Be sure to create a title and cite yourself as the author. For example:
A Comparison of Three Perspectives on the Evolution of Technology
Your essay should include five paragraphs, as follows:
It’s permissible to use direct quotes from your reading, but don’t use too many. One to three such quotes should be your limit. Be sure to put a direct quote in quotation marks. For example: According to Smith, “Carbon dioxide is both our friend and our enemy.”
Sociologists, anthropologists, and other researchers have developed different ways to measure and understand technological progress. In this section, we’ll review the thoughts of four important theorists. They offer four perspectives on the relationship between technological development and our social world.
Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924–2015) believed that technological progress has been the driving force in the evolution of civilization. According to Lenski, technological progress and civilization are closely related. In fact, the key to human progress is information. The more we know about harnessing and using natural resources, the more we can advance human society.
Lenski recognized four stages of communication, as follows:
Lenski also proposed four levels of technological development, as follows:
Anthropologist Leslie Alvin White (1900–1975) focused on harnessing and controlling energy. White believed that controlling energy is the primary purpose and function of any culture.
White identified five stages of human development, as follows:
White developed a formula that remains useful:
P = E*T
In this formula, “E” is a measure of energy consumed. “T” is a measure of the efficiency of technical factors that utilize this energy. “P” is what we get when calculate these two measures.
For example, when we compare early steam engines to steam-powered turbines, the efficiency of turbines increases the value “P.” In White’s words, “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased . . . or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.”
Alvin Toffler (1928–2016) was a journalist, social critic, and futurist. Toffler stands out among the thinkers associated with the postindustrial era. That’s because he was able to reach a large audience.
The following quote gives an idea of Toffler’s view of our current era:
“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots—religion, nation, community, family, or profession—are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions; it is the decision that makes the resources.”
Toffler is best known for the concept of future shock. He defined this as the personal perception of “too much change in too short a period of time.” Toffler argued that human societies are undergoing enormous social and technological structural change. We live in an unprecedented era in which industrial society is changing to a “super-industrial” society. In Toffler’s view, many find the speed of change overwhelming. Millions of people feel disconnected. We live lives characterized by “shattering stress and disorientation.” In other words, we’re “future shocked.”
According to Toffler, we’re drowning in information overload. (Toffler invented this term.) In Toffler’s view, future shock is responsible for most modern-day social problems.
Toffler identified three stages in the development of society, as follows:
William F. Ogburn
Finally, William F. Ogburn (1886–1959) was a prominent sociologist who developed the concept of cultural lag. This is the idea that it takes time for a culture to catch up to innovations in technology. Even though Ogburn died long ago, his ideas are still taken quite seriously by academics.
According to Ogburn, material culture—technology–progresses much faster than nonmaterial culture. Technology changes more quickly than social institutions like family, government, religious institutions, and even the arts.
To quote Ogburn,
“The invention of the automobile . . . freed young people from direct parental observation [and] made it possible for them to work at distances from home . . . Half a century earlier, families were structured … as family farms. Young people were under continuous observation as they worked right on the homestead.”
According to Ogburn, economic systems adapt more quickly to new technologies than other institutions. That’s because such advances offer a return on investment to business. For example, adding robotics to an assembly line can speed up the manufacturing process. Likewise, relying on advances in electronic communications can help companies to share information more easily. In fact, corporate culture and the profit-driven application of technology tend to drive technological innovation (material culture).
It’s interesting to note that religious institutions tend to be particularly impacted by “future shock.” Scientific and technological advances have historically been opposed by organized religion. For example, the Roman Catholic Church continues to oppose birth control. Similarly, evangelical and fundamentalist groups continue to reject long-accepted ideas about evolution and natural selection.
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
–Carl Sagan, astronomer and theorist
Toffler’s insights began an ongoing debate into information overload. Just how overwhelmed are people by rapid advances in technology? This debate continues, and we’ll revisit it later in this lesson.
Lenski, White, and Ogburn offered useful insight into the relationship between technology and the evolution of society. However, they failed to address the unintended consequences of postindustrial development. This is especially the case respecting social, cultural, and technological progress in an era of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and global warming.
What unintended consequences do we mean? Let’s look at the basic assumptions of a capitalist economic system. In capitalist societies, continual growth is desired: sell more, build more, develop more markets, and cultivate more consumerism. If we designed a bumper sticker to define consumerism, it might say, “More, more, more!” or “You are what you can buy!” or “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
Of course, historically, the world has been minimally concerned with ecological issues. When Lenski, White, and Ogburn were developing their ideas, public awareness of climate change had yet to emerge. Instead, classic assumptions about economic progress still applied; that is, economic progress was measured mainly by its constant growth. Naturally, we now realize this assumption is unrealistic. The world faces too many ecological threats from a focus on unrestrained growth. In fact, from an ecologist’s perspective, unrestrained growth is suicidal. To draw a parallel, in the natural world, unrestricted cellular growth is called cancer.
Capitalism is about return on investment. It’s about the bottom line. It’s focused on reducing costs to increase profits. The simplest ways to reduce costs is to lower wages or replace human workers with technology. Consider the difference between human and robotic workers. Robot can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and might cost a business 30 cents per hour. Obviously that’s much lower than even minimum wage.
Across developed nations, digital technology has shrunken the market for industrial jobs, particularly in manufacturing. Jobs that paid a living wage are vanishing. For example, in the United States, giant corporations—like Walmart, Apple, and Dell—have exported manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets in China and elsewhere. As a result, the American middle class continues to shrink. Jobs that once paid well have been replaced by less-lucrative jobs in the service sector.
Of course, the situation is complicated. Global productivity has increased enormously due to advances in electronic and digital technologies. However, at the same time, in developed countries like the United States, the ratio of manufacturing jobs to service sector jobs has changed radically. To quote economist Hank Robison, “In 1950, 30 percent of all U.S. jobs were in manufacturing, while 63 percent were in services. In 2011, 9 percent of total employment remained in manufacturing, with 86 percent in services.”
Robison continues: “Does this signify a shift in consumers’ tastes from manufactured goods to services? The short answer is no; if anything, we consume more ‘things.’ The difference is that things are manufactured with far less labor, and they are increasingly made somewhere else.”
Wages have either declined or remained stagnant since the 1970s. Thus, cheaper goods (plus high levels of personal debt) keep the consumerist philosophy alive.
Economically, the world is dealing with two kinds of unintended consequences. Both have been produced by capitalist ideology. First, increases in productivity have led to lower wages and more or less permanent unemployment for unskilled laborers. Second, continual growth requires ever more energy. That means greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. This, in turn, has led to a global energy crisis.
Scientific Consensus on Climate Change
According to NASA, multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that about 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that changes to the climate over the past century can be attributed to human activities. While scientists continue to interpret data and debate causal connections, they agree to the basic premise that humans are negatively affecting the global environment. Scientific debate is about weighing actual evidence. Scientists pose hypotheses and test them. They check results and repeat the process to get ever closer to fact-based truth.
Review the quotes below to get an idea of the scientific consensus on climate change and global warming. These three sample statements can be found in the eighteen covered in NASA’s report (“Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming,” NASA. Retrieved May 31, 2018, from http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus.)
In preview, here are three sample statements out of eighteen provided in the report.
“The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now and it is a growing threat to Society.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006.
“The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.” American Physical Society, 2007.
“The Geological Society of America (GSA) concurs with assessments by the National Academies of Science (2005), the National Research Council (2006), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) that global climate has warmed and that human activities (mainly greenhouse gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s.” The Geological Society of America, 2006; revised 2010.
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