4.3 The Availability of Information

Information services now in place may yield the most accurate view of the future, for these have already come some distance toward the goal of unlimited availability of information. It is not possible at the present time to count the number of facts on file in publicly available data bases. Bibliographies and information files for law, Bible study, medicine, the stock market, business, education, biography, history, computer science, government activities, chemical and physical data, and many others are readily available to anyone with a telephone and computer.

There are gateway services and indices that operate as data bases of data bases. This includes public utilities such as the various World Wide Web search engines which allow the seeker of information access to data repositories by subject or title. Such services are utilities to extract meaningful information from the splendid chaos that is the Internet, and they finance themselves either with user fees or by displaying banner advertising. An initial query may produce thousands of computers and/or data bases located in various parts of the world. The user then narrows down the search to specifics, using the facilities of the particular information provider, software package, or search engine until the required material has been assembled.

It takes little imagination to project major extensions to today's useful but fragmentary facilities and to realize that--with very few additions to current technology--citizens of the fourth civilization should be able to obtain any recorded information on any subject in which they are interested. Most of the technology for this is already in use, and changes that will come will not be revolutionary, as far as the hardware is concerned. Rather, people and their way of working will change. Indeed, heavy use of facilities like CDs, DVDs, and the World Wide Web has already altered some traditional professions, as their practitioners have come to depend upon the easy availability of technical data.

Information Services and the Professions

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, and accountants not only have local client data bases in which to file histories, treatments, recall dates, project designs, and billings, but they also have access to local or remote expert systems on which they can diagnose, determine treatments, look up case law, find parallel situations, and so on. These tools allow a single professional to handle a much larger number of clients more efficiently and more accurately than previously. Such means also reduce dramatically the number of facts that the professional must learn and retain in personal memory in order to work competently. This not only affects how they do their jobs but also radically changes the education required to become professionals in the first place. Since many other segments of the marketplace are simultaneously moving away from an employer-employee model to professional-client relationships, these changes have the potential to alter the very nature of work for most people.

Similar advantages are also available, for instance, to real estate agents, except that their files are less customer-oriented and more product-oriented, because the available listings in a given geographical area change on a daily basis, whereas customers tend not to repeat very often. Here, video technology is being combined with computer searching so that a picture file of each listing can be made available in any real estate office. Thus, a potential buyer need not go to the site to find out what a house looks like on the outside or inside. The video technology can also be combined with the telephone and cablevision to allow potential customers the luxury of seeing videotapes of houses for sale on their home televisions.

Researchers and translators of the Bible and other specialized literature have all the reference materials, manuscripts, parallel writings, commentary, and language aids ever produced readily available. They are therefore able to produce translations into new languages in a fraction of the time it previously took.

Other organizations already maintaining specialized databases include government (taxation, geologic, geographic, demographic, and other statistical information), law-enforcement agencies (arrests, fingerprints, DNA records, and stolen property records), wholesalers and retailers (market trends, inventory, accounts and customers), credit card issuers, libraries (loans, books on hand, and in print), newspapers (articles by subject), stock market and brokerage houses (prices, press releases, and transactions).

There is also a growing number of private entrepreneurs who perform contract information searches and data digests for their clients using public and private data sources. These may be many of the same people who help businesses to set up Web pages to get their own message out to the world in the most compelling form possible.

Scientists and engineers can look up the physical properties of substances or locate journal articles or books on specific topics. Researchers in all fields can do periodic searches and keep up to date on the most current work in their field. These facilities are becoming more standardized and organized as they continue to grow. They will gradually become major information utilities in their own right, and the professionals who rely on them now will find their dependence growing to the point where they cannot work at all without them.

Meanwhile, commerce is alive and thriving on the Internet, and billions of dollars a year worth of business is handled on-line via electronic storefronts and secure ordering systems. It is reasonable to expect this use will continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future.

Sex and the Internet

On a less enlightening note, the purveyors of explicitly violent and/or sexual materials have also used electronic distribution to further their own ends. There are three possible responses to this particular development:

1. Some would introduce censorship of the electronic media and remove sexually explicit materials altogether.

2. Others make and sell "filtering" programs that parents can use to prevent access to the better known of such collections.

3. Still others note that censorship implies censors; that is, someone must decide what ideas are allowed expression and what are not. There is potential for "good" ideas to suffer more than "bad" ones if that happened, so they prefer to allow all ideas to compete openly in a free marketplace.

Unfortunately, the latter (more freewheeling) view may not adequately protect groups that find themselves the target of abuse in such materials, such as women, children, and minorities. The mere existence of depictions of abuse lends credence to its actual perpetration. That is, fictitious or potential abuse portrayed in violent or sexual materials appears to promote real abuse of real people. Indeed, in many cases actual abuse must be inflicted to make pictures of it in the first place. In the same manner, false denials of the holocaust inflict great psychological pain on the survivors of the death camps and their families. Indeed the law already recognizes that a speaker is responsible for what is spoken--if it is destructive of reputation, damages for libel may be granted. If it has only the potential to damage, the law is less clear.

Moreover, the third view is based on the liberal hope that good ideas and their use will overwhelm bad ones. This in turn implies that those expressing such a hope have the ability to know which are which. Based on actual human history, not only are the hopes vain, such abilities appear to be wanting. At some point and in some manner, it seems necessary to decide to what extent the good of freedom of speech/information must be set aside for the good of preventing threats to people's lives and health. In other words, there is a balance between the right to freedom of speech and the right to enjoy safety under peace, order, and good government.

In like manner, there is a debate over whether the depiction or promotion of homosexual acts is sinful or immoral on the one hand, or desirable for the freedom of speech and the liberation of an oppressed minority who cannot help being what they are on the other. Although the antagonists on both sides often seem to try to shout each other down even on the Internet, such issues can be reduced to a choice between perceived goods of freedom of religion and "minority group rights." In this particular case, the issue can be further reduced to the choice of whose view of human sexuality and its morality will be the dominant or control view for the society of the future.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of such issues for the purposes of this discussion is that much of the interaction is taking place on the Internet itself, as people from all over the world have, for the first time, a vast town hall in which to participate in any debate they wish.

Information Services and Daily Life

It is interesting to observe that, while many specific professions have already been changed by the information revolution, the effect on the broader society had not by the late 1990s been particularly profound. In daily life, only a minority took advantage of information services. Where broad subscription gateway utilities were once sold, they were not very popular, and some were closed or scaled down due to lack of interest. Only the Internet and its subset, the World Wide Web seemed by the end of the decade to have potential longevity.

To a point, people of the latter part of the industrial age remained willing to continue relying on the existing mass media information filters rather than seeking and filtering it personally. Thus, even in the first part of the information age, universal access to information was conceded to employees of various news media, and they in turn published or broadcast what they deemed to be in the best commercial interests of their employers. Terrorist organizations make good use of this when they stage events for media coverage to gain recognition that their small numbers could not by their own efforts ever achieve. So do conventional politicians when they time their news releases to hit or miss major telecasts or other media deadlines, depending on the amount of publicity they want. For their part, those who have controlled the news media have perceived little mandate to extend access to the information from which their articles and editorials are constructed. Consequently, consumers of the news media gradually lost the ability to distinguish between factual news (data) and editorial interpretations of that data (assigned meaning). This is an example of an abstraction (removal from detail) that is potentially detrimental, for giving up to others the decisions on assigning meaning to data threatens a person's ability to function as an informed citizen. Indeed, the chief potential for tyranny in an information-based society lies in confining the ability to provide data interpretations to a small number of people, who by virtue of their positions are able to exercise some control over what all other citizens are able to think about.

One reason for the initial lack of interest in broader access to news and other information was that the benefits had not yet exceeded the costs. These services are used effectively and efficiently by those whose job demands such use or who can benefit from it and are willing to expend time and effort to learn the idiosyncrasies of the various information services because they must. They are also willing to pay the fairly high monetary cost because the information they get has a substantial direct effect on their earnings.

Most people have few such motivations and rather than searching for information at all, they become enamoured of recreational possibilities on the Web, such as games and pornography. They only begin to use information services per se (or search the Web) under three conditions:

1. The cost drops to the point that they think nothing more of it than they do of paying for electricity, telephone, cablevision, or the newspaper.

2. Access to these systems is so simple that even the worst mechanophobes will use them routinely without thinking of them as complicated or unusual in any way (This requires a high level of abstraction; they become appliances rather than complex machines).

3. There are direct, obvious, and immediate benefits to everyday activities--they save time and money.

These three conditions are all developing together, for they are related. Improvements in the ease of use toward satisfying number two and in the services offered satisfying toward number three automatically satisfy number one as well, for widespread use will greatly reduce the cost. For many in the general population, the mid 1990s evidently saw an essential watershed passed with proliferation of world wide web sites, for in a span of two years the Internet became a part of millions of homes.

This illustrates that there is a critical mass for wide-effect technologies that, when reached, causes dramatic improvements in all three conditions (cost, ease of access, and perceived benefits) and then begins to alter the society whose needs gave rise to the technology in the first place. For example, the automobile went from being a bicycle-and-carriage-shop sideline to a toy for the rich. Later, it was raced and also used for taxis. However, it had no broad impact on society until increased demand led to mass production, and that in turn lowered prices and increased sales. In two generations Henry Ford's assembly line put a car in every garage and transformed North American society, but no one could have anticipated the critical conjunction of the necessary attitudes and technologies that made it all possible. Similar comments could be made about the impact of the telephone, the television, and, to an extent, the airplane.

Moreover, there is a critical point in the use of a technology beyond which it becomes something other than what it was at first, and this is also true of information utilities and the Internet. As they stood at the close of the millennium, such facilities largely referenced and duplicated what already existed on paper in various libraries. They enabled faster, broader, and more convenient access to such information, but this did not in itself constitute a breakthrough to a new order. What will constitute a breakthrough is a facility so extensive, powerful, and cheap that it will replace older technologies altogether and simultaneously open up whole new ways of dealing with information, opinions, and knowledge. The building of such an information appliance will require not simply new types of machines, but new ways of thinking about their use--new information paradigms. Seen in this broader context, the Internet (including the World Wide Web) are primitive first steps along the road to something much more profoundly significant.

Profile On . . . Issues

Information and Third World Nations

The Gap

The Third World is so called because of the large economic gap between the industrialized nations of North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand on the one hand, and the heavily populated pre-industrial countries of Africa, South America, and Asia on the other.

Will the gap narrow or widen?

Optimistic observers believe many nations will make the leap from an agricultural economy directly to the information age, without an industrial phase. However, information-based economies require sophisticated and efficient industrial bases. If rich nations become richer still, and the poorer do not quickly catch up, the widening gap would threaten world peace.

Where does the third world get its information?

In 1980, 95.5% of printed matter, 95.1% of printed books, 85.6% of TV sets, 68.1% of radios, and 97.9% of data processing equipment exports originated in technologically more advanced countries. Small shifts in these percentages since have been due more to Western countries moving manufacturing capabilities to low wage regions, not to any technology or decision making transfers. Television programs are still overwhelmingly American and European in origin. Four agencies--Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and Agence France Press--dominate news reporting, so most of it originates in London, Paris, and New York.

A new imperialism?

One-way flow of information and its associated technologies carries along the culture, values, entertainment preferences, and commercial tastes of the exporters' life styles. Poorer countries cannot afford to generate their own television programs or news, so they buy both from those who can, increasing their economic and cultural dependence. Printing, production, advertising, and packaging are cheaper in English than in any other language (economy of scale), creating additional disadvantages for non-English speaking countries. On the other hand, universal availability of the same information to everyone inevitably has a homogenizing effect on culture. Is it worth keeping the old culture and feeling independent and self-reliant at the cost of giving up benefits that other nations have?

Is third world censorship justified?

Faced with challenges to culture or religion, some nations heavily censor imported cultural materials. This may reduce the perceived threat, but at the cost of making the imports more costly and less useful, and of partially isolating the country from the rest of the world.

Will satellite communications allow poor nations to catch up?

Because of their less efficient use of the transponder circuits, these can cost a poorer country twice as much for the same facility as a western nation would pay. Moreover, there are a limited number of satellite positions available in geosynchronous orbit, and many have been taken by the richer nations, so even if the poorer nations do develop the necessary technology, they may have to continue to rent space from the first nations to claim it.

Does Information Technology have the same effect everywhere?

In a rich democracy, individuals can obtain information technology for enhancing life style or improving their economic position. In poorer countries, often with no previous democratic traditions, the government is more likely to draw such technology into its own hands and control its use. It may therefore have more potential for oppression than for democratization in such nations over the short run.

Ought poor nations to pay for information?

If information is just a commodity, poorer nations must buy it from the ones that generate it, increasing their dependence. If all knowledge collected by the human race is its common heritage, perhaps it ought not to have a price put on it. Some argue necessity: because the poorer nations need knowledge and techniques, they are justified in helping themselves, regardless of the patent, copyright or property laws in other nations. How, in any event, can a poor nation obtain what it needs, rather than have to take what is offered by the wealthier ones? These comments apply equally to information technologies.

How valuable are current databases to the developing nations?

Industrial nations maintain large databases of scientific and technical information, along with statistics on consumer preferences by age groups, occupation, income, and the like. Much of this is of little value in planning product development for developing nations. The techniques to make or use some products may not exist; the demographics are completely different; some products are inappropriate when moved into a new cultural setting; or there may not be enough people at an appropriate income level to make a product feasible.

What moral responsibility is there on the part of wealthy nations to share?

Is bottom line profitability and the corollary demand for a return from information resources and tools the highest value? If so, this implies no obligation to share at all without a direct return on investment. If the common good of the human race, or a value that requires sharing with the poor is of more importance, information resources ought no more to be hoarded than any other form of wealth. A more pragmatic consideration might be that information resources are almost impossible to hoard, and that trying to do so will lead either to theft or threats to peace. Another pragmatic consideration is that ensuring that new technologies get into the hands of poorer nations may enhance trade in many other goods and lead to greater prosperity for all in the long run.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises