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On New Media Technologies and the Fate of the Unconnected

 

By Samuel Zalanga

 

 


Wednesday, October 28, 2015.

 

For those interested in the vision of a group of people who are technology experts but operating within the context of "free market capitalism," this article from Vanity Fair, will be of great relevance and interest. The article is very insightful about the competing visions of the world between what humanistic and religious people represent, and what the movers and shakers of our society, or as they sometimes call them, "Masters of the Universe" envision for humanity. 

From humanistic and religious perspectives, it is amazing that some people accept being called "Masters of the Universe."  Part of the article summarizes the vision of people (proponents of singularity vision), who think one of the greatest obstacles to a better future is "humanism." Why? They thought so because they believe people who see humans as unique and distinctive beings tend to restrict some kinds of technological innovation because of its negative impact on humanity. 

The opposing groups who are working in the technology-driven industry but who are more careful and cautious about the consequences of technological innovation for humanity and human society. As someone broadly interested in the consequences of modernity for humanity, technological innovation and the kind of utopia it promises humanity right from the era of the industrial revolution is one area of my scholarly interest.  For instance, I have been tracking the work of "Brynjolfsson and McFee at the MIT School of Business. One of their books is "Race Against the Machine" and another is "The Second Machine Age."

Most of the people who are promoting the propagation of the idea of technological utopia are as evangelical as religious entrepreneurs in their mission. Indeed, their belief system is almost like a religion. It also has a kind of eschatological vision of human progress, but very naive about the complexity of human society given much that have been written about this in humanities and the social sciences in the history of Western civilization. 

Whether we like it or not, unless society takes public interest in what those committed to technological utopianism are doing, in the future, many people will become unemployed, to be blunt about it. The interesting thing, however, is that, they sugar-coat this definite reality in the future that is meant to benefit a few at the expense of the many. This is not being a Luddite. It is an evidenced-based position. While technological innovation promises a future economic Nirvana for everyone, it is actually - when properly understood - a project of a small economic elite that gives ordinary people a dog biscuit while they take away the real flesh.

We know for instance that we have the technological capacity in the U.S. but many people in rural parts of the country are still using dial-up to access the internet. In many parts of Africa, internet access is not available and that widens inequality since there is a lot of knowledge that one can acquire on his or her own freely on the internet if it is available efficiently and at an affordable rate. This is where the market intervenes but technology experts care less to factor it in. They do not start with the philosophical question of what is the good society or what kind of society do we want and then use technology to achieve it. Rather, the possibilities through technological innovation and the money to be made are the forces driving their vision of the future.  Are rural Americans and Africans or any rural groups in any country for that matter not humans? The technology is available but because access to the technology is driven by market rationality, rural people and many urban poor cannot get the best internet service. And even in the city, it depends on your zip code. We know that if it is strictly based on market rationality, many communities will lose U.S. post office mail delivery because it is not cost effective for the post office to deliver mails to them because of their location. They can only continue to get services from the post office as a matter of societal commitment to social service.  In effect, the market is good in rationing and if you can afford a service by virtue of your income or location, then Hallelujah! Otherwise, sorry! 

Where do we go from here given the increasing process of rationalization? I am not a person of Western ancestry but I am amaze at how some in the West fail to appreciate that the challenges we face ahead as part of the continuing unfolding of the secular religion of modernity defies the simplistic liberal - conservative divide when properly understood. I am not being cynical but looking at the logic of the forces driving the system. I do not trust the  people in Washington or World Trade Organization claiming that they truly know where they are taking us in the next ten or fifteen years. This is scary. 

Unfortunately those religious leaders who claim to be moral authority seem not to be directly confronting this challenge even though it is competing against their own vision. Except for the intervening voice of Pope Francis, many religious institutions of learning rarely expose future religious leaders to the work of these "Masters of the Universe." Looking at the evidence and data, I do not feel impressed by those religious leaders - whether here in the U.S. or in Africa - promising the transformation of the world and just building more religious places of worship, while ignoring the powerful forces driving change in the world, in many cases filthy lucre. But I am not alone in having this evidenced-based skepticism.

With particular reference to the U.S. for instance, in their book of honest reflection and lamentation entitled: Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (Grand Rapids : Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson raised the same kind of concern as they asserted: "even a casual observation of the current moral climate suggests that despite all the time, money, and energy -- despite the political power --- we failed." (cited in p.130 in Christian Perspectives on Politics by J. Philip Wogaman. Both were active in the Moral Majority movement.  Thomas and Dobson are not against the idea of their religion or faith transforming the world, but they are confessing the complexity of the reality out there that many people in their religious tradition take for granted. Religious organizations and the general public need to understand the forces that modernity broadly conceptualized is unleashing on humanity.

The forces cannot be contained by just continuously declaring eloquent propositional truths in religious enclaves or scholarly traditions. The battle is out there in the trenches and the people there seem not to care about what we say as the Vanity Fair article below indicates. Indeed, as time goes on, the forces are prepared to invade us in our enclaves. Their desire is to bring all humanity and human endeavor under the logic and vision of the world as conceptualized by "Masters of the Universe." This is a huge moral and ethical question and do not expect a miracle will solve it. Only committed social action can do that. But are we even prepared to work together? That is another empirical question.

 Here is the link to the article:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/11/artificial-intelligence-singularity-theory

Samuel Zalanga is a professor of Sociology at Bethel University, Minnesota, and Associate Editor for Africa, Journal of Third World Studies. He is also a Carnegie Fellow.

On New Media Technologies and the Fate of the Unconnected

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