The 4th Tech Age: A Commentary on the Comments

by Cato  10/9/14

21st Century social media … like Brad Nelson’s website, in which the like-minded can exchange ideas and comforts … has certainly changed things.  Is this change for the better or the worse?  If one contexts the comments to my post “The 4th Technological Age” in this frame of reference, one would have to think we all have been degraded by the serial advances in silicon, transistor, integrated processor, personal computer, and internet.

The under-30 generation is proof, unquestionably, with their mobile devices replacing eyeball to eyeball contact, that technological change brings with it cultural and social alterations.  To some, apparently from the comments to that posted essay, this is distressing.  But bear in mind as you rage against the machine, few of us on ST have ever met or are likely to, eyeball to eyeball.  There is community here, just not your father’s definition of community.  All that said, the comments miss the larger point of my pensée.

What makes advanced countries advanced … the reason the US is not the western hemisphere equivalent of Afghanistan … is simply the ability to sustain organizational integrity in the face of rapidly advancing social, political, commercial and technological complexity.  The inability to organize effectively is the hallmark of ‘third world’ countries.  In fact, the rejection of precisely that organizational base, which we refer to as modernity, is precisely what characterized Islamic terrorism.  Is it not?

For the last 400 years that interacting, advancing quartet of forces … social, political, commercial, technological … has created the first world as we have come to know it.  The merger of raw science and useful technology has become for better or worse in the last decade the centerpiece of that advancement.

Kessler’s three historic waves … mainframe, PC and internet … have over the last 60 years increased the complexity of our social and commercial environments dramatically.  And disruptively, no question.  The 4th wave will be even moreso, as it seems destined to carry with it not just disruption in the way we individually communicate and transact, but disruption to the very form and function of governmental and commercial enterprises.  How many revolts and uprisings have been empowered by smart phones just in the last four years?  How many industries have been rendered obsolete?

The list of large, world-class firms being carved up, as mentioned in the original post, alongside the list of nations facing break up from internal independence movements is growing daily.  These two developments are not unrelated and are being driven by the much deeper forces Kessler points to.  One of those disruptive forces is the advancing empowerment of individuals inherent in the continuing evolution of communicative and commercial technology.

To my mind this has been and will continue to be positive disruption, very much in the “creative destruction” thesis of Schumpeter.  Were the drive, organization and innovation that is creating these serial earthquakes to end we’d all be the poorer for it.


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6 Responses to The 4th Tech Age: A Commentary on the Comments

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    To some, apparently from the comments to that posted essay, this is distressing.  But bear in mind as you rage against the machine, few of us on ST have ever met or are likely to, eyeball to eyeball. 

    It’s interesting that the romantic culture the Left envisions is one in which everyone can sit around the Bohemian cafe and write and recite poetry. We are to be a society of creative endeavors where the drudgery of work is done magically by someone else — a “someone else” who remains unnamed just like in the various Star Trek series. (Proving once again, everything I need to know about life, I learned — positively or negatively — in Star Trek, including how to lust after women (Yoeman Rand).)

    In this lovely modern vision, we are to be a Rousseau-ian free man who spends his time on more enlightened things such as scientific pursuits. And much of this is helped along by technology will supposedly do all the hard jobs, all the “menial” work that is ultimately beneath human dignity to do.

    There’s much to like about the Star Trek/Nancy Pelosi paradigm. That ol’ fuddy-duddy, Paul, in the New Testament says “If a man would not work, he should not eat.” Man, what a spoil sport.

    In the real world outside of our fancy ideals and romantic visions, someone has to still clean the latrines. Perhaps much of this work will be done by robots in the future. But then someone still has to design and maintain the robots. But it should also be noted that there is, or can be, a positive effect to manual work itself. We can potentially become vegetables if we do little more than navel-gazing.

    Regarding technology (or anything under the sun), there are usually good attributes and bad attributes. Notice in my critique that I said there are downsides to technology. But I also mentioned the upsides. (I like my electronic book reader, for example.) This is just common sense. To comment on the hordes of yutes looking dumbly into their laps as they shut out reality while texting sweet nothings to each other in cyberspace is to simply observe that masturbation, in any form, is potentially destructive. Let’s not outlaw the devices, but as grownups, let us instruct our children, and each other, in the wise use of such things.

    This is not a “rage against the machine,” which is an absurd way to characterizing it.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The liberal concept (to the extent that they actually have one) is that of an economy of abundance. A good example of how this might work can be found in Mack Reynolds’s Looking Backward from the Year 2000 (which was explicitly a homage to Bellamy, of course). Reynolds was a socialist, and his book was one of those I was thinking of when I proposed a panel this year at IncConJunction on the future that didn’t happen. The failures of prediction were spectacular in his case (not only there, but in another book he wrote called Tomorrow Might Be Different).

      I do wonder, though, if the comments were really hostile toward the newest technology. I don’t inherent reject it; I’m concerned only with the danger of people assuming everyone else must have it. The danger of becoming an “electronic addict” is also increasing.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that the various bloggers believe “we have all been degraded” by the technological advances in material science. Discussing and exploring the various negative and positive ramifications of any new technology are very sane activities. The automobile, which brought about the greatest economic and social changes in history, was, on balance, a boon to mankind. But that doesn’t mean there were no negatives associated with the auto which needed to be addressed.

    “the reason the US is not the western hemisphere equivalent of Afghanistan…is simply the ability to sustain organizational integrity in the face of rapidly advancing social, political, commercial and technological complexity.”

    This statement would make sense if you had written, “one of the reasons the US is not….” As it now stands it is simply false. There are many reasons the US is not the equivalent of Afghanistan. No doubt many volumes could be written about the subject, but I will leave that to others.

    “the inability to organize effectively is the hallmark of “third world” countries.”

    Again, had you written “the inability to organize effectively is one of the hallmarks….” your statement would have been reasonable. As it stands, it is overly simplistic. Much more than organizational integrity goes into making a nation. And different societies organize themselves based on different beliefs. While technology has helped some nations become economically more efficient, the basis of that efficiency is an agreed upon ethic of cooperation. I believe it is this cooperation which is key, not merely organization. Organization in and of itself only makes for efficiency in achieving whatever goals individuals and society may wish to accomplish. The important thing is what a society chooses to be efficient at. Is it efficient at producing iPhones or sending people to the gas chamber? To be clear, “Organization” is a value-neutral concept. It matters under what values and beliefs a nation is organizing.

    “In fact, the rejection of precisely that organizational base, which we refer to as modernity, is precisely what characterized Islamic terrorism. Is it not?”

    To paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, that is “nonsense on stilts.” To begin with, the promiscuous use of violence is perhaps the single thing which most characterizes Islamic terrorism. Furthermore, to say that they reject “that organizational base” is questionable. Many so-called “Islamic Terrorists” are quite organized and live in organized countries. The criminals who flew into the World Trade Center had lived in Europe and the USA. In fact, Islamists are all for an organized state. They simply want it organized around other beliefs than those most of us hold dear.

    One of the prime conceits of “modernity”, nicely articulated by Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind”, is this idea that the highest ethic is to be “open” to all things….which has actually had the result of closing our minds to the better things. And “better” is a much more complex, nuanced, and rich value judgment than just “organizational base” — a concept that couldn’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and the U.S. Constitution.

    “alongside the list of nations facing break up from internal independence movements is growing daily.”

    Are you saying the smart phone is behind the recent Scottish referendum???

    Your piece has some interesting points, but it highlights the problem inherent in the present trend – which has no doubt gained momentum due to the widespread practice of using a maximum of 140 characters to communicate – of distilling complex thoughts into bumper sticker slogans.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Good thoughts, Mr. Kung. I like this one in particular:

      But that doesn’t mean there were no negatives associated with the auto which needed to be addressed.

      That one article I posted the other day noted that the invention of the cotton gin was at least partially responsible for the furtherance of slavery. And I can’t help wondering what the long-term effect will be as machines take over more and more of the mindshare of us humans. Don’t most acknowledge (I certainly do) how spell-checkers have tended to make us bad spellers, or how the electronic calculator has denuded not just our ability to do simply arithmetic, but the understanding of the underlying principles?

      Luddites in Old England rioted because they saw the new technology of the labor-saving device of the textile mill as a threat to employment itself. Even our idiotic and mal-educated Obama seems to be of this type of mindset when he mentioned how ATMs lead to unemployment. Although this man has a definite problem telling the truth in any case, it’s quite possible he believes this.

      The way it has actually worked out is that the productivity advances of machines have increased everyone’s standard of living and increased the number of job opportunities on the whole. Yes, short term, it might mean a loss of employment for hand weavers. But there will be rises in other areas, such as the making of these machines and all the jobs created from the abundance of cheap textiles.

      But “standard of living” is not the only dimension to what makes for a good culture. There are other aspects. I love hi-tech, but it cannot ever be the central organizing aspect of a good and free society.

      I think there are dangers to human beings becoming what is often called “homo economicus,” that creature who is nothing more than a materialist, or what we call a “consumer.” And as much as we’d like to think that something such as personal computers will stroke our inner Thoreau’s (as it has mine) — which was Apple Computer’s (or at least Macintosh’s) raison d’etre — it is just as likely to turn us into a bunch of passive vegetables, a la Guitar Hero or the mindless text messaging we see.

      In the case of text messaging, never have we probably seen so much high technology put to such squalid uses. If everyone was texting each other about the nuances of Shakespeare’s Richard III, I wouldn’t be bitching about any of this. But what these iPhones and other devices have actually contributed to is the dumbing-down and cultural impoverishment of people.

      Technology, high or otherwise, does not automatically lead to a good society, “organized” or otherwise. I think there is an engrained “secular” orientation that has caused many people, perhaps Cato as well, to overlook the values, morals, and principles that are of far more importance to the Good Society than mere technology.

      Technology certainly has the power to raise our material standard of living. But in many instances across the West, one could say that people are morally and spiritual impoverished even while drowning in cheap and ready high technology and conveniences. But it’s unlikely this aspect will compute inside the completely materialist mindset.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Technology is morally neutral. Atomic energy can produce plenty of electric power, or it can wipe out whole cities. (And wiping out Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally pushed Hirohito to force Japan to surrender; without that, millions of Japanese would have died by various other means, including starvation.)

        As for Richard III, it has one of my favorite vicious lines from Shakespeare. After one of the murders hesitates to kill George of Clarence because of the thought of facing eternity himself someday, the other gets him back in gear by reminding him of the reward. “Where is your conscience now?” “In the Duke of Gloucester’s purse.” It’s right up there with Regan’s comment in King Lear after the blinding of Gloucester: “Turn him loose, and let him smell his way to Dover.”

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yeah, those are good lines. Maybe I’ll break out some Shakespeare in the near future. I’d say that I’d “put on a movie” but the lines go by so fast, I can’t keep up with them.

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