From the time humans first created tools, our technologies have shaped us. Physically, they are associated with the development of the brain, and there are indications that this continues into our own time. Our view of the world is contingent upon how we perceive it through scientific devices and communications media. Our culture has been revolutionized by books, engines, and birth control.
The influence of specific technologies can change over time. In the United States, radio theater was once popular and trained the imaginations of millions. When broadcast television ruled, it fixed schedule and limited programming created reliable, common touch points. Neither radio nor television impact people’s lives in the same way today.
Beyond physical, individual, and cultural effects of technology, tools bring together people in powerful, common relationships. We can think, for instance, of the early adopters of the personal computer and how organizations like the Homebrew Computing Club (which included luminaries like Apple’s Steve Wozniak) became essential tribes with shared ideas and values that came to remake and, in many ways, disrupt powerful forces within our world. To an extent, hackers of today and the emerging tribe of makers continue this tradition.
But first adopters aren’t necessarily those who are savvy about technologies and attracted to them for their own sake. Arguably, the world of bionics is being shaped by people with disabilities, who are working for expanded capabilities and inclusion and who our very specific about what they expect from artificial limbs and other technologies that are critical to their well-being.
People who have medical issues that are treated by therapies and pharmaceuticals can find and support each other today through online communities. Often, they alert each other to side effects and promote unconventional treatments as they work together to mitigate ill effects.
We are just at the beginning of some of what might be called tribes of necessity understanding and asserting their power. Many have gotten actively involved in setting research agendas and challenging protocols that don’t seem to serve their needs. (Before there was an Internet, of course, victims of HIV insisted on a place at the table and successfully redirected research.)
Today we have funding mechanisms that can also bring technology to tribes of necessity and enable its funding. The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, for instance, is combining drones and advanced supercomputer-based predictive analysis in a program called Air Shepherd to detect elephant poachers and alert rangers as to their activities.
One tribe of necessity that has tremendous potential is the aged. Though healthier than previous elders, those of retirement age are not immune to the limits that the body’s deterioration brings as years go on. At the same time, in the United States, this group has gone from the poorest demographic in 1959 to the wealthiest demographic today. Need plus power plus wealth plus the ability to organize online could be an equation that yields surprising new developments in technology. This is a vanguard tribe that’s worth watching as, in their later years, they create major elements of humanity’s future.