The Latent Cultural Function Of Technologies

There’s an interesting article over at The Liberal discussing the future of economic models involving free.  It’s a good read, and presents some viewpoints which run counter to what Chris Anderson has been writing lately.  Despite the fact that I’m inclined to have common ground with Chris, (especially as an artist who embraces the concept of free) I enjoy reading and interpreting all viewpoints.

There’s one graph in the article that struck me, and it’s actually the one part which has nothing to do with free economic models, rather, it is on the cultural implications of technology:

It is an enigma of all technologies that we only come to understand their latent cultural function once they are no longer necessary. With the dawn of television, we came to recognize that cinema was not just about moving pictures, but an opportunity to have a night out in public. With the dawn of email, we now see that letter-writing is not just about conveying information, but a way of demonstrating greater affection or respect for the recipient.

As cinema became more associated with a night in public and less about the moving pictures themselves, over time it became tagged to social situations.  It’s typical to take a first date to a movie, or decide that’s a good place to spend an afternoon with a friend.  The novelty factor of moving pictures on a screen was gone the second it was in every home.  Now it’s about that second, and about the time we spend with others first.  It’s ingrained in our cultural DNA to seek cinema in public as a gathering point.

You don’t need to send letters anymore, you can just send an email.  But something else has happened – email has made the simple idea of a handwritten letter special.  How funny a notion, when not long ago this wasn’t special at all, but standard.  Now the real function of letters is a way to convey messages with personality, something lacking from text.  Mass messages don’t need to be sent this way anymore but a written letter sent to you, although quaint and unnecessary remains undeniably special and timeless.

The interesting part of this?  Even though movies and letters no longer are necessary they still exist.  In other words:  cultural forces create market demand even if supply is available more efficiently elsewhere.  New technologies or methods only replace old when cultural forces dissipate.

Becoming tagged to a shared human experience is the life support of living artifacts.  The shared experience of enjoying a paper at the morning breakfast table or in a coffee shop is the latent cultural function of newspapers, for example.  It isn’t about the message anymore, you can get that more efficiently elsewhere.  Many of the other living artifacts don’t have as deep roots, and are more easily replaced without people noticing they are gone.  I’m not saying newspapers in print form have a future, but this is what is keeping them alive.  Things like newspapers, print magazines or even written letters will be phased out slowly as their roots in culture dry up.

As more of today’s standard technologies become obsolete, society will continue to see their latent cultural function emerge.  This is what creates the mixed-use culture of technology – people don’t necessarily switch to the most efficient, because the older technology is tagged to a cultural experience they are not willing to let go of.

The future may not create as many opportunities for latent cultural function to be defined, as digital technologies replace digital technologies (something already happening today).  This is because it occurs so quickly – there needs to be time between technologies for a real social impact to happen.  Older technologies will fade quietly into the night, becoming footnotes as newer technologies replace them without anyone missing much.  For entrepreneurs, this spells opportunity.