The dizzying pace of social change
As the pace of technological change accelerates, so inevitably do social structures
We live in a unique time of massive technological and social change
These two are inexorably linked in ways that are not always apparent
Humans are not accustomed to rapid social changes historically
Big changes in gender identity, roles, and social structures are disruptive
Expect even more social upheaval as technological progress accelerates
Tween girl and trans boys: shifting gender identities
I’ve shared a bit previously about my daughter Felicity, who is trans, and her experience getting her first job this year at GameStop. Felicity is in her early 20s and transitioned at 16 in her sophomore year of high school. It was a challenging time: while we fully supported her at home and had many wonderful friends and neighbors that were also supportive, Felicity never felt comfortable coming out at school. So for the rest of her time in high school, she was a different person at school going by her dead name while she was her authentic self everywhere else. While my wife and I have been supportive from the outset, when Felicity came out to us it was a shock. Our perception of trans children was based on stereotypes such as the boy who wore dresses and high heels and wanted to play with dolls instead of toy cars. Felicity exhibited traditional “boy” attributes: she loved playing with Legos, was on the robotics team, and was addicted to video games. She was never finicky about her appearance, usually wearing a black logged T-shirt and jeans. She didn’t appear to suffer from strong gender dysphoria.
It has only been through conversations with Felicity that our understanding of the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation have broadened. I won’t pretend to be an expert on gender by any means and continue to learn as time goes on. While the process of coming out has been challenging and Felicity faced her share of harassment, particularly online, through the power of social media she has also been able to curate friendships from around the world, primarily of trans youth who are facing similar struggles and challenges but also share her passion for gaming and art. Technology has been both a powerful tool and source of oppression for her and her friends.
I have another daughter, Sienna, who is our youngest and in middle school. She exhibits a mix of stereotypical behaviors: she is obsessed with how her hair looks and the latest fashion trends on TikTok, but also loves Pokemon and anime. Sienna is going through puberty now and has hit a major growth spurt. She has a constantly evolving set of friendships at school that is typical of girls her age, and she thinks all boys are “annoying” and “obnoxious”. A strong advocate for LGBT+ rights, likely in part due to having an older trans sister, Sienna’s current dislike of most of the boys in her school is largely based on the large amount of sexist, racist, and homophobic comments they make. Perhaps most interestingly, she is friends with only three boys - all trans. Compared with the isolation and silence that Felicity faced in school just a few years earlier, the fact that three of Sienna’s friends are trans appears to be not particularly noteworthy. While each of them are in various stages of coming out, they seem to have mastered the process of code switching, maintaining a certain gender identity to one group while embracing their true identity around others.
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The role of technology in shaping gender roles
In her recent book Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Destiny, author Debora Spar argues that technology has often been an under-appreciated force in shaping social dynamics. She notes that anthropologists who have studied the earliest human societies believe that these hunter-gatherers were connected first and foremost by the group or tribe: that men and women were not monogamous, did not marry, and were not particularly focused on the paternity of children. Life was about survival: mobility was crucial and children were more of a hindrance then help. With the onset of the Agricultural Revolution however, life changed. Humans found fertile areas to settle in one set location and their link to a particular geography became stronger. The invention of the plow and irrigation put a premium on strength, and men evolved into farmers rather than hunters. Children became seen as more of an asset because labor was needed to tend and harvest crops. The idea of private property became prevalent, and with it the importance of knowing which children belong to whom. The institution of marriage and monogamous relationships became sacrosanct over time (at least for women). While men (and women) were not always faithful partners, distinctions were made between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children, with the latter suffering merely by circumstance and no action on their own. Religion and law later codified this structure.
Remarkably different agrarian societies that had limited to no contact all adopted variants on these similar social and power dynamics. Social life for humans after the Agricultural Revolution was remarkably stable for thousands of years, despite technological improvements to improve crop yields and variety and the advent of trade and globalization. Later, while the Industrial Revolution begat a number of social changes, most notably urbanization and factory work (of which women and children initially participated and slowly transitioned to be predominately men only), the prevalence of the traditional, “nuclear” family remained: one man, one woman, married in a monogamous relationship with one or more children. Gender roles evolved in response to the new technological shifts but did not change appreciably.
However, as author Spar relates, beginning a century ago, a series of technological changes have fundamentally altered the nature of gender roles, and indeed the concept of gender itself. Of note, the automobile became a mechanism by which women, traditionally bound to their homes and immediate surroundings, could now move about without severe geographic constraints. (Interestingly, Spar notes, initially automobiles were consider only appropriate for men to drive as women were not viewed as being capable of handling large machinery due to their “delicate nature”.) This was followed by the post-World War II explosion of technology for the home, notably appliances such as the washer, dryer, automatic dishwasher among others. We do not think of these as revolutionary technologies today, but at the time these machines were groundbreaking as they freed up significant time for women to pursue other goals - including full-time work.
Most of the technological changes that impacted gender roles up until the 1960s were externally focused. Beginning with “the pill” that allowed women to control their reproductive health, medical advances and technology became internally focused in a series of radical steps. Scientific study of hormones over the course of 150+ years not only led to the development of the birth control pill as a highly reliable form of contraception (that, crucially for women, did not depend on a male) but also altered our fundamental understanding of gender as more of a spectrum than a binary outcome. The birth control pill fundamentally separated sex from reproduction; later, advances in reproductive technology separated procreation from sex. Spar points out that while the development of new techniques such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) was originally targeted towards infertile heterosexual, married couples, it opened up a wider range of possibilities to include surrogacy and the ability of homosexual couples to have children. Spar argues that the reality of more homosexual couples starting families that were genetically related (as opposed to adoption) helped to normalize the view of these relationships and giving a boost to marriage equality efforts. Crucially, the social impact of these technological advances have gone well beyond what the creators foresaw or their stated purpose in developing them. For example, there has been a large decline in the number of children born out of wedlock over the past half century. Spar points out that the law and social norms have correspondingly evolved in many parts of the world: no longer are these children “illegitimate”.
Coming to grips with accelerating social changes
Spar’s book later examines more modern developments such as the rise of social media that connect humans with a much wider range of people around the globe than we have ever previously been exposed to. For most of humanity, we have been quite limited in our exposure to other humans, constrained through geography to only socialize with those in our immediate vicinity. With the advent of automobiles and airplanes in the 20th century, humans were suddenly able to travel great distances in a relatively short amount of time: no longer did a train ride take weeks or months for an ocean liner to cross the sea. Spar explores the rise of online dating, which has evolved tremendously since the advent of the Internet to spawn eHarmony, Match.com and, more recent, Grindr and Tinder. All of these sites expose people to a vast array of diversity and more humans quickly than ever possible before, even if they also live near you. I think back to how my own parents met at a church social for singles in the 1960s and how that time seems so quaint. For my parents, neither of whom drank alcohol, it was one of the only alternatives to the bar scene for meeting other singles. Compare this with the relative privacy of seeking out others that your iPhone or Android allows when seeking a partner, relationship, or just a casual connection.
This exposure to a wider and more diverse group of people have manifest itself both on who we are attracted to as well as our social attitudes. According to the Pew Research Center, back in 1967 just 3% of marriages in America were inter-racial. Today, that number is 11% for all adults and 19% for newlyweds. Roughly 2.5% of all U.S. adults identify as mixed race in 2019 and this number is sure to grow. Gallup reflects these shifting trends in opinion polls: approval of inter-racial marriage was at 94% in 2021 compared with just 4% in 1958. Approval for same-sex marriage has seen a large increase as well according to Gallup: now at 71%, it was only at 27% a generation ago in 1996. Spar is quick to give credits to social activists who have fought hard for equality and civil rights, but she also notes that technology has played a meaningful role in these social trends that are shifting quickly compared with millennia of little to no change in social structures, gender roles, and power dynamics.
On a more negative note, Spar points out that while it is easier to directly link technological advancement and the increased power of women in society, there has been a decline in the position of heterosexual cisgendered men. The automation of factory roles and shifts to a service-oriented economy favoring positions such as caregivers that have traditionally been filled by females has led to a feeling of frustration and alienation among some men. Spar highlights that while many have argued about feminism and what it means and stands for, there has been very little discussion about masculinity and the evolving role of men in society. Spar argues that the relative dislocation of men that has been documented in numerous books and articles such as Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild has, in her view, led to the rise of alt-right groups and much of the racist and sexist animus we see not just in the United States but many other countries throughout the world.
The bottom line is this: we see the amazing and accelerating pace of technological change, but the social impacts are also accelerating as well. The connection between the two has always been present in the lives of humans, ancient and modern. As Spar lays out, changes from the Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution played out over generations, so the need to adapt within a person’s given lifetime was more limited. What’s unique about our present time is the speed, scale, and scope of this dislocation. Regardless of how we personally feel about these shifts, which often result in complex emotions and a mix of enthusiasm and disapproval, social changes will inevitably occur and challenge our understanding of human relations. We are creatures of habit, unaccustomed to major changes. We better get used to it.
What technological changes do you feel have most impacted social structures? How do you personally cope with a dizzying speed of change? Do you embrace a growth mindset and, if so, are there specific tactics you rely on to assist? How well does your organization adapt to rapid change? What major societal shifts do you see on the horizon or anticipate in the near future? How has the nature of human connections changed in your view due to technology?