Our Cultural Chrysalis
by Brent Phillips
Brock University
April 23, 1998
 
 
“The element he plunged into was unlike water in that it neither soaked nor chilled him.  But he floated in it nevertheless, his body rising through brilliant bubbles to the surface without any effort on his part. He had no fear of drowning. Only the profoundest sense of gratitude that he was here, where he belonged”
(Barker, 1989, p.425)
Our world is in transition.

Ideas, culture, opinions, and attitudes are continuously evolving. Some people embrace these changes, others denounce and aim to negate them with calls for a return to “simpler” times (an ironic view, since most new technologies are created to simplify existing tasks), while many people quietly integrate change with old routines, redefining their lives with little, if any, reflection. This pattern is not unique to the present “information revolution."

Our world has always been in transition.

There has never in the history of humanity been a time without social and intellectual evolution. There may have been a few pauses throughout time where progress has been stalled for short periods (by our standards and definitions),  but historically, change has been constant. From early humanoids, then early ancient civilizations, through the Ages of Bronze, Iron, Agriculture, Science, Industry, and now Information, innovation and social organization have resulted in biological, social, and technological evolution. A homeostatic existence has never been good enough.

Our world will continue to change.

The world is presently in a state of accelerating, and possibly unprecedented, change. These are transitory times, and we are experiencing a paradigm shift from an industrial-based to an information-based society. The rapidity of this redefinition has caused many people to question its benefits, while others have embraced and encouraged the emerging new reality.
This paper is an examination of the works and views of selected prominent authors of  the popular and academic press for insight into how this technological change has been affecting and will alter our lives. Some of these scientists, theoreticians, culturists, and authors embrace technology, others despise it. Will technology be the Holy Grail that leads to the end of global suffering or will its negative impact lead to the demise of the social world as we know it? This paper will critically examine the criticisms and warnings of the “Techno-Pessimists” as well as the dreams and extollments of the “Techno-Utopians”.  It will conclude with an examination of the importance of having both of these camps in the technocultural arena.
 
Popular Versus Academic Press
Over the past decade our schools, workplaces, and homes have been inundated with computers, faxes, email, and other information technologies.  Likewise, academia has generated volumes of research, commentary, and opinion on how these technologies are changing us, and the world we live in. Predictably, new print-based academic journals were founded to provide forums for researchers to exchange ideas and findings (e.g., Computers in the Schools, Journal of Educational Computing Research, Technos). These journals contain hundreds of specialized research articles examining computers, technology, and education. Unfortunately, the insights and findings are only disseminated by academics. These papers are rarely, if ever, read by the general public due to the limited accessibility of university libraries and high cost of personal subscriptions. Recently, accessibility to academic research has been somewhat improved by the online availability of numerous  journals devoted to technoculture and education that have surfaced on the World Wide Web (e.g., Speed, Kairos, NETFUTURES, Computer-Mediated Communication). The online publication of research in this medium has allowed millions of Internet users to easily access and read the latest articles from their homes, libraries, and schools.

Paralleling the increase in institutional research and academic journals devoted to technoculture over the past decade, the volume of books about computing and technoculture published by the mass market industry has skyrocketed. These books do find their way to the bookshelves of the general public more so than the articles of academic journals. Mass market books are aimed toward the consumer and their creators have two goals – the publishers want to profit from their investment, and the authors want readers to think about their intellectual positions presented in the writing. Culture is global, societal, and communal – it affects everyone.  It is for these reasons that I believe that mass market books effectively identify and categorize the current cultural trends that exists in our society. They are written for the general population, not the academics; the “end-users,” not the “programmers”. Mass market books are often compendiums of an author’s academic research, repackaged in a format more accessible to the average reader. Their scope is wide and their audience is large. I am not at all suggesting that the current academic research into technoculture does not address important issues, but for this type of analysis – an examination into the current cultural effects of information technologies – I believe that the mass market publications relate more to the general state of the public’s perceptions than do specialized academic papers.

Three Perspectives on Technology
Broadly categorized, people can be viewed as what I have labeled either “Techno-Pessimists,” “Techno-Utopians,” or “Cautious-Optimists” based on their attitudes toward information technology.

Techno-Pessimists are those that view computers, information technology, and the Internet as negative influences on the lives of individuals and to the stability of society. Generally, Techno-Pessimists lament the loss of physical interaction between individuals (e.g., Stoll, 1995), virtual (as opposed to actual) reality (e.g., Talbott, 1995), the increased pace of our technological world, and question the actual benefits that informational technologies provide.

Techno-Utopians, on the other hand, believe that technology affects individuals and society in a positive manner. These individuals are characterized by their beliefs that information technology can eliminate gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged in society (e.g., Negroponte, 1995), increase productivity in business (e.g., Worzel, 1997), generate opportunities for new social interactions (e.g., Turkle, 1995), improve educational instruction and opportunity (e.g., Logan, 1995; Tapscott, 1998), cultural globalization will make the world a better place to live (e.g., WIRED magazine), and even help us transcend our current physical limitations (e.g., de Kerckhove, 1997; Dewdney, 1998).

Cautious-optimists is the label I have attached to everyone else. These individuals take a balanced, and sometimes critical, view toward technology. They can be likened to the person that walks two steps forward, then one step backward. Frequently, Cautious-Optimists write about their personal experiences and attempt to find meaning in their actions through critical analysis. Cautious-Optimists are generally accepting of new technologies, but are careful to qualify their acceptance with careful regard for possible negative effects as well.

Techno-Pessimists
 
Techno-Pessimists warn us that computers will not solve social issues, nor will they improve our life experiences. One of the most vocal critics of technology is Neil Postman. A former teacher and administrator, Postman (1992) argues that computers and technology can not cure the larger social problems that plague our society:
 
Where people are dying because of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information.  Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them 
  (p.119).
Unfortunately, Postman’s literal and narrow view of the effects of technology for specific situations ignores the holistic benefits of computers in the broader social scale. While Postman is right to argue that a computer in and of itself can not solve any of the epic problems that he lists, he fails to consider the possibility that technology may be able to help people prevent these situations from occurring at all. If  a better education can be shared with more children around the world using the Internet, if technology can help determine optimal agricultural methods for needy nations, if population models and urban planning simulations can help design better cities, would there not be a chance of improving these crises?

Again, in -The End of Education (1996), Postman criticizes education’s fascination with technology, portraying it as a “god” for children to serve. In the absence of critical analysis this might be the case. However, children today are still instructed by teachers whose function is to help children prepare for social lives within the local and global community. Critical analysis of all types of information is taught in classrooms today. The delivery model is becoming an outdated philosophy of teaching. In its place, inquiry and critical analysis have become major ways for encouraging students to prepare for a lifetime of learning.
To counter the threat of corporate and technological brainwashing, Postman suggests new reasons for learning, new guiding principles by which children should be encouraged to learn. Ironically, Postman’s principles would benefit from the use of information technology in the classroom. For example, not once throughout his description of “The Spaceship Earth” (1996, pp. 93-113) proposal does Postman mention computers or the Internet. He proposes the guiding beacon of local environmentalism and community awareness to give purpose to children’s scholastic endeavors, yet fails to acknowledge the power that computers could add to students’ work. While it may be true that, “a sense of responsibility for the planet is born through the sense of responsibility for one’s own neighborhood” (p. 100), it also can be argued that the reverse is true. He ignores the fact that the Internet enables an interconnectedness between children from all corners of the globe. The possibilities for collaboration and investigation are endless, given the power of the technology that exists today. The opportunities for social change are not, as Postman believes, inhibited by technology – they are enhanced.

While some Techno-Pessimists such as Postman dwell on the negative societal implications of technology, others like Clifford Stoll (1995) examine how technology (specifically, the Internet) is harming individual life experiences. Stoll’s greatest complaint is that the use of computers and networks by individuals reduces the quality of life for all. For Stoll, the greatest part of living is actually experiencing nature and real-live human beings. He argues that life is about the people, places, and things that you experience in the non-virtual, physical, social world. He refuses to consider that online experience can be a worthwhile use of one’s time. It is likely that Sherry Turkle would disagree with his negation of online participation as a worthwhile social activity. She, and others, have studied the differences between online and offline social behaviours extensively and have found that the feelings, the emotions, and the interactions between people separated by, and participating with, technology are very complex (e.g., Rushkoff, 1996; Turkle, 1995).  Sometimes, virtual reality creates more positive affect for an individual than reality itself. We are species of individuals living within a social community. The forms of this social community have changed countless times since the onset of communal social organization, and it may be that we are once again redefining the term “life experience” to include our personal and virtual identities. Critics such as Stoll, through their adherence to current social order and expectations, fail to accept the possibility that society is undergoing a transformational shift that could result in a future that may be greater than the past it has left behind.

Techno-Utopians
 
Techno-Utopians believe that information technology is the key to eliminating social problems and providing humanity with a more optimistic future. Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, is perhaps the best known and one of the most zealous Techno-Utopians extolling the messianic virtues of information technology.  As part of a consortium called “2B1”, Negroponte is dedicated to eliminating the barriers to children’s literacy and education that exist today around the world by providing them with Internet connections. He believes that through the use of computer technology and the Internet, children will read, write, analyze, and learn faster than by traditional methods and have access to more and current information. For Negroponte, computers with Internet connections are one of the most important ingredients in Third World aid. He states:  “world leaders understand that the most precious natural resource of any country is its children, and that the digital world  is key to education” (1998, p. 96). It is his belief that Third World nations which spend their limited resources on telecommunications will leapfrog presently advanced nations that do not. He is firm in his conviction that access to information will be the key to gaining wisdom, knowledge, power, peace, and prosperity.  As noble as his intentions are, for Negroponte’s ideas to become realized there will have to be unparalleled unity and agreement between the nations of this planet in order to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to enable truly global access to information technologies.  This is unlikely to happen on the scale necessary to meet his expectations, thus his position can only be construed as idealistic. Negroponte’s hegemonic optimism fails to account for the reality of Third World situations. Whereas Postman abstained from using technology to help cure social problems, Negroponte over-prescribes it. Technology alone can not fix social problems, but it can help to generate some solutions.

Another theme that appears in the writings of  Techno-Utopians is the positive effects of  the growing integration of technology into the individual and collective psyches.  Turkle’s work on virtual identities and online communities (1995) already has been mentioned, and to it we must add the name Christopher Dewdney. Dewdney (1998) proposes that due to technological advances in voice recognition capabilities, computers will render literacy obsolete. He believes that computers with speech recognition will be able to record your text while grammar-checks and spell-checks produce an error-free final copy. In addition, intelligent word processing agents will be developed which mimic your writing style and will edit, enhance, and improve your product. Writing will become the product of human/machine interaction and as technology progresses, the more humans will become part of the machines they created. Assuming that knowledge and computing experience become so ingrained in this emerging culture that they are no longer barriers, the only obstacle to this evolution is the economic disparity between those that can afford the technology and those who can not. Once this hurdle is cleared, we will enter a period of “transhumanity” – the transition between the human and posthuman eras (in fact, it may have already begun). Mind and matter will blend, and humans will have the capability to go farther than genetically possible. In posthumanity, “humans will cease to exist – at least how we currently know them.  But consciousness will certainly not end” (p. 6). (Indeed, the illustration on the dust jacket has subtle 1’s and 0’s patterned on the bare back of a person with his back to the reader which I have only recently noticed. My subconscious must have already accepted Dewdney’s thesis and begun preparing for the inevitable!)

Dewdney’s ideas are grandiose and breathtaking. However, what he fails to do throughout Last Flesh is explain how this will all materialize. Many of his predictions are merely extensions of current realities taken to their extreme limits. Yes, technology is bridging the communicative distance between individuals, and generating a more global consciousness. But to postulate that a “disembodied consciousness” may be achieved as a result of  our shedding our biological vessels reads like science fiction, rather than serious discourse.   While many of Dewdney’s observations are insightful and thought-provoking (e.g. “the distortion of space by media,” p. 129), many fail to generate serious reflection precisely because they come across as purely idealistic aspirations. It often feels as if Dewdney wishes his predictions to become reality, rather than basing them on existing and logical premises.

Cautious-Optimists
 
I previously have surmised that cautious-optimists are generally accepting of new technologies, but are careful to temper their acceptance with careful regard for possible negative effects. These individuals appear to be the largest segment of the technocultural population. I believe that this is because change inherently unsettles individuals (as well as societies), and also because most technologies that survive and become part of our social evolution do so because they simplify an existing task or function. We are reluctant to give up our established order, but at the same time we are excited by the possibilities that new technologies bring.  Cautious-Optimists understand that it is important to critically examine the ultimate effects of a technology before embracing it, if possible, since simplicity in one arena can lead to larger problems in others, an example of this being the automobile. Cars eliminated the problems associated with travelling by horse, but led to greater air pollution and urban congestion. The Internet is the automobile of the 1990s.

One reason Techno-Utopians may fail to connect with the general public is that their ideas and positions do not appear to immediately affect the casual reader. Conversely, Cautious-Optimists usually present ideas that appear to be “make sense” – they are connected to the present, while looking to a logical future.  Paul Levinson is a Cautious-Optimist.  He explains that all media become more human in their performance as they evolve: telephones are a more natural way of communicating than Morse code; color photography is more natural than black and white; motion video and computer animation are more natural than static images (1979, as cited in Levinson, 1997). With the Internet, the ability to integrate all of these natural technologies is becoming a reality for many people. By examining work such as Levinson’s, one can observe how technological change is part of a natural process. We need not fear it, but we should be aware of it.

Likewise, Logan (1995) puts forth his thesis that computing is actually a fifth language, following speech, language, mathematics, and science. By detailing the history of our linguistic evolution, Logan eases the reader into a very monumental idea – that information technologies are changing the way we think and communicate. No grandiosity. No hyperbole. Just honest observations and propositions.

Unlike the Techno-Pessimists who seek to denigrate the Internet as a collective time-waster, Cautious-Optimists use the collective voice that is a result of online interactions to seek to understand and improve their personal experiences. One such example is Derrick de Kerckhove, who proposes that,
 

 Together, interactivity, hypertextuality, and connectedness constitute a basis for the planetization of ordinary people as well as organizations, nations, and continents, by a permanent, self-updating synergy of local computers, global networks, and 
 satellites. 
 (1997, p. xxv). 
According to de Kerckhove, interactivity unites people with computer hardware, hypertextuality provides interactive access to anything from anywhere, and connectedness enables two or more people to converse or collaborate from a distance. With this positive statement of the reality of the Internet, he has presented a framework that is coherent and descriptive.  It is a very poetic idea, one that has a simple elegance.

Brian Alger (1997) exemplifies the cautious-optimist perspective when he states that,

Not only must we teach the use of new media, we must also be concerned with the effects the new media has on both our intelligence and well being. The potential to expand and amplify intelligence through the effective use of digital media is transformative. At the same time, the potential for limiting our perception is equally apparent if we misunderstand the effects on our intelligence and well being
  (p. 8). 
A balanced approach to new technologies will serve us best in the end.

Conclusion
Technology, computers, and the Internet have ingrained themselves into our present culture and have transformed the way we live. We are at the leading edge of the information age and are unaware of how it will evolve. We can look to past technological revolutions to get a peek at what might be waiting for us once we pass through this transitional time, but there are no guarantees as to what the future holds.

We need to approach technology with a sense of caution nestled within a cocoon of optimism. Techno-Pessimists are fighting a losing battle in their call to go back to a less technological time, for as Levinson (1997) showed us, there always has been some form of information revolution happening throughout history. Likewise, the dreams of Techno-Utopians are frequently blind to the real world obstacles and conflicts that would need to be overcome in order for their visions to work.

Instead, let us espouse a tempered, optimistic outlook toward information technology and the future. Let us strive to embrace technologies that encourage communication, creativity, innovation, and community. We are all passengers on a journey into the unknown as society seeks to redefine itself, and we have the opportunity to contribute to its shaping.

Only time will determine how we will emerge from our cultural chrysalis.
 

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References
Alger, B. (1997). The design mind: The teacher as experience designer. Unpublished manuscript.

Barker, C. (1989). The great and secret show. London, UK: Harper & Row.

De Kerckhove, D. (1997). Connected intelligence: The arrival of the web society. Toronto, ON: Somerville House Publishing.

Dewdney, C. (1998). Last flesh: Life in the transhuman era. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Limited.

Levinson, P. (1997). The soft edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution. New York: Routledge.

Logan, R. K. (1995). The fifth language: Learning a living in the computer age. Toronto, ON: Stoddart.

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Negroponte, N. (1998). The third shall be first. WIRED, 6.01, 96.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (1996). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rushkoff, D. (1996). Playing the future: How kids’ culture can teach us to thrive in an age of chaos. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Stoll, C. (1995). Silicon snake oil: Second thoughts on the information highway. Toronto, ON: Anchor Books.

Talbott, S. L. (1995). The future does not compute: Transcending the Machines in our midst. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates.

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Touchstone Books.

Worzel, R. (1997). The next twenty years of your life: A personal guide into the year 2017. Toronto, ON: Stoddart.
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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