Information technology and new human capabilities

For a billion or so of us on planet earth, we are immersed in a sea of ever-changing technology. How does technology shape us? And how do we shape technology? How do current technologies change our capacities as human beings? In what ways are we better able to fulfill our plans of life using the technologies available to us?

It goes without saying that a wealth of existing technology systems are the foundation of our current life circumstances. Electricity, commercial agriculture, large-scale logistics systems, water purification, long-distance transportation, and advanced manufacturing are critical for the lives of two-thirds of planet earth’s population. And if we try to imagine what life would be like without these systems we have to go back to the lived environment of roughly 1400 in the West and perhaps 1000 in East Asia. Small population, short longevity, high maternal and infant mortality, frequent epidemic disease, grueling daily labor, and limited literacy are the baseline created by traditional agriculture and handicraft manufacture. If this is the point of comparison, then it’s hard to deny that technology has improved human wellbeing. 

But let’s look more closely at the most recent tech revolution that we are currently experiencing, the digital information revolution. Here I’m thinking of the World Wide Web, ubiquitous web access, cheap computing power, email, jumbo databases, social media tools, and cheap global voice and video communication.

How did this new suite of technologies suddenly sweep over us? The technical side of the history is pretty well understood. The PC revolution was basically a straightforward commercialization and incremental development of computer technologies of the 1950s and 1960s. The big challenges were miniaturization and improvement of the human interface — in other words, innovations that would permit creation of a mass market for the new devices. The personal software industry deserves its own separate mention. Of course software needed personalization — CPM, ElectricPencil, WordPerfect, MSDOS, Windows, Macintosh operating system. There were early innovators, and often enough those companies failed quickly. And there were a few large companies that eventually dominated. Second, the development of the first point-to-point networks permitting communication between sites was a substantial and genuine innovation. This technology would unfold into a full gauge “world-wide web” in only 15 years or so. Third, search technologies were crucial for accessing and using the millions of pages of information accessible on the web. Search tools, including especially Google, suddenly made organizing and finding information quickly a very easy, non-technical process. And a few companies jumped into the lead. The most recent wave of innovation has taken advantage of the web itself — social networking, search, gaming, and e-commerce — to attract users who will interact digitally through photos, video, and messaging. 

It would be foolish to imagine that this technology is fundamentally different from any earlier stage of technology in its path-dependence on specific interests in society. So what were the interests that drove these developments? 

Some of these shaping interests were directly related to the needs of the military. Command and control of bomber and ICBM detection systems required real time communications networks on a national scale. DARPANET was one of the early developments of these interests. Another obvious set of interests were commercial. The emerging PC technology created opportunities for large commercial success, for the entrepreneur who captured the moment. Companies like Exidy, Commodore, and Radio Shack made their efforts. But for a couple of fairly contingent reasons IBM and Apple were the big winners. And, of course, the emergence of a mass market of consumers who would be interested in buying and using these devices was critical. It is hard to imagine personal computing developing as a major industry in the former German Democratic Republic.

So it is plain that the suite of technologies that brought us the information revolution were strongly affected by governmental and commercial interests. It is also indisputable that no one could have predicted the ways these technologies would develop and interact from the starting point of 1980. 

How we got here is one large question. But even more important is how this ensemble of technologies has changed us.

The positives are enormous. There is basically no limit on the range of knowledge and learning that is possible through the web. So the information revolution has offered a huge amplifier for knowledge acquisition for all of us. The fact of easily accessible information and analysis is an enhancement of our ability to understand the world. 

Global communication technology is a second huge enhancement for our ability to interact with people all over the world. Scholars can collaborate in real time thanks to Skype video conferencing. Activists can interact through the same technology. Religious communities can communicate, share ideas, and disagree with each other, from Nigeria to Sao Paolo to Los Angeles. 

Social networks add a third new capacity — to create new connections with people with similar concerns and interests with whom productive interaction is possible. Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress create micro-digital neighborhoods in which people can form surprisingly natural connections. A philosopher in Michigan becomes acquainted with a journalist in Bangkok, a mathematician in Athens, a sociology graduate in the Philippines, and a philosopher with very similar interests in Taiwan — these are intellectual relationships that could not have occurred in a pre-web world. 

So the digital revolution certainly extends human capacity and reach. But there is a negative side too. Some observers fear that the digital generation is substituting Facebook for face-to-face relationships. Skeptics argue that the so-called twitter revolutions in the Middle East can’t depend on the weak bonds created by a Facebook page, and that real solidarity must proceed from more direct connections. There is real concern that hate groups can amplify their ability to mobilize through the web. Addiction to World of Warcraft and other online gaming communities seems like a real phenomenon for a significant number of people. And maybe short-form thinking (blog entries, Facebook updates, tweets) is insidiously undermining our ability to think long, coherent thoughts. So it is hard to say whether the Internet is on balance a force for extending human capabilities and social wellbeing.

The real impact of the digital revolution on the nature of human social life probably can’t yet be assessed. Manuel Castells is trying to begin this process with his multi-volume The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I (Information Age Series) on the Information Age. Yevgeny Morozov offers doubts about the supposedly progressive nature of the Internet in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. And Sherry Turkle is exploring the personal and subjective effects of new technologies on all of us in books like Alone Together:Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. But realistically, we are only at the beginning of understanding the social and personal consequences of the new information and network tools that are now ubiquitous.

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