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Does technology change society?
If people believe that a technology can change society, they are said to believe in “technological determinism”. Essentially, this perspective argues that technology is stronger than society and we cannot help the ways in which we use technology. In this situation, according to technological determinists, we have no choice. The features of the technology determine its use, and the role of a progressive society is to adapt to (and benefit from) technological change.
The opposite way of looking at technology is called “social determinism”. This suggests that the society concerned is responsible for the development and deployment of technology. The way that a technology is used in any given social or cultural context, argue social determinists, is a reflection of that society or culture. Thus, if the use of a technology is distorted because it is in the hands of corporations that want only to make a profit, then that aim is evident in the costs and patterns of use. Take Microsoft software as an example. Indonesian computer users, feeling ripped off by Microsoft and yet uncomfortable using pirated software, became extensive adopters of Linux open source software. In this case, Microsoft software might be construed as socially determined to communicate the priorities of global capital and international shareholders, while open source Linux, instead, embodies community access and national-level accountability.
For some people, their access to, and experience of, technology can change their perceptions of society – hopefully increasing their sense of community and inclusion. For example, ICT has empowered people living with a disability, such as immobility, vision impairment, hearing loss and other challenges. It has been estimated that up to a third of us will face a life-affecting disability at some stage in our lives. Therefore, including people living with a disability in our consideration of ICT access is a matter of relevance to us all.14
So do we accept technological determinism or social determinism? Technology cannot change society by itself: it only makes sense in terms of human knowledge and activity; and once these are brought into the equation, then the issue is certainly not technological. For example, historically, men have been far more likely than women to have access to ICT: this is a social process. Archaeologists in ten million years’ time might have no understanding about how the gun they have just dug up was used in the 21st century. They might think of it as a sculpture or an ornament. But once there is an appreciation of what a technology is, who uses it and how it is used, then the social knowledge about the technology determines the overall perception of the object. Arguably, technology is socially determined, rather than society being technologically determined. This means that society can choose how to use the technologies available – including ICT.
Is technology good or bad?
It is tempting to answer this query with a statement along the lines of “technology is neutral, it’s the users who are either good or bad”. Nonetheless, if we argue that technology is neutral, we also argue somehow that it is outside the value patterns of the people who create, develop and market it. This might suggest that a nuclear bomb is a “neutral” technology and it is the people using it who are good or evil. Others would argue that the development and use of the nuclear bomb communicates fundamental truths about power, instability and fear that are not morally neutral and that are in some ways independent of the people who decide whether or not to use nuclear weapons. The visions of technological advance that tend to attract funding, anticipation and active commitment from the elites who hold power in societies and cultures are those visions that offer these elites the greatest benefits. Technologies are developed as a result of specific choices made by influential power brokers representing a limited range of social elites.
The groups that mainly sponsor technological development and adoption can be summed up as the A, B and C of political power: A = armed forces, B = bureaucracy, and C = corporate power. Even where there are other elements (such as academia) which may appear to be “hothousing” technological change, the funding which supports those institutions tends to be attributable to one or more of the A, B and C power blocs. Thus, technology as it develops represents the priorities of the elites in the society that sponsors it, rather than representing the society as a whole.
The Internet has been heralded as a potentially liberating and democratic technology, but such benefits can only be realised when the people have access to the technology as well as the skills and resources to use it. Nonetheless, optimists among us might like to add a D to the A, B and C of political power. This might be D = distributed power, which may arise through e-democracy or open source development.
We can judge the priorities of a society’s social elites from the technologies they develop and adopt. Affordable, renewable energy and an efficient public transport system say different things about a society than do power stations (conventional or nuclear) and high prestige-car ownership. The empowerment of A, B and C elites through technological change is not a necessary situation, however, as we have seen from earlier examples of e-governance and from the participatory cooperation of software developers using open source protocols. It is possible to democratise technology development and choice. It is also possible to make a technology reflect the lives and the priorities of the users, and of their culture. From the screen saver that comes up when the computer is switched on to the URLs stored in the computer’s memory, each individual machine can be customised to reflect the interests and priorities of the individual or household that uses it. If the individual or household is confident that their own choices are good, then they can be confident that the technology they use will reflect this.
Even so, there are particular aspects to the nature of information – and the information society – that make the handling of information fundamentally different from the production and consumption of material goods. It is this conundrum – the implications of the difference between material and non-material goods – to which we now turn.
What makes information so different from material goods?
Thus, information is fundamentally different from the material and consumer goods that make up the majority of household (and often national) wealth. Furthermore, greater amounts of information are not necessarily better for a user, but often worse. Information has to be relevant and clear for it to be useful. Adding value to “data” to make it more readily relevant to decision-making has become a major industry in the information economy and is one response to the worldwide phenomenon of information overload.
The classic “information theory” definition of information is used by Stonier (1990) when he claims: “Information exists. It does not need to be perceived to exist. It requires no intelligence to interpret it. It does not have to have meaning to exist. It exists” (p. 21). For those who prefer a semantic approach based upon information being meaningful, this classical definition does not describe information, but data. Both perspectives can be represented on a chaos–wisdom continuum:
Chaos » Data »Information » Knowledge » Wisdom
The progression on this continuum starts in chaos, where there is no discernible pattern or organisation and where bits of information are fragmented, unable to be readily processed by human or machine. Data occurs where the symbols have been processed in such a way that they conform to the requirements of a transmission channel, such as a modem. Data is a quantity rather than a quality. Information, on the other hand, refers to data organised into meaningful chunks
– specifically, chunks that have meaning to humans rather than machine applications. Information becomes knowledge when it has been successfully communicated to and understood by the now more knowledgeable recipient. Knowledge is the product of information plus thought and ideas. It implies a value judgement because knowledge marks the processing by a human of useful and relevant information. Wisdom is the final stage on the continuum. Here there are two sets of value judgements: the first in terms of the transition from information to knowledge, the second in terms of knowledge being used in the making of sound judgements.
The “information revolution” can be seen as an explosion of information at the lower levels of the chaos–wisdom progression. The kind of information involved in social and political communication depends upon sense-making and meaning and relates to the upper levels of the continuum. Such information can be gathered from the corners of the world and delivered to where it is most needed (assuming technology and access). Such is the case with the Institute for Afghan Studies (http://www.institute-for-afghan¬studies.org), whose website links Afghans around the globe to the rebuilding programme in their cultural home.
Is technology a threat to culture?
Iran has as one of its reasons for supporting ICT the development and empowerment of the national and Islamic culture and the Persian language in the digital arena. Arguably, initiatives such as the Institute for Afghan Studies, noted above, also show the positive contribution that technology can make to the sustenance and development of culture. Human culture is an endlessly dynamic social and cooperative process that reflects, and is reflected in, human relationships and shared society. Culture includes gender and generational relationships, caste, class (and other relations of power), religion, customs, norms, practices, beliefs, taboos, language, food and so on. ICT allows these expressions of culture to be shared and to claim space in the public sphere, creating a discussion between all those with an interest and a stake in the healthy expression of a culture and in the well-being of the people who constitute that cultural group. Every vibrant culture is characterised by diversity and contested priorities, by fluidity and change. It is said that death is the only way for humans to avoid change; and the same is true of culture: living cultures react to changes in the world around them, and these changes include ICT and other new technologies, such as medicines.
Electronic communication across frontiers becomes both easy and necessary when cultural groups communicate with each other in the global environment. For those with technological competence and technology access, political borders can become essentially irrelevant to information flow (provided that rights-threatening data surveillance and censorship is not practised by governments). Free communi¬cation can be culture-enhancing. It can also help to educate the world about the culture of a specific people, nation or place. Fonts are developed through which a people’s language, culture and literature can be expressed, strengthening their culture in the face of a mass media that often has an American accent and allowing new generations of non-English¬speaking Asia-Pacific citizens to see and use their language in an everyday technological context. In this way, the Internet can be a small part of a “socialisation process” for communities of users. A culture can be celebrated and advanced as a nation’s holy sites, great buildings and public monuments claim a digital presence in cyberspace. Through the Internet, people can speak regionally and globally of the things that matter most in a time and place. In this way, technology can invigorate and sustain a culture, supporting rather than threatening it.