The past decade and a half has ushered in an era of exponential strides forward in technology. Just twelve years separates the release of the first-generation iPod mP3 player and the release of the revolutionary iPad tablet. The new heights reached through massive tech companies and subsequent economies of scale have allowed all societal classes, from the rich to the poor, to afford access to cutting edge technology. But are our ideological and societal standards keeping up with our technological ones?
What about the Potential Benefits of Innovations Like Mobile Medicine and Online Education?
In all fairness, mobile telemedicine apps and online education materials and courses are great examples of ways that technological innovation could facilitate an increase in overall social benefit. However, the underlying obstacles embedded in our social and institutional culture make deploying these tools more difficult. For example, if you lack an adequate healthcare plan or you do not have access to a quality k-12 education (and your parents are uneducated), then the advantage presented by access to mobile healthcare apps and online education might diminish.
As a society, we are quite distracted by the characteristically rollercoaster ride-like experience of consumer tech gadgetry. That roller coaster is the S-Curve of technology innovation; it whips us from product introduction to maturation, adoption and discontinuation, and then repeats itself. (Sidebar: The time span from new product introduction to market saturation has become so fast that it’s hard to keep up, and it is interesting to watch people at all income levels attempt to do so.) Each unveiling of new consumer tech piles on an additional layer of confusion where gadgetry is easily seen as a proxy for social progress.
The Fascination with High-Tech Goods Touches Every Income Group
According to a Pew study on device ownership, smartphones ownership has increased for all income levels. Traditionally, device ownership costs were prohibitively high, making mobile media consumption a luxury. Now, Pew’s reporting shows that while disparities in device ownership have shrunk, disparities in mobile data application and media consumption are sharpening. About 44 percent of Hispanic Americans and African Americans own smartphones, as compared to 30 percent of white Americans. Among smartphone owners in general, Pew found that 79 percent also own laptop computers and 68 percent own desktop computers.
The opportunities to consume are improving, particularly as the costs of hi-tech devices steadily decrease, due in part to the quick life cycle of both hardware and mobile software, as well as front-end cost offsets provided by mobile services firms.
The point cannot be overstated that consuming ever-cheaper tech goods and services does not substitute for the consumption of high value education and equality of access to rich social experiences. These are the central features of a society upholding the goal of social egalitarianism. John McDermott references these features in his article, “Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals,” as he references the rise and spread of the democratic ethos in the U.S. from the 17th to the 19th centuries, which resulted from widespread literacy after the invention of the printing press.
In his piece, McDermott describes the period of time in American history when the social skills and experiences that supported the upper classes power over the masses spread to the rest of society. During that time, people were becoming literate in those aspects, which helped them understand the political and social character of the technology of the time. As a result, the gap between the political culture of the most affluent members and of other segments of society decreased. Is the same thing true today? And if it were true, what could we point to in our society as proof?
Discerning the Political and Social Character of Technology
To the extent that the kind of literacy most relevant for understanding the political and social character of the technology of the present time is not how to send a multiple-recipient MMS message, nor how to cross-post to Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterist from your iPhone, we may in fact be experiencing a decline in one of the essentials of democracy. The drive toward a higher standard of living has always been about reducing the gap between the political, educational, and social experiences of the masses and the over-privileged and the rest of society. Assessing our progress toward these aims measures that distance directly, not indirectly, by way of the figurative iPhone Index of Social Progress.
New media technology expert Mike Barry’s article, “The iPhone – The New American Dream!” aptly captures the nation’s current path when it comes to technology. In assessing Americans’ perception of technology’s impact on their standard of life, the following excerpt is eye-opening as a final thought because it demonstrates the phenomena McDermott discusses, where (1) a politically sanitary view of technology and technological progress predominates the popular imagination and (2) where the relationship between social and technological change is fundamentally hidden from view:
“…the iPhone represents the moment where wireless technology hit a tipping point; smartphones are fast becoming a person’s remote control to everything in life. A new lifestyle has emerged for those who own them, and this has truly revolutionized society in a dramatic enough fashion to demonstrate that smartphones inspired by the iPhone truly represent the American in action.”