Can Sociology Save the World

This column is dedicated to my daughters who are studying Sociology at Ryerson University and Glendon College at York University.

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s technology was going to save the world. It was going to create a new society of greater productivity, affluence and increased leisure time.

The increased productivity came, but at a cost. The affluence came, but for an increasingly smaller number as the prosperity gap increased giving truth to the proverbial phrase “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.

Those who benefited decided not to channel that increased productivity into more leisure time, or time for family, but instead channelled it into more things. According to capitalist economic theory that is supposed to trickle down to the working classes in the form of jobs creating those things. But even as we were buying more things we were reducing jobs by buying those things, including the basic necessities of life like clothing and food, from overseas where they were produced at below poverty wages. Better to get a good deal than provide jobs for our neighbours.

We are increasing that gap. At first it was low tech trinkets and tourist items that came from cheap labour markets, then it became clothing and household goods. The theory was that it was a waste for our educated highly developed society to produce such goods. I remember when Japanese automobiles first entered the North American markets and the jokes about them. We were shocked when the standard for quality in automobiles shifted from German and Italian workmanship to Japanese technology. And then of course there was the transistor radio and all the consumer electronics that followed.

Not so suddenly we had become a society that imported much of its basic necessities and toys (leisure goods) from overseas while our unemployment, poverty and crime increased. But all was well, as the rich decision makers were still getting richer while being isolated from the impacts.

Indeed we, as a society, led by the elites, began to convince ourselves that we could prosper on ideas alone. We did not have to produce any actual goods. Research and Development was the new Industrial Revolution. All we had to do was design things and have them produced elsewhere at cheap wages and we would prosper, or at least the establishment elites would prosper. So we thought.

But countries like China and India are learning that North America, and to some extent Europe, will not only buy cheaply produced goods but we will also buy cheaply produced ideas, as intellectual technology jobs are now being exported to low wage countries.

The irony, of course, is that to the corporate establishment that does not matter. They will see their profits and wealth increase as the very society they live in is disintegrating around them. And they could not have done it alone. The rest of society, or at least the “huddled masses”, had to buy into it. Considering the massive media and advertising empires the corporate establishment has under its control that is not surprising.

So is technology evil. The truth is technology has nothing to do with the current situation. We are in this state because of social decisions made by both the elites and the masses.

These are social decisions with enormous consequences. We have looked at the impact on the poverty gap but along with that are tremendous social impacts - the biggest being the loss of a sense of community. Why else would we throw our neighbours out of work and into poverty so we could buy cheaper shoes.

The other side of the leisure vs things equation is the environmental impact of the consumerism of those who benefit from the increased productivity. Producing all those things require resources and energy with tremendous environmental impact. Producing all of those things in “developing countries” with lower environmental standards increases that environmental impact and to an extent makes our so-called higher standards meaningless. And of course transporting them from the “third world” to the “first world” adds to the resources and energy used and the environmental impacts.

Increased leisure on the other hand, while having some environmental impact, as more people enjoy the environment, can provide experiences that enhance our understanding and respect for the environment.

Our society is finally beginning to recognize the fragile state of our environment just as we are at a pivotal point between being able to save the earth, and it being too late to stop the inevitable.

So what is the point. The point is that technology is not the issue. It never is. There is always technology. The issue is the decisions we make as a society about living together on the planet. The benefits and problems resulting from our decisions always come down to social ones. It is about how we live together.

The technicians will never be able to provide the answers. It is up to the sociologists to save the world.

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