The Information Superhighway: A Road to Misery?

Article excerpt

IF one was to believe the promises brought forward by the multinational media-conglomerates, a golden future beckons. The bulldozers are already clearing the ground for the information superhighway which will bring peace, democracy and free access to any information even to the most distant corners of this planet. Knowledge is power! Consumers will have more choice, dictatorships will crumble, virtual communities will break up the isolation most people in the industrialized world experience nowadays ... It just sounds too good to be true. However, it seems as if in spite of all this euphoria a few details have been overlooked. We should read the small print carefully, though, before we buy our ticket at the toll gate to that miraculous highway leading us into the age of information. It might be a road of no return.

One of the insiduous characteristics of modern technology is that it is invented to be sold, unlike most earlier inventions which were made to be used by the inventor, his patron or his community. Modem technology has to be packaged seductively in order to blur our perception of needs and wants and to make us buy it. By no means is the intention of this article to rubbish technology in general, or even the concept of commerce. However, once we buy into it, this misleading imagery as a vehicle of salesmanship deprives us of our freedom by reducing our ability to choose. It deprives us of our freedom by narrowing our options to a set of pre-programmed choices.

Of course there is always the faction of those who claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with technology and that, after all, it is what we do with it that counts. Yet can we really control or even resist the influences modem technological innovations - or their seductive packaging for that matter - have on our lives?

Before the advent of personal computers, wordprocessing and fax, professional translators, for instance, had to work long hours for a relatively small pay. Did these new office tools help to improve their lives, to reduce their work load? On the contrary: Not only can they not afford to do without these modern-and expensive! - contraptions anymore. Now they have to work even longer hours in order to pay back their bank loans.

The computer itself has exerted a very subtle influence on the skills of any writer using one. With a pen or a typewriter you are compelled to think in coherent sentences before jotting them down. It is not very practical to start anew whenever you want to change a word. As long as writing is considered an art, the composition of sentences - just as the composition of music - takes place in the writer's head. With a computer - no doubt a versatile tool - the art of writing turns into word-processing, scrapping and shifting around words and sentence segments ad libitum. The writer becomes a compositor rather than a composer. Moreover, the act of typing itself requires no longer the skill of keeping typing errors to a minimum.

This raises the question whether it is really within our choice to make wise use of the products we are asked to buy. As Franklin Saige, an American journalist and critic of contemporary civilization, has pointed out, in the early days of the automobile people considered it too noisy, too fast, too dangerous, too pretentious and too expensive to be of any good for the existing society. Initially, hardly anybody bought one. This resistance, however, did not last for long. The affluent began to give up their reservations, progress had its way and soon the automobile was used in ways that led to the disruption of the community and the large-scale destruction of the landscape. It was and still is sold to us under the promise of speed and convenience, but in fact it pulled families apart, caused urban sprawl and distorted our sense of distance. Even the promise of convenient travelling has been proven a farce in the face of the daily urban rush hour and mile-long traffic jams on noisy motorways. …