Are computers transforming humanity?

The answer is obvious, the implications profound.

Imagine a world where your phone is smart enough to order and pay for your morning coffee. No more giving orders, handing over your payment or waiting in lines. No more face-to-face chit-chat or human interaction.

For many, this might seem like a blessing. Who likes to wait in line? But on a grand scale, might this kind of automated world dramatically change -- perhaps even eliminate -- how we communicate and connect with one another? Could it change something about us as individuals, or as a whole society?

"My short answer is yes. It's absolutely changing society and the way people are," says Melissa Cefkin, an ethnographer at IBM. "But there's nothing new in that. We've always had the introduction of new technologies that transform and move society in new ways. It changes our interactions, our sense of the world and each other."

But if primitive hand tools changed us from gatherers to hunters, and the invention of the printing press propagated literacy while downgrading the importance of the oral tradition, what individual and cultural transformations do new computer technologies portend?

Researchers and technologists alike say they're already seeing technology-wrought changes in how we operate as individuals and as a society. To be clear, they're not finding evidence of evolutionary transformations -- those show up over thousands of years, not merely decades. But there have been shifts in individual and societal capabilities, habits and values. And just how these all will play out remains to be seen.

"We're in a big social experiment. Where it ends up, I don't know," says Dan Siewiorek, a professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Like other researchers, Siewiorek has identified a number of areas in which individuals and societies have changed in response to technology during the past two decades. One of the most obvious, he says, is the shift in how we view privacy. Having grown up in the McCarthy era, Siewiorek remembers how guarded people were with their phone conversations, fearful that they would be overheard or, worse, recorded.

"Now you can sit in any airport and hear all the grisly details about a divorce or something like that. I don't know if the convenience overrides privacy or people don't care about the other people around them, but certainly what we let hang out there has changed," he says.

Any doubts? Just look at the deeply personal details that people post on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

At the same time, people have used this willingness to share via technology to forge new definitions of community. "There are certainly different versions of community emerging, and that's facilitated by innovative uses of technology," says Jennifer Earl, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A hundred years ago, neighbors would come together for a barn raising, willing to put in hard labor because they might need similar help someday. Today, Earl says, technology -- whether it's Twitter or e-mails or a viral video appeal -- can spur people across the world to the same type of communal action, even if they have no personal connection to the individuals helped or the tasks involved.

"Today, with technology, we can enable people to act collectively across boundaries. And one of the things that is different today isn't that we can just act collectively very quickly, but we act across heterogeneous groups," Earl says.

She points to the collective actions taken to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina as an example. Citizens throughout the U.S. posted their spare items, from clothes to extra rooms, that displaced Louisiana residents could then use in their time of need.

And it doesn't take an emergency for new and different types of communities to emerge. "Technology changes the whole idea of who we belong with," says anthropologist Ken Anderson, a senior researcher at Intel Corp.

In the past, community members had some sense of a shared history and shared goals and objectives. Today, an online community can have more specific, tailored interests than would likely be found in a physical neighborhood or town, whether it's a rare disease, a passion for running or an interest in a celebrity.

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Tags Video ConferencingIBMsmartphonesWeb 2.0artificial intelligenceintel

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