Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Modernization 2.0

When I was stuck in traffic again this morning and listening to the radio, I heard about the news that Belgium is facing tremendous trouble in forming a new government after the most recent elections. The same has been true in the past for The Netherlands, where the results of the elections provided the image of a very divided country, with quite some votes for the more extreme left-wing and right-wing parties. It took quite a while to form a government, and the Dutch voters are now stuck with a government that nobody is really enthousiastic for (except maybe the families of the new ministers and the memebers of the three coalition partners).
But enough about politics, this blog is about perspective on IT. But I think this trend in politics could have something to do with a growing structural differentiation in society due to technology. Let me explain why.

Somehow, I really have the impression that in many aspects in society and our everyday life we are experiencing the consequences of what sociologists call "modernization". This refers to a concept that describes a process in which society goes through industrialization, urbanization and other social changes that completely transforms the lives of individuals. Key elements in modernization are structural differentiation and cultural generalization, or in plain English increasing individualism and mono-culture. Lately, this modernization appears to be happening at warp speed, not in the last place because of the explosive growth of technology usage in Western society. The use of technology and new (IT) concepts, especially those branded as Web 2.0, accelerate the processes of structural differentiation and cultural generalization.

I wrote about culutural generalization before in a reaction to Nick Carr's claim that Web 2.0 is amoral. Former Internet boy wonder Andrew Keen goes as far as saying that today's internet is even killing our culture. Although I have some second thoughts hearing this from somebody who made a fortune on the internet (that's not "eat your own dog food", but "spit in your own dog food"), I have ordered his book for the Christmas holidays that are coming up. It should be an interesting read.

On the other hand, there appears to be some evidence that the explosion of internet usage is also accelerating structural differentiation I mentioned earlier. According to Oxford University Press, societies are seen as moving from the simple to the complex via a process of social change based on structural differentiation. The process may be imagined, in its simplest form, as an amoeba dividing, redividing, then redividing again. Society is evolving from quite simple structures into seperate institutions of education, work, leisure, government, religion and social contacts. Most people do not stay with the same employer their entire working life anymore, some even work at 2 or 3 different employers, churches see a declining number of people, small political parties are attracting voters from the traditional larger parties, mass markets are being replaced by niche markets (Long Tail, anyone?). In fact even identities of single persons are differentiating: John Doe who works as a loyal clerk during day-time, may be SuperVixen666 in his favorite virtual world at night.

Media is already heavily influenced by the 2.0 phenomenon (serious newspapers publishing movies of incidents that were filmed by readers with their cameras on their mobile phones), politics arguably also is facing the consequences of the wisdom of the crowd (some might say the power of the mob) and the collective intelligence. It will be very difficult to predict where this is all leading to, but for sure society is dealing with Modernization 2.0.

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