Mixed Blessings: Second Thoughts on the Information Explosion

By Nethe, Richard H. | The Humanist, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

Mixed Blessings: Second Thoughts on the Information Explosion


Nethe, Richard H., The Humanist


The information explosion may well be the trigger for social upheavals that we are unprepared to confront. We could learn from history what to expect from such revolutionary (as opposed to evolutionary) changes. So far we have little evidence of the political system paying attention to studies by anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists that warn us to proceed with caution. From the sociologist's point of view, the anticipated changes will threaten culture shock to entire societies (and not just the occasional immigrant trying to cope with a strange culture).

Do we have precedents for anything like this happening in the recent past? You bet we do! Take the reunification of Germany. It turns out that the authorities had given little thought to the psychological aspects that such a sudden switch from an authoritarian, repressive system entails. Forty-three years under the old system left people inhibited, dependent upon Big Brother, and unable to assert themselves. Today, when an East German encounters a West German, the former is likely to display his or her acquired submissiveness. This attitude provokes among the Westerners a domineering stance. Thus they present themselves to the Easterners as know-it-alls (Besser Wessis), while the latter come across as complainers and weaklings (Jammer Ossis).

Psychotherapist Hans Joachim Maas made this observation in a talk at the Goethe Institute in Halle, Germany, early in 1994. But now we are beginning to see more evidence of conflict resulting from these differences in attitudes between all Westerners and their counterparts in the former East Bloc nations, and this doesn't bode well for future relations. So any time we make revolutionary changes, we are bound to see a great number of disrupting perturbations in the strangest and often unlikeliest of places. This example is also applicable (although it is not technology-related) to the societal convolutions that will result from the onrushing "data tsunami." Are we getting to the point where we are no longer in control of the spirits that we have invoked? Perhaps we are already in "sorcerer's apprentice mode" without being aware of it.

The old saw that history repeats itself is beginning to become less meaningful as our technological advances accelerate. Physical conditions and events that are either within or outside human influence keep changing while human nature itself has essentially stayed the same over millennia.

Changes to our environment--that is, our workplaces, towns and cities, leisure activities, and the natural resources we harness for our convenience--are happening faster and faster while the human animal, having remained unchanged from an evolutionary point of view, is beginning to have trouble adapting.

So it should come as no surprise if we are uneasy about the pace with which technology progresses. According to a poll reported in a 1994 issue of Harper's Magazine, 46 percent of all Americans feel they are being "left behind." They can no longer keep up with the pace of change. The frustration that this situation will create is therefore bound to increase to a point where people will scream, "Enough is enough! I no longer want to be a part of this rate race."

So they will ask the question: what was it that got us into this mess in the first place? Part of the answer, of course, is our greed and compulsion to keep up with the Joneses. This type of competitive behavior may be natural for Homo sapiens but certainly not at the current excessive levels.

Why this anxiety to constantly strive for faster cars, fancier homes, and up-to-date technology in our toys? We find part of the answer when we look at some of those things that we think we must have and that are claimed as labor-saving devices. And we begin to realize that it obviously makes little sense to pile up these "labor-saving devices" when we need to work overtime in order to afford them. …

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