The Social Dimensions of a Networked World
Will the Internet promote productivity and fulfillment or result in a more volatile and ruthless world?
Ross A. Miller
Technological change has the potential to have profound effects on politics, the economy, and society. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution provides ample evidence of the significant effect of technology on humankind. Today the Internet has transformed the way we communicate, learn, work, and play. What are the dangers and opportunities presented by this new technology? One hundred years from now, will society look back upon this period of technological change as one that led to a more productive and peaceful world, or will they view it as the beginning of a dark period in human history, one characterized by political instability, economic inequality, and societal dysfunction?
In this Keynote Dialog, three outstanding scholars addressed the potential impact of the Internet on our lives: Manuel Castells (Professor of Sociology and of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley), Amy Bruckman (Assistant Professor in the College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology) and William Davidow (Founder and Partner, Mohr, Davidow Ventures). I begin by presenting an edited transcription of each of their opening statements, then turn to a synthesis of their arguments, and conclude with the key challenges and questions these arguments pose for future research.
Opening Statements of the Panelists
On the one hand, we are living through one of the most extraordinary periods in human history in terms of creativity, innovation, and wealth generation On the other hand, we know we have very serious problems. And the problems are not the current downturn in the Silicon Valley or in the new economy at large.
At the macro level, we have an increasing disparity in the world. We have ample evidence that during the years of the new economy inequality, poverty, and social exclusion have increased in the world at large and in many societies. And also at the macro level, we have the increasing volatility of financial markets. We have become interdependent, and we are not going back to nicely organized financial markets.
Right here in our area, which is the most innovative area in the world by all standards, we also have very serious problems. In the 1990s in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, the average real wage has declined. But the upper third did very well, which means staggering inequality. We also have major crises in terms of housing, transportation, and, of course, in electricity.
And then we have a major crisis in education. Education is the basis of everything else and will come back to haunt us. I would say that we have an even deeper crisis in the sense of increasing individualism to the point where we cannot connect with each other in society. The recent analysis of the National Social Capital Benchmark Results, by Santa Clara University’s Jim Koch and Ross Miller, has shown a lack of civic involvement and a lack of sense of community, which are much more accentuated in Silicon Valley than the U.S. at large. And the U.S. data results are much more accentuated than those from the world at large, which is doing very badly on these two indicators. We are the tip of the iceberg of social isolation, and what really concerns me for the future is our growing institutional and ethical inability to bring together our stock options with our life options.
It is kind of a silly question to ask: is the Internet good for our culture? Or the question we always get: what is the impact of the Internet on our culture? The Internet is not one thing, and its future is not predetermined. A better question is: what do we want the Internet to be? What values do we use in choosing goals - socially desirable goals - for what we hope this technology can do for us? And if we can agree on a vision that we believe is desirable, how do we make it real?
I’m a designer. I try to start with social values and design new technologies to help make those things possible, as a computer scientist. One dimension of this new medium that I find particularly exciting is its potential to help users become creators of content, not just recipients of content. We can see this in a wide variety of fields. For example, in the area of e-commerce people are no longer just consumers, they are also sellers.
In the field of health, people are no longer just patients who sit in the office and receive the proclamation of the doctor. They are going online and talking to each other, learning about their situation, and arriving at the doctor’s office informed. In fact physicians will tell you that they are happy about that. A more informed consumer helps them to do a better job, as a number of recent studies have shown. So people are getting both technical and emotional support from each other through this medium. They are not just downloading information about their medical condition but sharing what they know with others to their mutual benefit.
Now, of course, my field is education. There has been a lot of hype about the use of the Internet for education, and it is not about content delivery. Content delivery is not exciting. What is really exciting about this medium is the potential for people to learn from each other, to create electronic learning communities, mutually supportive communities of learners online. In my laboratory, I am working on a number of projects related to education via online communities. For instance in the “MOOSE CROSSING” project, we use a text-based virtual world with a programming language designed to make it easier for kids to program. We have kids mostly 8 to 12 years old learning object-oriented programming. And they learn it from each other in a community-supported, self-motivated fashion.
Another research project is called “PALAVER TREE ONLINE.” We have middle school students reading literature that is part of their normal curriculum, brainstorming historical questions based on what they have read, and then talking with older adults who have lived through that period of history. Some eighth graders were reading about the Civil Rights years and one of them asked a senior citizen: “Have you ever heard the I Have a Dream speech?” And the senior responded: “Actually, I was there. What do you want to know about? Let me tell you what it was like to be on the Mall that day and what that experience meant to me.”
So the Internet has the potential not just to get kids learning from each other online but also to make thoughtful adults part of the education process for our kids. These are just some examples of how users are becoming creators of content online. I think that this is one way we can empower the individual through this technology and that this is part of the real promise. If you give people good tools and social support for the use of those tools, I believe they will astonish you with their intelligence and creativity at every turn. But it is incumbent on us to create those good tools, and this kind of empowerment of the individual through this new medium is by no means inevitable. There are a lot of competing alternatives for all of our time and attention. But I think it is possible, and I think it is something that we as informed designers in control of the future of this technology can make possible.
When we talk about the information age, we are really talking about a time when interconnections are growing at the fastest rate that they probably ever have in the history of humanity. And the history of humanity is in fact a history of interconnections. Every time we have interconnected things and changed the costs of interconnectivity, or improved the capacity of those interconnections, or made them run faster, or made them easier to use, or more reliable, we have changed the structure of society. The interconnections establish an environment. Government, social institutions, the structure of society, business, commerce, economies, and even our social philosophy are transformed by the environment established by the interconnections.
Today, interconnectivity is changing the form of our governance. Whether you like it or agree with it, new forms of governance are coming into being. Some of the new forms of governance are the World Bank or the World Trade Organization. Other forms of governance are the multinational corporations. Nobody wants to talk of them as governments, but they carry on many of the governmental functions. And new forms of virtual government are going to grow and take place. The problems and challenges we face today are that our current social institutions, government, and business, are not compatible with today’s level of interconnectivity.
If one were to study the history of money, one would find that it evolved as interconnectivity and society evolved, and it doesn’t take a great deal of thought or study today to find that our current monetary system is no longer in step with the level of interconnectivity that exists in our society.
On a theoretical level, we know a great deal about very complex interconnected systems. One of the most important things we know about them is that they have something called “multiple equilibria.” That means that interconnected systems can end up in one of a number of states. The interesting thing about that, as scientists will tell you, is that when you perturb the system you cannot predict where it is going to end up. The existence of these multiple equilibrium points implies that large social programs, such as massive tax cuts, Medicare, and utility deregulation, will seldom end up as they are conceived. It is possible to apply much of the theoretical knowledge we have about interconnected systems. Unfortunately, our government does not understand anything about the way these systems perform. So what we are doing today is designing social institutions which are no longer compatible with the way we know the social environment is going to work.
Synthesis and Discussion
Of the three panelists, Bruckman is clearly the optimist. She urges us to look at how the Internet has empowered thousands of people by providing them access to information and resources that are meaningful to almost every aspect of their lives, and the incredible potential it has to continue on this path. Her current research is an excellent example of her philosophy of the Internet: she recognizes and embraces its potential to rescue the crumbling education system in the United States. By creating learning communities online she brings together people of all ages to study history. She uses the incredible graphics capabilities of computers to introduce students to complex mathematical functions, and she uses the Internet to help students learn from each other. In our everyday lives, Bruckman points out how the Internet has helped thousands of people to work with their health care providers in order to enhance their quality of life. Through eBay and personal web pages, consumers are becoming sellers, setting up their own businesses, and exchanging goods with each other. Bruckman is under no illusions, however, about the potential effects of the Internet, even in the field of education. As she points out later in the discussion, some of the same technology that made possible her educational innovations was first introduced in the form of video games and virtual gaming: “Spending 40 hours a week killing virtual monsters is not a good use of your time, even if you are socially engaged.” It takes an active, future-oriented agenda on the part of educational, government, and business leaders to use the Internet to produce a more productive, better educated society.
Castells, on the other hand, evaluates the impact of the Internet with a considerably broader brush, and his conclusions are more pessimistic. Although the so-called “digital divide” is actually closing within the wealthier countries of the world in the sense that more and more people have access to the Internet, he believes that equal access does not mean equal opportunity. Instead, he believes that it will only serve to exacerbate existing cultural, educational, and, consequently, economic differences within societies. Indeed, he points to Silicon Valley as a microcosm of the worldwide effects of the Internet. A small percentage of people have benefited enormously from the technology revolution of the past two decades, but real wages in Santa Clara County have actually declined because the vast majority of people have not reaped the same benefits as those in the upper one-third income bracket, and their standard of living has suffered accordingly. Moreover, rather than bringing people together, Castells believes that, if the present is any indication of the future, the Internet era will be one of increasing social isolation. Again, he points to Silicon Valley as evidence of a trend that will follow on the heels of interconnections via the Internet.
Davidow echoes many of the concerns of Castells. He too believes that the lion’s share of the benefits of the Internet revolution are going to a small number of people, whom he calls “cyborgs.” These are the people with the pagers, palm pilots, laptop computers, and satellite phones who are interconnected and willing to lead lives dominated by interconnectivity through these mediums. As he noted in the panel discussion: “That is very disturbing, because I do not think the cyborg has a very high quality of life. Economically, yes. But when you look at the family and all of the social institutions that we would like that person to be a part of, the cyborg is not going to be nearly as productive in the social sense.”
Davidow and Castells also believe the Internet will have powerful international implications. Both point to the diminishing abilities of states to govern their territories, and the growing power of international organizations and multinational corporations. The Internet allows people to transcend the traditional boundaries of the nation-states. For Castells this means greater international economic divisions: the Internet revolution will only serve to exacerbate the divisions between the haves and have-nots in international politics.
Moderator Haynes Johnson raised a key issue stemming from the points made by Castells, Bruckman, and Davidow: If policymakers are listening, what should be done to bridge the gaps that have resulted from the Internet revolution?
According to Davidow the key to preventing social and economic disruptions as a result of the Internet revolution is a “fundamental change in our value systems and what we respect. We have made the public icon the wealthy person, not the person who made the most lasting social contribution.” Castells looks to Finland as his model. It is a country that has embraced high technology and yet there is very little economic inequality and relatively high economic growth. Education is funded through the college level by the state. How is this accomplished? Taxation, an issue which is political suicide in the United States. And yet in Finland, Castells claims there is broad support for the government’s taxation and social policies. Bruckman echoes these statements, and points to current educational policy as an example of the problem: “When you hand a teacher a predetermined list of facts that the children must be prepared to regurgitate at the end of the year, any kind of creativity on the part of the students is stomped out.”
Based on the suggestions and comments of the panelists, there are at least three critical areas for future research and action. One area, which all three panelists agree upon, is education. For Castells and Davidow, education is one of the critical factors that is responsible for the digital divide. Merely having access to technology is insufficient to allow individuals to exploit its full potential. Bruckman is the quintessential participant-observer in the area of education. Of the three panelists she is in the best position to assess the incredible effects (and potential effects) of the Internet on the field of education. Properly used, the Internet can engage students in powerful ways to reinvigorate the primary and secondary school system in the United States.
A second area for future research is the role of governments in grappling with the consequences of the present technological revolution. As Davidow points out, when we manipulate complex systems, multiple equilibria exist: meaning that we do not know where it will lead. He is pessimistic about the ability of national governments to make wise decisions in the new economy because he does not believe many of them truly understand what it is. As evidence he points to the European Union’s currency unit, the EURO, which he believes will be one of the biggest mistakes the European Union has ever made: “It is the equivalent of designing a hotel with 500 rooms and one thermostat. If the sun shines on one side of the hotel people are very unhappy, but people on the other side of the hotel are quite happy.” For Davidow, one of the unfortunate consequences of the information technology revolution is that it has made centralization easier, but this comes at the expense of the flexibility to deal with rapidly changing conditions.
Castells points out that even if governments are not sufficiently well informed to act, they are taking action. One of these areas is privacy, where governments, including the United States, are working hard to limit individual use of encryption technologies. Why? Castells feels it is because the governments do not trust their citizens. Yet as Bruckman emphasizes, even “honest, hard-working people who are not breaking the law, who are not cheating on their spouses, who are not doing anything bad, might actually want and need privacy.”
A final point is the role of individuals. What can we do? All three panelists are in agreement that, at least in the United States, there needs to be a fundamental shift in society’s values. As Davidow mentioned, the public fascination with society’s wealthiest individuals, and their elevation to positions of power and prestige only serve to aggravate the effect of the information technology revolution on social inequality. By focusing our efforts on building communities, along with, or perhaps instead of wealth, the Internet is much more likely to bring about a more peaceful, productive world.