Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 11 Social Change


How are computer technologies impacting on and even changing human beings living with other human beings?  What impact have they had on the way in which humans view themselves and on the values they hold?  The technologies have already produced quite noticeable impacts on most social institutions: the family, the community, the religious communities, government, the educational institutions and so on.  There is no social institution where there is no sign of change due to the existence of computers and the internet.

The technologies have had an impact on the way in which humans learn, work and play and govern themselves.  The technologies have empowered human beings and increased the potential that each has and that groups have to communicate with and influence others and to create and share with others.

Computer networks have impacted on the way in which humans hold traditional values as they present both expansions upon potentials and also threats to either diminishing or altering the positioning of some values humans have long held.  While humans can do more now due to these technologies, on the other hand humans are perceiving genuine threats to their autonomy as privacy becomes more difficult to defend and preserve. With threats to autonomy and privacy comes the resultant threat to Democracy as a form of government and social organization. While the technologies support a democratic form of association and communication at the same time they reduce privacy needed for some groups to form and to operate as critics of the current political order and government.  This constitutes a paradox of sorts that will be covered in the next chapter.

It is important for human beings to gain as much understanding of the impact of computer technologies and of their potentials so that humans might be better positioned to create deliberate efforts to influence the direction of change in the service of those values held most highly.

Humans now have the ability to communicate with billions of others and they can view the communications and creations of an ever growing number of people who express themselves through computers and the internet.    People are becoming authors and creators of letters, poems, plays, books, songs, videos and films at an unprecedented pace and the technologies make it possible for nearly every human to produce contributions to the world wide community. What does having this potential due to humans?  How has the social nature of the human being changed?

Humans have been significantly empowered by the still unimaginable extensions in capacity that computer technologies have presented to the human species that has created them.  The technologies have had adaptations that specific creators had not envisioned and in turn those adaptations have inspired even larger numbers of humans to envision and then to create even more adaptations and uses for the technologies.  Computer technologies have now been adapted and adopted to a variety of uses in homes, schools, businesses, nearly every form of transportation, financial institutions, industries from farming to power generation, the military and even religious institutions.  The arts and humanities have been impacted by the adoptions and adaptations as well.  Both access to and participation in all the major social institutions has been significantly altered by computer technologies.

People can pray online and participate in religious services and gain access to scriptures and sacred texts from laptops and notebook computers.  They can also gain access to information for the construction of weapons of mass destruction.  Medical information is available even when practitioners are not.  Medical specialists are available to colleagues at times and across distances that heretofore would have prohibited collaborations and consultations. Surgeons can perform surgery even when they are thousands of miles distant from those undergoing the procedure.

Personal relationships can be kindled and developed with some uses of computers and some relationships can be destroyed by other forms of use.  People can meet online and others can be unfaithful in new ways to their most significant partners.

Children have educational opportunities and resources available to them on a scale unprecedented in all human history and at the same time they can be targeted by those who would exploit and abuse them by those who gain access to them through the technologies.

Consumers can learn of and have access to a wider range and number of products and services than ever before and they can be targeted by unscrupulous agents who would practice larceny and theft in new forms made possible though the technology.

As the technologies increase human capacity the divisions amongst peoples of the world created by those with means and access to means for acquisition and manipulations of their environments and those without such means can be further widened as access to and possession of computer technologies varies with the wealth of individuals, groups and nations.  Attention needs to be given to this matter of exacerbation of the differences between the wealthy and the poor exemplified by issues of access to the computer technologies, sometimes referred to as the "digital divide".  There is already evidence that in some countries that have valued social equality there has been significant alteration in the lessening of the severity and of the nature of the divide in their borders. 

Computer technologies make possible human participation in simulations and virtual realities that offer emotional experiences previously obtained only through relationships and interactions with other humans and non-human biological life forms.  How have such experiences impacted humans and what might they offer in the future in terms of either further realization of those valued experienced or the diminishing of those values themselves or the displacement of the primary modes in which they   are realized by humans?  The human species has only just begun to create such virtual realities and to consider the impact of having done so.

There is appreciation being acknowledged for the call for attention to the impact of computer technologies on the various forms of association and on social institutions and on the basic conceptions of society and self and the values held by humans that guide decisions for change.  The impact of the technologies has been so considerable and significant and the potential so enormous that humans are realizing that there is little defense for ignoring what is happening and what may be coming.  The more difficult task is in the exploration of the most efficacious conceptualizations of changes and potential changes while acknowledging that knowledge of what the future holds as potential adoptions, adaptations and developments are impossible. Some directions of change may be capable of being altered,  some impacts diminished in intensity, and only some threats averted if there is sufficient attention and communications and marshalling of the force of consensus building and collective action and enforcement through statutes, regulations and acts of moral suasion. 

In the The Virtual Community   by  Howard Rheingold READ  Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy the section titled the The Hyper-realists

Hyper-realists see the use of communications technologies as a route to the total replacement of the natural world and the social order with a technologically mediated hyper-reality, a "society of the spectacle" in which we are not even aware that we work all day to earn money to pay for entertainment media that tell us what to desire and which brand to consume and which politician to believe. We don't see our environment as an artificial construction that uses media to extract our money and power. We see it as "reality"--the way things are. To hyper-realists, CMC, like other communications technologies of the past, is doomed to become another powerful conduit for disinfotainment. While a few people will get better information via high-bandwidth supernetworks, the majority of the population, if history is any guide, are likely to become more precisely befuddled, more exactly manipulated. Hyper-reality is what you get when a Panopticon evolves to the point where it can convince everyone that it doesn't exist; people continue to believe they are free, although their power has disappeared.

Televisions, telephones, radios, and computer networks are potent political tools because their function is not to manufacture or transport physical goods but to influence human beliefs and perceptions. As electronic entertainment has become increasingly "realistic," it has been used as an increasingly powerful propaganda device. The most radical of the hyper-realist political critics charge that the wonders of communications technology skillfully camouflage the disappearance and subtle replacement of true democracy--and everything else that used to be authentic, from nature to human relationships--with a simulated, commercial version. The illusion of democracy offered by CMC utopians, according to these reality critiques, is just another distraction from the real power play behind the scenes of the new technologies--the replacement of democracy with a global mercantile state that exerts control through the media-assisted manipulation of desire rather than the more orthodox means of surveillance and control. Why torture people when you can get them to pay for access to electronic mind control?

During the events of May 1968, when students provoked a revolt in the streets of Paris against the Gaullist regime, a radical manifesto surfaced, written by Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle made a startling tangential leap from what McLuhan was saying at around the same time. Cinema, television, newspapers, Debord proclaimed, were all part of worldwide hegemony of power in which the rich and powerful had learned to rule with minimal force by turning everything into a media event. The staged conventions of the political parties to anoint politicians who had already been selected behind closed doors were a prominent example, but they were only part of a web of headlines, advertisements, and managed events.

The replacement of old neighborhoods with modern malls, and caf‚s with fast-food franchises, was part of this "society of the spectacle," precisely because they help destroy the "great good places" where the public sphere lives. More than twenty years later, Debord looked back and emphasized this aspect of his earlier forecasts:

For the agora, the general community, has gone, along with communities restricted to intermediary bodies or to independent institutions, to salons or caf‚s, or to workers in a single company. There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it. . . . What is false creates taste, and reinforces itself by knowingly eliminating any possible reference to the authentic. And what is genuine is reconstructed as quickly as possible, to resemble the false.

Another French social critic, Jean Baudrillard, has been writing since the 1960s about the increasingly synthetic nature of technological civilization and a culture that has been irrevocably tainted by the corruption of our symbolic systems. This analysis goes deeper than the effects of media on our minds; Baudrillard claims to track the degeneration of meaning itself. In Baudrillard's historical analysis, human civilization has changed itself in three major stages, marked by the changes in meaning we invest in our symbol systems. More specifically, Baudrillard focused on the changing relationship between signs (such as alphabetical characters, graphic images) and that which they signify. The word dog is a sign, and English-speakers recognize that it refers to, signifies, a living creature in the material world that barks and has fleas. According to Baudrillard, during the first step of civilization, when speech and then writing were created, signs were invented to point to reality. During the second step of civilization, which took place over the past century, advertising, propaganda, and commodification set in, and the sign begins to hide reality. The third step includes our step into the hyper-real, for now we are in an age when signs begin to hide the absence of reality. Signs now help us pretend that they mean something.

Technology and industry, in Baudrillard's view, succeeded over the past century in satisfying basic human needs, and thus the profit-making apparatus that controlled technology-driven industry needed to fulfill desires instead of needs. The new media of radio and television made it possible to keep the desire level of entire populations high enough to keep a consumer society going. The way this occurs has to do with sign systems such as tobacco commercials that link the brand name of a cigarette to a beautiful photograph of a sylvan scene. The brand name of a cigarette is woven into a fabric of manufactured signifiers that can be changed at any time. The realm of the hyper-real. Virtual communities will fit very neatly into this cosmology, if it turns out that they offer the semblance of community but lack some fundamental requirement for true community.

Baudrillard's vision reminded me of another dystopian prophecy from the beginning of the twentieth century, E. M. Forster's chilling tale "The Machine Stops." The story is about a future world of billions of people, each of whom lives in a comfortable multimedia chamber that delivers necessities automatically, dispenses of wastes, and links everyone in the world into marvelously stimulating web of conversations. The only problem is that people long ago forgot that they were living in a machine. The title of the story describes the dramatic event that gives the plot momentum. Forster and Baudrillard took the shadow side of telecommunications and considered it in light of the human capacity for illusion. They are both good cautionary mythmakers, marking the borders of the pitfalls of global, high-bandwidth networks and multimedia virtual communities.

Virtual communitarians, because of the nature of our medium, must pay for our access to each other by forever questioning the reality of our online culture. The land of the hyper-real begins when people forget that a telephone only conveys the illusion of being within speaking distance of another person and a computer conference only conveys the illusion of a town hall meeting. It's when we forget about the illusion that the trouble begins. When the technology itself grows powerful enough to make the illusions increasingly realistic, as the Net promises to do within the next ten to twenty years, the necessity for continuing to question reality grows even more acute.

What should those of us who believe in the democratizing potential of virtual communities do about the technological critics? I believe we should invite them to the table and help them see the flaws in our dreams, the bugs in our designs. I believe we should study what the historians and social scientists have to say about the illusions and power shifts that accompanied the diffusion of previous technologies. CMC and technology in general has real limits; it's best to continue to listen to those who understand the limits, even as we continue to explore the technologies' positive capabilities. Failing to fall under the spell of the "rhetoric of the technological sublime," actively questioning and examining social assumptions about the effects of new technologies, reminding ourselves that electronic communication has powerful illusory capabilities, are all good steps to take to prevent disasters.

If electronic democracy is to succeed, however, in the face of all the obstacles, activists must do more than avoid mistakes. Those who would use computer networks as political tools must go forward and actively apply their theories to more and different kinds of communities. If there is a last good hope, a bulwark against the hyper-reality of Baudrillard or Forster, it will come from a new way of looking at technology. Instead of falling under the spell of a sales pitch, or rejecting new technologies as instruments of illusion, we need to look closely at new technologies and ask how they can help build stronger, more humane communities--and ask how they might be obstacles to that goal. The late 1990s may eventually be seen in retrospect as a narrow window of historical opportunity, when people either acted or failed to act effectively to regain control over communications technologies. Armed with knowledge, guided by a clear, human-centered vision, governed by a commitment to civil discourse, we the citizens hold the key levers at a pivotal time. What happens next is largely up to us.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents