Commentary RESEARCH

Digital technology profoundly shapes social progress


2022-11-16 05:41

Chinese Social Sciences Today

Human society’s development has always been closely associated with technological progress, as every major technological breakthrough will have a profound and lasting impact on society. Social structures, economic forms, cultural customs, and values are all subject to the influence of technological applications. Digital technology is no exception.


New forms

To start with, the rise of a network society has surpassed traditional spatial barriers. With the development of global interconnectivity, instant communication, and other technologies, geographic isolation is no longer an obstacle to making contact and establishing communication. Social activities are no longer confined to a certain geographical location, but gradually migrate online along with the flow of information to achieve a “domain-less” space. As Manuel Castells, a professor of communication technology at the University of Southern California, put it, there are two types of space: “the space of places”—the traditional physical world of neighborhoods and local business nodes where people live their day-to-day lives, and “the space of flows”—the electronic, computerized network of telecommunication flows. In the new cyberspace, geographical divisions and spatial restrictions have been broken down, greatly expanding the scope of social activities.


Next, centralized and hierarchical social connections are replaced by decentralized and flat interactions. The internet is a typical example of a decentralized existence. Based on interests, hobbies, and needs, the internet reshapes the way individuals connect with each other in society. This leads to the dissolution of centralized and hierarchical social connections, and the rise and popularity of decentralized and flat interpersonal communication.


Last, we see that unity is shattered in social structures, having been taken over by group-oriented and pluralist social organizations. With the dissolution of hierarchical and centralized social connections, traditional social relations and structures are disintegrated and replaced by groups that bond by interest, hobbies, and culture, as well as independent individuals. The internet’s inclusiveness and openness allows for the rise and development of various cultural thoughts and values. Originally stable cultures and value systems are broken, forming an increasingly diversified cultural landscape.


New features

The development of the mobile internet has brought about a fragmentation of society. First, we see the fragmentation of society as a whole. With the acceleration of specialization and differentiation in various fields, the integration of traditional social structures, relations, cultures, and concepts has been disrupted, resulting in fragmentation and segmentation. Second, we have fragmentation of time. The convenience of surfing the internet anytime and anywhere, with an overlapping replacement of different internet settings and different applications, makes time fragmented and instantaneous. Third, there is a fragmentation of knowledge. Based on electronic media technology, to meet the demand to read in smaller fragmented periods time, with rapid updates, knowledge is often presented in a fragmented form. Fourth, learning is fragmented. The fragmentation of time and information determines the fragmentation of learning. In other words, fragmented knowledge is learned in fragmented moments of time.


The development of the internet has resulted in the transformation and deconstruction of society and the atomization of social relations. One phenomenon we’re seeing, is that the role of intermediate organizations with strong cohesion and hierarchical management has increasingly weakened, whereas the number of decentralized and flat organizations with loose internal relations and weak cohesion is on the rise. Also, relationships between individuals and between individuals and organizations have become alienated. Another phenomenon being witnessed, is that the development of the internet has given birth to a large number of freelancers. Freelancers, like free atoms, are independent of social organizations, exacerbating the alienation between individuals and the outside world.


Christoph Kucklick, German sociologist, uses the term “microsociety” to describe the new social form in which individuals are highly analyzed in the digital age. The development and application of artificial intelligence, big data, and other technologies, determines that each individual can be digitally labeled. As differences between individuals are identified, highlighted, and amplified, every and each detail between individuals and society is highly analyzed, giving rise to a microsociety. 


In such a society, many services are based on the satisfaction of individual needs, and the market is in fact a multi-dimensional interactive site based on micro-scenes and details. At the same time, with the increasing rise of forward services for individual interests, hobbies, and needs, personalized needs may be more fully satisfied.


If we say that the internet has opened the door to online activities, the mobile internet has made online activities more convenient, creating a broad space for the use of fragmented time, and accelerating the online transformation of human activities. Mobile payments promote online economic activities and make the online economy increasingly active. The combination of mobile payments and geolocation technology has broadened the reach of online consumption.


Meanwhile, big data technology provides more optimized and accurate services for people’s online activities and improves the online activity experience. Driven by these digital technologies, human social behaviors continue to migrate online, and online activities become more and more common.


With the support and promotion of artificial intelligence, the internet, the Internet of Things, big data, and other technologies, traditional society is starting to become intelligent. First, social life is becoming more intelligent. Smart homes, smart wearable devices, smart offices, smart shopping, and smart medicine is spreading widely across the public domain. 


In the field of social governance, intelligent equipment has somewhat replaced human functions. The role of smart governance systems, such as intelligent traffic control, intelligent government services, and intelligent risk monitoring have become increasingly prominent. In today’s era, urban construction also shows an intelligent development trend. At present, the construction of smart communities and smart cities is in full swing.


New challenges

The development and application of digital technology has significantly expanded the breadth and depth of human life and realized a more comprehensive and full development of human beings. First, individual value is given full play. Second, individuality is released. Third, niche and personalized needs are met. Fourth, individual interests and hobbies are well developed and respected. 


However, while promoting the comprehensive and free development of the people, digital technology also has the risk of trapping, consuming, and solidifying people. First, fragmented time is occupied, and a lot of time is consumed in inefficient web surfing. Second, big data technology makes individuals more transparent, and data owners can exercise implicit “control” over users. Third, information forward strategies are inclined to lead to information cocoons.


In the real world, individuals show a trend of atomization, which is manifested as the weakening of organizational relations, the relative independence of individuals, the weakening of group consciousness, and the alienation of interpersonal relations. 


However, in the network world, people are interested in clustering. Various network platforms gather a large number of people, and individual social life is becoming increasingly social. Individuals tend to gather, elevating the need for communication and raising a new group consciousness, which is the opposite of atomization. 


The development of atomization and communitization of social relations are unique phenomena in modern society—they are contradictory and interdependent. In light of the alienation of interpersonal relationships in the real world, individuals are lonely and have no one to depend on, and they need to find belonging and an identity on the internet. As more people are addicted to the network world and pursue online communication, it is easier for them to alienate their interpersonal relationships in real life.


The internet has provided unprecedented freedom for the development of culture, creating an unprecedentedly rich and prosperous cultural scene. The openness and inclusivity of the internet provides a broad space for the survival and development of diverse cultures. At the same time, the internet has shortened spatial and temporal distances, greatly improving the efficiency of cultural communication, and expanding the scope of cultural communication. The internet has lowered the threshold for cultural production, increased the output of cultural products, and boosted network culture. 


On the downside, cultural development is gripped by fragmentation, superficiality, and transiency. The fragmentation of time, knowledge, learning, and reading inevitably leads to the fragmentation of culture. The fast pace of modern social life gives rise to a corresponding “fast food” culture, which is characterized by being instantaneous and superficial. Meanwhile, the openness and inclusivity of the internet enables some unhealthy cultures to survive.


The internet, the Internet of Things, big data, and artificial intelligence transform the physical world and human society’s activities into data that can be stored, analyzed, and disseminated. With every second, huge amounts of information are generated, forming a dynamic and massive information database. However, the abundance of information also means information redundancy and overload. Various forms of communication media, information carriers, and applications overwhelm people with their repeated, redundant, and useless information each day, so it is necessary for users to have the ability to identify authentic and useful information.


Whether in social life, political life, or economic and cultural life, flattened, decentralized, and convenient communication brought by the internet has allowed people more discourse and participation rights. The public has an unimpeded drive to participate in social, political, and economic life, therefore, the way that social, political, and economic events proceed also reflects the people’s will and aspirations. 


However, the openness, inclusiveness, and anonymity of the internet also brings a prevalence of network violence and network rumors. Some people even take advantage of netizens blind obedience and impulsiveness to spread false information and manipulate public opinion.


In summary, the rapid development of digital technology impacts the original social structure and social relations. Some traditional forms of organization, values, cultural consciousness, and forms of communication disappear, prompting new forms and features, as well as new challenges. In this regard, we should actively respond to these new problems and promote a more coordinated development of digital technology and human society.


Yang Yuxiu is from the Institute of Industrial Development at Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.



2022-11-16 01:40
Looking beyond the surface