The Information Society as a Globalised Society; How Many ICTs Can the Citizen Cope With?

Hendrik Opdebeeck


In contrast to the now classic works on globalisation by such authors as N. Hertz and N. Klein, who draw attention to the darker sides of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a globalised context, authors such as J. Norberg argue that the problem is not so much the role of ICTs in the process of globalisation, but the lack of ICTs. Reading Norberg’s In Defence of Global Capitalism, one is immediately struck by a series of assertions (substantiated by empirical data and tables) in favour of globalisation: “Things are getting better by the day”, “the world is becoming more and more democratic”, “global inequality is declining”, “progress is leading to more adequate environmental regulations”. Now at last a new wave of publications is appearing that considers the profound social consequences of IT. These authors call into question the primacy of ICT. State and culture, it is argued, are too subservient to ICT companies, so that ecological, syndical, social-democratic and fiscal regulations are in danger of becoming of secondary importance. Authors such as the previously mentioned Hertz and Klein have expressed the fear that the planet may be threatened with ecological and social destruction by the hubris of our ICT culture, especially if we fail to contemplate on our common global responsibility.

According to R. Safranski, on the other hand, it is self-deceit to believe that the profound social consequences of ICT could lead to a worldwide solidarity. Our extremely communicative global community appears to be losing its ability to function as a subject. All power lies with States and alliances between States, while ‘humanity’ is left utterly impotent. We continue to dream about an urgently required humanity that is capable of acting, but time and again strife on a small or large scale stands in the way of unity between men. ICTs, which all too often measure the applicability of values in money and reduce the world to a commodity, are threatening to connect everything with everything else. Hence, ICTs place themselves above the diversity of the world and begin to function in a ‘subjectless’ fashion.

As a consequence, it has become almost inappropriate in the face of these challenges to recall the meaning of the individual. Nevertheless, we can only cope with the consequences of ICTs if we take due account of the shaping of the human person. Essential in this respect is the strength to restrict ourselves as human beings in order that we could process the innumerable ICT stimuli that come our way daily and thus avoid being paralysed by them. Wherever we go, we inevitably end up in situations where, disquietingly, we come to realise that the scope of familiarity with globality and the scope of possible action are driven apart dramatically. As this is untenable, we try to secure our own private future at all costs, without allowing ourselves to be led by a global ethics that aims to prevent a catastrophe. As we are increasingly moving through a self-made universe, man is in danger of losing sight of whatever transcends life. In the impenetrability of an all-too-often degenerated natural world, for example, man was nevertheless offered an opportunity to come into touch with this secret. Today, however, ICTs are increasingly imposing a forest of symbols, information, interpretations and signs in which man has become utterly lost.

This contemporary inability to cope with the social consequences of ICTs is the superlative case of what has been described as social alienation since the writings of J.J. Rousseau and K. Marx. According to Rousseau, a certain kind of socialisation maims man. His response is a return of man into himself as an individual, detached from others and from soulless society. Of course, the risk of this flight inside is that we might come to ignore the freedom of the other, so that what is a solution for the one reveals itself to be a totalitarian eclipse for the other. While Rousseau wants to protect the real self against the societal process, Marx discerned the condition for liberation in this very process. This, he argued, would offer light at the end of the historical tunnel. As we now know, this light was no more than a will-o-the-wisp.

What, then, is the path in between Rousseau and Marx, between getting lost in the past and in the future? This is where the significance becomes clear of standing in the here and now without allowing oneself to be fragmented by either the past or the future. This is the positive equanimity of ‘keeping a distance’; of cherishing manners of behaviour and thought that keep at bay the ‘global hysteria’; of being receptive only to as many ICTs as one can cope with. This can only be achieved if one knows what one wants and needs. This delimitation implies an awareness of the point where one stops allowing oneself to be formatted and informed. Like Nietzsche, one then becomes good neighbours again with the closest things around oneself. Only in this way can man become a whole in miniature. Only then will we succeed in averting the profound social consequences of ICT and in preventing that global time devours individual time. In view of the rather limited amount of ICT that man can cope with, it would appear that we can rightly call into question the great slogans of such globalists as Norberg according to whom the problem is not so much the social consequences of ICT as the lack of ICT.