In world of high tech, everyone is an island
Philosophers worry that 'community' is giving way to the isolation of
SAN FRANCISCO — With e-commerce accelerating this holiday season faster than a runaway sleigh, America's embrace of computer and Internet technology is evidently warm and tightening.
Yet just as other technologic leaps in modern American history begat skeptics and naysayers, the digital revolution that began with the popularization of the personal computer is beginning to rouse its own fledgling movement of questioners.
These are not "the end is near" extremists or those simply arguing for better products, greater privacy, or clearer protections from the excesses of the Internet. Rather, they are a combination of antiestablishment philosophers and contrarian thinkers who have deep reservations about what they see as this period's unqualified reverence for computers and the networks that link them.
"Digital technologies encourage us to abandon whatever vestiges of community are left to us," says Stephen Talbott, a former software programmer who has developed a small but devoted following for his NetFuture online newsletter. "This is a disastrous loss, since our encounters with others and with the world are the primary matrix for all human growth and development."
Mr. Talbott, like others in this emerging strata of naysayers, is too much of a realist to argue for the abandonment of the computer. His hope is that technology will, ultimately, galvanize its opposite - the more humanistic traditions in society.
Movement may take decades
Generally, critics say technology disconnects people from nature, their communities, and one another. But most disturbing to many of them is the lack of critical thinking about technology's impact, a worry compounded by the sheer speed of change in the computer age.
"There is this ideology of laissez faire" when it comes to computer technology, says Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute, "and most people have bought into it."
Still, voices are being raised and for many critics, this is just the formative stage of what may take decades. Indeed, many point to the fact that the message of environmental and child-advocacy groups that the impact of the automobile and television as technologic advances was not universally good went unchallenged for decades before gaining mainstream acceptance.
Nowhere is the popular reverence for computer technology clearer than in the classroom. Fixing an underperforming education system is one of the nation's top priorities, according to opinion surveys. And the rush is on to equip and wire American schools for Internet access, a project that will cost $100 billion, according to some estimates.
But is this the answer?
Some see it as a huge and costly expedient that will do little to correct fundamental problems in the schools. Some even see more harm than good with greater use of computers by children at a young age.
"In schools, everyone assumes a great plus, but we see lots of problems arising" with more use of computers, says Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood.
The alliance, a Maryland-based interest group formed earlier this year and dedicated to childhood issues, lists the impact of computers on children, both in and out of the classroom, as a top concern.
According to the alliance, computer use is harming children physically and there is little evidence it helps them academically or socially. "Children have less and less contact with real human beings," complains Ms. Almon.
Concerns about technology and education don't stop at the elementary and secondary levels, either. Higher education is rapidly expanding the use of "distance" or online education, and some critics are appalled at the prospects. A number of prominent universities have struck partnerships with companies in the development of for-profit courses and educational materials.
Part of the cultural fabric
David Noble of York University has written a series of papers that have received wide circulation attacking the concept, calling distance education programs "digital diploma mills" motivated by money. His latest report in November noted that "it is a sign of our current confusion about education that we must be reminded of this obvious fact: that the relationship between people is central to the educational experience."
Of course computer technology and the Internet have woven themselves into the cultural fabric well beyond education. The way people communicate, entertain, shop, and conduct business is increasingly done across computer networks.
The Loka Institute, which is located in Amherst, Mass., is dedicated to greater public involvement in technology decisions and is generally skeptical of promised benefits to society as a whole.
One of Loka's main worries is what happens to small communities when commerce moves online, leaving them with shrinking business communities and economic bases.
Loka's Sclove says the lack of broad public questioning about computers and the Internet is similar to the early euphoria over the automobile.
"The benefits are personally experienced while the downside is more diffused," he says. For automobiles, it took decades before people realized that while the auto added mobility and convenience individually, collectively it brought smog and unsustainable development patterns.
Talbott of NetFuture sees a parallel between the coming of television and hopes that computer nets will stimulate democracy.
"People assumed that by bringing distant politicians into the intimacy of the living room, the television would reenliven participatory democracy.
But instead it helped to bring cosmetized, image-conscious, poll-driven politics, while voter apathy steadily increased."
One of the most pervasive impacts of technology is in the workplace. And there, union activists are worried the technology industry itself is not a particularly worker-friendly place. Turnover is high, guaranteed benefits few, and the hours long, say critics.
A recent article by Canadian feminist Ellen Balka bemoaned women's embrace of technology as a tool of activism, "rather than asking questions about how much technology we want in our lives, and how we want both our personal and work lives organized in relation to new technologies."
Technology critics are often called Luddites, referring to early 19th-century workers who destroyed labor-saving machinery. It is a signal to the critics that society as a whole is convinced more technology equals progress.
Some also question critics like Talbott who use the Internet to spread his antitechnology views. But Talbott sees no contradiction there. For him, acceptance of technology can be a hope so long as its use raises awareness of what's missing in a machine-dominated age.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society