Written 9:59 AM Jul 30, 1997 by gtimes@post8.tele.dk in igc:pna.news
Is the Information Age the Future We Want?
A PNA dispatch
archives

Eyes on the Information Age
Is this the future we Really want?
By Sohail Inayatullah

Many claim that with the advent of the Web and Internet, the future has
arrived. The dream of an interconnected planet where physical labor
becomes minimally important and knowledge creation becomes the source of
value and wealth is said to be here now.

Yet, two-thirds of the world has no phone, and much of the world lives
over two hours from a phone connection. Rather than accurate, we might do
better to call the ‘Cyber/Information Era’ view of the future ignorant.

New technologies have speeded up time for the elite West and the elite in
the non-West, yet for the majority of the world there is no ‘Information
Era’. Moreover, in the hyperjump to cyberspace we have forgotten that
while ideas and the spirit can soar, there are cyclical processes - such
as the life and death of individuals, nations and civilisations - that
cannot be so easily transformed.

Though more people do make their living by processing ideas, this may be
little more than a non-productive pyramid scheme where we slip further and
further away from existential necessities like food production and
manufacturing. The apostles of cybereconomies and cyberjobs seem intent on
building virtualities upon virtualities until there is nothing there, as
in the Advaita Vedanta, wherein the world is ‘maya’, an illusion.

The coming of the Information Era, ostensibly providing untold riches in
bits of freedom for all, in fact limits some people’s futures because it
robs them of alternatives. Call it liberating and progressive, the Web may
be more like Max Weber’s iron cage - the future with no exit, wherein
there is an inverse relationship between data and wisdom, between quick
bytes and long term commitment, and between engagement to technology and
engagement with humans, plants and animals.

We know now from email culture that the twin dangers of immediacy and
speed do not necessarily lead to greater community and friendship. Rather,
they can lead to bitter misunderstandings. Email then is as much the great
connector, leading to higher levels of information, as the great
disconnector, creating a mirage of connection and community. Just as words
lack the informational depth of silence, email loses information embedded
in silence and face-to-face gestures.

Attentive time
Cybertechnologies thus create not just rich and poor in terms of
information, but a world of quick inattentive time that makes people poor
in slow attentive time. The tendency in the Information Age is toward
quick time, where data and information are far more important than
knowledge and wisdom.

Time on the computer screen is different from time spent gazing at sand in
the desert or wandering in the Himalayas. Screen time fails to slow the
heart beat, relaxing the mind into deeper conscious states. Rather, the
display of an endless variety of topics and opinions in Websites and
conference groups tends to scatter our minds - and ourselves - into many
bits, like electronic leaves in the cyberwind.

Cybertechnologies create an era of accelerating information but not
necessarily knowledge, and certainly not a future where the subtle
mysteries of the world are felt. The assimilation and reflection as well
as intuition and insight needed to make sense of intellectual and
emotional data are lost to the extent that the need to respond to others
becomes more urgent and the amount of information accessed piles up. Slow
time, lunar time, women’s time, cyclical rise-and-fall time, circular
seasonal time, and spiritual timeless time are among the victims, leading
to temporal impoverishment, a loss of temporal diversity.

This quickening of the self was anticipated by Marshall McLuhan in 1980.
‘Excessive speed of change isolates already fragmented individuals. At the
speed of light man has neither goals, objectives or private identity. He
is an item in the data bank - software only, easily forgotten - and deeply
resentful.’

Selves lose reflective space, jumping from one object to another, one
Website to another, one email to another. It is not just a communicative
world that transpires but also a world of selves downloading their
emotional and mental confusion onto each other.

Writes Zia Sardar, ‘Far from creating a community based on consensus, the
information technologies could easily create states of alienated and
atomised individuals, glued to their computer terminal, terrorising and
being terrorised by all those whose values conflict with their own.’ It is
as if we have all become psychic, with all thoughts interpenetrating,
creating a global schizophrenia.

The great leap forward
For cyber-enthusiasts, however, the new technologies give more choice.
They supposedly reduce the power of Big Business and Big State, creating a
vast frontier for creative individuals to explore. According to Dale
Spender, ‘Cyberspace has the potential to be egalitarian, to bring
everyone into a network arrangement. It has the capacity to create
community; to provide untold opportunities for communication, exchange and
keeping in touch.’

Cybertechnologies will allow more interaction and on a global scale. They
create wealth, indeed, a jump in wealth, for some. Because they are
technological, they promise a society in continual change, where the
future is always beckoning, a new invention yearly. The supposedly
oppressive dimensions of bounded identity - in nation, village, gender and
culture - will all disappear as we move in and out of identities and
communities. It is the end of scarcity as an operating myth and the
beginning of abundance, of information that can be free. The late 20th
century is the demarcation from the industrial to the Information Era.
Progress is occurring now. Forget the cycle of rise and fall and life and
death. That was but misinformation.

But while the growth data looks impressive and the stock of Microsoft
continues upward, there are hidden costs. For example, what of negative
dimensions of the new technologies, such as surveillance? Police in
Brisbane, Australia use up to 100 hidden cameras in shopping malls to
watch for criminal activities. Hundreds more are anticipated, which will
create an electronic grid in the central part of the city.

Though this may be benign in Brisbane (Aborigines might have different
views), imagine a large grid over Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, Taliban’s
Afghanistan, or Zia-ul Haq’s Pakistan (where every ‘immoral’ gaze would
have led to arrest). It is enough to frighten the most fanatical
techno-optimist.

Or is it? Many believe that privacy issues will be forgotten dimensions of
the debate on cyberfutures once we each have our own self-encryptors so
that no one can read our communications or enter our private universes.
Technology will tame technology as the modern version of the chastity belt
locks up the mind.

Over time, says this logic, the benefits of the new technologies will become
global, with poverty, homelessness and anomie all wiped out. Everyone - even
the poorest - will eventually have access as billions of brains, once connected,
will solve the problems of oppression. Many people have always imagined
such a future, it is only now that technology allows it so.

Cyber-enthusiasts rightfully point to the possibility for an
interconnected world cybertechnology creates. But they forget that the
‘one world’ being created remains fundamentally capitalistic, with local
economies, local cultures and power over one’s future under increasing
attack if not already subsumed by globalizing forces. The tiny Pacific
Island of Niue, for example, recently discovered that 10% of its national
revenue was being sucked out through international sex-line services. The
Information Era is Late Capitalism, a system in which all other
psycho-social classes and ways of knowing - intellectual, warrior and
worker - become, in P.R. Sarkar’s words, the ‘boot lickers of the
merchants.’

While intellectuals invent metaphors for postmodernity and
post-industrialism, capital continues to accumulate unevenly. The poor,
though they can now have a Website, become poorer and more impotent. The
Information Era still exists in the context of the world capitalist system
- it is not an external development of it, and it will not create the
contradictions that end it, contrary to the vain imaginings of superficial
techno-enthusiasts. The knowledge and non-materialistic societies that
many futurists imagine conveniently ignore very real human suffering. But
for virtual realities, we have virtual theories.

A real information society
Still, there are progressive dimensions to the new technologies. As Fatma
Aloo of the Tanzanian Media Women’s Association argues, ‘They are a
necessary evil.’ Women and other marginalised groups must use and design
them for their own empowerment or they will be more left out and further
behind than they are now.

What is needed is the creation of a progressive knowledge society. It
would be a world sytem that was diverse in how it viewed knowledge -
appreciating the differences of civilisations rather than condemning them
or burying them in consumer culture.

The non-material wealth of this knowledge society would lie not just in
technical knowledge and ‘neutral’ information but in knowledge of
sentiment as well as of how to create better human conditions, reduce
suffering, and deepen spiritual comprehension. The challenge is not just
to increase our ability to produce and understand information, but to
enhance our capacity to distinguish knowledge of the temporal from
knowledge of the eternal. Even though the Web is less rigid than a
library, it is not the total information technology or total society,
information or otherwise, some assume: all-round personal example, not
only words typed on a screen, and unspoken spiritual influence cannot enter.

Agents of decolonization
The true benefit of information technology will lie in easing the way for
the creation of a unified planet of interconnected cultures. One where
there is deep multi-culturalism, where the epistemologies of varied
cultures flourish in communication, not isolation. To realise this, modern
cybertechnology is necessary. But certainly not enough.

The lesson of some cultures is that the new electronic technologies are
just one of many forms of influence and interaction creating world ties.
Indeed they act only at the more superficial levels. As important as
cyberspace is willed imagination. Mysticism, although it is beyond the
experience of most people, reminds us that what we will and imagine tends
to become reality. Monks on the Himalayas sending out positive thoughts,
Muslims praying in unison throughout the world, and determined thoughts of
people in general have the capacity to affect the thoughts, actions and
worlds of others also. So do simple written correspondence and
photography, of which cyberspace seems to be only an extension.

But like all products of imagination, the effects of cyberspace depend on
human intention. The Web can be an agent of decolonization, giving power
to communities and individuals in a framework of common global human,
economic, environmental and cultural rights, but will it? Phrased more
correctly, since the uses of technology are inseparable from human will -
will we be agents of decolonization, and should the Web be the primary
arena for our actions? The illusion lies in failing to see that cyberspace
is only a collection of virtual realities, one of the places where we talk
about a just world order, not where we actually bring it into being.

***© 1997 People's News Agency. All rights reserved. Material provided by
PNA may be reprinted if the author is mentioned and if the following
information is included: "Reprinted with permission of People's News
Agency, Platanvej 30, 1810 Frederiksberg C, Denmark,
gtimes@post8.tele.dk". Please send clippings to this address. PNA is a
news, views, analysis and literature service for the progressive-minded.
The agency is sponsored by Proutist Universal from its global headquarters
in Denmark, and serves progressive publications around the world.***