Revolutionaries and Captives in the Information Society
Every generation believes that it is at a seminal point on the time-line of technological progress. It is either the age of iron, the age of the train, the age of flight or, in our case, the information age. We can thus always say that we stand at an interesting moment in the development of technology. Nowhere does this 'interesting moment' look more intriguing than our current location on the map of rapidly evolving information technology, particularly networking technology.
1996 was the year in which the Internet made the tabloids and TV and, as ever, we are impatient to look over the cyberwall to guess what might happen next, having been assured by those at the centre of it that we face a revolution of life-changing proportions. Looking over this virtual parapet, commentators seem to separate rather too rigidly into optimists and pessimists. However it is the 'tension-ground' between optimism and pessimism, the pulling and tugging between these two polarised messages that I believe brings the uncertainty, discomfort and anxiety of captivity.
Anxiety because large populations of people, for a multiplicity of social and economic reasons feel that this is all going too fast for them, that they will not understand what it is that they need to understand, and that when they do start to grasp the basics, 'the others' will have moved on to much higher ground and they will never be able to catch up. Captivity because, for better or worse, we have all bought the message that we must adapt to these technologies without any clear evidence that they enrich our lives or make us more effective than we were before.
In the area of information technology we know that many of the revolutionaries are also in the business of selling us the hardware and software that will keep the revolution going. But we should share enough healthy scepticism to warn us that such a confluence of ideas and trade may not always be motivated simply by the general good. We know that Andy Grove of Intel must declare the fast-chip, rapid obsolescence faith, the Pentium (1994), the Pentium Pro (1996), the MMX (January 1997), the new Pentium II (and MMX for business, May 1997) and the interminable next generation processing power. 'Intel giveth and Microsoft taketh away' and oftentimes we are not really sure why. A serious symptom of our captivity then is as consumers who buy the message that we must discard one year old technology.
This is a captivity based on messages about obsolescence which we accept in the absence of any serious critical analysis of our needs. We note also the alliances being forged, almost on a daily basis, between media content providers and those who provide the drivers and connections to the new networks and we also guess that these alliances have more to do with profit than with high ideals or unsullied altruism. Although the language of the revolutionaries often displays a seamless merging of ideals and enterprise, we know that there are seams, that trade and competitiveness demand one set of standards and the public good demands another, and we can usually tell the difference.
In his book Knowing Machines (1996) Donald Mackenzie wrote "technologies may be best because they have triumphed rather than triumphing because they are the best". This is a thought well worth reflecting on when we consider the ubiquity of one technology over another. Has DOS and Windows ever been 'the best'? Over the long term the real advantages of networking technology are more likely to be messily associated with the wider social, political and economic imperatives within which it resides than as a direct result of its underlying science. The context, the way it compounds and coincides with the wider economic and political behaviours of both communities and individuals, the exclusivity that emerges as the prerogative of certain groups who gain seemingly unassailable advantages by developing deep knowledge early, and the time-scale over which all economic groups gain access to it, will all contribute to its place as a universal or restricted phenomenon.
Of course the info-rich among us will seize all the convenience that we can from IT. We will employ it as a pack-horse in our affairs, we will exploit and develop it to transform further aspects of our lives, but we do not have to offer our souls to it, we can regain the critical no-mans-land between the extremes. We are equipped to be both optimistic and pessimistic about it, and stay happy.
Yet in a world of Netspeed our minds too often have to respond to trivial definitions of urgency - constructed urgency - which result in harmful over-use of adrenalin, poor recall and pattern recognition, and ironically, given the abundance of information available to us, greater recourse to guesswork. This leads to poor outcomes and stress related illness - a spiral that inevitably generates more urgency, more pressure and more stress. The concomitant fear of having to process more and more information, because it is available, in shorter and shorter timescales, compounds the problem.
The captives of my title are all of us. At different times we all get caught in this tension-ground of wondering if we know enough. This is the modern no-mans-land of information shell-holes and barbed wire. It used to be the malice of inanimate objects, those piles of newspapers and cuttings that intimidated us from the corner of a room. We left them there because we were convinced that there was definitely something among them that we wanted to refer to again. We possibly even took scissors to bits of them to improve our hit rate. But we soon forgot what it was that we wanted and as the pile increased the time needed for retrieval seemed less and less worthwhile. Their silent screams sometimes become unbearable enough for us to blow away the dust and throw them out amid curious emotions of angst and liberation.
With the Internet we face even more intimidation - a notional pile of cuttings which, like a whispering Iago, suggests that without it we cannot live. Academics, as many publishers know, do not respond well to having their urgency constructed, but they are not by any means immune to these anxieties. The sheer weight of information available in a large library can cause them delirium, almost sickness. Many of us have experienced something like it as we walk away after hours of browsing in a large library only to feel the walls behind murmuring about everything we missed. Academics are bedevilled by the fear of incompleteness and the constant worry that the key ingredient of their argument is lying somewhere they have not been. So they worry, go back again and put off actually writing something useful or creative for another year or so.
As more and more information sources are brought to our attention via the Internet, learning to handle containment rather than access may be the challenge. As seekers after information we often desire a mix of specificity and serendipity. When we know precisely what we want, we want to go straight to it, retrieve it, use it, discard it. When we are unsure about our precise needs we want to browse among likely sources hoping for interesting discoveries and connections to emerge. B ut to be able to browse we need large collections organised in some way that facilitates stumbling across happy discoveries. And yet, given our addiction to speed, we are also anxious to expedite retrieval. To help us with our twin desires of specificity and serendipity, nineteenth century libraries developed rational classification schemes based on subject relationships which, as well as helping us find specific titles and subjects, also realised a modicum of serendipity. The specific item would be shelved alongside related items which we could stumble across. The Internet is the exact reverse of this experience - an infinity of information where it is quite difficult to locate a specific request, but the serendipity can be overwhelming.
Despite continuing prophecies that predict its decline, the city will continue to be the melting pot where the social and economic extremes of internetworking will reside, where multinational corporations, amid their clusters of fibre optic cables and satellites, will co-exist beside communities that are lucky to find a pay-phone working, physical proximity to the infrastructure having little to do with easy access to it. We know that the same technologies that disenfranchise, control and exploit disadvantaged groups can just as easily be used to empower and release them, and this ambivalence and contradiction will be seen at its most pointed in cities. Social divisions and distinctions have remained largely untouched by the massification of a whole range of computer-based technologies and the Internet will be no different. It owes its existence to the desire of info-rich actors to talk and share information and knowledge with other info-rich actors and, whatever their altruistic motives may or may not be, neither will have the power to extend membership of the club. The users do not own the means. They have great freedom to communicate but they do not have the freedom to decide who else may communicate with them. That decision will remain with the investors.
These elite groups will naturally increase their awareness and extend their grip on the deep understanding and knowing which is such an important part of economic differentiation, inevitably accelerating their hold on the developing sophistication of systems. Employing the latest and most satisfying version of networking technology requires on-going, hands-on know-how to maintain its benefits as well as the disposable income to continue investing in hardware and software with short life-cycles. In developed economies the question 'Are you on the network?' could become as significant a social and economic differentiator in the late 1990s as 'Are you employed?' was at the beginning of the decade. Indeed the answer to both questions might of necessity be the same. The world has always been a place of 'haves' and 'have-nots' and internetworking is not going to change this. Indeed it has the decidedly ominous potential to increase that sense of poor self-esteem and alienation that has always made it more difficult for the economically deprived to cross over into higher levels of economic activity. The differentials run deeper than the deepest cable.
We will probably have to wait another 12 years or so before we can assess the impact of the internetworking revolution. In 2010 those babies born in developed economies in the sunny mid-sixties, who will have grown up with computers, e-mail, computer games and CD information to help with their homework, will be in their mid-forties and occupying leadership roles in business and government. They will know that to leave large populations of citizens outside the networking club will mean handing competitive advantage to those nations with more egalitarian and dynamic educational systems, and that a sizeable sub-culture of citizens unable to access the basic tools of a modern society will eventually generate dissatisfaction and even civil unrest. Anxiety will increase as the complexities of life become more visible but no more comprehensible, and instead of a world of greater certainty they will know a world where confidence is always qualified by suspicions of incompleteness.
We have learnt to take the vehemence of the techno-optimists with more than a pinch of salt. There will be great riches and great opportunities from internetworking but we have little evidence, so far, to suggest that all economic groups will secure similar benefits. Without a major shift away from the current economic paradigm it will be the economics of profit rather than of social enrichment which will be prioritised. Most people would accept that all technology is a Faustian bargain, that it giveth and it taketh away, and that the verdict on the value of the giving and the adverse impact of the taking often takes the jury many years of observation and discovery before it can be delivered with any accuracy.
Emeritus Professor of Human Information Systems,
University of Central England