

Techo dystopia reminds me of the theory I studied as a Media Ecology student at NYU called “technological determinism,” which affirms technology steers the social structure and cultural values of society. In short, technology is inherently the dictator of human activity. Think Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the creation taking over the creator.

One can argue that we've allowed technology, namely the Internet, to dictate our retreat from print publishing, for example. As someone who has worked in both book and newspaper publishing, I've seen and experienced the drastic change first-hand. However, I don't peg technology as negative. I like my smartphone.

What we need to do with digital technology is use it for what the primary purpose of all technology should be -- to make life better. Not better in the sense someone can have over 300 "friends", but for something like offering free-online classes on social entrepreneurship that can be accessible through a hand-held device.

In my opinion, social media is not really a social experience, it's a tool for sharing information, product promotion or self-promotion, which is why social entrepreneurship makes sense. Though, the War on Poverty in America needs to be fought from every angle. We also need to do what the editors of "Technicolor" did and focus on innovative technologies, other than the Internet that can produce job growth.


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