Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values
Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.
Queensborough Community College, CUNY
Chapter 11 Social Change
Presentation of Issues
How do computer technologies and in particular the internet impact on us as a society? What are the dimensions and the range of such impacts?
Does the internet make community more social and stronger or does it weaken community?
READ :I'm Glad the Net `Corrodes' My Culture Marcelo Rinesi
READ: Who Are We Without Our Technologies? Muktha Jost
READ: Does the Internet Strengthen Community? William A. Galston or access it
Galston, William A. “Does the Internet Strengthen Community?” National Civic Review. You must be logged in first at Newman Library to access this file. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/doi/10.1002/ncr.89302/pdf
Are we as a species now about to evolve once again, socially if not physically, into some new form becoming more interdependent due to our technology making us so involved with one another and the information flowing between and amongst all members of the human community? Is the internet about to take humans from communities in which technologies serve them to a planetary species linked by and serving the world wide information system? Will all programming exist on and through the internet and will humans be served and serve the interests of those information networks that provide humans with the satisfaction of their basic interests for physical sustenance, emotional pleasures and intellectual stimulations? Are we moving to a point where all commerce and industry and all forms of art and entertainment and all basic services and providers of the means of basic sustenance linked by information systems and all serving or being served by human beings?
Are the technologies capable of changing the some very basic conceptions that humans have of themselves as individuals and as ends in themselves and autonomous moral agents? Will the computer technologies influence a change in self conception? Will humans move toward seeing themselves as social beings and seek to increase their interconnectedness through technological applications? Will individual action and individuality be diminished as serving the needs of the networks of human beings interconnected through information systems becomes more highly valued due to the technologies?
Speculation about the future is always a risky undertaking but what is important is to observe, record and reflect upon in what ways changes are taking place within society due to computer technologies. Just what changes have already been wrought by computer technologies and what has not changed? Whether or not the changes are fundamental or basic or significant is not as important as noting just exactly what is happening as best human can make that out given the rapid pace of change and that the observers are living in the midst of that change..
In observing and reflecting on changes being produced by technological advancement there must be note taken of the comprehensiveness of some of the consequences of change and of the depth of the change. There are times when technology will not make so significant a change in the fundamentals of the human relationships and the social institution and there are times when the changes are so striking as to indicate the possibility of some basic change in the manner in which the institution must now be conceptualized. In some areas of work, particularly in the major manufacturing industries, computer technology has been significant but has not altered the basic human relationships and self concepts. There are still the owners and the managers and the employees. In the arts there is such an extension of the means of production and distribution and access due to computer technologies that the nature and position of the arts in society may be undergoing a more basic change. There has been a tremendous increase in the potential for humans to create works of art and provide access to them for the world community due to the computer technologies. With religion there has been an increase in access to the texts and rituals and services and sources of information but the basic concepts and social position of religion have not been altered nor its functioning in the lives of individuals or groups.
With each social institution computer technologies are having impact. The assessment of those impacts in terms of whether or not they are serving the interests of the groups served and of the institution itself will vary form one institution to another an din one society to another and form one decade to another. It will also vary depending one the status of those doing the assessment relative to their position in the institution or in relation to it. Those without access to the technologies are likely to view the entire assessment enterprise quite differently from those who are leading developers of the technologies.
The technologies are made to serve some human purpose or another. The creators and developers are likely to assess their work and those technologies in terms different from those who use the technology or who experience the impacts of them.
Computer designers, engineers, technicians are more likely to employ criteria such as elegance of design, efficiency and effectiveness to appraise their work. Users are more likely to employ criteria that are reflective of their values to be served by the use of the technologies. The technologies can be designed and manufactures to serve the interests of the users, smart design does that, but those technologies can also be produced to serve fewer of them or to order them differently. The technologies once created can also be put to uses others than the creators intended.
Computer technologies can both reflect the values of the creators and those of society. Those technologies can also exist independent of basic social values or in conflict with them. TO be sure no technology will be viewed as entirely neutral as each observer will be evaluating it in terms of the observer's interests and values.
The Moral Issues: Applying Ethical Principles and the Dialectical Process
In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear. An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question. That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given. The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives. Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.
The entire range of human values are involved in a consideration of the relation of computer technologies to society and social institutions. Those values are the basis for the creation or evolution of some human institutions and they are also held in the positions that they are due to the impact of social institutions on individuals. When dealing with a moral consideration of the impact of technology on society or with some particular situation or dilemma there will be a number of values in play.
In attempting to develop an argument as to what would be the morally correct actions with regard to some development of computer technology various principles and values may be cited as part of the dialectical process of argumentation in support of a position. The principle of Utility would address the need for concern for the social impact of what is done and how the interests of individuals would be satisfied. The Categorical Imperative may be used in supporting claims as to how the action being considered might be universalized and thought about as being an action that would be desired of and by all rational humans. Rawls' Principle of Justice (Maxi-Min) can also be utilized in describing how situations ought to be handled so as to maximize liberty while decreasing the inequalities amongst those involved or impacted by the technologies. Over the last few decades now people have been doing just this in a variety of forums through journal articles and books and through presentations at meetings of these specialists, engineers and professionals.
Reflections on Social Change and Information Technology, by Lindsey Pehrson CUNY SPS 2009
Computers have revolutionized the way that we live. They are now incorporated into most every facet of our lives, and the areas where they have not yet reached will inevitably be touched in some form as in the years to come. Most everything has a computer inside of it, from the cars we drive to the refrigerators we store our condiments in. These machines inform us and influence us. Car computers tell us when it is time to go and get an oil change. Refrigerator monitors let us know when we are running low on milk and need to go to the store. Blackberries and cell phones tell us when it is time to answer a call or respond to an email, they are even programmed to remind us when to attend a meeting or other events. Even our alarm clocks have the capacity to tell us what to do when they blast loud music and insist we get up.
The point here is that, though we have created these technologies, it is up to debate whether we are still running the show, or we have become reliant on them for instruction about how to live our lives. In many instances, humans have been shown to be replaceable by machines. Assembly lines or other tedious but needed jobs are almost always turned over to nuts and bolts, replacing the people who were once there before. The result is a change in our interactions with each other. When you strip away the need for face-to-face contact and replace it with videoconferencing or virtual town hall meetings, you essentially declare that human connections are secondary to the virtual kind. This ideal causes crisis in society’s traditional values, allowing for the creation and advancement of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other forms of programmed interactions.
Life is changing faster and faster with every subsequent generation. Things that our parents only dreamed about having are now commonplace. The methods for carrying out daily activities have radically altered even from fifty years ago. One of the biggest reasons for this change has been the introduction of information technology to the world. Computers, networks, advanced systems, data warehouses, the Internet, cell phones, Blackberries, graphing calculators, laptops, PDAs, computerized refrigerators, “smart” cookware, air traffic control centers, subways, email, chat rooms, virtual communities, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, video games, digital cameras, pocket-sized video cameras, defense networks, online education, digital libraries…all of these commonplace parts of modern life were only pure imagination less thirty years ago. They are primary components in our daily lives, facilitating our work, keeping us linked in twenty four hours a day, and affecting the manner in which we relate to each other and to ourselves.
With this constant stimulation and white noise in the background, it is seldom that we are left to our own thoughts, wishes or imagination. The technologies which were meant to serve us have quite possibly become our masters. Quiet time has been replaced with family video game night or family share cell phone plans. Howard Rheingold sees communication technology as a potential replacement for the natural world. He is part of the hyper-realist sect that thinks that human beings have ruined their real democracy and sense of community by becoming products of the entertainment and media machine. He maintains that we work all day to obtain money so that we can buy more media and entertainment which, in turn, tells us what to do, how to think, and that we need to shop more. This media constantly surrounds us, never leaving us alone. It whispers to us what we should watch and believe, preoccupying us so that we do not stop to consider how we really feel. Furthermore, locations where we used to be able to sit and talk, like the family dining room table, have been replaced with the television-lit hearth of the living room where we face forward and not at each other. We have become disjointed. Though television appears to be fulfilling our need for camaraderie, it is actually removing the truth from our lives and separating us from each other, threatening and reshaping our human value for companionship and inherent need to connect and discuss.
It is true that technology is every present. We wake up in the morning to the radio, then turn on the television to watch the news. On our walk to the subway we listen to our podcasts or media content on our iPods, or type on our blackberries. Or, we get in our cars and listen to someone else talk to us or sing to us on our way to work while we pass numerous “informational” advertisement billboards. At work, we sit in front of computers all day reading Internet news, perhaps even with a TV going on somewhere in the office. Then we drive home with the same radio, watch television through dinnertime and then collapse into bed. There are very few spaces left where we are not enrobed in consumerism and technological noise. Our classics are replaced with knock off-cookie cutter versions. Restaurants are removed for commercialized fast food chains. We even think it is strange when we hear someone does not have a TV in their home or a cell phone, questioning how they could live without them. Wondering, why don’t they want to be informed? Why don’t they want to be connected? But, the truth is, we are over worked and overwhelmed with too much content and not enough analysis. We are always turned on but never really processing. With so much media-generated content, it leaves us wondering just what exactly is real versus what is a media-created press event.
Of course, the effects of information technology on society have not all been bad. A lot of very positive things have come from our intent to drive man forward and keep societies progressing. The key to unraveling where we are and what we must do to keep ourselves from becoming technological trapped is to recognize the areas where these changes have happened and in the process expose the negative forces where they exist. Among the biggest areas impacted have been family, communities, religious organizations, government, educational institutions, the medical field, crime, media, retail and information.
Family connectivity has been heavily influenced by the introduction of computers and related technology. Now more than ever, families can stay in touch throughout their busy day via cell phones and family share talk plans. They can also text, email and send photos to each other from across the world. Video chats further advance this feeling of togetherness no matter what the distance is. Still, there has also been a less glamorous side of these changes. Issues surrounding GPS tracking on cell phones has raised questions about whether parents should be allowed to invade the privacy of their children. And, parents now have to worry about the content their children are being subjected to online. The introduction of computers into the family home has brought with it the risk of having pedophiles solicit children in a place that should hold safety. It has also allowed children to connect with adults posing as children intended on influencing and potentially harming them. There have been technologies created to counteract these risks, but there is no method which completely promises the security of the family.
The community at large has also been significantly affected by the introduction of information technology. Businesses now rely on web conferencing and email to keep things running efficiently. Online dating services have now established themselves as a primary way would-be lovers can find one another. Social networking sites have been developed, creating the opportunity for individuals to find each other based on interests, or express themselves personally through their own webpages. Blogs have also sprung up overnight and grown exponentially, turning everyday users into content publishers. Cell phone text messages have replaced the need to pick up the phone and call the ones we love or those we are merely thinking about. Photos and videos can be sent to anyone, anywhere moments after they are taken. Where as it was once only acceptable to speak with employees face to face, bosses now text message or send emails.
You Tube has also allowed for new forms of expression, community and identity. This was best highlighted in the spread of the Numa Numa music video which originated in Italy in 2004 and from their spread across the world, stopping in Japan where it was turned into an Anime piece, than jumping over to New Jersey where a boy made a web video of himself lip synching and rocking out to the song. Within a period of a few days he became the first official internet star, and numerous more videos of people doing the same Numa Numa dance where uploaded internationally. This progression marked global ritual, a “global mixer” of sorts that featured people who had never met before sharing in the same sense of joy, celebration and empowerment. The global community connected to one another in a manner of new communication that had never happened before. This demonstrated the potential for new possibilities and methods of connecting which defied space and time. This was a landmark event for human connection.
The element that makes YouTube so remarkable is the fact that anyone with a webcam and an Internet connection can upload content to the web, something that had been previously very hard to do. As Michael Wesch stated the “web is not just about content. It is about linking people in ways we have never been linked before and in ways we can’t even predict because its changing,” every few months. This new sense of a worldwide union which is illustrated in user-generated content is going to force us to rethink our ideals on almost every aspect of human existence. This includes our identities, communities, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love and family. It is also going to require that we reshape our views of authorship, copyright, ethics, and above all else: ourselves. Where are we in relation to one another?
With all these new forms of communication being inserted in-between individuals, we have to remember that these tools that were meant to make us closer are actually potentially pulling us farther apart. We no longer spend hours face to face, we use the telephone instead. We don’t have real meetings if we can help it, we use video conferencing in place of it. We don’t speak full sentences anymore, we rely on internet lingo to convey the message. We have become a society of multi-taskers that has cast aside our more traditional, albeit less efficient, variations of conveying a message. Even the postal service has noticed a drop in the number of letters sent in the wake of the email revolution. This has raised the question of whether or not we can still consider ourselves in a community. Is a virtual forum the same as a real in-person gathering? How can we really be connected when the only thing in front of us is a computer screen? Even more troubling is the notion that we as society are being ripped apart into two groups: the haves and the have-nots. This split has resulted in a potentially irrevocable digital divide. Religious organizations have also felt the rippling effects of technology throughout their congregations. The introduction of the Internet has created a pathway for people, regardless of their religious affiliation, to connect with other similar minded individuals worldwide. These virtual congregations can pray together, access scripture or other sacred religious texts and participate in religious services. It has also provided the means for learning about religions separate from ones own, perhaps facilitating understanding and respect. Unfortunately, religious communities have had their sites targeted with worms, viruses and the like by outside individuals. There is also ample opportunity for nonbelievers or believers in different religious groups to post hateful and hurtful comments on message boards that the community members share. With no official way to track this hatred and prevent it from happening, religious organizations can easily find themselves to be sitting ducks for discrimination.
Governments worldwide have also been seriously impacted by the introduction of computers and information technology. In particular the United States has found that this industry has changed the way in which it relates to its people. First and foremost, the Internet has allowed citizens to connect with their government. They can send emails to congressmen, or search laws in their state with a few clicks of the mouse. They can also learn more about the president and officials running for election through research online. Television has created the means for “town hall meetings” in which Presidents can directly address the nation, albeit in a controlled setting. These aspects of technology make the government appear more accessible to its people, and as such, helps form a seemingly tighter and more realistic bond than was ever previously possible. Now citizens nationwide can get news directly from government websites about benefit programs or other matters which are crucial to their health and wellbeing. Case and point: filing for unemployment used to be a lengthy process. Now, all citizens need to do is go online, fill out the forms and submit it. That’s it. As for filing taxes, the paperwork is all there in one location, no need to go to library or anywhere else to find the relevant forms. And, in matters of national security, it is our advanced networks of protection that keep the military informed and on their toes, aware of any threat the moment that it happens.
There has also been a downside to the affects of information technology in government, namely to democracy. Critics such as Jean Baudrillard and Howard Rheingold firmly believe that the government has used information technology to make citizens believe they are part of a democratic society when in fact, there is no true democracy. Rather, press conferences and elections are merely shows put on by press agencies in order to give society a false belief that they have control over their government. Instead, these are merely public shows put on to appease the population, or get them to think in a certain way, when in fact the governing officials have already picked themselves who is going to be put in office and who will be left out. Furthermore, information technology devices have also made it possible for large terror plots to be hatched in efficient manner, and given these terrorists tools to protect themselves from capture. These activities threaten civilization and democracy.
The education industry has also seen numerous changes thanks to the introduction of information technology and computers. First, research which used to take students hours at a library can now be accomplished in a matter of moments on the Internet. Students can find everything from homework resources and free calculators to online tutoring sites as fast as their Internet connections will allow. Second, it has also prompted the creation of digital libraries which are stored online and can be accessed from anywhere, anytime. Third, applying to schools or for financial aid (which previously took forever! to do) can now be done online. There are also numerous websites dedicated to helping students find funding for college. Fourth, one of the biggest changes has been the introduction of online education. This concept, though it has met with its share of critics, has continued to be perfected and establish opportunities for individuals to get their degrees, regardless of their crazy work schedules, remote location or disabilities. This alone has allowed society’s members to advance themselves and move towards making their dreams into realities. Fifth, with the advent of camcorders, educational videos and online educational websites, students have the opportunity to see things from another perspective than merely that of their teacher.
On the downside of this, students that can not afford to have a computer in their home are sometimes penalized and forced to find alternative means to do their work. Is it fair to these students to punish them for their economic situation? Also, many schools have computers in the classroom, but there are either not enough for everyone to use, or, they have an older computer which do not have the capability to be a readily effective tools in these students’ lives. And, with more teachers finding web resources to plan their lessons for them, are they really reaching their full potential and giving students their best? If we allow programs like TVOne into the classroom, does that mean we think it is an acceptable substitution or supplement to what the professor is doing? There are a lot of questions that come along when TV and other entertainment media are allowed into the classroom setting. Furthermore, with so much information being accessible, are students being exposed to aspects of life that are well beyond their age bracket?
The medical field has also been altered by the invention of computers and information technology. Now, it is much easier for patients to find doctors, and doctor reviews, thanks to the Internet. They can also connect with their insurance companies and file necessary claims or other details from the comfort of their home. It is even possible to get a prescription filled via the Internet. Video conferencing has allowed medical professionals to consultant with others internationally on different cases. It has also made it possible to perform surgery via robots while the actual surgeon is across the country giving instruction. Electronic storage of patient files creates easy access from anywhere. Unfortunately there is also the threat to privacy should access fall into the wrong hands. Websites such as WebMD have also made it possible for patients to empower themselves to get information on the potential diseases they are faced with, and educate themselves on treatment options and alternative opinions. Unfortunately, having such wide access to information has also made some patients feel that they are qualified to diagnose themselves, causing occasional panic. It has also driven some as far as hypochondria when they are faced with too many possibilities for what could go wrong in their bodies. There have even been cases of individuals treating themselves for diseases that they have never confirmed they have, or worse, they do not seek real medical advice when faced with a medical problem and their own misdiagnosis leads a minor issue to become a life threatening one.
Crime has also been revolutionized by information technology and computers. Computers have allowed for the development of a national DNA database to facilitate in the capture of criminals. Information networks can also be used to help police and other law enforcement officials to connect with one another nationally in order to compare case files to find similarities and capture criminals. Unfortunately, since their introduction into main society, computers have also become weapons used to help individuals commit fraud and theft without getting caught. In more recent years, computer-facilitated crime has taken on some of its most serious forms including cyber-terrorism, cyber-stalking and identity theft. Law enforcement and government officials have tried to combat these types of attacks, however, the technology has grown exponentially faster than the legal system has accommodated. This means when something happens, criminals often remain un-captured, or they can not be prosecuted for lack of evidence. Even more troubling, many police stations do not have the equipment or trained staff needed to dissect crimes like cyber-stalking or computer fraud.
The media and entertainment industries have also been faced with numerous changes thanks to information technology. With the increasing advent of technological tools like High Definition televisions and video recorders, life can be portrayed more realistic than ever before. News can now be broadcast twenty four hours a day from almost anywhere, allowing citizens to be informed. Computers have also made it possible to create new forms of entertainment such as animated movies that use computer generated models as opposed to hand-drawing figures (like Disney did early on its career). We have also seen a progression in who creates media. Whereas previously it took large companies with lots of money to broadcast their message, now sites like YouTube are helping facilitate the dissemination of user-generated content. This gives individuals the ability to have a voice apart from mainstream media. Blogs and other user-generated columns can also give citizens around the world immediate understanding about what is happening in a particular location from a first hand viewpoint.
Though there are numerous forms of media and entertainment, there are serious criticisms of their advancement in modern society. As mentioned above, some believe we are living in “the society of the spectacle” where nothing is real, and those things that are immediately capture and reformed to take on the appearance of the false. Our sense of democracy and unity is really based on what mass media wants us to see. At the same time, because this is a very real possibility, it is crucial that user-generated content continue to flourish, giving a realistic perspective to the world once again. However, with the widespread capability of almost anyone to become an internet publisher, there is an extremely high risk that misinformation will be spread too rapidly for errors to be corrected. People have yet to realize that just because something can be published does not necessarily mean that it should be. We have irrevocably injected a lot of junk and superfluous nonsense into our lives and removing it is nearly impossible unless we pull the plug on the web. Advertisements are made out to appear like news pieces, meant to confuse viewers and convince them that they need something they do not already have, generating the ongoing machine of consumerism.
The retail industry has been significantly changed by the introduction of information technology and computers. First, whereas small businesses were once limited to customers in the area in which they were located, nowadays, they can go online and obtain customers worldwide. Second, Individuals that do not have time to shop can simply log into their favorite e-commerce locations (like Amazon.com) and order whatever they need, even having it delivered tomorrow if need be. Groceries can even be ordered online, reducing the need for the handicapped or housewives with young kids to worry about getting to and from the store. Also, customers can create profiles which are stored online to maximize efficiency with vendors. Of course, there is a big downfall to this. The retail industry has had numerous instances where customer data was hacked into and stolen. By keeping these profiles, vendors are putting consumers at risk. Furthermore, they often offer coupons in exchange for personal customer information. Though this seems harmless in theory, customers do not realize their details are being compiled and sold to the highest bidder, or to develop marketing schemes which will manipulate them effectively into doing what the vendor desires.
Information itself, perhaps above all else, has been permanently distorted by information technology. True, in modern society, human beings are empowered by knowledge. The Internet gives them endless sources to find what they seek, whether it is medical or legal advice, or comparisons on car prices by dealer. In this sea of data and statistics, where freedom of speech is constantly redefined, there is also ample information which, arguably, has given certain members of society tools which they should not have. These topics include methods for building weapons of mass destruction, how to hang oneself, how to make a murder look like a suicide, and countless websites for porn and the solicitation of minors. There are even sections that successfully teach how to kidnap and kill without getting caught. Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that not enough individuals are aware of what a reputable site is or how to tell it apart from the others. This can lead to too much information being passed around with not enough real knowledge in it. With this influx of information and not enough people to protect it, third parties such as advertisers have found a way to use computer-users to make money. They collect data about their online habits and sell it to interested parties who then use it for invasive purposes. This turns information into a commodity, something that is very dangerous because it intrudes on the rights of individuals, particularly since most of the time people lack the education to know what data is being collected and who is doing it. This marks a reduction in privacy and a threat to security, the likes of which should not be an issue in a society that is a democracy, founded by the people, for the people.
Finally, information technology has altered the way in which we view ourselves. We live in a world where we are surrounded by the constant battle between having autonomy and doing what we want as individuals, independent of others versus sharing in community together. We fight between expressing uniqueness but also craving companionship and close relations. As the world becomes more commercialized, churning out a sea of unreal illusions, we long for a deeper sense of reality and authenticity. YouTube, as a product of information technology, provides the bridge between these opposing ideals. As Wesch said, we are able to connect without the constraint of being connected. We can be ourselves and watch others without staring directly at them and making them uncomfortable. We can see into who we really are and better explore what we are about. YouTube, and the greater media landscape that it is integrated into, allow us to mediate our human relationships ourselves.
This new world does not come without hesitations. When someone vlogs for the first time they are essentially talking to the unknown, they can not see the audience and do not know what context they will be put in. It is an asynchronous world full of hyper self-awareness. We are recorded and can be reused, remixed and reiterated as often as our viewers wish. Having this type of replay is what drives the human words beyond their basic cognition into the deeper element of recognition and understanding. When we go online to talk to the world, we have the chance of seeing humanity without fear or anxiety. We scrape below the surface to the core of who people really are without making them feel like they are under a microscope (something which may alter their behavior and make it less genuine). It is true, there has been concern about the authenticity of YouTube users, but lack of credibility and 100% genuine behavior will be a factor in any society.
The bottom line is this: YouTube has become a forum which has given the international community the opportunity to open up and speak to each other without the parameters of government rules and regulations. It strips away our political differences and lets us just be who we are: human beings that are in need of connection. Though this is a cultural value to be connected, it is also something that our culture has driven us away from. There are so many barriers in our “Society of the spectacle” having discussions on things that we think about, things that scare us or make us happy. Prior to YouTube, we had no means to celebrate together as one family. We are the people. We are the masses, and finally, we have found a way to reach beyond our boundaries, whether physical or emotional, and reach one another. I think that is pretty exceptional. James Joyce has called this connection “aesthetic arrest.” It is a most deep and profound bond that we have developed through this technology and it will, hopefully, continue to lead to new forms of self-understanding and mutual caring in this dark period of international war and political battles between our so-called leaders. We live in an age of prohibition, even in our democratic nation, which turns everyday Internet users into criminals. Copying a clip is copyright infringement. As the video stated, “we should be able to do better in a democracy,” than to allow this to happen. We need to allow for the serious, playful and participatory culture that YouTube fosters, hence rethinking our previously held ideals about what authorship and copyright mean.
There are many areas of modern life affected, and considering that these are only a few of the major industries in the world, it does not take much to see that we really need to understand computer technology and figure out what role it should have. Do we really want to be at the mercy of the inventions we have created? Howard Rheingold makes a very good point: we do not want to live in a society of the spectacle where everything is a show. This would mean that we work all day every day in order to afford entertainment which, in turn, will only ever tell us that we can not be satisfied as we are. Rather, it lets us know that we would be happier if we purchased the latest cell phone, or ate Edy’s Ice Cream, or took a vacation to the Caribbean. We are never told in magazines, television, or online that we are perfect as we are. Everything surrounding us is intended to entice us to buy more, to feed the machine.
Giving this serious consideration, it does appear to be true. We work all day to afford our lifestyles, and we rarely get enough alone time to consider how we feel about all this. We wake up to the radio then we turn on the television to find out what is happening. We drive to work listening to more radio, or we walk to work listening to our iPods or podcasts, or talking on our Blackberries and cell phones. At work we are constantly in front of the computer screen, checking emails, video conferencing, researching where we want to have dinner, finding airline tickets for our next trip. Often, a television will be playing somewhere not too far off, just adding to the white noise. At the end of the day we go out, or we read a magazine or we watch television or the latest movie. Then we go to bed exhausted and prepare to do it again the next day. What we are missing is the point where we get to go into our media-free space and think about what is happening. Think about it…aside from the bathroom, what room in the house is totally information technology and media free? We have adopted these technologies into our culture and made them a part of us. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do that. As we have seen it has enhanced numerous aspects of our lives, making previously impossible things very possible. What we are missing are the guidelines to keep these technologies from crossing the boundary from being helpful to us to being detrimental to our health and wellbeing.
Computers and information technology have altered the industries around us, and the very relationships that human beings have with one another. Before we can identify if this is appropriate and acceptable we need to understand human motivations, needs and values. First human beings have a need to advance themselves and their place in the universe. For this reason we explore beyond our earth and develop technology which can be implemented to revolutionize life and create efficiency. Second, we have a desire to protect our democracy and our way of life. If we didn’t, we would not have armies and military power ready to go to war to defend us against those who would seek to force us to live differently. Third, we have a need to preserve privacy and security. As Philip Zimmermann pointed out, we would send all correspondence on postcards instead of in sealed envelopes if we didn’t value our private thoughts, and we would never lock our doors or windows if we did not seek to protect the areas that we consider to be personal space.
Fourth, we need to feel acknowledged and listened to. This is illustrated in our constant seeking of approval when we are young. We like to feel special, to feel unique and to have our opinions respected. Fifth, we have a need to connect to others and share our lives. This is seen in our joining of groups and development of friendships. Sixth, we also have a desire for independence and autonomy. Though we like our connections with others, we also appreciate the time that we spend being independent and celebrating individualism. Seventh, we feel the need to share our religion, and to have others around who believe in and support the same ideologies we do. This is seen in the unending building of religious institutions and even in the fanatical nature of some religious members. Eighth, we value our time and, as such, we like to maximize our efficiency. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have made time management such a prominent topic in our schools and work places. Ninth, we value our cultural heritage, but we also value our need to explore and learn new things. Human beings have a natural curiosity from the time that they are young. It is this desire to learn about our world and find our place in it that drives our behavior during teenage years and early adulthood.
From an ethical standpoint, egoists could claim that information technology has altered the way that human beings interact, but that all the benefits outweigh the downfalls and therefore make this technology morally right without question. In the Utilitarian point of view, based on our need to advance ourselves, making the largest number of people happy would mean allowing technology to grow and prosper, continuing to find new ways to help us, whether through virtual reality or artificial intelligence. Alternatively, for those individuals that want to be protected and allow democracy to flourish, they would require that technology not be allowed to grow at the detriment to society’s other needs and values. In the theory of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the right thing is the one which advances the interests of society. To this end, having information technology has moved us towards new and efficient methods for accomplishing the tasks in our lives. We are able to catch criminals, support justice, as well as connect with each other no matter how far apart. Still, information technology has also allowed crime to become rampant and taken on new and extremely harmful forms, thereby letting people be treated as the means to an end (a violation of Kant’s ideals). In the Rawlsian point of view, justice means maximizing liberty and minimizing inequalities. Giving people the internet allows them to advance their knowledge and thereby, their freedom to act in an informed and confident manner. Alternatively, only some people have information technology while others do not. This creates a digital divide and maximizes inequalities instead of diminishing them. In summation, it advances some needs to let technology grow, while stunting others (such as the need for privacy and interaction).
And what of the debate over information technology’s more creative side like virtual reality? Ethically speaking, egoists would insist that they could use virtual reality as an escape, or to punish prisoners, or to be a psychotherapist, or anything else they want to and, no matter how detrimental the effect on bystanders, it would be appropriate and morally correct if it makes them happy. Of course, fortunately, no other theory is so one sided in its considerations. Utilitarianism insists that we consider what is best for the largest group in society. In this case, history has shown that we need autonomy and a sense of individual identity, but we also need stimulation and connection. It is hard to say whether it would make the larger group happy if we allowed them to amuse themselves with Virtual Reality, or if we would make them happier by insisting that pre-set societal values regarding human affiliations remain intact.
In Kant’s theory of Categorical Imperative, the primary moral goal is to advance society’s interests. This, again, can argue both for and against the widespread use and further development of virtual reality. On one hand, it could be viewed as treating people as a means to an end by getting them hooked on Virtual Reality and then relying on that addiction to keep them coming back for more, thereby allowing the owner to make a fortune off their needs. At the same time, not allowing Virtual Reality to continue to explore its numerous potential avenues could end up stunting the technological growth of society and may prevent certain individuals from obtaining the assistance they need in order to live their lives as true and confident individuals (i.e. denying them a VR therapy program when they can not afford to have real weekly sessions with a human therapist). Rawl’s theory of Justice, declares the moral choice is the one which maximizes liberty and minimizes inequality. By allowing the public to use Virtual Reality, they would no longer be limited by their own individual financial situations in life. Families could “travel” to see the great landmarks in Europe without having to be restricted to only a few wonders because of a tight budget. At the same time it can also be argued that, if allowed to proceed, Virtual Reality would no doubt be costly and available to only a select few, at least at first. Not all individuals would be able to use this software to its fullest, or even have access to it. That could be creating a further gap between rich and poor (ever widening the digital divide), increasing inequalities.
There is no clear ethical answer as to how to act when it comes to information technology and its impact on human relationships. What we do know for certain is that it has revolutionized the way that human beings interact, and the way they accomplish the hurdles in their day. What we have hopefully learned is that we need to implement technology responsibly, and ensure that we are doing everything in our power to keep it as a support in our lives, and not a driving force behind them. Becoming slaves to the technology will only continue to separate us from one another and prevent us from having the full and meaningful relationships that we inherently crave. Developing guidelines regarding the appropriate use of information technology in personal communications would be smart, but it might be too late for previous generations to fully implement. Hopefully we can begin anew with this generation and teach our children functional methods for deciding when it is better to be efficient and when it is best to be a face-to-face friend. We can make this choice by identifying how inline new and existing forms of information technology, such as virtual reality, are with the needs of society, and if the areas where these technologies are lacking can be properly shaped and rethought to create a feasible and beneficial solution. There needs to be a balance between enhancing reality and separating from it altogether. If we can not find this line, and apply our societal standards and ethical principles to the technology in a clear and consistent manner, then we may need to recognize that computers pose more harm than help for man’s existence and abandon our future pursuits.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino
Last updated 8-2006 Return to Table of Contents