Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Paradoxes of the Information Age

Part Five of The Great Free Speech Robbery

It’s no accident that George Orwell made the telescreen one of the primary symbols of a totalitarian society in his prescient novel, 1984. Even when he wrote the book in 1948, the importance and dangers of telecommunications were already obvious. Today, information technologies are bringing rapid and fundamental change to almost every aspect of society.

In his book, What Are People For?, Wendell Berry rejected the notion of computers as a liberatory tool, pointing to their cost, reliance on resource exploitation, and use of electrical energy. And in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander made an even more devastating critique: "Television produces such a diverse collection of dangerous effects -- mental, physiological, ecological, economic, political; effects that are dangerous to the person and also to society and the planet -- that it seems to me only logical to propose that it should never have been introduced, or once introduced, be permitted to continue."

Yet, television, computers, and related information technologies also offer opportunities for global democratization and empowerment. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, for instance, VCRs served as revolutionary tools in Poland, fax machines helped open up politics and economics in the Soviet Union, and audio cassettes kept the hope of freedom alive in South Africa. Beginning in 1994, laptop computers helped secure international support for the Zapatista movement. At the end of the 20th century, activists resisting globalization across borders used the Internet and a network of independent radio, electronic, and print outlets to start building a movement for global justice and democracy. In short, small, accessible, and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the knowledge monopoly of elites.

Perhaps the best guarantee that information will be used on behalf of humanity is to work for its free flow. That isn't to say "more" is always "better." But repressive regimes and secretive institutions are normally quick to oppose broad access to information. After all, information is power, and open societies are usually characterized by high per capita availability of televisions, telephones, and computer terminals.

Instant communication clearly opens up possibilities for social change. Like Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, modern information processing creates at least the possibility of widespread information literacy. Movable type took the printed word beyond the privileged few; telecommunications and computers could make information accessible to all. They might even help spur a shift in values from uniformity to diversity, from centralization to local democracy, and from organizational hierarchy to cooperative problem-solving units.

But this will depend largely on the growth of a social movement that promotes self-management of information, along with the cultivation of new skills. One of the main skills needed is the knack of making connections between disparate bits of information. Effective media organizers are often techno-generalists able to create knowledge out of large information flows, and also pattern-finders who work easily in a team environment. We have only begun to experience the Information Age. The personal computer revolution is little more than 30 years old. Even bigger changes lie ahead, some dangerous, others with liberating potential, some with both. Those who become truly "literate" -- not just technically facile -- can help harness new technology to extend freedom and meet the needs of the planet and humanity.

There are risks and drawbacks, of course. In addition to potential for social isolation and misinformation linked to dependence on computers, production of their components often makes use of extremely toxic chemicals such as chlorine, arsenic, and phosgene. Groundwater contamination by high tech companies has yielded dozens of superfund clean-up sites and been implicated in pregnancy and childbirth complications. The high-tech industry is also reportedly the world's largest single source of CFCs. Chronic exposure to low-frequency radiation from computer screens has been linked to increased incidence of cancer and other illnesses, one of the many inconvenient facts neglected by corporate media.

The computer chip industry has been described as "the pivotal driver of the world economy." More than 900 plants are located across the US -- from Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Oregon -- and throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But prodigious growth has come with a hefty environmental price tag. Few industries use the same amount of toxic chemicals to manufacture products. Producing more than 200 billion silicon chips a year requires the use of highly corrosive hydrochloric acid; metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead; volatile solvents like methyl chloroform, benzene, acetone, and trichloroethylene (TCE); and a number of very toxic gases.

A decade ago, Silicon Valley already had the country's largest number of EPA Superfund Priorities List sites (29), and more than 100 different contaminants had been linked to the local drinking water. Much of the liquid waste from chip making in Silicon Valley was stored in underground tanks, many of which leaked toxic waste into ground-water supplies. Toxic gas has also been a problem, sometimes forcing the evacuation of entire neighborhoods when toxic smoke pours out of local chip plants.

Intense global competition has meanwhile accelerated the pace of change in the tools and materials used during the manufacturing process. In the 1970s, a new technology typically took six to eight years from research to full manufacturing. Today, the industry develops a new chip making process about every two years. In 2002, Intel, the giant computer chip maker, reported that each of its factories made an average of 30 to 60 significant changes in operations every year in order to ramp up production of new types of chips.

While hundreds of new chemicals are being introduced annually, adequate toxicological assessments do not often precede their introduction into manufacturing settings. You might even say that the workers are being used as guinea pigs. Many of the manufacturing processes take place in closed systems, even though exposures to harmful substances can be difficult to detect unless monitored daily.

It all raises some tough questions: For example, are the potentials worth the price? And, can we use a technology while also pressing to change it? The hope is that, through decentralized access to information and global networking among activists, use of computers and telecommunication devices can help promote social change, and, at the same time, changes in production processes and the uses of technology itself. If not, digital imperialism, as well as enormous health and social consequences, are even more likely.

Concentration of information and the emergence of high-tech sweatshop conditions would be tragic outcomes of this potentially revolutionary time. After all, these technologies at the very least permit cooperation, group action, global consciousness, and decentralized, small-scale production. They can increase our productivity and reduce our travel time. Perhaps they can even reduce the gap between the "in-the-knows" and "know-nots."

Marshall McLuhan, prophet of the Information Age, once provided a hopeful and relevant diagnosis. "Our new environment compels commitment and participation," he wrote. "We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other."

Let's hope he was right.

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