Part II - Four Wave Fronts on a Sea of Change


The Information Revolution

Today's seminar has the Professor, Eider, Nellie, Ellen, Johanna and Alicia. Lucas is working in the computer labs, and Dorcas is unavailable. Only a portion of a longer conversation is reported here.

Note to TWU IDIS students: A Christian world view is reflected in the analysis of information issues presented herein; but it is the reader's task to make her own analysis to see how this is so. Questions to keep in mind: Which of the characters in the dialogue (if any) reflects a Christian view, and why? What impact does the information age have on Christians (and vice-versa) and why? What are your own value assumptions that you bring to this reading, and how were any of them changed? How do you evaluate (with your Christian values) information issues you read in this material?

Professor: Part of your assignment was to look over this advertisement from InfoServe OnLine for its new public utility data base and be ready to discuss. Comments?

Nellie: Great stuff!

Johanna: I must confess that I don't really understand why anyone would want a service like this.

Professor: Nellie, perhaps you could run through a summary of what is available.

Nellie: They claim to give access to two thousand separate data bases, including libraries on law, medicine, education, farming, politics, famous people, blah, blah, and so on. They have electronic mail, conferencing, shopping at over one hundred national stores, stock market reports and all the back issues of two hundred popular magazines and nearly a thousand journals for the last fifteen years. Everything is cross-referenced, indexed, and at your fingertips for a low hourly rate with no minimum monthly charge. They also offer full Internet and Web access, your own home page, ten megabytes of personal file space, and an on-line virtual party once a month with draws for virtual vacation software..

Johanna: (suspiciously) What is all this leading to?

Nellie: Unlimited availability of information.

Professor: Consequences, please.

Ellen: Ultimately, the state will be able to keep track of both people and production. By monitoring retail purchases through credit cards in a cashless society, it can implement long range plans that will work.

Nellie: Better than they used to do in the old Soviet Union, home of the eternal line-up and institutionalized poverty?

Ellen: The limitations of socialist systems have been due to insufficient economic information preventing efficient planning. Given both, the state could exercise total control over the economy. It would be the best of all possible worlds.

Johanna: If I were a pessimist, I would agree with you.

Nellie: I don't think it will turn out that way at all. Little Brother and Little Sister have good opportunities to keep things democratic.

Johanna: How so?

Nellie: If access to data is unlimited, citizens can keep track of bureaucrats' decisions--reviewing the data that went into them, considering the consequences, and feeding back opinions immediately.

Ellen: That's not necessary. Professional administrators should be left alone to make decisions without interference from individuals.

Nellie: (ignoring her) In fact, who needs a government or a bureaucracy at all? People could collectively run the county, voting on issues on a day-to-day basis, and the results of their votes could govern society--the ultimate in participatory democracy.

Ellen: I find that appalling.

Nellie: Why? Isn't it "power to the people"--like you socialists always want? (laughing) The very power that comes from information availability is what has already destroyed the Marxist tyrannies.

Ellen: (Indignantly) True socialism will ultimately triumph, but not in mass disorder. The masses are uninformed, poorly educated, and volatile. Their opinions change from day to day like New York fashions. There could be no planning, no continuity, no governing--

Nellie: There would be no elite ruling class, either.

Ellen: Socialism knows no elite, but those fit to govern do so, just as those not fit to govern are governed. All are therefore equal.

Professor: Plato had a similar concept for what he saw as an ideal republic, but I doubt that his ideas would fit into modern notions of human rights.

Nellie: Wait a minute, Ellen. Do you really believe that universal data banks ought to give the state access to all information about individuals but restrict its citizens' knowledge of the state?

Ellen: Of course.

Nellie: You're a law student. What about the files on all your clients? Should they be on-line where government officials can see them?

Ellen: Well, perhaps there should be exceptions.

Nellie: What about medical records, then?

Ellen: The state should have access, yes.

Nellie: Why?

Ellen: So that it can best plan medical facilities, and track efficient treatments of course.

Nellie: And your second grade report card, where your teacher said you should be "encouraged to overcome the tendency to rely on others' work and be more original."

Ellen: What! Where did you see my report cards?

Nellie: (sweetly) They don't call me Nellie Hacker for no reason, you know.

Ellen: That's a gross violation of my rights.

Nellie: What rights? You just said you should have no secrets from the state. I work part-time for the Ministry of Education. The files are all there. I pulled yours and read it. In this case, I have legal access and did it to prove my point.

Ellen: (angrily) Which is?

Nellie: That your position is inconsistent. Open access should mean just that. What one can see, let all see. If my records are public, let the government's be--and all contracts, company directorships, union records, financial data--all knowledge of every kind. All or nothing.

Johanna: What about mistakes? How do you ever get an error corrected if the data is entrusted to machines?

Alicia: I never make mistreaks.

Nellie: (with the barest acknowledgment of the speaker on the table) That's easy. Allow everyone access to their personal files and let them enter protests or comments on information they believe to be incorrect. The information provider would have to support the original entry or it would be removed. At the very least, the objections would also be part of the public record.

Professor: You want referees, then.

Nellie: Oh, yes.

Alicia: What you are asking for is beyond the storage capacity of even the largest computers. That amount of information, the ability to search it in a reasonable time, and facilities for every citizen to use it are far too great to handle with today's technology.

Eider: It's only a matter of time, Alicia, only a matter of time.

Professor: What do you think of the objection that knowing everything is "playing God"?

Ellen: What do we care of God? The human race is supreme. It needs no outside reference points.

Nellie: Then, how do you justify the existence of a controlling state? It seems to me that your god is the state.

Johanna: If I had to choose between Nellie's version of unlimited knowledge and Ellen's, I would take Nellie's. But, I'd rather not put all that information on a machine, anyway.

Professor: Why not, Johanna?

Johanna: I don't trust machines. There's something more human about a book or newspaper.

Nellie: What? They're made with machines, too--including computers. Why not simply replace the paper medium with an electronic one?

Johanna: I'm just not comfortable with yet another machine.

Ellen: Aw, it's all in how you use it. We could have the ideal efficient state.

Nellie: Total tyranny is what you mean. What we could really have is an ideal democracy. That's what the world wide web is like already. You can't turn back the clock, Ellen; your vision has already lost.

Ellen: The World Wide Web is total anarchy.

Nellie: Well, maybe it is, but that's better than tyranny, and certainly more interesting.

Johanna: The people controlling the media now in use filter the available information; how do you know the same thing wouldn't happen if it were all computerized?

Nellie: It would, but at least it would be more available.

Johanna: Even your idealized democracy would create a tyranny of the majority, Nellie.

Nellie: How so?

Johanna: It would be impossible to protest against what the majority decided. What is worse, everyone's votes, purchases, and preferences would be on record--there could be no privacy.

Eider: As long as there are safeguards against misuse of information, the lack of privacy is not so bad.

Nellie: Your planet has such a system, then?

Eider: Oh, yes. You get used to it. After a while, no one thinks it's a ... (hesitating) large deck?

Nellie: (laughing) You mean, a big deal.

Eider: Ah, yes, idioms sometimes don't translate too well.

Johanna: (disbelievingly) Granting the existence of this mythical planet of yours for a moment, hasn't anyone ever tried to take control of the entire society through the system?

Eider: Not on Meta-Earth, but it has happened on Ortho-Earth.

Johanna: (grinning) Another fairy tale world? O.K. I'll bite. What happened?

Eider: In the case I have in mind, she was banished to what you would call Australia and had to work as a field hand for several years. We (and they) still think that the universal availability of information has benefits that far outweigh any risks.

Nellie: That punishment doesn't sound too bad.

Eider: The Orthans would be horrified to hear you say so.

Nellie: Why?

Eider: (in a shocked tone) Because, she lost her honor!

Johanna: (thoughtfully) Well, I'm personally convinced there are benefits, but I suppose every technology has its good side for some people and its dark side for others.

Ellen: I still say the state should control it. Look here Nellie, what about pornography?

Nellie: Well, there is some on the Internet, but you have to go looking for it. Pornography doesn't just appear on your desktop.

Ellen: (leaning across the table, ignoring Nellie's answer and triumphantly pointing her finger) All you Christians really favour censoring pornography don't you? That requires state control.

Nellie: I can see the point of those who do favour some censorship--freedom is, after all, not the same as licence, and pornography does a lot of harm, especially to women and children, but I think censoring the Internet is technically impractical and therefore a waste of time.

Eider: Freedom of speech requires one to permit people to say outrageous and even wicked things. If you want to eliminate the worst excesses from your Metalibrary, you will have to change people, not the rules or the technologies.

Nellie: Wide open access for individuals is the only way to go.

Ellen: (stubbornly) Strict state control of the economy is enabled; that's all that matters.

Johanna: I say turn off most of the machines; we can do without them.

Professor: Shall we see what this textbook says about the issues and possibilities?

Alicia: Yes, let's do.

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