“What does it mean, Google? It is a bird?” That was the question an Indian farmer asked Ellen Barry, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, earlier this year. Barry described how, even in 2017, millions of citizens from rural India are not familiar with the Internet, nor are they likely to be so in the near future. Meanwhile, in the West we are engaged in a continuous—and famous—technological revolution; institutions promise to adapt themselves digitally, companies compete for presence in social networks and citizens try to keep up with a market that announces daily the latest object of the future. There is the refrigerator that will send you a message when you are out of milk, taxis with no driver, robots that will help with your homework or virtual reality games that will transport you to another reality for hours at a time. The pace is unstoppable, but is our society prepared to absorb all these changes? Although there is no single answer, several trends can be identified.
We are not prepared and we lack training
Rafael Conde, Doctor in sociology and author of Manifesto 4.0: The Necessary Role of Sociology in the Balancing of the Digital Society, feels sure: “No, we are not prepared for this technological revolution, mainly because there are questions that are new and that we are not able to respond to.” Conde believes that technology, instead of solving society’s problems, is accelerating them: “Technology is increasing the gaps. It is leaving even more people out, those with no resources or with disabilities.” This is especially important because, as this sociologist points out, “all social relations— even the most intimate—are being mediated through technology: Facebook, WhatsApp…”
Conde reiterates the need to educate the population about all these new technologies in order to absorb everything that is happening: “For us, technology is a black gadget that we don’t know how it works inside and, although we don’t want to be, we are absolutely dependent on it”. Social networks, email, smartphones or Google have flooded our lives, without needing to go to the future. To all of them will have to be added the transformations that will be brought by intelligent materials, artificial intelligence or robotics when they become popular.
We lack training, but we are prepared
Robotics is one of the trickiest aspects in this stage of assimilation. Robots can jeopardize up to 56 percent of current jobs, according to the study “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from the US” by two economists from MIT and Yale University. Although the figures vary according to the study, they all agree that the impact of robots will be undeniable. “People are adapting to the new times, but we are ill equipped to face situations such as, for example, unemployment brought on by robots. We are failing to make a good analysis. At what pace are jobs going to be lost? What jobs?” says Andres Lomeña, Doctor in Sociology and collaborator of Cibersomosaguas, the research group on digital culture and social movements.
Not only are we prepared, we are becoming empowered
Despite this lack of information, Lomeña points out that people are not rejecting technologies because they are “fully immersed in them.” The same opinion is held by Adolfo Estalella, postdoctoral researcher at the CSIC, who believes that “more than individuals having a problem absorbing digital technologies, it is the large institutions that have them.” “There is an enormous speed of assimilation of technologies. The time needed to assimilate radio, television, computers, the Internet or WhatsApp has been reduced incredibly, from 40 years to four, progressively. Our societies seem to be able to gobble up and incorporate any kind of technology,” says Estalella. “We used to have an alarm clock and now we have assimilated that our telephone is an alarm clock, stopwatch and the like, and that in a short while we will be able to manage the refrigerator with it. It’s about incorporating new applications into a technology that already exists.”
This anthropologist goes a step further and not only considers that people have absorbed new technologies, but some of them—such as free software or Wikipedia—have allowed them to empower themselves, “to release knowledge, ability and even participate in an encyclopedia.” Babulal Singh Neti, one of the few men in his village using a mobile phone, told The New York Times that one of the most impressive things about having a smartphone with Internet access was precisely that, the liberation of knowledge: “It seems as if I am diving into a sea with no bottom to it. However, I have still not found the answer to the question of who created the Earth. But I know that Google contains the answer.”
Beatriz Guillén for Ventana al Conocimiento