School of Social and Political Science

The Virgin and the Plow

Keynote lecture
04 October 2017
19:30 - 21:30


Symposium Hall, King Khalid Lecture Theatre (behind Surgeon's Hall) Hill Square Edinburgh



"How Technology Shapes Who We Are, and How We Live and Love"


We are living now in what feels like a radical age. How we date, whom we marry, and even what it means to be a man or a woman, are all changing at a dizzying pace. In the 1950s, an unmarried mother was scorned and humiliated. Now, single women regularly purchase their pregnancies through donor sperm and host baby showers with glee. 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 over twenty countries, and gay weddings litter the social pages of major metropolitan newspapers. From Copenhagen to Calcutta, teenagers regularly find their sexual partners on their cell phones, and middle-aged divorcees are rushing to hook up online.

Typically, these kinds of social changes are understood as the product of shifting norms and policies. In the United States, for example, we consistently describe women’s “right to choose” as the direct result of a legal decision (the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade) and the social forces (mostly feminism) that drove it. Gay rights, likewise, are seen as a result of the gay activism that gained traction in the 1980s, and a shifting generational acceptance of homosexuality. In other words, we see social changes as being driven primarily by social preferences.

What this lecture will suggest, by contrast, is that what we think of as social structures are actually the remnants 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 only in the wake of scientific breakthroughs that made their shuffling of gender roles suddenly more plausible. As technology evolves, so too, at a fundamental level, do we.

Which raises, of course, one of the most fundamental questions facing us today: what do we do as a species when our tools become more powerful than us?

About the Speaker

Debora L. Spar is President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Lincoln Center’s New York City campus is home to 11 world-class arts organizations and considered the world’s leading performing arts organization. Spar, the first woman to hold the esteemed position, assumed the leadership role in March 2017

Key speakers

  • Debora L. Spar, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts