It is obvious that there are beneficial technologies, such as the ones used in the manufacture of kitchen utensils and efficient pharmaceuticals. It is equally evident that there are maleficent technologies, such as those of mass murder and the manipulation of public opinion. There are also double-edged technologies, such as those employed in the manufacture of television sets, the organization of firms, or the design of legal codes or public policies. Indeed, television may entertain and educate, or it may habituate us to violence and vulgarity. The legal craft can defend or condemn the innocent. And a public policy may benefit the rich or the poor, everyone or no one.
Because technology is rarely neutral, it is only natural that most people are either technophiles or technophobes. However, most technophobes have no qualms using high-tech artifacts, and some technophiles worship technologies they do not understand. An example of inconsistent technophobia is the existentialist who writes his nonsense on a word processor. And a case of blind technophile is that of the bedouin whom my friend Dan Seni caught in the act of kneeling before a computer – the Westerner’s newest deity.
Information technology is an ambivalent technology, because it concerns only the processing and transmission of messages, not their content or meaning. An information net may diffuse knowledge or propaganda, poems or insults, calls to compassion or to violence. Because of this ambivalence, humanists have something to say about the information revolution: we have to find out what is good and what is bad about the information revolution, as well as what is true and what is false about the strident info hype.
Information and Knowledge
The enormous role that information plays in industrial societies has given rise to the myth that the universe is made of bits rather than matter. An instant’s reflection suffices to puncture this idealist fancy. In fact, an information system, such as the Internet, is composed by human beings (or automata) that operate artifacts such as coders, signals, transmitters, receivers, and decoders. These are all material things or processes in them. Not even signals are immaterial: in fact, every signal rides on some material process, such as a radio wave.
In other words, it is not true that the world is immaterial or in the process of dematerialization – or, as some popular authors put it, that bits are replacing atoms. We eat atoms, not bits. And when we get sick we call a physician, not an electronic engineer. What is true is that E-mail is replacing “snail-mail.” But both the electromagnetic signal that propagates along a net and the letter carried by a mailman are concrete items. The information revolution is a huge technological innovation with a strong social impact, but it does not require any changes in worldview: today’s world is just as material and changeable as yesterday’s.
We laugh at the superstitious bedouin of my friend Dan’s story, but forget that similar characters are at the helm of many a modern organization. What else is the politician or civil servant who proposes to swamp schools with computers, instead of recycling teachers and motivating students, upgrading labs and workshops, stocking libraries, and updating curricula? What if not a superstitious bedouin is the administrator who prioritizes the research projects involving use of computers regardless of the importance and the originality of research problems?
All these modern bedouins equate information with knowledge, and research with information or diffusion of information. But information or message is not the same as knowledge. Martin Heidegger’s sentences “The world worlds,” “Language speaks,” and “Time is the ripening of temporality,” convey no knowledge at all: they are empty strings of symbols. And original research does not consist in retrieving or even processing information, but in formulating new problems and trying to solve them.
Computers are certainly helping find new knowledge, but they cannot replace living brains. This is so only because computers are designed and built by people to help solve problems, not to find or invent them. And problems happen to be the fountains of research. Moreover, a computer program can only tackle well-posed problems with the help of an algorithm. It is helpless in the face of an ill-posed problem, or a well-posed problem for which no algorithm is known (or for which it is known that no algorithm is possible).
In particular, there can be no algorithms for designing algorithms. In general, there are no rules for inventing new ideas. Only a living brain, and a well-appointed one at that, can invent radically new ideas, in particular analogies and high-level principles. Computers can only combine or unpack known ideas, and even so provided they are supplied with the suitable rules of combination or inference.
Furthermore, computers work to rule in all senses of the word. They are neither curious nor imaginative; they neither cut corners nor understand metaphors; and they can neither craft projects nor evaluate plans or findings. For a word processor, the sentences “Dog bites man” and “Man bites dog” have the same value, since they have the same number of bits. Likewise it is incapable of ranking research projects; consequently it may lend its alleged authority to any wrongheaded project.
We all would like to know more and, at the same time, to receive less information. In fact, the problem of a worker in today’s knowledge industry is not the scarcity but the excess of information. The same holds for professionals: just think of a physician or an executive, constantly bombarded by information that is at best irrelevant.
In order to learn anything we need time. And to make time we must use information filters allowing us to ignore most of the information aimed at us. We must ignore much to learn a little. And to craft such filters we need a naturalistic, comprehensive, deep, and up-to-date worldview. Secular humanism should help here.
In sum, the new information artifacts facilitate the processing and communication of knowledge but do not produce it. In particular, computers neither explore the external world nor invent theories capable of explaining or predicting any facts. Hence, they displace neither the explorer nor the inventor. Nor do they replace the competent and dedicated teacher capable of stimulating curiosity and transmitting enthusiasm for learning.
A good teacher can help shape an inquisitive and creative brain. On the other hand, the most an electronic device can do is to supply some valuable information. A powerful algorithm can help solve problems of a particular kind far quicker than a legion of living brains, but it is not a multi-purpose organ like a normal brain. It is not insightful and creative, or even critical: it must accept obediently almost anything it is fed. Last, but not least, no electronic device is capable of autonomous moral judgment. And this point is of particular interest to humanism, whether secular or religious.
The Information Highway
The Internet is daily making more converts than political parties and churches, including Islam. The fervor of some of its users is such that there is already talk of “infoaddiction” (or “webalcoholism”) on a par with drug addiction. Dr. Kimberly Young, a researcher with the University of Pittsburgh, has examined 400 Internet addicts. She found that they spend as many hours sitting in front of the screen as at work, and that they isolate themselves from their relatives and friends. Besides, when deprived of access to the Net, they exhibit a withdrawal syndrome similar to that experienced by drug addicts.
Fortunately such addicts are and will always constitute a small minority, and this for two reasons: restricted usefulness and excessive cost. The former is that the vast majority of the tasks we accomplish in daily life do not require the use of computers: think of learning to walk and respect other people, showering and getting dressed, cooking a meal and hammering a nail, greeting the neighbor and imagining a scene, playing ball and attending a party. The second reason that the Internet is and will remain an elite tool is that access to it involves an expenditure greater than the yearly income of most people in the Third World – where four out of five people happen to live.
However, undoubtedly the lives of an increasing number of people in the First World revolve around the information network. Some of them do not feel alive unless they send at least ten E-mails a day, and do not spend some hours surfing and updating their home page. How to explain this new fad? There are six main motives.
First, the Net procures a huge quantity of information at low price: it is the most universal and cheapest of encyclopedias. Second, using the Net confers prestige, it is chic and a sign of youthfulness: those out of it are rustics or fossils. Third, surfing is more comfortable than visiting museums, attending concerts, plays, or lectures, browsing libraries, traveling, or teaching one’s children. Fourth, anyone can produce his or her own home page to exhibit his wisdom or sense of humor, or else to relieve himself or herself or bore with impunity. Fifth, networking allows anyone to make a large number of acquaintances overnight and without commitment. Sixth, the Net is a refuge from job problems and domestic worries.
Compulsive networking, like obsessive television watching, is an electronic surrogate of religious worship. “Our Net in cyberspace, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in Cyberspace. Give us this day our daily bits.”
The info zealots assure us that the info highway is leading a more equal, cohesive, democratic, and better-educated society. The reason given is that information is replacing money as the universal means of exchange. Is this true? Only minimally. To begin with, the E-network draws no difference between legal tender and counterfeit. Information technology deals exclusively with information, regardless of relevance and value, truth and right. This is why there are such things as information overload and information swindle.
You can publish anything you like in your home page. There are no gatekeepers here because there are no standards and because the decision to publish is left to the user, without discussion with peers. Anarchy in the net is total: anything goes, fact or fancy, meaningful message or gobbledygook, stray item or system, jewel or garbage. Because of such extreme freedom of expression, the Internet will never displace refereed academic journals and books.
Nor is screen watching as inspiring as reading. Even a high priest of the newest cult admits that “Interactive multimedia leaves very little to the imagination. By contrast, the written word sparks images and evokes metaphors that get much of their meaning from the reader’s imagination and experiences”.
In short, the information highway leads to no definite place. Traveling along it one may learn almost anything except skills and good habits; one may communicate with other members of the elite; and, above all, one may escape for a while the petty miseries of everyday life – by dint of loading them on to other people.
But for the great majority of people it does not meet any basic needs, for most of us do not work in the knowledge industry. Moreover, the global net will always remain inaccessible to those most in need of it: the shipwrecks of society, that is, the people without relatives, friends, or connections, particularly the jobless and the homeless. They could use Internet to look for employment or friendship, or at least to kill time. But, of course, they cannot afford it.
A new utopia was born in the mid-1980s: that of the electronic or virtual society. This was to be a society in which face-to-face human relations would be replaced with screen-to-screen communication. We would all move from physical space to the cyberspace. People would stop meeting in homes, coffee houses, or town halls. Offices would work without paper. Classrooms, laboratories, and workshops would become computer rooms. Libraries would disappear.
Sports would be displaced by computer games. Not even cities would be left. Money would disappear, and all shopping would be done via the net. Maybe even family relations would pass through the screen. For example, spouses would communicate with one another through computers, and virtual love would displace carnal love. Is any of this consistent with what we know about the human need for physical contact and face-to-face dialogue?
It has also been prophesied that the generalized use of computers will abolish poverty and that the Internet will perfect democracy – again, because only information counts, and information is now universally available. But this is illusory. First, people with access to the Internet will always constitute a tiny minority: information, even when worthless, is far from free. Second, the rational debate that can be had in a well-moderated assembly is difficult through a medium where everyone says what and when he or she-wants, without commitment to make concessions or bargains, or arrive at definite conclusions. Third, the diffusion of artifacts demanding special skills and comparatively large expenditures increases social inequality.
Plugging into the Internet enhances the power of those who wield real power, and induces only a delusion of power in those devoid of real power – the ability to change other people’s behavior even against their will. A further polarization, that between the plugged and the unplugged, adds to the earlier polarizations – those between haves and have-nots, white and dark, believers and infidels, etc. Thus, the information revolution further disempowers rather than empowers the underdog. Hence, it is false that the information revolution is enhancing economic democracy.
The idea underlying the cyber-society utopia is that communication is the only, or at least the main, social bond. This myth was born in the 1960s. For example, Karl Deutsch (1966), a distinguished social scientist, defined a people as a body of individuals able to communicate with one another over long distances and about a variety of subjects.
Likewise, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1984), who strongly influenced Jurgen Habermas’s “theory of communicative action,” holds that social systems consist of communications and nothing but communications. But if this were true then all the mail, telephone, and E-mail users would constitute a people. For better or for worse a people is united by a variety of bonds: communication is only one of them. Moreover, communicating does not replace farming, manufacturing, trading, soldiering, or investigating. If anything, global communication contributes, albeit minimally, to weaken the frontiers among peoples.
Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, the inventor of a predecessor of the Internet, and a frequent user of this medium, is anything but a technophobe. However, in his book Silicon Oil Snake (1995) he warns against the newest fad. He holds that the computer networks are double-edged tools. While they facilitate access to mountains of useful information, they also “isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They undercut our schools and libraries.”
One can easily imagine episodes like the following in any family containing an Internet zealot. “Let’s go for a walk, darling.” “Sorry, I am answering an E-letter.” Later: “Shall we go to the theater?” “Are you mad? Can’t you see that I am reading my E-mail?” Somewhat later: “Kitty needs your help with her homework.” “Sorry, I’m surfing, and have just found a new exciting home page. Tell Kitty to search the Internet for the info she needs.” Information has displaced formation. And your face does not shine as brightly as my screen. In short, the virtual or electronic society is just as impossible as Italo Calvino’s imaginary cities. Still, our real societies are being threatened by the electronic fundamentalists.
Bunge, Mario. 1999. Treatise on Basic Philosophy, Vol. 8: Ethics. Boston: Kluwer.
Deutsch, Karl. 1966. Nationalism and Social Communication, 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Kurtz, Paul. 1998. Forbidden Fruit: The Information Revolution. Cambridge, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Menzies, Heather, 1995. Whose Brave New World? Toronto: Between the Lines.
Negroponte. Nicholas. 1996. Being Digital New York: Vintage Books.
Stoll, Clifford. 1995. Silicon Snake Oil. Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Anchor Books.
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