by Julius WiedemannFeb 01, 2022
Social development is always hard to measure. We look more frequently at the imperfections of the world, rather than appreciating our developments. It strikes me as no coincidence that the world has, since the 60s, changed socially as much as it has changed technologically. The younger generation born in the last 20 years has little idea how their parents and grandparents lived and what they went through to be able to enjoy the freedoms that they have today. My claim here is that the adoption of digital technologies changes values. The first one is the notion of freedom. The digital world presents a reality where the temptation for control and the complete lack of it, share an intense coexistence. It is always a question of negotiations and mediations, and in the end, it is increasingly rare that one side can impose something unilaterally on the other.
Not so long ago, there were laws in place that would be unthinkable today. And even in cases where they are still in place, they are dying out, with the efforts of millions of people that fight for more justice and more humanism every day. Up until 1967, Interracial marriage and sex, known as miscegenation, was outlawed in the United States, it was a law that existed since the country was established. Today, however, marriages are more diverse than ever—as stated in a 2015 Pew Research Centre analysis, nearly 17% of all USA newlywed couples had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. Yet until 1965, in the USA, both married couples and single women were prohibited from using birth control. It remained illegal in 26 states for unmarried women for quite some time. In the UK, under the act passed in 1959, it was considered a criminal offence to publish literature classified as ‘obscene’. The crown decided to prosecute Penguin and block the publication of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. The British publisher, Penguin Books, fought the prosecution to guarantee freedom of expression. Before 1969, women in the UK could only petition for divorce based on grounds of adultery, something that changed with the Divorce Reform Act. The history of racial and voting rights is the same. The list is endless, and in nearly every country, there were legislatios that either coerced or limited freedoms we consider to be basic today. Taking these freedoms for granted has become easier and easier.
With these developments speeding up, the new generation has refused and despised the use of labels. From sexuality to gender identity, there are no boundaries anymore, or any uniform way of acting or thinking. The acronym LGBTQIA+ almost feels irrelevant. It is needed more for the oldies, as an explanation. The ignorance of my generation demands such terms. It is certainly inclusive. In a progressive liberal democracy, common sense reigns. Condemnation is sometimes necessary for education. Exaggerations will happen, but we will be more educated when the wave has passed.
There are three ways we evolve. Genetically, socially, and technologically. While they all interact with each other, social and technological changes empower each other in a powerful feedback loop. Accelerating change is necessary for us to remain compatible with the technologies we use. Otherwise, we will be driven by people who understand technology, but sometimes do not have the maturity to harness its use. A good example of this is social media. We are still trying to grasp the effects of its excessive use, and the consequences it has on both private and work lives. Human behaviour and habits are what led to changes in the law; it is seldom the other way around. Before countries started to pass legislation concerning same-sex marriages, homosexual couples were living together for decades. Laws are often reparations that consolidate what we consider to be good practice when morals change.
Technology will set us free. And freedom is the only way forward. And from a humanist standpoint, we know the difference between freedom and aggression. Evil is often disguised. What we need is critical thinking, intellectual honesty, and trust in human conversation. If there is one thing that we cannot complain about, it is the number of channels we have available to communicate. Of course, this can confuse a lot of people as well. Whereas I use WhatsApp for most of my conversations, my kids use Discord.
According to Steven Pinker, the world is getting better. His books always take a positive note on the world’s development. Of course, we still see misery, crime, conflicts, arms trade, immigration crisis, and so many other things that make us feel powerless. But if you look hard at the numbers, we will see that we have been making a lot of progress in a very short period of time. This is not technological determinism. But we have seen now how the education landscape has been completely transformed. Many of the plans created for remote education had to be put in place overnight, simply because we didn’t have any other option. Before that, we were still conducting studies, and making reports. While some of these are necessary, we may have spent too much time in discussion, instead of trying things out, to see how we could change and democratize the availability of knowledge and information. If there’s one challenge that persists in my mind for the next generation, with so many resources available, it is the quest to find each one’s talent. This one might be the greatest challenge for human development.
I was asked by a friend about development one day. He claimed we haven’t developed so much as a community. I disagreed. The evidence is crystal clear to me. And my example was that for centuries, many civilizations buried children alive to inaugurate a building or to cure something, or even change the weather. These days, most of the time, we just open a bottle of champagne. What a change! But the acceleration of social change we have been going through certainly has a lot of digital technology infused in it. Just look around. You will be surprised.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.