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Technology and social cohesion

The effect of smart phones on our people

Technology and social cohesion

Ever since the introduction of smart phones, young people have been drawn to them like honeybees to raw sugar. Technology has completely enslaved them. How strange that one can resist ideology but not technology.

Their unceasing engagement with smart phone has, for one, affected their concentration span. They are content with snippets of information they get through the internet. Their reading habit is superfluous if not a worthless exercise.

I think the information made available through the newly-invented gadgetry cannot be processed and transformed into a system of knowledge. My friends disagree with me when I say that technology has rendered our society hollow. They think it is a sweeping statement.

Four family members sitting with their respective smart phones, trying to access information or trying to connect with acquaintances, are doing it at the cost of the ones present in the room.Consequently, they have a disrupting effect.

Here, I’m reminded by a young colleague of the Ottomans and their intransigence in accepting the printing press — and how they failed to progress. Likewise, Akbar didn’t want his calligraphers and scribes to become redundant because of the printing press. I am told that shrugging off the inevitability of technology would prove counterproductive, and that its impact on the society must be acknowledged. It was through the introduction of printing press that knowledge proliferated in the West and became a decisive point of difference between the East and the West — thus an evasive reaction to technology is essentially regressive. If we cannot produce an alternative system of knowledge, we would be left with no choice but to embrace technology as an inevitable fact of life.

The young academic paused to see my expressions, and then continued… He said the question however remains if technology and our socio-cultural norms are properly integrated. Technology serves optimally as an agent of positive change when it emerges as an outcome of a historical process. If this happens, one may witness a complete correspondence between the collective mentality of the populace and the social impact of the technological advancement. Then newly introduced technology operates within the existing structure of social norms and practices. It therefore lends strength and vigour to the social pattern.

But if technology is enforced from above as a result of top-down approach, then socio-cultural norms and practices tend to get disrupted. In the past, the British introduced the textile machinery in India in utter disregard to the contemporary patterns of manufacturing. It displaced the weaving communities. The class hierarchy was turned upside down. Trading families entrenched in the capitalist system invested in the textile industry, and enhanced their wealth and social influence.

Conversely that resulted in the manifestation of a reactionary impulse among the traditional weavers. They grew against the British, but more importantly, the spinning wheel became the most potent symbol of Indian National Congress and Gandhi popularised it as an instrument to win freedom.

Similarly, in 1980s, during the Ziaul Haq regime, the video cassette recorder (VCR) caught us unaware, and our film industry systematically eroded. VCR and the deluge of Bollywood films filled the vacuous space. People used to get VCR on rent by pooling in money. They would watch movies of every possible variety sometime all night long — that exemplified entertainment going completely berserk. I am sure VCR was not manufactured for three to four movies in one night.

Reverting to smart phones, in my reckoning, they have pervaded the core of our society. In examination halls, they have become the fundamental source of cheating.

Smart phones are being used profusely but without proper social integration. Consequently, they have a disrupting effect. Instead of smart phones operating within the constraints of socio-cultural formation, they seem to have given a new social orientation. Four family members sitting with their respective smart phones, trying to access information or trying to connect with acquaintances, are doing it at the cost of the ones present in the room.

That is what I call social disruption — because while being in the same space, mutual interaction is restricted.

Such a technology strengthens the argument presented by people who object to modernity through such gadgets. Technological developments like loudspeakers and printing presses have added to the controlling prowess of the religious clergy in Pakistan. More westernised and liberal people feel threatened by those subscribing to the religious tradition with the tools of modernity, like weapons and media. Pakistani society is riddled with such contradictions.

What I have tried to underline in this column is the fact that technology introduced with utter disregard to the socio-cultural norms and practices has weakened the social connections and corroded cultural links. Many people may disagree with me. So, let the debate continue…

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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