In last Friday’s Online Spin column, Kaila Colbin asks a common question about the noise surrounding the latest digital technologies: Who cares? Kalia rightly points out that we tend to ascribe unearned importance to whatever digital technology we're focused on at any given time. This is called, aptly enough, the focusing illusion in the words of Daniel Kahneman, who coined the term, noting, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”
But there’s another side to this. How important are the things we aren’t thinking about? For example, because it’s difficult to wrap our minds around future big picture consequences, we tend not to think as much as we should about them. In the case of digital technology shifts such as the ones Kaila mentioned, what we should care about is the overall shift caused by the cumulative impact of these technologies, not the individual components that make up the wave.
When we introduce new technologies, we usually have some idea of the impact they will have. These are the intended consequences. And we focus on these, which makes them more important in our minds. But some things will catch us totally by surprise. These are called unintended consequences. We won’t know them until they happen, but when they do, we will care about them very much. To illustrate that point, I’d like to tell the story about the introduction of a technology that dramatically changed one particular society.
The Yir Yoront were a nomadic tribe in Australia that somehow managed to avoid significant contact with the Western world until well into the 20th century. In Yir Yoront society, one of the most valuable things you could possess was a stone axe. The making of these axes took time and skill and was typically done by elder males. In return, these “axe-makers” were conferred special status in aboriginal society. Only an older man could own an axe. If a younger man, or a woman or child, needed one, they had to borrow it. A complex social network evolved around the ownership of axes.
In 1915 the Anglican Church established a mission in Yir Yoront territory. The missionaries brought a large supply of steel hatchets, which they distributed freely to any Yir Yoront who asked for them. The intended consequence was to make life easier for the tribe and trigger an improvement in living conditions.
As anthropologist Lauriston Sharp chronicled, steel axes spread rapidly through the Yir Yoront. But they didn’t spread evenly. Elder males held on to their stone axes, both as a symbol of their status and because of their distrust of the missionaries. It was the younger men, women and children who previously had to borrow stone axes who eagerly adopted the new steel axes. The steel axes were more efficient, and so jobs were done in much less time. But, to the missionaries' horror, the Yir Yoront spent most of their extra leisure time sleeping.
Sleeping, however, was the least of the unintended consequences. Social structures that had evolved over thousands of years were dismantled overnight. Elders were forced to borrow steel axes from what would have been their social inferiors. People no longer attended important inter-tribal gatherings, which were once the exchange venues for stone axes. Traditional trading channels and relationships disappeared. Men began prostituting their daughters and wives in exchange for someone else’s steel ax. The very fabric of Yir Yoront society began unraveling due to the missionaries' introduction of steel axes.
One may argue that there were aspects of this culture that were overdue for change. The traditional Yir Yoront society was undeniably chauvinistic. But the point of this story is not to pass judgment. My only purpose here is to show how new technologies can bring massive and unanticipated disruption of a society.
Everett Rogers used the Yir Yoront example in his seminal book "Diffusion of Innovations," in which he categorized the three components of new technologies: form, function and meaning. The first two of these tend to be understood and intended during the introduction. Both the Yir Yoront and the Anglican missionaries understand the form and function of the steel ax. But neither understood the meaning, because meaning was determined over time through the absorption of the technology into the receiving culture. This is where unintended consequences come from.
When it comes to digital technologies, we usually talk about form and function. We focus on what a technology is and what it will do. We seldom talk about what the meaning of a new technology might be. This is because form and function can be intentionally designed and defined. Meaning has to evolve. You can’t see it until it happens.
So, to return to Kaila’s question: Who cares? Specifically, who cares about the meaning of the new technologies we’re all voraciously adopting? If the story of the Yir Yoront is any lesson, we all should.