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How can less be more? Society

7 June 2010 No Comment

Society has always been evolving and responding to the change that the world is bringing along. One of these changes that will haunt generations to come is that of industrialization and with that the rise of technology. Society has so far adapted to it by becoming loose, diverse and fluid. Everything about technology is to make life easier and with that has come an independence which is evident in western societies. Independence, here, refers to the ability to live on one’s own skill and resources without having to depend on another. This is evident in the example of the urban sprawl which is aided by the use of personal vehicles and which means one does not have to depend on public transportation and its faults and irregularities. Everyone wants a mobile phone, when earlier; a telephone served ten to eight individuals. The desire to own and not have to share means that every man is slowly becoming an island. The meaning of social connections has changed; early societies prized the worth of their elderly but today, they are viewed as a burden. New families, today, means an agglomeration of extensions rather than single nuclear unit and there is struggle to balance out stability for the offspring of these multiple unions. The neighbor is viewed as a stranger and pain in the ass rather than the unofficial carer of the house, kids and of course, a friend.

Though this kind of independence would seemingly have fractured social relations, technology has given rise to a new kind- the virtual connections. Scores of websites, forums, discussions to put people together- and the world has grown smaller. A previously unconnected globe, now, has wires of information and exchanges- you don’t have to have friends next door anymore but you connect to anyone you like and you are conversing and interacting in real-time. Facebook, Orkut, Linked-in are just some of the social networking sites that have helped in bringing back connection that one would have thought would be lost forever. For example, a childhood friend resurfaced on Facebook after loosing contact for over ten years. Strangers are becoming friends on this virtual medium and this has changed the way western society seeks and creates relationships. But has this drawn people more together?  According to recent studies by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, the tech-savvy young are more lonely than the elderly (Murphy 2010). Reasons cited for this are the disappearing communal ties and emphasis on working. This probably makes it more evident that virtual relationships are no replacement for actual physical proximity and contact.

Does this mean we go back to the age of telephones? One cannot disregard that present day technology is isolating as well as a connector. What was once a tool to make life easier is now becomes the space in which we seek our life. This, therefore, means that one should be aware of the limitation of technology and understand that it is no replacement for real-life. Sure, real-life is complex and can be draining on the individual but this is what makes it memorable as well. How can society find a way to use the technology, which is subject to resource availability, to bring people together instead of weaning them away? Perhaps, through sharing. The idea would mean using the virtual medium of the internet to share physical object and artifacts amongst the people. For example, the Finnish website of Kassi[1], where one can not only buy and sell second-hand goods but also, seek favors and borrow goods. So one does not need to buy expensive and resource consuming materials such as an electronic drill or a lawn mover but rather just exchange or loan them. What does this mean for social connections? Maybe one meets new people through this service and relationships can be forged. By sharing, there is also an affirmation of good; for the exchanger, a feeling of good and well-being and for the receiver, confirmation that people can trust and help. This, further, can build into communities through introductions and references of one another.

But how does this work in societies where technology is not pervasive? If technology is not pervasive, these are not industrialized societies and one can look at developing countries such as India and China as examples. These countries serve as the factories of the western world and the goods produced are not targeted at the locals. Though these countries possess urban cities, majority of the population live in rural areas with limited access to sanitation systems, electricity and transportation networks. Yet, the people of these societies manage with less. This is not say that it is an indication of a better life as within these societies gender inequality, practices of genital mutilation, poverty, unemployment, religious fundamentalism etc exist. Being the factories of the world, here is where primary industries exist but yet, they are undervalued and are representative of global inequality. For example, industries from the western world have moved to China and India due to the presence of cheap labour. Cheap labour , here, usually means being paid to survive. This differs from the cheap labour in Europe where, generally, the minimum paid is required for ‘comfort’ such as being able to afford a cruise during the summers. Therefore, you have cheap things and there is the usual farce of decrying sweatshops for their poor standards. If the same product were to be made in Finland, it would cost ten times more than being made anywhere else due to labour, safety and employment regulations and legislations. Things are not EQUAL… in this global world, which is an indication of how nationalities are dissimilar.

Even though, these kinds of inequities exist, the lives of these societies are not without lessons. Though they do not have monetary wealth, they rely on their socio-cultural connections and this is highly prized. Without enough finances to be able to purchase individual goods, the community shares their resources so as to reduce costs. This is also evident in the way their communal spaces are organized. Their private lives extend onto the streets in front of their homes and activities such as cooking are in public view. Their streets function as their living rooms, especially within the Indian context, becoming spaces for discussion and meeting. Everyone knows their neighbor well enough to like or dislike them, and who is willing to borrow sugar or who needs assistance with childbirth. Each person has multiple functions in the society from being the handyman to the farmer to being a teacher. Value lies more in the person than in the limited resources they have and their knowledge base is treasured in their elderly, as they do not have the great computer.

How can developed and developing societies find equilibrium amongst themselves and with each other? The first step would, actually, be to establish a common global manifesto where universal human rights are the basis. Since the world is undergoing the phenomenon of globalisation, there has to be meaning to what a global citizen is and what does it mean to participate on such a level. This would be a universal legislation and laws which override the inequities and complexity of laws and regulations of individual nations and also eliminate the exploitation of these weaknesses by rich countries or corporations such as sweatshops of India. The other step would be to strengthen local communities and resources. This can be done by making knowledge widely available and the information technology plays a good role in this. Though the Kassi website covers a large area and numbers of people but at the moment, does not localize the effort, to the scale of a neighborhood or apartment. Another alternative might be to connect people living in a neighborhood through a service similar to the social networking site Facebook, where there is opportunity to allow for local discussions and decisions. This would connect the locals with their locality and reinforce the loose relationships that exist. By tapping into their local resources, it will reduce the need for global exchanges with their high carbon footprints and sharing amongst locals is less carbon extensive than with those who live five to ten kms away.

Another aspect to such a service would be to connect locals of the northern rich countries to with those of the southern countries, to foster exchange. This can involve educational, skill, knowledge or dialogue exchange and there is the technological aspect to assist in this. This will help in awareness about the issues present in both communities and a sense of responsibility will develop between them towards each other. It will, perhaps, help in making even that consumerism has fueled in the west and make people aware of their extensive consumption patterns, and gain first-hand experiences how their consumption affects other parts of the world. These are just some of the measures that can be created that allows communication and information technology to aid the basis of what brings societies together on a local and a global scale. By sharing and exchanges, not only are we are reducing our needs for individualistic consumerism and consumption but also, we gain socially and spiritually from the social relationships we cultivate.


[1] http://kassi.sizl.org/?locale=en

Murphy, C. (2010). Young more lonely than the old, UK survey suggests [online]. [Accessed 25 May 2010]. Available from: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8701763.stm>.


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