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Living Virtuously in the Information Age
* In 1978, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn delivered the 327th commencement address at Harvard University. Titled "A World Split Apart," his speech focused on the growing moral vacuum in Western civilization. In spite of our "abundance of information, or maybe partly because of it," he said, "the West has great difficulty in finding its bearings amid contemporary events." The rising racket of information repeatedly breaks our concentration. We claim to be truth seekers, he argued, but instead we follow simplistic "formulas." We wrongly assume that the overall condition of the world is improving because of our wealth of technology and information. We forget that "truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter."
Although we celebrate the arrival of the information society, we have not fully faced its implications. Along with information come misinformation and disinformation. Rumor and hearsay abound. Opinions fly through digital networks. Deceitful persons and institutions spread half-truths. While we understandably revel in the apparent power of information technologies to collect and disseminate information, we also ought to question the quality of such information. Does it help us to grasp the condition of our personallives and social institutions? Is it trivial or significant, helpful or harmful, relevant or meaningless? How can we discern the real value of the growing caches of database information culled by specialists, collated and analyzed via computers, and distributed through high-speed networks?
The plethora of available information makes us ever more dependent on experts who supposedly can interpret it for us. We need help, so we turn to popular guides for "dummies" and "idiots." Bookstores are selling millions of books designed to give laypersons a modicum of insight into professions, technical skills, avocations, history, and even religion and sexuality. Two publishers have released over one thousand titles for dummies and idiots. Such volumes are popular, suggests the author of Philosophy for Dummies, because people "have less access to the experts, who are locked up on college campuses." Maybe so, but perhaps we are so overwhelmed by information and so underwhelmed by our own knowledge that we all feel like insecure dummies. "We all have bits of the `idiot' in us," says the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Self Esteem. To overcome our insecurities, we reach for information produced by apparent non-dummies. Adrift in a sea of information, yet hoping to arrive safely on the shore of success, we paddle around using the techniques outlined in self-help books.
Living in the age of cyberspace, we have faith in the processes of collecting and distributing information. Words such as "data," "knowledge," and "information" connote social progress and personal enlightenment. We revere technologies such as computers and the World Wide Web that will supposedly transform data into information and information into knowledge. Mary E. Boone argues that the computer "may enable the next big leap in the evolution of human intellect" and "dramatically extend the memory of our species and our ability to work with ideas." She calls computers "supplements of the mind." Everywhere we look, in news reports and public television documentaries, experts are extolling the benefits of information technologies for social progress.
We are succumbing to informationism: a non-discerning, vacuous faith in the collection and dissemination of information as a route to social progress and personal happiness. We are particularly hopeful that more efficient and powerful messaging systems will improve the quality of our lives. As presently constituted, however, information technologies limit our abilities to perceive our moral condition and dampen our capacity to be virtuous people. In a society steeped in informationism, disciplined human activities that require time, patience, and perseverance are anathema. Self-help solutions, themselves usually technological practices, replace moral disciplines. Instrumental habits—practices that might be efficient and effective but are not necessarily good—eclipse virtuous practices. Acting like machines rather than humans, we do what is immediately convenient and efficacious, not necessarily what is right and good. The exigencies of technique tend to override our ability to employ other means and to seek truly good ends. As a quasi-religion, informationism preaches the is over the ought, observation over intimacy, and measurement over meaning.
The first section of this chapter explores informationism's emphasis on the is over the ought. Informationism places the highest value on contemporary culture, current events, and immediate action. In cyber-culture, we are increasingly obsessed with documenting the present rather than understanding the human condition, particularly our moral situation. Uninterested in the hard work of nurturing virtuous character, we hope for technological solutions to our moral problems. We more or less accept our informational world the way it is and then proceed to make it even more that way.
The second section examines how our informational practices position us as impersonal observers of the world rather than intimate participants in the world. The glut of information at our disposal creates the illusion that we understand our predicament. We become promiscuous knowers, flitting from one bit of information to another, with no fidelity to an overarching worldview. In search of informational knowing, humans have long objectified knowledge and collected it in libraries, and now in databases. Ironically, as we gain more access to such objectified information, we lose our own capacity to know. We depend more and more on supposed experts to give us knowledge, while distrusting our own intimate connections to the world around us. Although we selfishly gain more knowledge about the world, we lose the more intimate knowledge of the world. We become informational voyeurs of life rather than responsible participants in the knowing of our own cultures and communities. "Surfing" is an apt word for our condition because it connotes living on the surface of reality.
The third section discusses our high-tech penchant for measurement over meaning. Information technologies foster statistical ways of perceiving and systematic modes of imagining. Under their influence, we see the world in terms of cybernetic systems composed of measurable causes and effects. The resulting cyber-worldview is a closed system that elevates the value of control over moral responsibility. Manipulating information to cause particular "outcomes" becomes more important than being virtuous persons or contributing to a good society.
This chapter concludes with a brief critique of this quasi-religious informationism. Information technologies themselves will never enable us to become more responsible persons or communities. People are more than atoms in cyber-systems. Culture is more than a formal organization. And human action is intrinsically a matter of making moral as well as informational decisions. The more we imagine our lives and our societies as informational systems, the more likely it is that we will manipulate and control human beings as mere cogs in digital networks. Informationism lacks both the means to acquire moral wisdom and the good ends that should frame our desires. It is a morally bankrupt faith in our own ability to engineer the Promised Land.
Wallowing in the Is While Forgetting the Ought
During the height of the so-called New Economy craze in 1999, as media pundits declared greater efficiency and prosperity fueled by high-tech innovation, the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition examined the charitable giving practices of Internet companies. Given all the money being made in the stock market, one would have expected flurries of new philanthropy. Reporters discovered instead that high-tech firms were among the least likely to participate in philanthropic causes, and Internet companies were the worst of all. Amazon.com, with a market capitalization of $28 billion, contributed little to charitable causes. Yahoo! boasted a market capitalization of roughly $47 billion but indicated on its Web site that the company "does not provide cash grants or financial sponsorships." Although those kinds of organizations were not interested in giving away money, their workers enjoyed spending it; nightlife thrived in high-tech areas. One observer suggested that the young owners of Internet companies did not yet understand the value of investing in charities. "You have a lot of young people making a lot of money who care more about themselves than helping others," explained one Internet CEO. Maybe so, but such an explanation misses the broader ethos of cyberculture. High-tech endeavors are usually organized around short-term goals and immediate practical needs, such as achieving incremental product upgrades or securing the next round of investment capital. Cyberculture is so focused on the here and now that it implicitly rejects the human need for a long-term vision, let alone a moral compass. In this milieu, charitable causes simply are irrelevant.
Lacking any clear "oughts," today's informationism is a religion of quick decisions and instant deletes. Acting like processors of information, we become info-religionists who carelessly transmit, receive, and discard torrents of messages with little reflection. As the list of new email messages comes up on our screens, we begin deleting the junk mail and typing telegraphic responses to worthy recipients. We live in the digital world of the now, instant everything. We seek immediate solutions to even moral crises, as if Web sites and email petitions can change the world. We fill our lives with temporary satisfactions, such as surfing the Web, watching DVDs, or chatting on a cell phone while driving a vehicle. Modern technologies provide us with a myriad of ways to "delete" the moral life by focusing only on immediate, instrumental activities.
Preoccupied with the present, informationism focuses on "what is" instead of "what ought to be." Cyberculture, for instance, obsessively documents current events, from business transactions and consumer profiles to personal schedules and news reports. Probably no culture has ever been more enchanted with its ability to collect and publish contemporaneous information, from the foods that Hollywood celebrities prefer to the sexual practices of politicians. Cyberculture also chases after the latest technological products, models, and upgrades—the endless whirlwind of test products and "beta" technologies that promise us immediate progress.
Ethics, the realm of moral obligations and standards of right conduct, enters cyberculture primarily through moralistic campaigns that faddishly capture the public imagination via news reports. We focus briefly on such things as ensuring credit card security for online purchases, protecting the privacy of children while they surf the Web, shielding private medical records from corporate databases, or improving the civility in online chat rooms. Terms such as "infogap," "technological poverty," and "digital divide" come and go in the news, championed by one or another consumer group or self-appointed watchdog association. High school shootings momentarily prompt the nation to examine the impact of violent video games on young people, but before long we are back to business as usual, producing promotional Web sites for violent movies based on the same video games.
Like ethical chameleons, we adapt our moral practices to the latest technologies rather than summoning our technologies to follow a long-term moral vision. Our desire to become skillful technologists increasingly dictates our moral decisions. We rarely think about what it means to be good and wise people; instead, we focus on whether we are technically connected. We assume that by adopting novel technologies we can solve the moral problems created by earlier ones. Supposedly, encryption will ensure privacy. Web site "blocking" software at public libraries will protect children from access to adult materials online. Our romance with information technology leads us to assume that moral issues are best solved technologically.
This emphasis on the technological now is a recipe for cultural chaos as well as a license for self-interest. One-time Internet company CEO Michael Wolff describes the boom time of the World Wide Web as a frenzied era of moral confusion and nearly unbridled selfishness. Caught in the escalating game of buying and selling unproven companies, many inventors, investors, and executives hoped eventually to make it big on public stock offerings. The frenzy of the moment overtook any reasonable standards of conduct. Billions of dollars changed hands, thanks to the machinery of Wall Street, the bravado of venture capitalists, the spreadsheets of creative accountants, and the elliptical tales of self-promotional CEOs. As Wolff recalls, dot-com wannabees were playing with abstract data and overblown financial predictions. Hindsight now shows that dot-com mania swamped any long-term sense of moral responsibility.
Journalistic reporting is the primary mode of "knowing" in informationism. Information technologies are particularly efficient at collecting and disseminating current fads. Cyberspace makes it enormously easy and inexpensive to make and distribute endless copies of up-to-date documents. It also leads to dynamic online content that changes by the day, hour, and even minute. Cyberspace turns us all into reporters who daily compose telegraphic messages online for friends, relatives, and anonymous others. Instant messaging becomes a means of reporting to friends the minutiae of our lives. Theodore Roszak argues that information itself has "taken on the quality of that impalpable, invisible, but plaudit-winning silk from which the emperor's ethereal gown was supposedly spun." One result is a "Breaking News Syndrome" in which people become nervous and exhausted while chasing after the latest reports about current events.
Informational reporting includes endless high-tech prognostications that entertain us in the present more than they illuminate the future. Late-breaking news stories about technological innovations sound like popular science fiction. A flight magazine predicts that "shrinking technology promises mobile professionals the world at their fingertips." It quotes experts who say that by 2010, 40 percent of teens will own always-on, wearable communications and computing technology. Dick Tracy meets Star Wars. Such pie-in-the-sky predictions are entertaining reports, not realistic assessments of our future. Furthermore, they offer no real solutions to our moral dilemmas of today or tomorrow. Will a fingertip-controlled world or a wearable computer bring us more peace and justice? Will they foster virtue at home and work?
Being up-to-date technologically symbolizes to us the likelihood of our future success. We assume that we must be plugged in, networked, subscribed, paged, and emailed. So we open the technological floodgates to the latest forms of instant communication. Even if we fail to master information technology, the sheer ownership of it becomes a self-help mechanism for improving our social status. Many people buy the latest equipment before its value is proven; they love being on the cutting edge before their friends are. But what is the real value of greater processing speed, a larger monitor, or expensive software with so many bells and whistles that we will rarely use, let alone master? Informationism thrives when our rhapsodies about the latest technologies give us the illusion of being informationally up-to-date, socially elevated, and professionally successful.
Excerpted from Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Quentin J. Schultze. Copyright © 2002 by Quentin J. Schultze. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction : identifying our techno-moral crisis||15|
|1||Discerning our informationism||25|
|2||Moderating our informational desires||47|
|3||Seeking wisdom in tradition||69|
|4||Laughing ourselves to humility||91|
|5||Being authentic in webs of spin||115|
|6||Striving for cosmic diversity||141|
|7||Nurturing virtue in community||165|
|8||Sojourning with heart||189|