“Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
It is common knowledge these days that technology disrupts business models (though this still seems to elude some executives at established media companies). What I think is less broadly understood, and certainly less well accepted, is that technology is just as effective at disrupting cultural models.
I was listening to a call-in radio program on the CBC several weeks ago where they discussing the riots that erupted after the Vancouver Canucks lost the deciding game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. In particular this program was discussing the “public shaming” form of vigilante justice that arose afterwards when people started uploading pictures from the riots of others doing stupid things. In some cases the uploader had been able to identify one of the individuals exercising poor judgement, and had proceeded to do so. In one now infamous case an olympic hopeful waterpolo player was caught lighting a police car on fire. This radio program was asking for people’s opinions on whether it was “right” for people to be uploading and identifying these pictures.
Callers came in on both sides of the issues, for, and against, with varying reasons for their opinions ranging from moral to legal arguments. To me, however, this debate sounded all to familiar. Asking whether it was right for people to be uploading these pictures is comparable to asking whether it is right for people to download music. These are questions which can be debated endlessly, and any individuals position will depend on so many factors (religion, politics, wealth, ideologies, etc.), that a definitive answer is unreachable. These are also questions that while interesting to debate, are effectively irrelevant.
Whether you say uploading these pictures is “right” or not is going to have little or no effect on the fact that people are doing it. Just as with music downloading, branding the act as immoral or illegal will not stop people from performing it if they find it convenient and in their best interest. This is the technology paradigm we live in today. Technology moves at a faster pace than we can keep up with with moral and ethical debate. To slow the pace of innovation sufficiently for necessary time for consideration would have economic consequences that we are not willing to accept. Having made this decision as a society we need to learn to live with it’s effects. One aspect of this is to learn to stop asking the question of whether a given act is “right”, and to start asking what cultural model’s have been disrupted, and what new cultural models will fill the old void.
Being publicly shamed for doing something stupid is nothing new. If a celebrity lit a police car on fire on a crowded street in the 90’s you could bet someone would have captured a picture and it would have had disastrous effects on their career (or possibly positive effects depending on their audience). The fact that now the rest of us need to be aware of our public actions and the effect they might have on the rest of our lives is part of the new cultural model that camera phones and social media have imposed on us.
I’m not trying to make a moral statement about either file downloading, or image uploading. Instead I want more of us to open our eyes to the effects that technology has on our culture and society. If we are not comfortable with accepting these changes, the alternative is to pay the economic price of moving more slowly and placing our steps more carefully. In a world where the pace of technology is accelerating, I’m watching with great interest to see how far the tolerance of society to disruption can be pushed.