WE ARE all to a degree citizens of the emerging cyber world. We cannot imagine ourselves and our businesses without cellphones, e-mail, the internet, Skype and social networks.
Sociologists and economists hail this as a “new revolution” creating a “network society” of “digital capitalism” with a higher penetration than the print and industrial revolutions.
There is no doubt about the benefits of this new cyber world: enormous capacity for data storage and data retrieval, high efficiencies in terms of all kinds of digital transactions, and connectivity to any place on Earth not imagined even 30 years ago.
But as with any human system, the ambiguities and moral questions should not escape us. Let us not lose our critical mind set and be swept away by this wonderful new world.
First, the idea that all people gladly use and benefit from technology is only partially true. Yes, cellphones have improved the lot of those at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid”. But in reality, poor people sometimes have to choose between food and airtime.
Also, the economic and educational inequalities of the world may be reinforced by fast-moving cyber innovation. Those who are enjoying their smartphones, video learning and internet banking are leaving billions of people behind.
This revolution has a crude edge to it: if you do not participate, you do not exist.
Second, there is no doubt the cyber age has democratised access to information. The movement towards free and open access is, in principle, a good one. Anything one wants to know is at one’s fingertips.
But there is a huge difference between information and knowledge. Information needs interpretation. For that a hermeneutic skill is required, and such a skill is based on learning to distinguish between bad and good information.
The dramatic rise in weak writing skills and plagiarism among students points to one thing: many know how to cut and paste. They know where the information is and, on the basis of superficial correspondences, hope that the copy is appropriate to the topic. But few know how to make distinctions, distil insights or create new knowledge.
As cyber citizens we appear smart, but we are actually quite dumb.
Third, we have gained in information and efficiencies of transactions of all sorts, but information vulnerability is hitting governments, banks and individuals hard. (A friend recently had R100,000 stolen from his secure online account.) Billions are spent on information security as not all those surfing the cyber world are good people looking to book an airline ticket. “Cyber warfare” is now a reality.
Having our information held by others — including the state — may render the concept of privacy outdated. We cannot hide from the eyes of Big Brother. Gaining access to information about our movements, our shopping habits and even our genetic dispositions (for medical and life insurance companies) is getting easier.
Our enthusiasm for the almost daily novelties conjured up by cyber entrepreneurs may blind us to the slow but sure curtailment of our liberties.
Fourth, a huge benefit of the cyber world is connectivity and seemingly effortless communication no longer restricted by geography. The social impacts are not all beneficial: clinical psychologists tell us cyber addiction is on the rise. There are physical and social symptoms of addiction and withdrawal, and the “drug” in this case may be a smartphone, which has become an integral part of social identity formation.
Cyber people connect virtually, but can hardly talk at the dinner table.
Because we are increasingly moving towards a world where the boundaries between “real” (old style) and “virtual” are collapsed into one, social relations themselves are redefined. This may be beneficial as one may find friendship and even love online. But if one can start and end a relationship by pressing the “enter” button, it adds to the “dispensability” mind set we normally apply to inanimate consumer goods.
“Commitment” is a strange word in a fleeting context of unreal reality.
Fifth, the secularisation thesis of the 1960s has been proven wrong. Humans are — even genetically speaking — spiritual beings. We create pathways and rituals expressing our yearning towards transcendence. When the clouds of heaven are exchanged for virtual cloud technology, we enter a phase of empty surrogate religion. And history teaches us that the emptiness that follows is open to ideological manipulation filled by dangerous fundamentalism.
When work, enabled by technology, takes over our lives, we have a distinct yearning to flee. The problem is there is no longer anywhere to hide.
• Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.