A reporter from India inquired via email how social media impacts social attitudes. That a woman from India would email me to talk about this says a lot.
Social attitudes are really just our beliefs about the way the world works. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, some have cultural or environmental origins, and some are distinctly and uniquely our own. These assumptions, however, establish the framework for how we believe we fit in the world and what opportunities we believe we have. As technology's role in daily life grows, its influence on our attitudes and assumptions increases. This is because technology, in fact, does change the way the world works.
Emerging Technologies are Linking the World.
Emerging technologies are linking the world, but we no longer need wires and cables to connect people. The impact is profound. People are no longer trapped by geography. Immigration restrictions are becoming obsolete because iInformation and services travel at the speed of light, linking countries, cultures, businesses, customers, friends, and loved ones.
We are really only just getting started. The greater the dispersion of access to technology across socioeconomic and geographic divides, the more change it facilitates. Wiring up businesses, governments, and urban areas have created a global economy, but much of the world's population has not been connected. Landlines and Internet access are not the norm where countries are large, areas are rural, or people are poor--including in the U.S.
Mobile Devices Are Leading the Way
We are, however, facing a digital tsunami as communications technology becomes cheaper, simpler, and more culturally-acceptable. Wireless technologies are a much more efficient and cost effective way of creating access than digging trenches and laying wires. The use of mobile devices like cell phones, and smart phones is dramatically on the rise. Not only are cell phones less expensive than other forms of Internet access, they can be easy to use for many literacy levels. A great example is the Manobi Development Foundation that uses technology such as cell phones with interfaces specifically designed for a low literacy population to improve the earning potential within their market systems.
In China alone there are currently about 500 million cell phones. In India, from December 2007 to December 2008, the percent of the population with cell phones increased at nearly a 50% rate of growth. Current numbers put the subscribers at 400 million. Yet in most countries in Asia-Pacific, cell phone ownership is still much less than half the population. This means that the potential market in countries like India is a billion-plus subscribers--more than enough incentive for mobile operators to invest in cell towers and developers to put resources toward making useful applications and developing content. In China, India, Korea and Thailand the preference for cell phones over computers has boosted Internet access via mobile phone for all kinds of purposes, including social networking sites, messaging, education, and current events. The market is so appealing in India that wireless providers are competing so vigorously on price that call and data rates are a pittance compared to what U.S. subscribers pay. Upselling data services is no problem in that environment.
Technology for all Socio-Economic Levels
Technology makes information and knowledge about the world available to people of all social and economic levels. People in rural areas can now learn about international events. They have access to education in ways unimaginable 20 years ago. Farmers and business owners can contact markets hundreds of miles away to check prices and the demand for specific goods and crops. The Center for Global Development reports that cellpones are transforming markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. Introduction of cell towers has reduced the price dispersion the most for farmers who are the farthest from markets and good roads. And while the individual farmer's profits and standard of living improves, the overall price of goods falls due to better competition. In a country where 85% of the people live on $2 per day, access to market information can increase their income by many times. Everybody's better off except the middleman who used to benefit from the lack of free information flows.
Technology Creates a Global View
Historically, when people moved to seek better economic opportunities, they had to leave their communities and families and often their culture behind. Now families can maintain connections even when they are no longer living in the same village or the same country. This allows people to maintain a richer social support system and continuity and connection with their cultural identity.
Thanks to emerging technologies, people have an awareness of other people, too, not just the price of grain in the market. We are learning about others far beyond our national boundaries. This allows people to share experiences, whether it is perceived social injustices such as the Twitter reports from Iran's presidential elections, or to get vital news during national disasters such as the earthquakes in southern China. For people who have had few opportunities and limited exposure, it can give them the ability to see an entirely different future for themselves.
Even in less dramatic ways, technology leads to cooperation rather than conflict. Call centers are all over the word. In the course of a conversation with a customer service representative, I might also learn that the weather in Mumbai is beautiful that day, that Ireland is a great place to visit, or that someone from Singapore has a cousin in Seattle. We can see things we've never imagined. These digital moments are connecting humanity, linking real people. It turns out that other places have real people with hopes and dreams, who are working hard trying to take care of their families, not nameless, faceless others. It's much harder to go to war with people when you have things in common.
We Get Better All the Time
People and organizations are getting smarter about how to use the tools and they will continue to become more effective. In part because we are learning to look to these tools, such as Twitter or Text Messaging, as a viable means of rapid information distribution, whether it's tracking swine flu or finding disaster relief shelters. The American Red Cross uses Twitter streams for disaster and preparedness updates. (You can follow them on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RedCross). In China, we're seeing some political reform come from bloggers reporting on corruption in provincial governments. The Indira Ghandi National Open University http://www.ignou.ac.in/ in New Delhi offers free education as far as the signal will carry.
Technology is not a cure-all for what ails us individually or as a society. Neither is it to blame for all our issues and short-comings. There are, however, undeniable benefits to increased access to resources and information, particularly in emerging economies. Figuring out how to use technology well and make it widely available is the key.
Aker, J. C. (2008) "Can You Hear Me Now?" How Cell Phones are Transforming Markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Center for Global Development. Report in PDF.
Richburg, K. (2009) China's 'netizens' hold authorities to new standard. Washington Post Foreign Service.