The question of whether information technology (IT) is good or bad is perhaps passé in a world where even cell phones are being used not only as a one-to-one communication medium between two individuals but can be used to plan crimes, promote action-oriented programmes to work towards the welfare of the marginalised and the oppressed, indulge in social networking, make short films and art, create other interesting works of communication, and so on. Yet, though one can no longer be judgmental on these questions, it is necessary at times to look back and explore the pros and cons of technology within information.
The focus on IT arises because masses of population exposed to technological change via satellite television and the Internet, are themselves confused and ambivalent about their attitude towards change. For example, commercial clips on television and the Internet, of consumer durables are known to raise the sales of these goods considerably in the market without viewers (buyers) questioning these ads about their silence on detailed information about the real use, operations, or potential problems of these products. The same consumers are the first to raise their voice against television technology for imposing alien values on an unsuspecting viewership. It does not occur to them to cut themselves off from the parabolic dish antenna that exposes them to this cultural imperialism in the first place.
According to J. K. Galbraith, “technology is the systematic application of scientific or other organised knowledge to practical tasks of human beings and their societies.” Technology is needed to accomplish such tasks and ease human efforts to achieve goals in keeping with the values of society. Technological change and innovation are developed and dictated by people’s needs and desires, or by what they feel are the ideals towards the formation of a better society. The general meaning of technology, therefore, is not confined to its technical aspects alone but includes the cultural and organisational aspects of the society it has been designed for. This is an ideal approach towards technological change.
“Technology progresses linearly and steadily ahead like a train. It has to be accepted by anybody or any society wishing to advance,” wrote Dr Alwi Dahlan, who teaches communications at the University of Indonesia. According to this line of thought, technology is supposed to be value-free and neutral. If a society fails to accept and adapt to technological advances, the blame is squarely placed on the cultural and educational backwardness of the society and not on the technology itself. This value-neutral approach to technology has been termed “ideology of technology” in Arnold Pacey’s book The Culture of Technology.
There is another school of thought—in fact, several such schools—vehemently opposed to this belief of technology being value-free. The resistance is openly critical of technology as much as it is of technologists. They believe that technology is detrimental by nature and tends to increase, rather than decrease the problems for people, society, and the environment. If there are visible advantages, these are often neatly undercut by the invisible, negative side-effects that the proponents of technology fail to see. This resistance to technology is specially focussed more on IT and on informatics than on technological change in other areas of life such as in automation, domestic space, and transport.
The general public treats the effects of technological changes in information by taking different aspects in isolation and then interpreting, questioning, or criticising them for ‘corruption’ of values. The proponents of the “ideology of technology” feel that a major slice of the public exposed to innovations in IT either fails to or refuses to understand the social meaning of technology that it has already accepted and recognised as a part of its daily existence. Though this is partly true, this also suggests that in course of time, society itself will be determined by technology. The question that arises here is: should technology be allowed to become so powerful?
Societal power is more deterministic than technology. The future course of technology in any society will be determined by several factors, which includes the social dynamics of technological adaptation. Yet, it is also true that although the choice of technology is determined by society, technology itself also influences society in many ways once it is applied. The design of telecommunication networks, for example, will affect the allocation of power within society. Due to its role as an infrastructure, IT actually influences, and could also determine, the way power is shared by the suprastructure. Those who are not linked to the network of infrastructure would not have access to the latest information and may be left behind in the race towards development within a changing social, cultural, and economic environment. Businessmen and industrialists, for instance, will be left behind if they are not linked to the financial network of information databases.
The need to view IT and society with an integrated, holistic approach is increasingly important now that we have stepped into the 21st century. As a factor of social change, the importance of information has been noted by policymakers and development planners. The UNESCO uses a media index to measure social and cultural development of all UN member countries. The UNDP regularly compares economic development in various ways, one of them being in terms of information. Its Human Development Index includes literacy and schooling, indicators of the basic information capability of an individual. In its measurement of South–North gaps, the agency includes adult literacy, years of schooling, and telephones. To compare developing countries, it looks at its communication profiles, using indices such as numbers of radio sets, television sets, cinema attendance, daily newspapers, books, telephones, and letters posted. For industrial countries, the UNDP also compares registered library users, museum attendance, and international telephone calls.
However, a note of caution is called for. The increasing and extensive use of technology to manage an increasingly complex society may bring along with it, negative implications that may create blocks in the society’s well-being and stability. It may go far beyond the micro-social impact that was initially envisaged by technological and sociological experts. Technology accepted at face value, without question or consideration, and designed solely on the basis of the financial ability to pay for the line, may intentionally restructure existing structures of social power. The dangers of telecommunication lines may either close the socio-economic gap, or do the opposite—increase the socio-economic imbalance. No one knows at this point which way the tide will turn.
If in future, society transforms itself into an Information Society, what will the main institutions be? What kinds of roles will information resource and infrastructure managers be expected to play to stop further socio-economic imbalance? How can development uplift the poor through information when the IT available to them would have no real operational values that would equip them with the ability to find, select, and use information to raise their welfare in an increasingly competitive world? These are the questions addressed to technologists and social communication specialists equally, since they are the ones who are certain that media impact on social mores are no longer specific because the definition of society itself is changing irretrievably. Society may no longer be limited to territory where space frees itself from the boundaries of the real and the physical to embrace the virtual. How will we share this common environment of cyberspace? What would be the features of this shared common identity and culture? These are questions that the future alone, one hopes, will provide answers to.
The writer is a freelance journalist, author and film scholar based in Kolkata.