So now you suspect machines (aka digital, computers, networks) are changing the natural fabric of culture. And by that, I mean the process of how unwritten rules of human groups interaction come to being. In a more technical analogy, the software that we use to be able to relate to others and not feel like strangers but part of a community. We can go on and on to define what culture means, for you, me, and everybody else, but let’s leave it at: “The elements that make you feel that you share beliefs and customs”. That’s your neighbor, the guy sitting next to you in the bus, the teacher of your children or your local politician…
Now, if you been suspecting a sudden intro-mission of machines in this process, you might be feeling is a good thing, an evolution of human interaction? Or maybe not. Since something that is not human should not be writing the software on how we relate to each other, isn’t it? I think the most interesting questions are beyond the good or the bad. One of those is whether anyone can really attribute to the machine a large portion of cultural change.
The argument might go like this. Algorithms that surfaces content, suggest connections, or proposes a way to interact with other people in Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin, as well as ,the automated engines that bring items to your attention in Amazon, Ebay or Netflix (so many more examples can fit the profile), are impacting the way we relate to each other much more than any human group in history before. In our past, cultural change was driven by person to person exchanges, transmitted via word of mouth, and that sometimes took generations to be part of the fabric of culture in a community. Instantaneous and automated then seems like is a big change. But here is the challenge, with all the machines-technology involved it’s still human.
As long as machines are not self reproducing entities, with capability of changing its own software, and (very important one) mimic the process of evolution by producing diverse replicas of itself just for the sake of experimentation, and natural selection, they will be far from self sustaining an ruling us all (the singularity might not be that near).
What computers in particular, are really good at, is allowing us overcome our natural blind spots in thinking (biases, emotions), and computational capacity (very limited). And some advanced ones even foraging to a learning territory (artificial intelligence), but yet far away of really impacting culture by itself, but they still can help.
Instead of change that happens slowly, incrementally, and as a group driven process, we have an almost accidental amplification of a single view. What I called “The Machinist view”. An individual (with almost superhero like powers) or really small group, that has an extraordinary influence. Culture is usually created on the basis of the many, but suddenly technology allows a few, the machinists, the programmers, the curators of content, (that know the rules of interaction) to amplify their worldview, values, and beliefs, to everybody!… rules to solve problems, intrinsic individuality, all of that is hard written in the code of culture… doubt it? think about how much the cultural views of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos affect the choice of the many, everyday… and they are just a few to name.
It’s kind of cool to think that digital entrepreneurs are not only aiming at sustainable business models, or finally earning a decent economic status, but also at altering the code of culture… with a ticket to a brief godlike level to embed their personal beliefs.
That is a lot of power. In history only emperors or kings were able to attain such status. Now a few kids reaching network effect, can get to the same, and more importantly very few realize is happening… sometimes not even them. Well, in the end it was just an accident, wasn’t it?