The Effect of Technology on Society #3 #cong20


The society we live in is, seemingly, a dynamic and ever-changing entity. It is tempting to say that social structures have a life of their own. But I would argue that the single most identifying characteristic of a society, any society, is inertia. Society, left to its own devices fosters change at a glacial pace. What does move the needle is the effect of technology and the advantages that it brings. As we adapt to innovation the way we relate to each other alters in myriad ways, both socially and politically.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Technology is the active force in the changing of society.
  2. Society has a great deal of inertia towards change
  3. Because technology is unevenly distributed so is societal change.
  4. We are more than capable to adapting to change

About Tom Murphy

Classics and Philosophy student at NUI Galway.

Contacting Tom Murphy:

You can follow Tom on Twitter

By Tom Murphy

Society is the collectivised version of ourselves. No matter where we live, we are either living in sync or out of sync with the world of people that surrounds us. While we are never truly apart from our social selves, even in the social groupings we find most harmonious, we can also have the sense of a feeling of otherness, of outsider-ness. At times we are so submersed in our social functions that we can find it hard to separate our personal, social functions from our tribal, collective functions.

We are born into our social structures and have no say in the matter. We are ‘thrown’ into this existence as the philosopher, Heidegger, would have put it. But this does not mean society’s standards and mores are immutable. In fact, society is changing at an exponential rate. The world of my children is very different from the world I grew up in. Likewise, the world that I was exposed to was very different from my grandfather’s. However, the world of my grandfather would have been very similar to his own grandfather and the similarity in lifestyle would have gone on back through the generations until feudal times and the advent of the Enlightenment. Before that, to see a similar moment of transition in Irish culture one would have to go back another seven hundred odd years to the arrival of Christianity on our island. And even that was a gradual process, taking some two hundred years to complete.

In contrast to the glacial movement of societal change over the centuries the world around us is now changing its nature at an ever-increasing rate.  Changes in our lifestyle brought about technology and enforced by the current pandemic means that remote working has gone from being a nice notion to an essential means to keeping our society functioning.

This throws up two observations: It is clear that we are a very adaptable species and that change is caused by stimuli external to society. While I will never have the digital adeptness of my children I still manage my electronic and informational world in a manner pretty much to my liking. Like most people, I go with what works for me and leave the rest. I adapt as best I can.

Secondly, The drivers of change in our lifetime have been technological in its essence. As we have seen across the millennia, society, left to its own devices, will barely change at all. It is a conservative (not in the political sense) institution, not budging an inch unless it absolutely has to.

As technology throws up new possibilities and new wealth there is, in consequence, space for new ideas to grow into and from the new opportunities that are thrown up. This activity can inform our political thinking. Marx needed an industrial working class to exist for his own ideas to have any substance. Whatever you may think of Marx, his ideas were born out of the technological advances in industry that were happening during his time on earth.

Societies, like the technologies and ideas that form them, are amoral on their own account. They may judge each other harshly or admire each other wholeheartedly. They may cherry pick each other’s best attributes while remaining separate and distinct from each other. For societies to have survived to this present day suggests a strength in how the human coalition of minds and activities coalesce and operate together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. However, this ongoing symbiosis can be threatened by uneven technological development. This can exacerbate the differences between societies (and within them) leading to unequal development and its consequences.

Individuals are products of their culture and some cultures value the role of the individual more than others. In more individualistic societies the power to make changes rests with the individual. While it is true that individuals can act as the embodiment of society changing ideas they, nevertheless, have to have on board a significant number of other people to have an affect.

This is where we find ourselves in our Western cultures – susceptible to the effects of technological developments, yet clear enough in our own minds that we operate under the assumption that we can be the change we seek.

The sense of personal empowerment that we have is not universal across all societies, everywhere. It is not even fully developed within our own societies. If it were, we would not have instances of racism, classism, sexism, ageism and so on. That inequality exists in our society at all allows for the possibility and potentiality for change. But as I have noted there is a great deal of intrinsic inertia to be overcome. A given society will not change on its own. It has to be given a push. A force of some sort has to be exerted upon it.

However, if we depend on internal change we come very quickly to a point where an unstoppable force, in the need for change, meets an immovable object, societies entrenched traditions.

The resolution for this impasse is to take note of history and the economic drivers of technological innovation. But add to that our very human ability to adapt to circumstances and opportunities, even if they come in the guise of universal pandemics.

Remote working, for those that can do it, (which is far more than was once thought possible,) could be a boon to the planet just in terms of reduced pollution and the saving of our most precious personal resource, time lost in commuting.

Societal change in the modern world is brought about by technological development. As our capabilities change we adapt to the new world that is being shaped, sometimes with vigour, and sometimes by dragging our feet. But adapt and change we must. The society that emerges may not be the one which we envisaged but it will be different from what went before. Hopefully, it will be different in a way that we can all engage with and appreciate.

Communities in Space and Time #40 #cong19


Eventually, when we voyage to the stars we will be sending, in effect, small communities. The questions are, what sort of communities will they be?  And how will they be constituted? Also, what kind of belief systems will they have to subscribe to that will bind together a multi-generational mission.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Can a community be designed from near enough scratch?
  2. If so, then who gets to do the designing?
  3. Human bonds go beyond present relationships and travel across time.
  4. Human meaning is possible, even in the void.

About Tom Murphy:

Classics and Philosophy student at NUI Galway

Contacting Tom Murphy:

You can follow Tom on Twitter.

By Tom Murphy

The nearest star to us in the galaxy, Proxima Centauri, is thought to have orbiting planets that contain the possibility for human habitation and colonisation. The only problem is that with the current state of space engineering it will take 6,300 years to get there. Therefore, an expedition to Proxima Centauri will have to be a multi-generational project. Mathematically, there exists a possibility that more people will die getting there than will actually arrive. The interesting idea is; how many people do you have at the start? The second interesting idea is; what sort of community they will form?

To answer the first question, Frédéric Marin and Camille Beluffi, both of whom are based in France, crunched some numbers. Allowing for possible disasters that might afflict the crew along the way, they came up with the result that, at the minimum, 98 unrelated breeding partners would be needed to initialise the expedition. This number takes into account the avoidance of the hazards of in-breeding and allows for natural catastrophes such as plagues that may occur.

At the beginning this would make for a quite unnatural community of human beings. There would not be anyone involved in the first part of the endeavour who would be too young to breed nor too old to actively reproduce and care for children. But this would change in just two generations. The first generation would have the young to care for, and the second generation would have the elderly to care for. Forty or fifty years into the project we would have a community that would look like just any human community back on earth that has ever naturally existed.

The children born in space, unlike the initial cohort of adults, will never not know what it is like not to be in space. The spaceship will have to serve as a microcosm of planet Earth.  But with a difference; the community will have to have a framework for its fabrication. This is the opportunity offered to the mission designers whose it is to decide what constitutes a community.

This community will not emerge naturally as the original communities did on the savannah and in the rain forests. They will have to construct from the ground up a community that will operate on what has been known to work best for communities and to avoid factionalisation and other self-destructive behaviours. It is a design issue with manifold implications for whether the mission will arrive at its goal intact and in a coherent form or fail dejectedly in the void of space.

The goal of the mission for most of the participants is for their far flung offspring to reach a, hopefully, inhabitable planet in Proxima Centauri. But will that be enough of a motivating force adhering to the goal or provide a deep enough existential reason for existing?

One could easily reduce these astronaut’s roles to that of reproductive automatons. But you can imagine a young voyager coming to the age of reason and asking themselves in a very human way; is that it? Is this all there is to my life?

So, how would the designers of the community constitute the mission’s values so that the negative consequences of nihilistic thinking could be avoided? How could they make the over-riding purpose of the mission so powerful a motivating force, and so compelling an idea, that legions of the yet unborn will buy into it?

It is to our present communities that the nominal designers of this notional mission will have to look. Albeit, that while we reside on planet Earth we are still travellers through space and time.

The first consideration they ought to make is to observe that we are very much our history. We know from Greek and Roman thinkers that our own present day mind-sets and dispositions are barely different from theirs, if in fact, they differ at all. There is a direct line of communication through time to our forebears. Not only biological information but traditions, rites and folklore too.

So, the designers will have to make sure that materials are present on the ship that will educate little ones across thousands of generations of who they are and where they came from. Hopefully, the knowledge that they are continuing the human race, if in very unique circumstances, will give them a background of understanding that will situate them properly in the context of human history.

Care would be the next idea that I would advocate to the design committee. In a normal human life there is really very little time between being someone who is cared for to being someone who does the caring. One would hope that caring would come naturally to our galactic voyagers. But in the reductionist, atomistic world of a major engineering project one can see how something so elemental could either be taken for granted or over-looked completely.

As humans we all hope for better things for our children than we had ourselves. Progress is contingent on the belief that what we have now is better than what we had before and that things will inevitably get better in the future. But on a mission that is designed to last thousands of years the major resource is the ship itself. There can only be so much progress without self-cannibalisation. That is an argument that sounds familiar when assessing the resources of our own planet.

If the human race is to become a space-faring community it is going to have to think long and hard about what constitutes a valid, healthy association of beings that can live together harmoniously over almost unimaginable periods of times. Those of our descendants that will cast off the bonds of earth and who will depart for distant stars and far off planets will have to be more like us than we are ourselves.

Evolving Ideas #49 #cong18


The world moves inexorably on its own course with or without our cooperation. Through constant change it can dash our best made plans. The only solution is to use our imagination to have the ideas that counter balance this effect and allow us to thrive and flourish.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. New, original ideas are hard to come by but good ideas aren’t.
  2. If we didn’t have good ideas we would have been done away by evolution.
  3. Good ideas come from correctly identifying the problem.
  4. All you need is a modicum of imagination to have ideas.

About Tom Murphy:

Ex-Journalist and occasional writer.

Contacting Tom Murphy:

You can contact Tom by email.

By Tom Murphy

Ideas are the very lifeblood of the technological and creative industries. As the cultural environment changes structures have to adapt or die. This is a fundamental law of nature. Another fundamental law is that change is constant whether we like it or not. To adapt to new ways of doing things we have to have ideas about how we are going to map and execute the changes. We have to have good ideas that we can implement occur to us at a faster rate (if only marginally faster) than the pace of evolution.

So, ideas are more than nice things to have they are necessary for our survival and our salvation. In the economic arena a good idea, executed properly, can mean all the difference between success and failure. It is a good thing if ideas are ten a penny and that most of them are worthless. You only need a handful of good ideas to last a life time.

Most good ideas come in the shape of a solution to a problem. So that is probably the best place to look for them. To be inspired by the muses is probably best left to the poets and fiction novelists. You can tell that inspiration in the creative writing fields is rare as so few writers are worth reading.

Technologists, especially those running small businesses, are constantly obliged to address the friction involved in their everyday affairs. The solutions to the challenges with which they are posed are the very source of their ideas.  Time will inevitably tell whether the idea or ideas were any good or not.

But if we want to survive in the world we have to face up to the problems and challenges that the world presents us with we will have to dig deep to find the right ideas that will provide the right solutions.

For sure, ideas are fickle things. There seems to be no sure fire way generating them. The good ones anyway. But still any creative process is better than none at all which is a good thing. Although, being genuinely creative – that is, coming up with new, original ideas – is extremely difficult for most mortals. There are still lots of ways that we can come up with good ideas without having to reinvent the wheel.  One has to only check out the other submissions to this publication for that to be evident.

On one level we are constantly having ideas; about what to have for supper, about what to wear, where to go on holiday, how the back bedroom should be decorated and so on. So maybe it is not our ability to have ideas that should be questioned but our ability to correctly identify the problem. Providing we face up to the problem in the first place.

Identifying the point of pain is an art form in itself. It is not at all obvious that what you think is the problem is the real problem at all. Very often the perceived or imagined problem is symptomatic of something that lies a lot deeper. But the very fact that it is an art form means that as a craft it can be mastered. Which is good news.

Even if we think we are bad at having ideas and that we are not creative at all we will always have the wheels of evolution, the market of constant change, to prompt us into action. But in conclusion we don’t have a choice about it. We have been given the gift of imagination to counter balance the relentlessness of change. And with a strong enough imagination we can do almost anything.