Again, We Humans Are Pretty Good at Adapting to Technological Change

by on January 16, 2015 · 0 comments

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times posted an interesting story yesterday noting how, “Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful.” Her essay builds on a new study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University on “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Miller’s essay and this new Pew/Rutgers study indirectly make a point that I am always discussing in my own work, but that is often ignored or downplayed by many technological critics, namely: We humans have repeatedly proven quite good at adapting to technological change, even when it entails some heartburn along the way.

The major takeaway of the Pew/Rutgers study was that, “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.” Commenting on the study, Miller of the Times notes:

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people’s lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives,” said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.  . . .  Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

I found this of great interest because I have written about how humans assimilate new technologies into their lives and become more resilient in the process as they learn various coping techniques. I elaborated on these issues in a lengthy essay last summer entitled,  “Muddling Through: How We Learn to Cope with Technological Change.” I borrowed the term “muddling through” from Joel Garreau’s terrific 2005 book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human.  Garreau argued that history can be viewed “as a remarkably effective paean to the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.”

Garreau associated this with what he called the “Prevail” scenario and he contrasted it with the “Heaven” scenario, which believes that technology drives history relentlessly, and in almost every way for the better, and the “Hell” scenario, which always worries that “technology is used for extreme evil, threatening humanity with extinction.” Under the “Prevail” scenario, Garreau argued, “humans shape and adapt [technology] in entirely new directions.” (p. 95) “Just because the problems are increasing doesn’t mean solutions might not also be increasing to match them,” he concluded. (p. 154) Or, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid noted in their excellent 2001, “Response to Bill Joy and the Doom-and-Gloom Technofuturists”:

technological and social systems shape each other. The same is true on a larger scale. […] Technology and society are constantly forming and reforming new dynamic equilibriums with far-reaching implications. The challenge for futurology (and for all of us) is to see beyond the hype and past the over-simplifications to the full import of these new sociotechnical formations.  Social and technological systems do not develop independently; the two evolve together in complex feedback loops, wherein each drives, restrains and accelerates change in the other.

In my essay last summer, I sketched out the reasons why I think this “prevail” or “muddling through” scenario offers the best explanation for how we learn to cope with technological disruption and prosper in the process. Again, it comes down to the fact that people and institutions learned to cope with technological change and become more resilient over time. It’s a learning process, and we humans are good at rolling with the punches and finding new baselines along the way. While “muddling through” can sometimes be quite difficult and messy, we adjust to most of the new technological realities we face and, over time, find constructive solutions to the really hard problems.

So, while it’s always good to reflect on the challenges of life in an age of never-ending, rapid-fire technological change, there’s almost never cause for panic. Read my old essay for more discussion on why I remain so optimistic about the human condition.

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