Cultural lag occurs when the proliferation of technological and material advancement outpaces the normative dimensions of a civilization’s blueprint for social existence. When technology advances more quickly than the social expectations and considerations surrounding new innovations, cultural lag is present.
Although technological development and knowledge for knowledge’s sake are indicators of heightened human evolution, without shared rules and understandings to govern such creations, these developments can nullify any potential social improvement. Without social consensus of new folkways, mores, and laws to understand, contextualize, and utilize new technology, knowledge without immediate application or without foresight of consequences prior to its development and introduction into a society can be deleterious to a culture’s well-being. For example, computerizing tollbooth collections can result in more efficient highway vehicular movement and aid in the reduction of environmental pollution, but changing the behaviors of drivers to convert and conform to this change cannot be done with technology. In fact, driving accidents and billing mishaps may initially increase at the onset of implementing this technological innovation.
Technological change and advancement encompass all areas of social life, including warfare, engineering, transportation, communication, and medicine. Social beliefs and the need for immediate change often dictate the rate of introducing these changes into a society. When considering the merit of these changes, one must take into account the consequences of displacement of the old with the new. Does the innovation offer more utilitarian value, and are moral and ethical conditions improved? Are innovators producing change without regard to consequences? For example, is the rate of semiskilled labor displacement considered when computerizing tollbooth collections or retooling workers to keep pace with technological change? What happens to the profit margin when calculating a cost-benefit analysis, and what happens to unemployment rates in society? At what rate can new technology be introduced into a society without having adverse effects? Also, if human embryonic stem cells provide better material for fighting degenerative diseases than do adult stem cells, does the potential of curing and understanding chronic disease outweigh the extinguishing of the embryo during the stem cell harvest? Who gets to define and put a value on life? Who gets to prioritize various stages of the life course? Is society better and more efficient as a result of these changes and possessing this type of technical know-how?
Proponents of technological development view technology as advancement and key to improving social conditions, for example by reducing poverty and economic dependence. They see technology as making social processes more efficient, where individuals would have access to better living conditions and more leisure time, thus providing expanded opportunities for all under the banner of democratic idealism. Individual citizens would also benefit by having more freedom and not having to rely on traditional social arrangements and interactions within socially established institutions.
For example, the introduction of in vitro fertilization (IVF) as an alternative in the procreative process and in family planning led to contested legal issues and trials. IVF forced society to reconsider the definitions of family, fetal ownership, motherhood, and parenthood. Another new definitional reconsideration was using the body for economic gain (prostituting oneself), as some thought that renting out a womb and being a gestation mother (also called “surrogate mother”) for the money or the joy of allowing a childless person or couple to experience parenthood were honorific uses of the body. Yet traditional sex workers who used their bodies (sex/reproductive organs) for financial gain in the name of sex for recreation remained stigmatized as morally debased. At the same time, many people consider gays and lesbians who use this reproductive technology as contributing to the decay of the traditional family, morally scrutinizing them differently than they would a single and financially successful female who might choose single parenthood. However, to be a gestation/birth/surrogate mother, an egg donor, a sperm donor, and so on was not considered sexualized or corrupt. Instead, the initial issues raised by this technology were embedded in the threat to the traditional family structure, fetal ownership, and adoption law.
Just because a society possesses this knowledge and skill, does it make life better? Single people do not have to wait for marriage, do not need a partner to rear a child, and infertile couples can have more alternatives to traditional adoption. While these technologies give adults more personal choice in family planning, what are the long-term effects on children who enter family structures under these technologies? Is the fact that we possess this knowledge a precursor to other forms of genetic engineering and manipulation where we will see other eugenics movements? Will such medical innovations fall into nefarious hands? The fact that we can know the sex of a fetus in utero also should not lead to selective abortion because some believe that it is harder to rear girls or that girls are of a lower social status than boys. Is this dangerous knowledge, or is it information for individuals to make informed personal choices? Should a couple have the option of whether or not to bring a special-needs child into this world, or should they simply play the hand that they are dealt?
Advancements in medical technologies continue to raise unaddressed social expectations and sanctions. What social issues must be taken into account when considering the priority of organ, facial, and limb transplantation or vaccine testing on human subjects? As social adaptations to new technologies occur, adjustments also occur in the context of public debate where regulatory agencies oversee public safety while not interfering with economic profitability. For technological advancement to benefit society, it must evolve alongside a social system that sees its full potential.
When we consider the benefit of offering online degrees promoting extra hours in the day by minimizing transportation to traditional classrooms, we must also consider the impact that distance learning has on academic integrity, intellectual ownership, and the potential decline of conflict resolution skills in face-to-face encounters when experiencing highly effusive, affective, and emotive subject material and real-life situations. Creating more hours in the day creates more opportunity for self-definition around the acquisition of things. When we do not achieve these new and heightened standards of success, we have more ammunition to contribute to a poor self-image.
Making printed books available on audio should not increase illiteracy or aliteracy. Televised religious services should not promote social disconnection and isolation, nor should the availability of fast food be blamed for weakening familial relationships. The military strategy during time of war to eradicate oppressive political regimes while minimizing collateral damage is not an exact science. Civilian casualties are bound to happen. Is technological advancement in warfare a just endeavor to bring about political change? Are condoms now a form of birth control and death control (with respect to AIDS)? How do we currently understand and utilize this technology? Is the warehousing of knowledge without immediate application and full public understanding and awareness of this knowledge contributive to anomie (the social condition in which behavioral expectations are not present or are unclear or confusing, and people do not know how to behave or what to expect from one another)? Technological advancement, its rate of infusion into a society, and how willingly, quickly, and thoughtfully a society addresses the social consequences and implications of these innovations will dictate the level of cultural lag that a society experiences.
- Friedman, Thomas L. 2005. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Gilbert, Scott F., Anna L. Tyler, and Emily J. Zakin, eds. 2005. Bioethics and the New Embryology: Springboards for Debate. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
- Jukes, Ian. 2001. Windows on the Future: Educating in the Age of Technology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
- Roberts, Dorothy. 1998. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage.
- Taverner, William I., ed. 2006. “Should Health Insurers Be Required to Pay for Infertility Treatments?” In Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Human Sexuality. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.
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