Cultural lag and automation

When the car was first introduced, we didn’t have the rules in place that we have today to avoid traffic accidents. The introduction of email faced widespread disdain over its utility. And when mobile phones broke out into the market, we didn’t have the mast quantity to provide the quality signal we’re used to today.

These are examples of cultural lag. Cultural lag is a phenomenon that’s still observable today. We can see it in the way we approach (and attempt to keep up with) innovations in technology, from medicine to automation.

Here, we explore the concept of cultural lag and how it has impacted automation.  

What is cultural lag?

William F Ogburn coined the term ‘cultural lag’ in his 1922 work On Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature. It describes the idea that technological change happens faster than society can keep up.

In other words, cultural lag is the gap between the introduction of new technology and its integration into our lives.

So, for cultural lag to happen, it’s a given that technological change causes the need for dramatic changes in the way we act, work, and live. But there’s a lag, or gap, between the implementation of new technology and our values, infrastructure, or ideals.

Cultural lag splits culture into two sides: material and non-material. Understanding these, then, is another way to look at the phenomenon.

Material vs non-material culture

Cultural lag is the gap between material and non-material culture. Simply put, material things evolve rapidly and are easy to change compared to non-material ideals and values.

Material culture refers to any physical objects that humans create that give meaning to or define a culture. In other words, it’s culture that’s evolved from the creation of things we can touch. Or, in the case of digital items, things that we can use. For instance, the internet, or software like automation. Material culture, then, is culture that’s impacted by technological advancement.

Non-material culture, on the other hand, covers the culture-defining things that aren’t physical. Think religion, ethics, beliefs, ideals, values, and rules, for example. It typically evolves at a much slower rate than material culture.

So, material and non-material culture have opposing natures. And this opposition creates a gap between the technology we have and the social consensus on the appropriate use of that technology.

Cultural lag and technological determinism

The idea of cultural lag feeds into the concept of technological determinism. Technological determinism posits that technology is the driving force behind cultural change. (And not vice versa.)

And, as we now know, cultural lag is the view that technological changes to culture happen more rapidly than ideological changes. In other words, technology changes, and then views change because of it.

The difference between the two concepts is that technological determinism prescribes causality (technology causes societal change). Cultural lag, meanwhile, focuses on the impact of technology accelerating faster than the rest of society.

The issues of cultural lag

Cultural lag is also related to the concept of change aversion. That is, people are typically resistant to change. It’s an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.

The issue is that with cultural lag, the change has happened. The technology is here and in use. But the non-material side of culture is slow to catch up. This could be because society is resistant to the change, or due to worries about the implications of the technology.

But because the change has happened already, cultural lag represents a period of maladjustment. The technology is there but the infrastructure, rules and values it needs are not yet formed.

As such, cultural lag can result in a failure to manage and mitigate significant risks. Consider the car example. Cultural lag meant that the needed safety procedures around cars were largely missing.

In turn, this can hurt the acceptance or uptake of beneficial technologies. Or it can cause harm during the adjustment period for technological changes.

Cultural lag and automation

Cultural lag means that despite the growth of automation, there’s not yet a full consensus on how automation can and should be best used. Automation is widely accepted in factories to increase output and safety. In offices, meanwhile, concerns are now flowing around the ethics of automation changing and impacting jobs.

The change has already occurred, automation is already entering workplaces. Failure to accept it and adjust to it causes harm.

Automation anxiety — that is, the fear of automation taking your job — is an example of the impact cultural lag can have. Automation is entering new areas of functionality. As a result, many people don’t yet know the exact values, beliefs, or rules needed to use the technology ethically. And so, they worry about the implication of the technology, as if it hasn’t yet already entered their office.

Arguably, the assertion that automation causes job loss stems from this period of cultural lag. As automation is settling into more jobs, there’s not yet an infrastructure or consensus on how and where it should fit into our modern working lives.

Catching up

The gap between the material and non-material does eventually close. For automation, the technology is seemingly transitioning out of its cultural lag stage. It’s more widely accepted in factories and offices alike.

The ethics to discuss and consider have been identified; the best practice guides have been written.

For instance, those using automation know they need to question — and where possible, mitigate — the impact automation will have on their team. Common procedures have evolved, from knowing what is best to automate, to upskilling team members whose jobs have changed considerably.

These best practices and ethical automation discussions come from the period of cultural lag. They’re the way we can change views, values, and beliefs to include the technology that we live with day-to-day.

When technological change comes, it’s important to adapt. Cultural lag isn’t a rejection of the changes that technology brings. Rather, it’s the adjustment period. It’s finding and using the opportunities to use the technology. It’s finding the ways that life needs to change now that the technology has.

Not as bad as it seems

People will always be wary of change — it’s hard-wired into our systems as part of ensuring survival.

Cultural lag does not always cause harm. Rather, it’s a symptom of our ability to question the world. It’s representative of the time we take to find the ethical uses, to reduce overall harm, and to put technology to its best use.

As the automation we have now evolves and grows more capable, it will likely bring with it another period of cultural lag. And that’s okay.

Useful links

The first electronic mail reactions

Automation and technological determinism

Is automation ethical?