networked society
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The following text was inspired by discussions during the September meeting of the IDEAS group in Geneva. Chaired by Bruno Lanvin, the subject of this "dinner-discussion" was the role of the Internet in developing countries. The following text however has little to do with the question of development. Another text "Anyone got a can-opener?" Opening up the Internet. deals with ideas about learning, Internet and developing countries coming from that meeting. My special thanks to Jill Small for her piercing comments about the first version of this text which helped me put my ideas straight and to Bruno Lanvin for challenging the question of synchronicity. Thanks also to all those who have sent comments or words of encouragement.

Stop the world, I wanna get off!

The so-called "Information Society" and associated technologies are surrounded with a great deal of hype. I'd like to try to throw a little light on some of the underlying postulates of Information Society evangelists. Andre Gorz wrote that utopies are important because not only do they show the way to go but also they motivate people to go in that direction. The finalities of Information Society evangelists are, however, not only unrealisable, but also undesirable and furthermore counter-productive for the cause they are supposed to serve. I will talk briefly about the following postulates:
  1. That there is a growing feeling of belonging to a global world-wide community and that this global community will slowly eclipse local communities.
  2. That distances are shrinking to zero and with them physical boundaries disappear.
  3. That time is accelerating ineluctably and that less and less time will be available for decision-making.
  4. That the network is progressively englobing more and more human activities until it finally covers all forms of human exchange.

1. The global community

It is clearly a good thing that each individual identify with the World and feel concerned by what happens to it. However, it would be an enormous error to believe that this global on-line community could exist without local face-to-face communities. The re-enforcement of the local face-to-face community is a pre-requisite for the satisfactory development of the global on-line community. The reasons for this need to strengthen local face-to-face communities are directly connected to our relationship to time and space and the network itself.

2. Shrinking space

Instantaneous, world-wide communication on the Internet creates the impression of a distanceless space in which physical geography is being replaced by a new concept of proximity in terms of overlapping fields of interests. Yet physical distance will not disappear. On the contrary, it will take on growing significance as distance becomes an ever increasing barrier in a world forced to severely restrict physical mobility in the quest for sustainable development.

3. Accelerating time

One of the major advantages mentioned for the Internet is that communication is speeded up and people are able to satisfy their desires more rapidly. Taken to its extreme, the market ideal would be instant, personalised, push-button satisfaction. Even without this desired or feared move to "all-round" interactivity, the image of the Net as a vehicle of instant communication contributes to an overall feeling that time is in some strange way being devalued and consequently goes less far. Despite this fact, there is absolutely nothing that is ineluctable in the supposed acceleration of time. It is a choice.

In terms of time, there are, in fact, two categories of exchange between people over the Internet:

  • "asynchronous" communication, that is to say, communciation in which people are not directly connected with each other at the same time, like with e-mail. Although of course, some people do have the impression of conversing by sending successive short e-mail messages to each other;
  • "synchronous" communication in which people are connected to each other at the same time and can exchange simultaneously like in video conferencing or on-line telephone. That doesn't mean, of course, that everyone speaks at the same time.
The majority of interpersonal exchange on the Net takes places asynchronously, that is to say, with a lapse in time between the message and the reply. This time is not machine-time, but time that can be taken by human beings to think and to write. We need to cherish this lapse of time. It may turn out to be our most valuable asset. It is a chance to stop and take stock of the situation. It makes possible the careful thinking that is required for decision-making in an increasingly complex environment. Provided, of course, that the pressure to get ahead, to be the most up-to-date and to be the first to act doesn't get the better of us ... Edward de Bono once said that good thinkers are slow thinkers.

4. The pervasive network

Although the wide-spread up-take of information and communication technologies (ICTs) requires reaching a critical mass in terms of usage and users, a generalised migration of human exchange to Cyberspace is not a pre-requisite. Yet such an all-englobing digital world is at the heart of long-term visions of those who fervently advocate the move to the "Information Society". It is argued that ICTs permeate all human activities because they involve all forms of communication and consequently would necessarily englobe them all. There are also financial arguments. Hoped-for reductions in cost using the Net would be lost if a dual system (both on- and off-line) had to be maintained. It is for this reason that a single viable electronic payment system involving current electronic payments and replacing coins and banknotes would save both time and money.

Is it really feasible or desirable that a large part of human exchange be transferred exclusively to the Net? Does not this drive to encompass all exchange under one electronc banner smack of totalitarianism? A similar attempt to be all-embracing is to be found in the education and health systems as well as in the liberal market place? I suspect that that market forces as well as advocates of life-long learning and total health-care see the generalisation of ICTs use as an ideal occasion to win over an even larger spectrum of human activities to their sphere of influence. My hypothesis is that it is in no way feasible nor desirable for an increasing number of human activities to depend on the mediation of the network.

I am not suggesting that the Net should be fought against. Quite the contrary. It has great potential but that this potential risks being squandered if we heed the hype and don't find a satisfactory balance between:

  • The global on-line community and the local face-to-face communities;
  • The advantages of a seemingly distanceless space on-line and the growing appreciation of physical distance in the real world;
  • The seemingly instantness of on-line exchange with its consequent potential for rapid satisfaction and the necessity to take time out to think things over and come to satisfactory decisions;
  • The transfer of large parts of human exchange to the network and the need to develop and nourish non-mediated, non-institutionalised communication.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
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Created: October 1st, 1996 - Last up-dated: October 3rd, 1996