IT – Key to a “Brave New World”
Name: Aonghus Ó hAirt
Lecturer: Brendan Tangney
Assignment: Paper 1
In this essay, I will argue the case that IT will lead us to a “Brave New World”, but only in Huxley’s sense of the term. Based on my interpretation of the title, that a “Brave New World” is one with an attractive façade, but with serious flaws, I will discuss both the attractive, and undesirable aspects of the world I think IT will lead us to. The attractive aspects include improved freedom of speech and access to information, the facilitation of more efficient social movements, and changing attitudes toward war. An undesirable aspect is the increased control over the means of transmitting information, and I will also look at earlier critiques of the effects of technology in general on society, and look at how IT is having these undesirable effects. In concluding, I will show how these points all indicate that IT is leading us to a “Brave New World”.
The title raises a number of questions that must be addressed before the main subject of the essay can be discussed properly. What is a “Brave New World”? And what is meant by IT? The latter can easily be defined as:
The production, storage, and communication of information using computers, and electronic technology.
The former is a far more ambiguous term, and should not be taken at face value. The phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Miranda innocently rejoices at her first encounter with outsiders. Ironically, being stranded on an uninhabited island, might be have been better than living in a world with characters such as Antonio, Stephano, Sebastian, and Trinculo - all of whom plot to kill for their own gain.
Aldous Huxley adopted “Brave New World” as the title for his 1932 novel in which he depicts a world where “Community, Identity, Stability” is the foundation for society. The world appears attractive from the outside - there is no war, no poverty, no crime; but on closer inspection, we find that individuality, artistic creativity, and intellectual discovery are all suppressed. A pleasure drug “soma” is used to keep the masses happy with their social standing. One might argue that this “Brave New World” is better than our own, but no one would call it a utopia. My definition, therefore, of “Brave New World” is a world with an attractive façade, and with subtle, but serious flaws.
I believe that IT will lead us to a world with an attractive façade, just like Huxley’s, but with subtle, perhaps, but serious and deep-rooted problems.
The advent of personal computing, the Internet and World Wide Web, Television and Radio have all had a major effect on society. I will deal with three examples where IT has seemed to work toward creating a better, and more attractive world; improved freedom of speech and access to information, the facilitation of more effective social movements, and changing attitudes toward war.
IT has seemed to give improved freedom of speech and access to information. The Internet has made freedom of speech even easier, and now we can hear opinions from individuals – independent from a publisher or distributor who might otherwise taint their arguments, or governments who might wish to silence them. A good example of this is the Arabic Al Jazeera network, which It has enabled to provide objective coverage of middle eastern affairs despite massive pressure from powerful enemies. As journalist Michael Moran noted in an article “It is the lone Arabic broadcast outlet to put truth and objectivity above even its survival.” In doing this it has been attacked by every government in the Middle East who regularly close down its bureaus around the region when the stories are not to their satisfaction. America has also become a powerful enemy. Secretary of State, Colin Powell condemned Al Jazeera for broadcasting what he sees as “vitriolic, irresponsible kinds of statements”. Despite all this pressure, Al Jazeera was able to continue, and provide information according to its motto, “We get both sides of the story.”
Another example of IT enabling freedom of speech is the development of Internet journalism in Zimbabwe. Following Mugabe’s Freedom of Information and Right to Privacy Media Bill, which forced all journalists to register with the state, and be approved before working, the scope for objective journalism seriously diminished. Despite this, through the use of the internet, the Zimbabwe Indymedia Centre could be established, allowing free speech for those who the government tried to suppress. Though there are many problems – difficult internet access, low literacy levels, and state attempts at repression – the development in IT in this situation appears very promising. As one journalist noted, “It remains a hopeful outpost for unheard Zimbabwean voices, carving out a position between the MDC and ZANU-PF at a time when both parties are trying to silence them”.
IT has facilitated more effective social movements, contributing to a better world. One reason for this is that IT makes it easier to organise a campaign for social change. Jody Williams, 1997 winner of the Nobel Peace prize for her campaign to ban landmines is a good example of this. She attributes much of her success to the use of e-mail, and to a lesser degree, fax. Although she believes personal relationships are vital in building a social movement, her organisation’s use of e-mail has made it possible to reach hundreds of organisations and coordinate a campaign on this very serious issue. Based on past trends – the evolution from fax to e-mail – it can be assumed that new developments in IT will make it even easier for campaigners to make people aware of important issues.
IT also contributes to a better world be enabling campaigns to work together as part of a common movement. Naomi Klein, in No Logo, her account of the evolution of corporate globalisation and of resistance to it, described how many campaigns, each operating in a separate place, could, through the internet, overcome their separateness and unite into a far more effective movement. She argued that these groups could overcome their isolation because they had “found each other and were starting a process of intellectual cross-pollination, often at the click of a hotlink, thanks to the Net”. Through this network, activists and theorists were ‘lending urgency and depth of analysis to each other’s actions’, with important results. Klein gives the example of the pressure that forced the Multilateral Agreement on Investment off the agenda of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in April 1998. She quotes from a Financial Times article reacting to this victory, to show the importance of the internet – “The opponents’ decisive weapon is the Internet. Operating from around the world via web sites, they have condemned the proposed agreement as a secret conspiracy to ensure global domination by multi-national companies, and mobilised an international movement of grassroots resistance.”
IT also contributes to changing attitudes toward war. It can be argued that the difference between the Vietnam War, and previous wars was the presence of journalists and news reporters during the conflict. The news being relayed home on a daily basis, and being broadcast by the media, dispelled any patriotic notion of the soldiers fighting bravely for their country. The reality that real people were dying – not in some foreign battlefield, but on American television sets, changed the view of the American people to an anti-war sentiment. One American Military report on the television coverage of the Vietnam War, and its “detrimental impact on the conduct of that war” states:
The great difference between the Vietnam War and its predecessors lay not in its conduct, but its perception, an image that was shaped by a powerful new influence--television. It was this medium, more than any other single factor, which was instrumental in the shift of American public and Congressional opinion from a position strongly supporting to one strongly condemning the American defense of South Vietnam.
As in Huxley’s “Brave New World”, the attractive façade created by IT is accompanied by a series of deep flaws. One of the most serious of these is the increased control over the means of transmitting information. Other important flaws can be identified by drawing on earlier critiques of the effects of technology on society, such as Rousseau’s.
One of these flaws is the increased control over the means of transmitting information. George Orwell’s 1984, a book which complements Brave New World, showed how IT allowed a totalitarian empire to operate. Using the telescreen, a device that could simultaneously send and receive images from each individual household to a Big Brother, permitted the suppression of privacy, and the centralization of social life under the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love. While this may have been a fictional depiction, Orwell’s image has been becoming more and more realised in fact. IT is allowing the greater concentration of control over information. Sebastian Mallaby, wrote in The Washington Post, certain agencies are taken more control over the means of transmitting information:
The flap over the FBI's Carnivore software is about big government using the Net to snoop on unsuspecting citizens. The dot-com buzz is about entrepreneurs turning the Internet into a giant shopping mall. The AOL-Time Warner merger is about a megacybercorporation that wants to own the cable pipes on which the future Internet will run.
Drawing on earlier critiques of the effects of technology can help us identify other flaws behind the façade of IT. Jean Jacque Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality contrasted the happiness of man in his pre-technological state of nature where language, society, and communication had not developed, with the corrupt and miserable existence of modern man. IT amplifies two of the causes of this unhappiness – the growth of new needs, and the spreading of conformity.
Firstly Rousseau argues that society gives man a series of unnatural desires that cannot be satisfied. Whereas the natural man has only physical needs that can be easily fulfilled, modern man’s needs are unrelated to the physical, and therefore, are without limit. The modern man constantly wants new things, these desires become needs, and new desires take their place. Because he always wants something, and is never satisfied with what he has, he becomes unhappy. IT can only increase these desires. An ordinary person might want the fastest car available, and whereas having the fastest car on the street might have once sufficed, advertisements on television serve as a constant reminder that there are always faster and better cars.
Rousseau also argues that society forces man to conform, to live, as others want him to. He even describes society as an “assemblage of artificial men”. This conformity was once localised. Even though people in remote communities once had to conform with their peers, the easy movement of information now means that the term ‘peer’ encompasses people in other countries. As it is the wealthy and powerful who have the most control over the communication of what are presented as cultural ‘norms’, this conformity becomes more dangerous as the norms of these people are far from being the best role-models available.
In dealing with this paper, I have
discussed the aspects of IT’s influence on society. I have dealt with the
attractive qualities that will form the façade of our “Brave New World”, and I
have also dealt with the undesirable effects of IT, which will undermine the
notion of this perfect world. In examining all of these points, I conclude that
IT will lead us to a “Brave New World” – one where we have easy access to
information, where there is a means to facilitate freedom of information, and
our attitudes towards war are completely changed, and social movements have a
powerful tool in achieving their goals. The subtle problems, however – the control
of the transmission of information, modern man’s unnatural desires, and need to
conform – will all undermine any notion that this world is a utopia.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, The Arden Shakespeare, London, 2001
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Marshall Cavendish Ltd, London 1988
Naomi Klein, No Logo, Flamingo, London, 2000
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin, London, 1987
Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Raj Patel, “Independent Voices”, The New Internationalist, May 2002
Sebastian Mallaby, “Libertarians No Longer Rule the Net”, The Washington Post, 4 September 2002, http://www.uni-muenster.de/PeaCon/dgs-mills/mills-texte/Libertarians.htm
Michael Moran, In defense of al-Jazeera, http://www.msnbc.com/news/643471.asp?cp1=1
International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Jody Williams page, http://www.icbl.org/amb/williams/
Television Coverage Of The Vietnam War And Its Implications For Future Conflicts http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1984/HCD.htm
 Collins Paperback English Dictionary, 4th Edition, 1999
 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, The Arden Shakespeare, London, 2001
 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Marshall Cavendish Ltd, London, 1988, p.1
 Michael Moran, In defense of al-Jazeera, http://www.msnbc.com/news/643471.asp?cp1=1
 Michael Moran, In defense of al-Jazeera, http://www.msnbc.com/news/643471.asp?cp1=1
 Raj Patel, Independent Voices, The New Internationalist, May 2002
 International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Jody Williams page, http://www.icbl.org/amb/williams/
 Jody Williams on the ICBL’s pioneering use of e-mail, http://www.icbl.org/cgi-bin/faq/landmines/index.cgi?subject=996244752#0996245173
 Naomi Klein, No Logo, Flamingo, London, 2000, p.443
 Naomi Klein, No Logo, Flamingo, London, 2000, p.443
 Television Coverage Of The Vietnam War And Its Implications For Future Conflicts http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1984/HCD.htm
 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin, London, 1987
 Sebastian Mallaby, Libertarians No Longer Rule the Net, The Washington Post, 4 September 2002, http://www.uni-muenster.de/PeaCon/dgs-mills/mills-texte/Libertarians.htm
 Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
 Rousseau p.170-1.
 Rousseau p.186.