We are living now in a radical age. How we date, whom we marry, and even what it means to be a man or woman, are all changing at a dizzying pace. In the 1950s, an unmarried mother was scorned and humiliated. Now, single woman regularly purchase their pregnancies through donor sperm and freeze their eggs for later. In the 1970s, gay men were routinely harassed and ostracized, forced either to deny their sexuality or keep it tightly locked in the proverbial closet. Now gay marriage is legal in more than 20 countries and gay weddings are featured prominently in the social pages of most major newspapers. From Copenhagen to Calcutta, teenagers find their sexual partners on their cell phones and middle-aged divorcees are rushing to hook up on sites like Tinder and SeniorsMeetPeople.com. Even our most fundamental notions of gender are being transformed, as individuals move from the gender they were assigned at birth to the one they see as more rightfully theirs.
Customarily, these kinds of social changes are understood as the product of shifting norms and policies; we see social changes as being driven primarily by social preferences.
What I argue instead is that all social structures are the creations of technology, shaped and constructed by waves of technological change. Monogamous marriage, for example, rose to prominence alongside the development of agricultural tools. The nuclear family is a creation of the 18th and 19th century Industrial Revolution. And two of today’s leading social movements – feminism and gay rights – gained traction largely in the wake of scientific breakthroughs that made their demands more plausible.
What happens, therefore, as we enter a world of ever more rapid technological evolution? Of artificial intelligence and computer-mediated communication and digital mindfiles? What happens to sex and love and families when our tools become more powerful than we are?
Debora Spar is a Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School where she teaches the first-year Strategy course. Her current research focuses on issues of gender and technology, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures. Spar tackles some of these issues in her forthcoming book The Virgin and the Plow: How Technology Shapes How we Live and Love.
Spar served as the President of Barnard College from 2008 to 2017, and as President and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 2017 to 2018. During her tenure at Barnard, Spar led initiatives to highlight women’s leadership and advancement, including the creation of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and the development of Barnard’s Global Symposium series.
Before joining Barnard, Spar spent 17 years on the HBS faculty as the Spangler Family Professor in the BGIE unit. She also served as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development. During this period, her research primarily explored how political forces shape and constrain market behavior. She looked in particular at the politics of foreign trade and investment, and developed a second year course entitled Managing International Trade and Investment. In 2001, she published Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet, a comprehensive history of commercial technological revolutions that traced the intricate ways in which even the wildest of technological booms are likely, over time, to fall prey to political demands for control and regulation. Spar also studied the specific politics of reproductive science and tracked, in her 2006 book, The Baby Business, the emergence of a large (and largely unregulated) commercial market for fertility. In 2013, Spar published Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (2013), an exploration of how and why women have failed to realize many of feminism’s early promises.
Spar is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves as a director of Value Retail LLC and a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She has also served as a Director of Goldman Sachs and a trustee of the Markle and Wallace Foundations. Spar earned her Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and her B.S. from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.