Technology and Cultural Lag
A few months ago I heard the following on a talk radio program. A boy and his family from a rural area travelled a great distance for the boy to have surgery. (I have long forgotten the nature of the surgery.) This meant that the family had to stay in a hotel to be with their son, and so apart from the emotional toll there was a significant financial cost for them beyond the direct medical expenses.
The surgery went well and the family returned home. What struck me about the story was the post surgery follow-up. The boy’s father was able to take pictures with a cell phone and send them to the doctor to make sure that his son’s incision was healing as it should. Given how much most of take and email pictures this is somewhat mundane—except for the fact that this technology was being employed in the medical area for a ”checkup.”
Clearly, there are a host of medical and legal implications for this kind of use of technology. Yet, the possibilities seem almost endless and it seems inevitable that we will find more and more ways to use technology in the practice of medicine.
I bet you can imagine some creative marriage of medicine and technology that would simplify your life as a patient. Just yesterday, I dropped off a prescription at the pharmacy. Other than calling it in, that was my only option. The telephone is old technology; why can’t I email my prescription? What conditions would be perfect for me to use Skype or FaceTime for a doctor’s visit? (For some stories about some uses of technology in medicine, click here and here.)
According to sociologist William Ogburn, technology has tremendous impact on society and in creating social change; he said that technology changes society by three processes: invention, discovery, and diffusion. The resulting changes of these processes, however, may “lag” behind social changes that result from any of the three processes. In other words, it takes time for us—in terms of the way we go about living—to ‘catch up’ with technology; Ogburn referred to this as cultural lag.
There are myriad examples of technological innovations within the field of medicine, but in terms of patient/physician usage, such as the physician checking on the healing of his rural client by cell phone picture, there are far fewer. (Whether and at what point there was in person follow-up in this case, I do not know.) This is cultural lag.
Here’s another example of cultural lag based on this story I heard on the radio. Anetria Burnett, a woman whose ex-boyfriend has accused her of stealing his sperm in order to become pregnant, was interviewed. The man, Joseph Pressil, is now suing for full custody of the resulting twin boys. According to Pressil, Burnett would collect his sperm in a condom after sex and rush off to a fertility clinic where she was impregnated. This story is only possible—albeit bizarre—because there are now so many high tech ways to have a baby. In an era where this is possible, what does it mean for our (traditional) ideas about motherhood and fatherhood? Is a man who donates sperm that is successfully used for in vitro fertilization a father? Is a surrogate—who carries a baby for someone else—that child’s mother, regardless of whether they are genetically related?
Even though there have been no airplane crashes thought to have been caused by passenger technology usage, once you settle into a plane, you are told to “power down” your favorite gadget. As this article notes, if there was a chance that rogue electronics could down a plane, we would not be allowed to take them on board with us.
Many devices have “airplane modes” that disable their signals, negating their impact on radio frequencies. It is important to note that all devices are not similar in terms of the likelihood that they would interfere with a plane’s radio; cell phones are different from e-readers, for example. Further, many of the rules related to electronic devices predate our current favorites such as the iPad. Still, most of us comply with the order to power down. Well maybe except for actor, Alec Baldwin.
The truth is that the rules regarding the use of electronic devices in the air have been in place for decades, and in this case most of us are happy to take precautions given the potential for loss of life. It is noteworthy however, that pilots will be using iPads—in the cockpit—for the entire flight, including take off and landing.
These examples should remind you that technology (material culture) changes at a speedy pace; nonmaterial culture does not. What are some other examples that you can think of? How about in the realm of education?