I recently came across an American sociologist whose ideas parallel some of the ideas that have been discussed in this column. William Fielding Ogburn propounded the theory of cultural lag. Basically what he said is that in our time of rapid social change, some parts of our culture evolve faster than others, creating social adjustment problems. In particular, he talks about the tension between the materials and products that humans use and the human adaptation to these products. The assumption here seems to be that it would be better if humans could keep up with the changes, because then there would be less friction in the adjustment process. Ogburn would ideally like to minimize the influence of the cultural lag between the material culture and the adaptive culture and create more cultural harmony.
In my theory of sensory distortion which talks about the lag of human evolution in relation to technological change, I am much more skeptical of getting rid of the discomfort of humans in trying to adjust to modern technology. Of course, I am writing in 2015, and the article I read of Ogburn appeared in a collection of articles on social thinking called The Making of Society that was published in 1937. From the perspective of the super accelerated rate of technological change that occurs today, it can be more easily seen that humans are heading towards increasing robotization and losing many of their essential traits as human beings. But because humans can’t change as fast as machines and because the change to humans is occurring to basic aspects of human nature, the process will not be comfortable.
Nevertheless, it would be useful to apply some of the concepts that have appeared in this column to the notion of participating in a culture as distinct from living and interacting sensorily in a field of experience. I want to focus on the cultural distortion that takes place when different parts of a culture evolve at different rates as opposed to the sensory distortion that occurs when our nervous system is not adequate for absorbing the new qualities of stimuli that occur in our modern technological field of experience.
One tension that was very pronounced was the tension from the development of the automobile and its effect on family values in Western societies. With an automobile, a young couple could take a relatively frictionless trip (compared to a horse and buggy) from point a (the house of the girl) to point b (some private place in a park or in the country) and feel totally separated from the implicit moral attitudes of the family. A new private space in a separate realm was created by a vacuumized trip in the car, and in the private space, a couple could engage in sexual activity in the car itself or in the new private surroundings and nobody would know in the family, unless somehow they would later accidentally find out. But there was the pull of traditional values even for the couple, and the tension continues to exist for some more conservative segments of society today. The car and the birth control pill have contributed to separating the desire for sex from the desire for deep-bonded relationships. People focus on making imprints with sex today without necessarily preserving those imprints with committed deep-bonded relationships.
Another example relates to attitudes towards death. Modern technology as well as modern pharmaceutical products can keep people alive, even when they are permanently unconscious in a coma. To keep the body functioning when there is no consciousness is to turn the body into a kind of machine. But traditional moral attitudes say that one should always fight to keep a person going as long as he is alive. So modern technology has created gray areas where people are kept in a living death that comes not only from the understimulation of the ultimate numbness of long-term unconsciousness, but also from the overstimulation of unbearable pain.
Still another example relates to attitudes towards work. For most people in traditional societies, as long and as hard as they would sometimes work, there were usually defined hours for work. One would work during those hours and the rest of the time would be used for family bonding, recreation, and sleep. And most of the time one worked when the sun was out, and one stopped working when it went down. But nowadays, with electricity, there are night shifts, when some people continue to work when most of the rest of the people are sleeping. Furthermore, even when people have conventional jobs during the day, the smartphone and the computer break down the barrier that exists between work hours and non-work hours. Workers are expected to answer text messages wherever they are and even take their work home with them to work on through the use of their computers. The desire to be able to have time for bonding with family and friends is invaded by the obligation to be on call at all hours, to work at night, on weekends and during holidays. But this goes totally against the cultural need to dedicate time to maintaining the integrity of family and community.
We should not overlook the effect of technology on recreation. When people sit down together to watch a television program, they are juxtaposed next to each other, but there is no interaction conducive to strong bonding. Family television habits have weakened the values of family togetherness, as people live more and more in their direct encounters with technologically-created images. Many times, each member of the family is in a separate room with a separate television watching a separate program. And of course, nowadays, people can watch their programs on their computer and smartphone in an extremely accessible and private experience. People can do this not only in their rooms but out in a coffee house, in a restaurant, in a park or even while waiting for a bus. Television has taken people away from strong interactions with their family and friends, from strong bonding.
In effect, what all these examples show is how rapid technological change fragments the organic unity of a culture, destroys its grounding, and breaks up the fields of experience of its members into different disconnected free-floating figures of unrelated events. Organic traditional cultures, more strongly grounded in nature, are what have given unity and meaning to human life. Just as when nature gets destroyed by technology, when traditional culture gets broken by technology, it creates experiential distortion. People’s lives become filled with mechanical rhythms and mechanical patterns of life.
There has definitely been a cultural lag between the evolution of technological change and the evolution of human family and community structures within different cultures. Technology is changing so much faster than human society can evolve. But maybe it is just as well. If humans and their cultures evolved as fast as technological change, they would become robots living in mechanistic patterns of interaction. I hesitate to use the term culture for robots, because as smart and sophisticated as robots are becoming, they still are not able to make and receive organic flowing blendable continual organic stimuli, still are not able to make and receive organic imprints, still are not capable of an independent organic sense of self, still are not capable of initiating and creating the kind of deep-bonded relationships on which families, communities and many other human social groups are built.
I am increasingly beginning to feel that, under the circumstance in which people live in modern technological society, the sensory distortion that people experience, however uncomfortable or painful it may be, is at least a sign that the people are still human. And cultural lag is at least a sign that people are still clinging to their cultural roots and don’t fully want to become robots.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow