Ecological and cultural consequences of computer-mediated lifestyles

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yahya Asmar

Rabi' al-Thani 24, 1422 2001-07-16

Book Review

by Yahya Asmar (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1422)

Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability by C. A. Bowers. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000. Pp. 216. US$20.

As with most new technologies, public discussion of computers is dominated by celebration and optimism. From the electric light-bulbs and telephones of a century ago to the biotechnology and computers of today, each new technology is introduced with fanfare and adopted into cultures and societies with very little consideration of possible ill-effects. Automobiles were marketed with no attention to how emissions would choke the atmosphere; television was to bring the world into people’s living-rooms, but with no discussion of family fragmentation. After technologies have been adopted, voices begin to point out the ill-effects, but these are harder to heed once people’s habits have changed.

Computers and digital-information processing are no different. Since their secret inception as tools of warfare to their emergence as consumer commodities, very few flags have been raised. In the 1970s computer-theorist and mathematician Joseph Weizenbaum warned that dependence on computers would alter the way humans think and communicate, replacing insight and understanding with calculation. In the 1980s, physicians began to warn of the health hazards of prolonged computer-use; psychologists started scrutinizing video computer games. More recently, ecologists have begun to make connections between computer dependency, environmental degradation and cultural imperialism. While cars and televisions have already colonized the planet, computers have only just begun, so it is important to consider some of these warnings before it is too late.

Since the mid-1980s, C. A. Bowers has been writing eloquently on the ecological and cultural consequences of computers. Breaking ranks with fellow educators, who all but unanimously trumpet the alleged benefits of educational computing, Bowers sounded the alarm with his first book on the subject, The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing (1988), in which he made a strong case for the non-neutrality of technology in general and computers specifically. Since then, he has developed a unique fusion of cultural, ecological and educational thinking about the impact of digital-computer technology on human beings and the world in which they live.

Bowers’ most complete statement of this thought can be found in this book, Let Them Eat Data, in which he discusses the cultural, ecological and educational consequences of computers. As in his other books, what Bowers does best is to point out various flaws in the seemingly common-sense thinking surrounding discussions of computers and technology. He carefully reveals the cultural assumptions that are embedded in language, while developing trenchant evaluations and focusing on the “double binds” that entangle modern technological humans beings.

A double bind is a situation that has both benefits and drawbacks, intertwined as a bundle of socially embedded (though culturally obscure) modes of thought and action. Double binds pervade modern Western thinking and acting, for instance in the way that industrial society has raised the living standards of some humans while degrading the environment upon which all humans depend, or in how Western science improves the way some humans understand the world while simultaneously undermining the explanatory narratives of non-Western peoples. Bowers begins his exploration of the double binds of computing technology by first examining the ways in which Western assumptions are embedded in language.

The assumptions of computer technologists are embedded in broader Western metaphors. Although they are presented as universal steps forward for humankind, the proclamations of computer-enthusiasts embody many of the basic cultural assumptions of Western man. Bowers demonstrates this in his first few chapters, carefully identifying and then elaborating upon the fundamental metaphors of computing. At the same time, he keeps in mind the overarching metaphor of all information technologies, what he calls the “conduit view of language” that assumes language to be nothing but a “neutral medium for sending and receiving data, images, and ideas.” This metaphor renders the others virtually invisible, although still pervasive.

Computing technology proceeds from and reinforces several fundamental cultural assumptions of Western civilization, as is shown by the way proponents of cyberspace develop their discussions. As Bowers suggests, “the mechanistic view of life processes, the individualism that undergirds our basic social attitudes toward the external world, and the notion of change as the manifestation of progress represent root metaphors of a distinctly modern origin.” In addition, computer proponents operate within “the theory of evolution as a total explanatory framework.” Early metaphors carried over into modernity and the computer age include patriarchy, which has influenced law, medicine, philosophy and the arts, and the industrial mode of production, which pervades social policy and education. Yet their embeddedness in western languages renders them practically invisible.

Evolutionary thinking plays a major role in Western cosmology and epistemology. Whatever its supposed value in explaining biological phenomena, Bowers warns that it is dangerous to extend evolutionary thinking into the realms of society and technology. He identifies several computer proponents whose thinking, though presented as universal, is firmly embedded in Western evolutionary thought. Such thinking sees human/technological interfaces as the next stage of evolution, with cyborgs becoming a link between humans and post-humans in a technocentric future. While this may appeal to space cadets and Western millenarianists, Bowers reminds us that it is of little value to traditional earth-bound cultures and societies.

Bowers next examines how educational computing, palmed on us as a neutral and universal benefit for all humankind, actually replaces the “traditional face-to-face formation of identity with the context-free, highly subjective and experimental identity” of Western man, which leads him into discussions of subjectivity in cyberspace. He reveals the illusions of cyberspace and virtual reality, which represent the real world on screen “as a simulation, or as a technical problem to be solved,” and which contributes to seeing reality from a technocentric perspective. This is especially relevant to the impact of computers on culture and the environment, showing that computers mediate experience and limit understanding of the world to those elements that can be digitized.

The implications are profound for cultures that still value face-to-face, person-to-person interaction, and which operate within ecological and spiritual or cultural assumptions that are far removed from the technocentric fantasies of Western man. Computers create an illusion of objectivity in all data, while simultaneously undermining the ways in which communities pass on their cultural heritages from generation to generation. By intervening in the way a community understands itself and its heritage, computers dislocate their identity, while individuals retreat into cybernetic worlds of data far removed from their lived realities. What results is “a natural attitude toward being a rational, self-determining individual who looks upon both past and future in terms of immediate self-interest.” This self-absorbed individual develops “a view of the environment as a technological and economic opportunity,” shearing it of all other significance. Cyber-absorption also fosters “a view of the world’s other cultures as evolving toward the rootless individualism that can easily adapt to the rapidly changing routines of technologically intensive modes of production.” Such insights are completely absent from public discussions of the decisions to adopt computer technology.

In later chapters Bowers develops his idea of “bioconservatism” as a necessary modality for distinct and sustainable ecological and cultural futures. He also discusses the ways in which computers affect learning, arguing that computers should not be allowed to replace teachers and offering suggestions for how educational institutions can avoid some of the pitfalls of Western cybernetic civilization. He concludes with seven observations to help institutions to understand the impact of computer technology on culture and society:

1) There are differences between technologies developed in Western cultures and traditional, more ecologically-centered cultures;
2) Decisions about technology depend on understanding alternative assumptions that influence approaches to technology;
3) It is necessary to have a systematic analysis of how modern technology contributes to the culturally transforming process of turning knowledge and relationships into commodities;
4) Modern technology requires more complex views of tradition;
5) Technology has an impact on language and patterns of thinking;
6) Issues of social justice arise from the influence of modern technology on the nature of work; and
7) It is important to know about how the mediating characteristics of computers threaten cultural diversity and ecological sustainability.

Much of the critical discussion of computer technology in recent years has been dominated by the ‘digital divide’ theory, first proclaimed from the halls of transnational capitalism at influential economic-policy meetings such as the Davos Forum and the Business Roundtable, but also picked up by some social-justice minded thinkers in the ‘developing world’. These arguments call for putting more computers into the hands of the “technologically deprived,” while doing little to evaluate the cultural impact of this move. While issues of social justice remain important, the digital divide ought also to give pause for reflection.

Perhaps the ‘deprived’ who have not yet ventured onto the information superhighway ought to take discussions like Bowers’ seriously and reflect upon the ecological and cultural impact of adopting wholesale the technologies of cyberspace, before they decide to cross to the other side.

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