The Edge of Chaos
Machines Who Think
Aaron's Code
Marconi Talk

Guglielmo Marconi International Symposium

 on Marconi's Legacy

October 8, 2004

Bologna, Italy


The Impact of Communications on Society,

Economics and Finance

Pamela McCorduck

Technological and cultural changes are reciprocal, co-evolving systems. One influences the other, and the other returns the favor. The outcome of all that begins the dance again.  You know what technology is, but what is culture?

A shorthand definition of culture is the collective stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. These stories exist on all levels, the personal, the group, and the national, and they contain both facts and symbols, where symbols offer a multi-layered series of spiritual meanings.  Films and TV are graphic images that reflect—they do not cause—these cultural beliefs.

How do cultures change? We don't have a complete answer to that, but we see that cultural change usually begins at the fringes and moves to the center. In the process of cultural change, a kind of collective amnesia must occur. This is significant because many psychologists believe that memory is the basis of preferences, of making choices. In other words, to make new choices, we must forget the old ones. When a culture is in transition, some people continue to make choices based on the old premises that are not yet forgotten, while others are already making choices based on the new premises. These stories, old and new, can be so contrary that they can lead to serious conflict both within and between cultures.

Like other technologies, telecommunications enters into cultural change reciprocally—it changes and is changed by human stories.  Let me illustrate briefly with four topics:

  • organizations
  • personal networks
  • generations, and 
  • personal identities. 

Organizations. Two kinds of organizations, by no means the only kinds, are networks and hierarchies. A recent confrontation took place in New York City between ad hoc mob called Critical Mass, and the New York City Police. Critical Mass consists of an otherwise unaffiliated group of people who answer a summons on a wireless phone, and within minutes, gather and bike together to make the point that American cities need more bicycle access. Though Critical Mass has been biking in groups this way monthly for nearly ten years, the clash got nasty during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. The City argued that Critical Mass must apply for a permit to bike in groups; Critical Mass argues that they aren't a group in any formal sense of the word, so there's nobody with the authority to apply for a permit: they're just a bunch of people.1 This confrontation illustrates the strength of ad hoc networks vis vis the rigidity of hierarchical structures. Critical Mass's supple, distributed structure is very similar to networks of terrorists, and it's crucial to understand how they work.

But other kinds of arrangements also exist, a set of people who, for a moment, share the same story to explain their lives. Anyone running an organization or a firm should pay close attention to games on the Internet, because they tend to be four to six years ahead of other expressions of human organization. People are organizing and acting in virtual space, trying out novel arrangements, discarding them or improving them, acting as a laboratory for organizational principles.

Personal networks. Every business executive knows that personal networks are the major influence on an individual's decision to do something or buy something. This is because they operate on trust. New telecommunications offers us a different kind of personal network. They're still personal, or even personal-seeming, and deeply influential. But unlike the old personal networks, they're widely spread over time and distance.

For example, on-line conferences. I've been a member of at least one on-line conference, The WELL, for fifteen years. Some of the closest, most intimate friendships I have are with women thousands of miles away from me, where our main connection is electronic. The old story said our loyalties were to nearby family and friends, that we based our choices on the influence of those around us. The new story says, not necessarily. Telecommunications significantly amplifies the very small informal personal networks that were once our main source of endorsement for beliefs and preferences by
allowing continuous interaction over time and space, an effect that will grow stronger and more widespread as the planet becomes more and more wired, bandwidth increases, and artificial intelligence allows even more flexibility.

A significant network that
seems personal, although it's not, is a web log. Two years ago, no one would have guessed that a blogger working on her laptop out of her bedroom could get anybody's attention. In fact, few do. But the exceptions have become very important indeed. It's hard to think of precedents for this kind of social leverage exerted by one unaffiliated writer. Successful bloggers have tens of thousands of readers, and have taken on a new role of social critic. By commanding the attention of other cultural storytellers—mainstream journalists, politicians, and business executives—they reshape the stories we tell ourselves. I consider bloggers a part of a personal-seeming network because they're usually independent of any particular organization, and their on-line voices are almost always the voices of a confidential friend. Increasing bandwidth that allows video and avatars will make that illusion of intimacy all the stronger.

What authenticates bloggers? How do we learn to trust them? Or the claims of manufacturers who want to sell us products, or the claims of politicians who want our vote?  It's taken about a decade since the World Wide Web went public in a significant way for websites to spring up whose task is exactly that--to authenticate or dispute such claims, sometimes within hours. But spring up they have, the inevitable reaction to the tsunamis of Internet information. Whether they endorse the common collective story or tell a counter-story, they play a crucial role. They must first earn their own trust, for they exhibit a kind of distributed accountability, where reputation is everything. Could this lead to a world where transparency is paramount, learning is honored, continuous, and deep?

Generations. By 2015, the norm for most families in developed countries will be four generations, not three. Great-grandparents will take on some of the roles with children that grandparents used to take, because grandparents in their 60s and 70s will be still actively engaged in their professions. But this also means that the flow of knowledge, the transmission of explanatory stories, which has traditionally moved from elders to youth, will now be different: youth will teach elders too, and the stories elders grew up with will be more distant from youth than ever before. Who will have more to teach, and which collective stories each generation seizes, remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether this will lead to more—or less—generational conflict.

One cultural observer, Joel Garreau, suggests that the 1990s were a time of social quiescence, very similar to the 1950s, and therefore we might be facing a time of great social upheaval in this new decade.  The 1960s (which really began around 1965) was a time of great strife, particularly between the generations. In the eyes of the younger generation, elders had lost their authority, and many institutions, particularly in government, lost nearly all credibility.

The stories that most young people told themselves then were how fossilized the old ways were, compared with the egalitarianism, the adaptability, the realism of the new ways. This point of view even became known as "youth culture". Older people, on the contrary, talked about a destructive, ungrateful younger generation, that didn't appreciate the sacrifices made in World War II by the people they now held in contempt, a younger generation that wasn't willing to earn the old-fashioned way what it demanded. Many feared that Western societies might collapse into anarchy.

Perhaps you can imagine what the next generational conflict might be. I think conflict will be particularly acute in immigrant communities, where young people, especially women, will not be willing to defer to the expectations of their traditional societies. For all the young, a possible new story is the thoughtlessness of the older generation, a collective prodigal uncle who has squandered the family fortune, ruined the family home, allowed in unwanted guests who won't leave, run up impossible national debts, and closed his eyes to global climate change, all problems that his descendants must face.

But the future belongs to the young, and it's they, perpetually on-line and taking for granted fast access to large amounts information, who will change practices, upend business models, and finally end stifling intellectual property laws.  It is they who will disrupt and profoundly reform their own traditional cultures.

Personal Identities.  New telecommunications on the horizon are about communication and coordination, and will force us to slip continuously between major identities—employer, parent, citizen—at all waking moments, since we'll be always on call, with nearly no technological limits to our availability. Our choices of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are will increase even more dramatically than in the recent past. It might be wonderful; a much richer set of identities, but it could possibly lead to what Erich Fromm once called "the paralysis of choice." Fromm intended that phrase to explain why Europeans in the 1930s were embracing different kinds of fascism. Whatever the problems fascism raised, it offered relief from the stress of having to choose: you make one choice to join the group, and all other choices are made for you, including, most significantly, the stories you tell to make sense of your life, in short, your identity, your culture. This is one explanation for the current upsurge of religious fundamentalism.

Individuals who surrender themselves to a ready-made culture prefer hierarchy to networks. But such surrender also invites scrutiny by a new kind of software, such as Worklenz, whose stated purpose is to allow managers to manage large projects and maximize efficiency. Worklenz does this by tracking workers—what they do, when they do it, and how long it takes, every single moment. To some, this is repugnant, telecommunications as controller, as Big Brother, but it saves people beset with too many choices from actually having to take the responsibility of making decisions; it offers a ready-made story without the effort of making anything up.

To summarize, telecommunications is shaping, and being shaped by, culture at organizational, group, generational and individual levels. But future culture is not foreordained to be either benign and liberating, or malign and intrusive. We must choose.

 1 On October 29, 2004, a Federal judge in New York City denied a request by the city to block Critical Mass from a month-end mass ride. He also granted a request by bicyclists to prohibit the police from seizing bicycles as long as the owners have not been charged with anything, and unattended bikes do not block vehicles or pedestrians. During the August ride, which just preceded the Republican National Convention, some 250 riders were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct (charges which were later dropped). During the September ride, police cut the locks of 30 to 40 bikes chained to lamp posts and parking meters and confiscated them. However, in his conclusion, the judge urged both bicyclists and police to agree on routes during future rides. [return to talk]

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Modified: July 03, 2012