Cultural determinants of the IT revolution

Jacek Sojka


Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is now an obvious way of doing business, shopping, teaching and simply staying in touch. We seem to be members of a new community of internet users. As one of the authors writing about cyberspace said (A.R. Stone in 1991): virtual communities can be defined as “incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to-face.” Then he added:”…but under new definitions of both ‘meet’ and ‘face’.”

And this is exactly my problem in this paper: how should we define this type of meeting. Is it possible to define face-to-face in a new way? I am not an expert in the field of electronic media, digital technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology etc. I can only be a modest commentator of what I have read in books or found in the internet. But at the same time I cannot refrain myself from seeing inconsistencies or dubious beliefs in what I read and what I listen to. More general question comes to mind: Why should I trust somebody’s else visions and forecasts spurred by the development of information and communication technology?

My aim in the proposed paper can be described as a reflection on the way we understand ourselves and our achievements, including the technological ones. In other words it will deal with the mechanisms of interpretation which – by the way – are always relative to and dependent on culture. I am also convinced about the necessity of a critical distance to what is being said and written about the future of culture, society or humanity. Decades ago Jean Francois Lyotard wrote about the incredulity towards the metanarratives, great visions or grand stories about the salvation of mankind. (Pioneering the so-called postmodern thinking in the humanities.) Why today should I believe in the salvation of mankind by the IT?

Charles Jonscher in his book “Wired Life. Who Are We in the Digital Age?” wrote in conclusion that there were two lessons to be drawn from the history of electronic technology. “First, almost all forecasts (predictions) concerning future possibilities (potentials) of the technology itself should be regarded as too restrained (limited); second, almost every prediction about the role of technology in everyday life must be regarded as exaggerated.”

Indeed, if we are able to foresee what kind of innovations or technical achievements will be possible in the future – there will be no space for a real innovation and novelty. By definition – “real” novelty must be an unprecedented one, something beyond imagination and, in fact, unpredictable.

The above suggestion about the role of technical innovations in everyday life does not address here – I think – the simple fact that my e-mail message can reach the addressee sooner than a letter mailed in a traditional way (and – one might say – this is not a breathtaking achievement). Rather it deals with the fact that the content of my e-mail and the whole computer mediated communication depends on our understanding of the world and of ourselves, on the notion of “who we are” and the question is whether these “definitions” can be easily changed. In most cases the identity of the participants of an electronic communication cannot undergo revolutionary changes.

Some visions of the future imply that humans will be too dependent on the virtual reality and too satisfied with this artificial world at the cost of being sensitive to the minds and souls of “real” people who have once started the creation of virtual images. Jonscher said that human beings are unfathomable and unpredictable and these characteristics cannot be simulated in any virtual reality. On the other hand they are immersed in culture, socialized in real communities and the crucial question is to what extent one can do without traditional communities and traditional bonds between individuals.

Predictions about the human condition in the future electronic world(s), all visions concerning the future are always rooted in today’s understanding of the world and of ourselves. They describe the new humankind forgetting about the role of today’s culture. What we say about the future reflects our today’s expectations. Culture contains all notions and values out of which every vision will be built or constructed. Manuel Castells wrote that informational capitalism based on innovation and globalisation is more than ever tooled by technology and embedded in culture. Culture does matter.

In the proposed paper I would like to expand on the idea that culture is always “conservative”; it determines our perception of the world and of other human beings, including the vision of future worlds and the place of human beings in this future. When we understand this mechanism and the role of culture in our perception of the world – we are better prepared do speculate about the future. It will be a self-conscious speculation, a much more prudent vision.

To support this thesis this article will offer a short history of modern dreams about the future unity of mankind from Francis Bacon and his “Novum Organum” to Charles Baudelaire’s “artificial paradise” and to the so-called transhumanist movement.