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Unintended Consequences

March 18,  2021

According to sociologist Robert Merton in his 1936 paper titled The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action, deliberate action motivated to cause social change (distinct from instinctive behavior) results in outcomes that can have unexpected benefits, unexpected drawbacks or perverse results.

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Between the benefits and the drawbacks, there are differences without a distinction. Both would not change the course of ones actions; however, within the perverse results category, the end result is the complete opposite of the original intent. With this in mind and fully aware of the varietal outcomes, still, we move steadfastly in the intended direction of our internal motivations oblivious of what really lies ahead.

Technology can be considered one of the deliberate actions meant to cause change to/for our society and it reaches across many avenues from travel to communication. It is of communication and it’s transformative power for our commonwealth that this little piece of prose is about.

From the letter to the telegraph to the telephone to the internet, we can trace the evolution of our attempt to stay connected through the generations. Much has been written of the lowly letter from the lonely lover to the love of his life and the cherished reception over many months and many a mile by pigeon, pony or postal person. The letter holds its hallowed place in history’s halls next to the cuneiform script and the birth of our earliest attempts to write.

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With the advent of the telegraph, we began to bridge the chasm of time and distance. Messages converted to dots and dashes were sent electronically over wires to an operator at the other end who then decoded it for the recipient. We traded in the personal, hand written missive for the speedy delivery of telegraphy of which we were still not contented, nor were we satisfied. 

From the telegraph to the telephone, we were able to redeem some of the personal satisfaction associated with the evolution in our correspondence. To hear the voice of the sender brought by this new technology was a joy unspeakable in its day. No need for an interpreter to relay a simple message and many nuances were now readily obtainable through intonation and modulation not previously available in the dot or a dash. Loved ones were as close as you could imagine whether across town or country or a continent.

From Samuel Morse to Alexander Graham Bell to ARPANET, quite possibly we have again traded in our benefits for unintended consequences. No longer are we satisfied with one voice, we want to hear and be heard by many and at the same time. 

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The nuances that we gained in hearing one voice over one direct line are lost in the multitudinous cacophony of voices talking over each other all vying for attention. The shouting matches and name calling online with family and friends and strangers that we know nothing about take on epic proportions. Things we would not say nor speak of a generation ago when face to face now have become fair game in this faceless communal. Now in our struggle to evolve, instead of the strongest being the ones to survive, the new mantra should be “only the loudest survive.”

Perhaps in our efforts to cause social change, we do stumble and fall short of our intended goals and perhaps in our attempts to draw closer to all of our fellow travelers, we find ourselves more distant than ever.  Can our ability to communicate keep pace with our access to communicate or does our biology not stand a chance against the onslaught of the digital blogosphere?

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Can we find again that personal touch each of us crave or are we just destined for that last incarnation of our kind and surrender to the inevitable, the consummate unintended consequence?

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"I think it's brought the world a lot closer together, and will continue to do that. There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything. The most corrosive piece of technology that I've ever seen is called television - but then, again, television, at its best, is magnificent."  

-Steve Jobs

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