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Are fringe communities the canary in the AI coal mine?

June 3, 2024

The Paradox of Early Adoption: From Fringe to Mainstream

Throughout history, those who have embraced new ideas, technologies, or lifestyles before the general population have often been met with skepticism, ridicule, or even outright rejection. However, time and again, these “early adopters” have paved the way for societal shifts that eventually become widely accepted and integrated into the mainstream. This paradoxical journey from fringe to mainstream has played out across various domains over the past 150 years, and it raises intriguing questions about the current trend of “going back to the earth” and embracing a more self-sufficient, technology-averse lifestyle.

The Pioneers of Progress

Consider the early adopters of the automobile in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the first gasoline-powered vehicles hit the roads, they were met with skepticism and derision. Horse-drawn carriages were the norm, and the idea of a self-propelled machine was seen as a novelty, if not an outright threat to the established order. Yet, as the benefits of automobiles became more apparent, and their adoption grew, they eventually transformed transportation and urban planning, becoming an integral part of modern life.

Similarly, the early proponents of personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s were often viewed as eccentric hobbyists or technophiles. The idea of having a computer in one’s home was considered a luxury or a frivolous pursuit by many. However, as the potential of these machines became more evident, and their capabilities expanded, personal computers became ubiquitous, revolutionizing the way we work, communicate, and access information.

Here are some other examples of societal shifts that were paved by early adopters:

  • The Internet and Social Media 
    Early internet users and social media adopters were often seen as part of a niche subculture. However, their early adoption paved the way for the internet and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to become mainstream, profoundly impacting communication, commerce, and social interactions.
  • Renewable Energy 
    The early adopters of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, were often considered fringe environmentalists. However, as concerns about climate change and fossil fuel depletion grew, their efforts helped drive the adoption of renewable energy technologies on a larger scale.
  • Plant-based Diets 
    Early vegetarians and vegans were often viewed as part of a counterculture movement. However, as awareness of the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets increased, these lifestyles have become more mainstream, influencing the food industry and societal attitudes towards meat consumption.

These examples illustrate how early adopters, despite initial skepticism or ridicule, played a crucial role in paving the way for societal shifts that eventually became widely accepted and integrated into the mainstream.

The Counterculture of Self-Sufficiency

In recent years, a growing movement has emerged that embraces a return to a more self-sufficient, sustainable, and technology-averse lifestyle. Proponents of this movement, often referred to as “survivalists” or “off-gridders,” have chosen to live in intentional communities or remote locations, relying on renewable energy sources, growing their own food, and minimizing their dependence on modern infrastructure and technology.

While this lifestyle may seem radical or fringe to many, it raises important questions about the long-term sustainability of our current way of life and the potential consequences of our reliance on increasingly powerful and pervasive technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).As AI continues to advance and permeate various aspects of our lives, from decision-making processes to automation, there is a growing concern about the potential risks and unintended consequences of this technology. The survivalist movement, with its emphasis on self-reliance and a more harmonious relationship with nature, could be seen as an early adopter of a lifestyle that may become more appealing or even necessary in the face of potential disruptions caused by AI or other technological advancements.

The Cycle of Adoption and Adaptation

History has shown that what is initially perceived as fringe or eccentric often becomes mainstream over time. The early adopters of new technologies, ideas, or lifestyles are frequently met with skepticism or ridicule, but as their benefits or advantages become more apparent, and society adapts, these once-fringe practices become integrated into the fabric of everyday life.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German philosopher whose thoughts even had influence on the philosophical writings of Nietzsche. He is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 19th century and even in his time period he observed astutely, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident”. This thought, although from 150 years ago, encapsulates and supports the idea that there is an inherent humanistic pattern to addressing profound or revolutionary truths, they are usually met with rejection and derision before eventually being accepted as obvious.

The current trend of “going back to the earth” and embracing a more self-sufficient lifestyle may be viewed as a counterculture movement today, but it could potentially be a harbinger of a future where a more sustainable and technology-conscious way of living becomes a necessity or a desirable choice for a broader segment of the population.

As we navigate the rapidly evolving landscape of technological advancements, particularly in the realm of AI, it is crucial to remain open-minded and consider alternative perspectives. The early adopters of today may hold valuable insights and lessons for navigating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Truman Spring, PhD., Director of Continuing Education, CityU.
Heather Henderson, Ed.D., Canadian Director of the Master of Education in Leadership, CityU. 

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