Barren Fields

Technology And The Insidious Threat Of Declining Social Capital

We must be constantly reminded that a home is built, not out of brick walls but, by the meeting of hearts. Likewise, a society is built not by the trappings of modern technology but by the time spent in each other’s company because technology has enabled us to save time at work.

Sadly, the overconsumption of technology brings with it a very invisible and slow moving threat — the decline of social capital. People like Sam Altman (of YCombinator fame), many tech entrepreneurs and titans are worried about the hollowing out of society in Silicon Valley. A very visible symptom of declining social capital is apathy towards homelessness in a place that has created the greatest wealth in modern times.

This article explains the term social capital and the reasons why we should stop the insidious threat of its decline.

Last Saturday, I attended my friend’s birthday party. We were casually chatting about basketball and March madness. Suddenly, one of our mutual friend Nick made a very surprising announcement: he was buying a home. He went on to say that his house is not as big as that of the other people at the party. Obviously, it was big enough for a family of three which is what he was providing for. My friend Sam placed his hand on his shoulder, smiled and said: ‘you can build a house with bricks but a home can only be built by hearts’.

Nick looked at me. I understood he realized that comparison will surely make him unhappy. However, the point is: I have seen people with meager means be happy and many rich people that are unhappy and lonely.

Today, a lot of us using technology suffer from loneliness and are unhappy. This is a very slow moving malaise called a decline in social capital. The very bonds that define us are losing strength.

The Meaning Of Social Capital

In simple terms, a society with no social capital is not a society anymore. It is a group of unhappy and lonely individuals that meet each other for selfish needs.

A more elaborate definition of the term social capital is as follows: Social capital broadly refers to those factors of effectively functioning social groups that include such things as interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. However, the many views of this complex subject make a single definition difficult.

Common festivals such as Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas etc. provide us with beautiful opportunities to forge strong bonds with the people we love. These bonds provide an emotional safety net against emotional distress, anxiety and depression.

Perhaps, an easy way to understand the concept is to study people migrating from rural areas or small towns to cities chasing economic growth and a higher standard of living. If a person moves from a village to a megapolis, he can feel he is no longer a part of a strong community but is rather an anonymous cog in a giant machine. He may decide to go back to seek the deeper bonds of his village. This is because he feels he’s has lost a sense of identity, shared norms, shared values, trust and cooperation by becoming a part of a dog eat dog world of life in a big city.

Social media and connecting with people is very similar. The internet offers a sense of anonymity but it also offers an excellent way of connecting to a wider network of people over a longer time horizon.

If we do a controlled experiment where one half of the world is not connected by the internet and the other half is, we will find out the second half feels a lot more connected. However, the question we have to ask is this: what is the quality and depth of those connections? It is hard to replicate the strong bonds of a local community over the internet.

First, just like followers on Instagram, connections forged over the internet can be fickle. In an attention economy, the definition of what is considered ‘shocking’ has to change constantly. Taken to an extreme, these mindless win lose games destroy the moral fiber of society. One of the most frightening examples is that of the Blue Whale app which encouraged people to commit suicide.

Second, social media provides people an invisibility cloak to hide behind and speak their mind. This amplifies identity politics which is already a product the traditional media uses to grab attention. All of this extreme and corrosive individualism results in a loss of shared values and decline in social capital.

Third, the problem with technology has never been the technology itself. It is the absence of self regulation. We have to cure addiction to a technology not put the genie back in the bottle. In reality, there is no way the onward march of technology can be undone. There is a reason we see a plethora of mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace etc. which help us wean our time away from total addiction.

An Irony Called Posthumous Value

French painter Paul Gauguin or the American born genius of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent Jean Michel Basquiat are just a few in a long list of creative geniuses that suffered an irony called posthumous value. Their work was less recognized by their contemporaries than by the people who bought their paintings long after they were dead. In 2017, Basquiat’s painting sold for a whopping $110.5 million putting him in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso. The Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who bought the painting was a big Basquiat fan and is frequently seen sporting T-shirts featuring his paintings.

Ta Matete, 1892

One of the biggest symptoms of a decline in social capital is the fact that we, as a society, restrict the study of humanities and the production of art in any form — paintings, music, books etc. by making non-artistic and more left brained disciplines the way to economic prosoperity. Graduates from the humanities today have some of the highest unemployment rates in the economy.

I am not saying we are actively destroying education in the arts or humanities. Rather, it is a silent byproduct of our constant obsession with more quantitative fields that offer lucrative salaries. We have to create a world where artists can at the very least meet their basic needs.

As per CNBC, ‘a new ranking of 162 college majors finds that certain STEM majors may put you on a path to a bright financial future, while arts concentrations land on the bottom of the list’

Of course, not everyone will select STEM and business disciplines just because they are economically lucrative. But, a lot of creative people have to face hard choices, massive student loans coupled with rampant unemployment and a social stigma associated with a low earning major.

Ironically, if Artificial Intelligence (AI) will automate almost all of the left brained jobs, the best way to spend our time will be to pursue our creative pursuits which we are actively discouraging today by pushing everyone to become doctors, engineers, developers and mathematicians. In a world ruled by Artificial General Intelligence, we will see a return to our humanity. This scenario literally means machines will teach us how to be more human again.

We, Homo Sapiens

There are many threats to our survival that fly under the radar. One such insidious threat is the gradual decline in economic productivity in many of the developed countries. Decline in social capital, coupled with slow or declining economic growth is a recipe for all out civil conflict.

If we live in a world where we are so busy that we cannot smile at strangers or pick up those in need, we will collectively lose our identity as humans. ‘Homo Sapiens’ is more than a biological lineage that has withstood an evolutionary threat for millennia.

Rather, it is a community with a beating heart that knows how to take care of its own and band together for survival.

We have to learn together. More importantly, we have to laugh together. The echoes of those beautiful moments must be a lasting legacy of our humanity.

If not, we will all become hollow souls and barren fields incapable of producing the next crop of Homo Sapiens.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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