January 26, 2012

Technology and Cultural Lag

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

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?


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It is amazing what we can do with technology, and to think that there are even more uses than we already have for it is extraordinary. Our lives have already been changed so much by technology, and there are still so many more discoveries and inventions out there. It will be interesting to see how our world keeps changing as technology grows.

Technology now is better than it has ever been before. It will continue to change and we'll probably have more things in the future that are better than they are now.

It is truly amazing to see how much technology has evolved over time. It's crazy to think about where it will go asell, and how much more beneficial it will be in the future.

Research displays also the negative effects of technology in education since the evidence relays teachers feelings towards students taught by them online. Although online classes are beneficial for many because of the schedule and coursework load, the learner misses out on the valuable classroom experience. Teachers said they were reluctant to responding to emails, especially longer ones. The quality of learning and the work submitted overall is poor and has formed a barrier for teachers to teach online classes in the future.

I agree with Mike because it is almost unbelievable what doors technology has opened for America, however it is definitely starting to prove just as many negative effects as positive.

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