Something old, something new? What if they clash?


Krystyna Górniak-Kocikowska


There are two basic ways in which new technologies are created.

New technologies, or new inventions within an existing technology, are often created in an attempt to solve a problem or a set of problems faced by society as a whole, or by a segment of society. This is the situation when the need/demand exists prior to the technology. A new technology, by solving the particular problem in question, can provide a welcome “edge” to that society or to its segment. An example: a mauser – a smoke-free firearm that solved the problem of soldiers’ vulnerability during the use of traditional firearms whose smoke betrayed the shooter’s position. The use of mausers by the Spaniards gave them an advantage over Americans in the initial stages of the Spanish-American war.

A second way new technologies are introduced into a society is when a new technology (or a new invention) is developed without an obvious existing need for it. This can sometimes happen “accidentally” — the invention is a result of unintended, coincidental circumstances — or is the planned, purposeful activity of a professional inventor (who can be also an idea-driven “dreamer,” and “amateur” in the best meaning of this word). In this case the social/public need for a new technology or a new invention has to be created, sometimes over public resistance. The automobile would be a good example here.

Computer technology — or broader, ICT — is an interesting mixture of the two processes mentioned above. Initially (first generation computers), the computer was a response to the existing acute need for fast and reliable calculations. The later phase, however, including the present stage, became mostly a phenomenon of the second type: new technology in search of applications. Moreover, ICT has become so huge today that both phenomena are present within its internal development and structures as well.

In the proposed paper, I intend to reflect on the impact that ICT-related phenomena of the second type have on some aspects of individual human life. I will focus on the challenges an individual faces (especially in the decision-making process) when exposed to socio-cultural or political theories conflicting with the reality of an ICT-dominated life.

I shall make my point using two quite common situations as examples. One is the conflict between a widely accepted psychological and educational theory and the reality of ICT-dominated life. The other is the burning problem of the conflict between some socio-political theories of nationhood and the reality of ICT-dominated life in a global society. Both problems are very complex. Neither of them can be fully addressed in a paper-length work. Therefore, in the conference paper only a sketchy presentation of the issues will be possible.

Case # 1: One of the aftermaths of the civil rights, and later human rights, movement in the United States was the issue of equal treatment of and equal access for all citizens to public institutions and services. In result, new laws were created, among them the Persons with Disabilities Act. In the area of education, that meant initiatives directed towards “mainstreaming,” an inclusion of all students into the regular structures of the educational system. This movement benefited greatly from (and welcomed quite enthusiastically) a theory known as Multiple Intelligences Theory, whose author is the psychologist Howard Gardner. Among others, the theory helps institutions of public education to justify highly diversified treatments and evaluations of students in the process of education. The basic message sent to students and parents is that of an equal value of each of the nine (by now, actually more) types of intelligence identified by Gardner.

A problem is that ICT is predominantly a product of one type of intelligence (the logical-mathematical intelligence) and still favors this type of intelligence. Considering the role ICT plays currently in society, and especially in the economy and closely related job market, people with the type of intelligence most adequate for the development and skillful use of ICT will be privileged over those with all other types of intelligence — no matter how the educational system will try to negate it.

There is a conflict situation, therefore, between the values (intellectual inclusiveness) that are presently the theoretical foundation of public education in the United States, and the values (intellectual exclusiveness) promoted by ICT.

Case # 2: Children in many countries are raised based on theories of nationhood, national identity, national pride, etc. These theories require, among other things, that special (the highest) value to be given to one’s native language, and to the cultural traditions of one’s own nation. However, ICT has a global character. Its effective use requires knowledge of English, and the following of “overnational” rules and values. An individual is therefore often facing a conflicting and sometimes painful situation in which he/she has to sacrifice either the sense of national identity and pride or the support of ICT. (This problem was raised frequently at the World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul, August 2003.)

Presentation and analysis of these two examples of conflicts between existing theories and ICT-dominated reality, as well as the challenges this situation poses for individuals, will serve as justification for a call to create coherent, ethically sound theories guiding and preparing individuals for life in an ICT-dominated global society. At the same time these theories should create a point of reference and a guide for the activities of ICT professionals, for creators and maintainers and users alike.