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e-me or not to be?

e-ing the world away ...

Have you noticed how more and more words are developing a little "e-" shaped growth in front of them rather like a wart? For a subject to be worthy of interest, it now has to be prefixed by that little "e-": e-commerce, e-business, e-recruiting, e-learning, e-health, e-democracy, e-citizen, e-society, e-sex. Rather like the addition of .com after the name of a company which invariably provokes a glint in the investor's eyes and increases the company's stock market value, so the addition of the "e-" before the name of an activity adds to its credit, transforming it from a mundane activity into an exciting, resolutely modern pursuit. Is this just a linguistic phenomenon, a manifestation of the inflation of language, where simple words, having been worn out by overuse and abuse, need that extra boost to give them an impact? Or does it say something fundamental about our society? Who is the e-me that takes part in these stimulating e-activities? And what is e-me's place in this e-society? And is there room for the me that is not e-me?

From potential to obligation

According to various speakers at the recent World DIDAC in Zurich - and there are many others with similar opinions - we all need to be e-people. "All citizens should have access to the Internet" said one. Another insisted "... every citizen must be equipped to participate in the Information Society..." Has not the Internet Society (ISOC) adopted the slogan "The Internet is for Everyone"? In their favour, one might argue that there is a clear distinction between, on the one hand, potentially having access to and knowing how to use the Internet and, on the other hand, the obligation to access the Internet because you can no longer work or even administratively exist if you are not e-you. But is it possible to embrace the e-potential without submitting to the e-obligation? Let me take the risk of challenging the inclusiveness advocated by Internet visionaries, politicians and other salespeople. For example, how should we understand the drive to generalise "digital literacy" advocated by a spokesperson of the European Commission in Zurich? Why give priority to learning how to search for and select appropriate e-information rather than, let's say, handling the everyday misunderstandings and conflicts of face-to-face exchange? What use learning how to create and organise web pages if you can't express what you have to say in words? You may well argue that one does not exclude the other. But with the limited educational budgets and the domination of material concerns, if digital literacy is presented as one of society's basic skills that is essential to the "new economy", what chance is there of investing in the development of softer human knowledge?

... the drive to be all-embracing

In an extremely short time, the Internet has taken an important place in a great many of our activities, especially in the so-called developed countries. This apparent ubiquitousness is far more pronounced than that of any other tool we have invented, even the printing press and the mass media. As Internet use extends at break-neck speed, those who are caught up in the whirlwind tend to neglect the rest. This may also be due to the widespread feeling that the Internet is a world unto itself. There is even a temptation, on the part of advocates of the Internet, to see the Internet as ultimately all embracing. Yet to think that the Internet can be either ubiquitous or all-inclusive is completely illusory, rather like believing that words can express all. The drive to be all embracing makes one think of the will of Science to explain everything or of the marketplace to put a price on everything (even human genes). Neither is possible or desirable. There is also a certain parallel with institutionalised learning, which, having sought to impose forms of learning that are limited in terms of place, time, access, content and method, now sees learning as "lifelong" and all pervasive. It is interesting to note that the Internet is perceived as the major tool in bringing learning to everyone throughout his or her life. I am tempted to say "Is not life in itself a continuous learning process?" but the word "learning" is so pregnant with meaning closely linked to structured, institutionalised learning that it is hard to conceive of learning as anything else.

... and all powerful

At the same time, behind the drive of certain actors to make the Internet ubiquitous, there is a thirst for power, control and material gain. Recent revelations about the extent of the Echelon spying network, by its extremeness, set the lust for power and control in an almost tragic-comic light. At the other extreme, militant individualists hold democratic online processes hostage as they noisily clamour their right to speak their mind irrespective of how antisocial their discourse is. From this perspective, the Internet appears to be a battlefield on which, amongst other things, a centralised model of communication and control wages war with those who favour a distributed model and the freedom of the individual.

The inevitable left-overs

In all would-be totalitarian systems, there is always a substantial, irreducible part that escapes the system. If we expect our marvellous tools to do everything for everybody, there will necessarily be a division between those that use the Internet and the remainder of society, resulting in conflict and suffering. No amount of effort will do away with that division if it is directed to trying to reduce the excluded. It will in fact only make things worse, exacerabting the feeling of exclusion. The solution lies elsewhere. We need to question the idea that the unending expansion of the use of the Internet is necessarily in our interests. To do so we have to rediscover the underlying values that enable us to judge what should and what should not be.

The wider perspective

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing against the use of the Internet. I'm talking about a question of perspective. Human beings have a tendency to perceive themselves through the machines they invent. I shudder to think of those young schoolchildren that I heard recently repeating that their body was like a "perfect little machine". Although this is also true of the Internet, what is being addressed here is the way people are engrossed by the Net. If we focus too exclusively on the Internet, we necessarily miss the larger picture. Only from the wider perspective can we make sense of the constituent parts and make choices about what to do and what not to do. That larger picture necessarily goes beyond the Internet, embracing what the Internet does not and can never include. It also goes beyond the material vision of the market place as values uniquely based on money-driven market logic sorely lack the human and the spiritual perspective. Although there's much talk of the so called "knowledge society", the larger picture necessarily transcends all that we can learn in school, all that science has taught us and even all that words can express...

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise. Share or comment
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Created: April 11th, 2000 - Last up-dated: April 12th, 2000