In the arena of literature, a term was presented to me in the 1980’s that I had not heard: cultural lag. It is a concept that dates to the late 19th Century, if my reading of the subject has produced an accurate interpretation of the first period of study of this phenomenon. Simply put, cultural lag is the thing that happens when technology advances faster than the public or institutions are prepared to accept.
What happens when the opposite thing transpires? What happens when we embrace new technologies or systems or machinations too readily? In politics, such a thing can backfire, resulting in the rise of opposition groups. Look at the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion, and you will find a perfect example of this, within a social and political corollary.
The Internet is an example of something that started out suffering under the lash of cultural lag, and in many ways it still does. Courts are still wrestling with many issues surrounding property rights, trademark, taxation, personal liberties and the like. There are a host of other issues I will not address here. By the mid-2000’s, however, we had the rise of social networks, like Facebook, LinkedIn and, between 2007 and 2009, Twitter, Instagram, Tinychat and many more.
The social networks, combined with the sudden and dramatic introduction of mobility, both smart phones and tablets, have turned cultural lag into a reverse phenomenon, and I am not sure what to call it, other than cultural isolation. We have used these devices and online platforms to connect with more people than ever, and we are more disconnected from our flesh-and-blood lives than at any time in history. It is the kind of fallout that technology can bring when it is embraced quickly, without a comprehensive understanding of the potential impact.
I have to give kudos to Shimi Cohen, a video artist who composed and produced a magnificent piece in mid-2013 to explain what he calls “The Innovation of Loneliness,” and the video is work every second of your time.
Of course, social networks serve to reconnect us with family, friends and colleagues with whom we may have lost contact over the years, but we are finding our society indulging a new type of cultural lag. We are happy to embrace the new technology and its programming. However, it will still take time for our real-life social networks to adapt to the changes, as each of us, individually, learns to put technology in its proper place, properly balancing heartbeats with bandwidth, permitting the proper serving of the natural and the digital worlds in our lives.
Perhaps, on second thought, it is not reverse cultural lag, after all, but the regular kind. It is the kind in which new technology leads us to adopt new behaviors and adapt to new ways of thinking and interacting, without civilization imploding.