Alienation by IT

As a matter of fact, the independence and freedom of the individual is not only guaranteed but also threatened by information technology:

  • We are flooded with information.
  • We suffer cell phone terror.
  • We are bombarded by emails.
  • We are the victims of large-scale government surveillance.
  • We are being robbed and cheated through computer crime.
  • There is a need for education despite unprecedented educational opportunities.
  • Advertising lies and dulls the minds of consumers…

If one takes these headlines seriously, one could gain the impression that man is in the process of sacrificing the ideal of a humane society to a powerful technology.

Who is to blame for this plight?

The technology as such is neutral and can be put to good or bad use!

Business practices should be scrutinized because they are mandated by people who should know better. And what about the government?

The government is suffering shock from terrorism. Here, too, people carry responsibility. So, again it is ourselves we have to look to!

But we – people as such – refuse to take any blame or, even worse, do not even notice any of this: even though it is we who write the programs that torture and manipulate us. “The most scary thing of all is man,” says the film expert Marcus Stiegler about the new fascination with horror in movies, comics and computer games. Do we still have sufficient control over our everyday lives? Or are we too dependent on the media, whose products blow us around like strong winds?

In other words, information technology does not have only positive effects on our society, but also very alarming ones as well. As is true of any tool, computers, the internet and the media also have repercussions on the users; and, moreover, the more intensive the influence becomes, the more stronger the repercussion. From a certain point on, the mastery of man is reversed into servitude; a continuously accelerating process of alienation starts to take over.

“Alienation” – as defined in German Wikipedia dated 13 December 2009 – “is the socially advanced, irreversible process of the appropriation of nature as well as its material and spiritual transformation to culture, including the institutions, which seem heteronomous as soon as they dominate man and oppose man’s individual and collective wishes.”

2.1     Examples from everyday life

Some examples of information technology in everyday life will be given to substantiate and exemplify that alienation begins at the workplace, where we are told by a workflow or project management system what needs to be done. Many prefer this to being ordered around by a human boss. The consequences of this kind of organizational structure will soon become evident, i.e. because of the daily repetition we will have to repeatedly capture and process monitoring and control signals from more and more systems.

Such impulses shape us the same way as the TV shows we watch every evening. Hence, Mathias Eckold, in the AULA show broadcast by WDR2 on 14 September 2008, which had the title “You will become what you watch…”, concludes: “We feel the power of the media even if we consider the ‘entertainment shows too stupid’, the ‘sports coverage too extensive’, the ‘news too hungry for scandals’, and the ‘crime films too bloodthirsty’ … we are strongly influenced by them.”

The power of the media will also be felt if one avoids TV and surfs in the Internet instead to gain information or education. The powerful search machines offer almost anything that man desires – also a remarkable and high-quality selection of education, art and science. Not everyone immediately finds what he is looking for or needs, but the systems are becoming better and more influential. Nonetheless, an increasingly critical awareness is growing in the general public. Hence the computer pioneer and professor of computer science, Dr. Maurer, criticizes Google “because it is expanding its opinion-forming power and gaining a monopoly by means of acquisitions”. It is offering information that more and more people are accepting uncritically, believing it to be true. The ranking of the contributions is particularly problematic, especially when it is influenced by certain methods.

The collection and evaluation of personal data is utterly inacceptable. The possibilities of misuse are obvious. In many other instances the general public is not yet aware of what has actually happened as a result of electronic media. This is so because the concrete manifestations of information and communication technology, which the citizens of our western, democratic world encounter every day, are changing our reality and, hence, also our view of reality. The reality experienced by our fathers was different from the “medial reality” known to our children. We are moving further and further away from the old world and are increasingly moving into the sphere of influence of all kinds of programs. Computers or information and communication technology affect our behavior, thinking and feeling so strongly that we find it hard to remain aware of our humanness, much less develop it further. We simply do not have time for this, and in the process, we are losing our sense of what is appropriate for us as humans and citizens. Through external control, commercial manipulation and exposure to a constant stream of media programs, we are becoming a program-controlled society in which individuals are more or less controlled by programs. And many are actually starting to think and act digitally.

That’s the problem!

2.2     What the future holds in store

“No, that’s not true!” many of us will say. “We are still the ones making the decisions and the computer is a stupid mathematical slave.” Norbert Hering, who spoke “about the limits of understanding between the brain and processor” at MEDICA MEDIA a couple of years ago (2002), affirms that the principle “Man in control” is still true. We would like to add: And that is how it should be! Only if this is true can we speak about humane use of information technology.

Nevertheless – and we need to raise this question – aren’t there situations in which man would benefit significantly if the computer made decisions on the spot and without further inquiry, for example whenever security is concerned or utmost precision and very fast reactions are called for or in medicine?

These kinds of situations will occur, but also some which would serve us less. “Cyber warfare”, the dilemma of modern warfare, probably is the worst thing that comes to mind in this respect. In this scenario not only a computer but a whole arsenal of digital tools and devices as well as complex information and communication networks would act for us.

What worries us most of all, however, is the unbelievably fast interlinking of digital information systems in the Internet. At first it was only an attempt at improving the exchange of knowledge between scientists. This experiment was more successful than anticipated. Now the Internet consists of thousands of networks with millions of hubs (computers) that administer billions of websites. And this convolute is growing incessantly. It is preparing to gather the entire knowledge gained by mankind and to make it available for further use. Will we need to confront a giant brain similar to that described by Heinrich Hauser in his science-fiction novel more than 50 years ago? At any rate, it is doubtful whether it could be destroyed with the help of such simple creatures as ravenous ants.

Right now the system is still going through children’s diseases: one has to search for a while to find the information that generates knowledge (in man). Nonetheless, this – as such not intelligent – meta-brain is acquiring a body, which will be veritably omnipresent in a not so distant future. By this we mean the innumerable embedded systems that will soon be component parts of the objects we use in our daily lives, leading a more or less inconspicuous and informal life there. In connection with semantic systems, they will meter and report states, they will identify and communicate with us, and they will denounce us – not only to other people, but above all to machines and within the system network.

Evidently a new species is developing, a species that at best may be indifferent towards life, but definitely not friendly: the digital species. Do we still have a chance of maintaining control of a centrally controlled computer network that computes, tests, makes decisions, reproduces itself and learns at the speed of light? Or will the digital principle triumph over the analog principle of life in the end?

In other words, our considerations are not limited to the computer per se, but concern the age-old philosophical question as to man, his being and position in the world. In our times man’s position as creation’s crowning glory is being relativized. Man, the analog being, is facing the tool created by him; a tool that embodies possibilities far exceeding those of a “sorcerer’s apprentice”. The digital omnipresence and productivity of this tool are becoming a global challenge. Will mankind be overcome by a malignant disease or simply be swept aside without protest? Will people remain masters of their life or will they be degraded to servants of digital control and surveillance systems, will they become strangers who do not see and much less understand, or want to understand, the whole?

In this unavoidable dispute between man and computer, the Integrata Foundation takes the side of man. We do not want the hard-won freedom gained from natural and government forces in the course of many centuries to be lost to a tool. We want to live in a self-determined humane world in future.

2.3     Possible courses of action

Yet who should, who can counter-act this development with even a bare chance of success? The ethical-moral standards are so high that no government institution can meet them. This can be expected even less from a commercial system; and religious institutions are out of the question for all the people who do not believe in God.

Nonetheless, we would like to refer to the Global Ethic Declaration, initiated by the German theologist Hans Küng in 1993. According to German Wikipedia (18 September 2008), 6,500 persons from 125 regions and religious traditions participated. They agreed on four guiding principles, calling for a culture of non-violence, solidarity, tolerance and equal rights. Whereas one cannot but agree with these principles, they are far too elementary for the problems arising from information technology.

Other people and associations, also such without any religious affiliation, are asking whether what is happening to us isn’t outside our power and decide – on the basis of fundamental considerations – to let it happen. After all, they assert, the use of modern technology, particularly in the field of information and communication, brings undisputable benefits not only to the commercial sector and government but also to every individual and all humankind.

This opinion mainly is held by computer scientists and programmers, who deal with the instruments of information technology all the time. Internet professionals firmly believe that they have control over the medium, or they are so fascinated by it that they do not consider their dependence a problem but merely a bad habit. You can’t expect to be helped if you don’t see the problem.

In contrast, the critical statement made recently by Frank Schirrmacher is very helpful. On the cover of his book, he points out that “a way out of the calculability of life and the threatening end of free will cannot be traced back to a refusal of technology but rather to a new way of thinking that reawakens man’s awareness of his strengths: creativity, tolerance and the ability to master unpredictable occurrences.” Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether the solution of our epochal socio-technical problem can be solved through an individual new way of thinking alone.

The ideas and philosophy of the Transhumanists, by contrast, are too different from all that has been said. “Transhumanism” (Latin “trans” = beyond; Latin “humanus” = human) is a philosophical school of thought and active movement that advocates changing the human species through the use of technological methods. Its goal is to generally expand the limits of human possibility and, thus, improve the human condition in many different respects. “Relevant technologies in this connection are, amongst others: nanotechnology, genetic and bio-technology, bio-gerontology, cryonic and other bio-stasis technologies, cognitive sciences, information technology, artificial intelligence and uploading consciousness into digital memories (German Wikipedia dated 17 December 2009).

Even though Transhumanism pursues a similar goal as the Integrata Foundation, namely improving the human condition, and information technology definitely is one of the technologies with whose help this goal is pursued, we would like to point out that our focus is fundamentally different: the Transhumanists want to directly change man as a living being and, thus, improve his conditions of life. We, however, want to use technology to change the conditions of life and, thus, improve the life of man. We hope that this will also make people better.

Obviously, the cultural and civilizational circumstances and values created by human activities are landmarks of an upwards development. Even the most dreadful destruction caused by wars and epidemics could not reverse this process – if one chooses a sufficiently long period of observation. Despite inconceivable human catastrophes and continuing significant differences between different regions of the world, we can assert that world culture today is better in terms of humaneness than any previous cultures known to us.

However, civilization and culture did not develop linearly, there were bounds and surges. The more significant the innovation was (hand-axe, plow, machine, computer), the greater the alienation from former conditions and the greater also the impulse for the spirit of mankind to create a new culture. Thus, alienation also can be a step towards more instead of less humaneness, and it is in this sense that we expect the alienation caused by information technology to lead to an epochal step forward for all world cultures.

In the current phase of development we are still in the midst of generating IT innovations. But obvious faulty functions and defects of the system, which lead to disappointment, frustration and rejection among users are manifesting themselves. Thus, from the aspect of social politics, it is important that more and more critical voices pointing out the critical developments speak up.

Yet, we must not only criticize technology, even if this already would be a form of social criticism. We must go beyond that stage and develop solutions to guide the developments in the correct and desired direction. This calls for tremendous efforts. Cultures that simply accepted results of alienation declined, were assimilated or simply perished. Since Arnold Toynbee’s “Challenge and Response”, we know that only those societies that face challenges and find solutions will give birth to a new civilization, a new culture.

The search for valid rules for dealing with alienation caused by information technology is primarily the responsibility of scientists, sociologists, psychologists, computer scientists and all those who in one way or another are professional users of information technology. Yet, what is being discussed in this paper is not only a concern of researchers. Since we are all more or less intensive users of information technology, this concerns all of us and we should all make a contribution. Followers won’t help us on, we need social politicians who will devise solutions now. The forces in society have to decide and act now. And we need practical examples for this as well as scientifically founded, pragmatic knowledge, we need the courage to make judgements and – as demanded by Popper – the courage to stand up for them.

Bearing this in mind, our demand for a humane use of information technology is a call to everyone to participate in social synthesis. Efforts limited to individuals or small, widely dispersed groups are doomed to fail because of the comprehensive character of the threat of alienation. If we want the process of humanization to continue, we have to work together and act for the benefit of a democratic humanism.