It’s always important to remember that technical and social change are always intertwined. The automobile at the start of the 20th century and television in the 1950s are just a few of the technological changes that dramatically changed societies and social life. But while the changes were global, the social changes varied dramatically both in form and time from one society to the next. For example there was a tremendous range between the acceptance of the automobile for personal transportation and it’s social impacts. How technology is embraced and incorporated into social systems is complex and in many cases unpredictable. Scholarly analysis and media discussion almost invariably has seen these changes from the standpoint of a few ‘central’ societies, usually western Europe and the United States, and then generalized the impacts into global universals.
The growth of the Internet and digital reality could be said to come of age just over a decade ago, when the virtual worlds of Sims Online, World of Warcraft, Everquest and Second Life came to the public notice. Media warned of the fears of gaming addiction. Fears were raised that huge numbers of people were losing their grip on physical reality as they became immersed in virtual reality and gaming worlds.
Psychologists studied the issue and gaming addiction eventually became a listed behavioral condition. Almost all of the current discussions and issues raised about Web 2.0, smartphones and social media were commonly discussed in 2007. No consensus was reached on events back then and no firm conclusions were constructed that might predict the social and behavioral impacts that might result from the universal availability of virtual worlds and their attractions.
Looking back, a key point that was missed was the fact that this phenomena was physically fixed–it was not mobile. You needed a relatively high-end PC and the place to put it. In some areas this resulted in the growth of PCs and home online networks and gaming sessions, while in other areas it resulted in the growth of Internet Cafes and a new social dynamic of meeting in the real world to engage in the virtual world. Gaming became a new competitive sport, mimicking traditional sports such as pool, ping-pong and poker tournaments.
This changed in radical ways with three simultaneous technical innovations: smartphones with cameras that allowed mobile 24/7 connectivity; Web 2.0, that allowed this to exist in real time; and social media apps, which allowed people the painless ability to connect to everyone in asynchronous time simultaneously. Unlike 2007 little money was required nor was there a need to be at a particular place at a particular time.
The 2020 version removed these constraints, and allows people to live in a digital reality 24/7 that overlays their physical reality. We all live in augmented reality now, and the social impacts are just beginning to be debated and defined. Portable graphic communication devices have become commonplace for the majority of the world’s population. This new mode of asynchronous audio-visual interaction has led to major social and personal disruption. Even more so than with prior technological changes, social changes are nearly universal but vary greatly in form and content from one society to the other. The constant is this is coming more comprehensively and at a tremendously accelerated rate compared to technological change in the past.