The future development of the global information society depends upon how much we are able to minimize the negative side and maximize the positive side of new media. This paper focuses more on user heuristics with special recognition of the dark side of the digital revolution and explores the ways to avoid the worst scenarios of the media age to come.
The Committee on Cultural Ecology is concerned with the influences of digital media technology upon social and cultural systems as well as upon people's psychological functioning. Hiroaki Yoshii (1999) suggests that the impact of digital revolution can be explored in two aspects: (1) social constructivism and (2) user heuristics. The social constructivistic view of the relationship between technology and society regards technology to be socially formulated as a result of a series of discussions and disputes among inventors, investors, users, competitors, government agencies and so on in the processes of diffusion and dissemination of new technology. In the beginning there should be the invention of a new technology, but its further development is influenced by social selection processes. The question is what kinds of forces guide these processes. Besides market forces there should be a set of guiding principles or ethics about which kinds of media technology can be encouraged to develop and which to be discouraged.
As a result of the impact of the digital revolution entirely new forms of social systems are emerging, accompanying changes in the worlds of meanings in which we live. There are a great many discussions on bioethics which aim to maintain human dignity amid the revolutionary developments of bio-technology, but relatively few discussions regarding ethics to guide the future course of development of digital information technology. Do we simply give free rein to technological development as dictated by capitalistic profit-seeking activities? Formulation of a set of ethics underpinned by insightful philosophical considerations on human nature should be our agenda to decide the future direction of media technology. The user heuristic approach focuses on how people deal with new media technology. Some technologies may be used as the inventor expected, while others may be utilized in a totally different way. New digital media are of course distinguished from old media such as TV in terms of their interactive nature. Interactive media like the Internet allows anyone to send opinions and feelings to an infinite number of people and then to receive responses from a wide range of people, many of whom they may not even know. It is also said that interactive media, which does not require physical proximity between people, will have their greatest impact on the socially isolated, the socially inept, the aged, the invalid and the rejected, since new media provide them with a channel to make a physical and psychological distance nil or to express themselves without feeling pressure which is sometimes generated in a face-to-face situation. This is a blessing although there is a negative and obnoxious side which I will now discuss.
The Negative Side of Interactive Media and How to Minimize It
In the modern era one's identity is tied to social relationships more or less based on physical proximity, but in cyber-space the self no longer finds it necessary to go back to an identifiable physical point of reference. Nor does it require identification with the individual self which is assumed in exchanges of information in the form of the written word. With a handle name one can be anyone, a high-school girl, an elderly scientist or a young man. Moreover, one can cancel one's existence in a particular chat-room of cyber-space simply by clicking a button on a computer display. Communications via only words without physical identification and time constraints, in cyber-space enable some people to easily relate to others. Birdwhistell (1970) said only 35% of dialogue is communicated through words while the rest is non-verbally communicated through gesture, the eyes, body movement, paralinguistic means, etc.!
Cyber-space is a factitious world. The lack of information about one's cyber-friend tends to be compensated by fantasies on the receiver's side, blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual. A fiction constructed is sometimes taken as real, which exerts strong power on the receiver's emotions. Some people are so attracted by their cyber-friend's kind words, quick personal responses and ready help that they start spending hours and hours in front of the display to seek comfort unmet in their real life. Their daily life gradually deteriorates because little time is left for other normal day-to-day activities other than sitting in front of the computer: mothers fails to care for family members and students neglect their studies. People around these cyber-users then suffer from psychological negligence caused by the cyber-user enthusiasm for the Internet. They are caught in the net. Young (1998), a clinical psychologist who runs the center for On-Line Addiction, found that these symptoms resemble other addiction such as alcoholism and drug-users. Computer-addicted persons drift away into cyber space from real life. This is one powerful, negative, pathological consequence of the new media.
In non-interactive media such as TV or radio, outgoing messages can be thoroughly examined at the exit from the standpoint of common sense and the senders' responsibility for the welfare of a society. Interactive media, on the contrary, allow anybody to send anything, even if it is harmful or antisocial, to anybody at anytime, sometimes divested of one's own identity. No matter how much damage a society suffers from this there is no easy way to check the origins of messages. Users of cyber-space are assumed to be responsible for what takes place there. What to do with those who can not take responsibility, such as children? Education is one of the solutions for these predicaments in order for everyone to enjoy the new media in a safe environment when senders have freedom to express themselves as a basic human right.
We are surrounded by an abundance of all sorts of information. The problem lies in how to navigate and gather what we really need in this flood of information. A new form of education is needed in order to bring up critical thinkers who have sound judgment and a sense of ethics and morality, and the desire and love to do this creative work. Diversity in selection and abundance of information are blessings for the most part, but sometimes they impose on us the difficulties and dangers of drifting without focus unless one has a good sense of selection, an immunity against harmful or false information and a strong sense of identity which enables one to make the best choice. Media literacy education is needed both in schools and communities.
The computer is a wonderful machine which enables us to expand our visual and auditory faculties. However, it is highly likely that electronic media may also alter human sensibilities and thought processes. Exposure to abundant images and information in cyberspace appears, at least to some people, to blur the distinction between the real and the virtual world. The impact of excess exposure to cyberspace upon human psychology should be researched carefully. What are we to make of reports that children see the real world as if it can be reset instantly if something wrong happens or those reports that some young parents take their own children as if they are images which parents can manipulate easily. There is the danger that human sensibilities and the capacity for imagination will deteriorate as exposure to cyberspace is increased.
In digital network communities information speed and convenience are important virtues. Many believe these make our life rich and comfortable. These beliefs are guiding principles for emergent forms of social systems related to interactive communications. Some have said that they would utilize their time more wisely if electronic media enabled them to communicate anytime and anywhere. Two questions are raised, however. First, what do they do with the surplus time saved by speedy access? Second, what is the implication of the underlying assumption that receivers of information are always on stand-by mode?
It should be noted that convenience and speediness of information transaction does not guarantee quality of life or better thinking. Rather, these accelerate the pace of our daily life. Everybody becomes busier and busier, but for what? We, human beings are vulnerable, by nature, to giving in to the comfort offered by convenience and speediness. However, if our life depends upon convenience and speediness more and more, we may come to have an existence like a response machine which lives only for the moment. This, in turn, may make our inner mental life more and more meager. We should challenge the conception of time underlying the development of information technologies, that is, time consisting merely of series of moments as well as the conception of human beings as information-seekers who are ready to respond to input. It should be noted that human beings are meaning-seeking and meaning-creating animals (Goonasekera 1997).
We should know that it takes a tremendous, apparently wasteful time to produce meaningful outputs, digesting, pondering and synthesizing information gathered. Long and ponderous dialogues between one's inner world and information input are needed to create something new and original. Convenient, speedy information gathering sometimes fails to give us the time necessary to develop our thoughts. Schools should prepare students for such capacities.
A question arises: How we can increase our ability to utilize digital technologies wisely to empower ourselves, realizing thoroughly the pitfalls of relying too much upon the computer as an extension of our mental power. The ability to utilize a computer for the empowerment of human potential depends upon the quality of people who use it and upon the nature of a society where it is placed because a computer is after all, in the end, an empty box (Saeki, 1997). Cultivation of wisdom to seek a high quality of life through education is the next agenda of the digital revolution.
What Education Can Do
The Japanese government has recently been urgently trying to introduce computers into schools. The Ministry of Education, along with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, launched "the 100 schools Project" in 1994 in which two Ministries have jointly provided 100 schools (including elementary, junior and senior high schools and schools for the handicapped) with financial support for Internet connections. NTT, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, started the so-called "Konetto-Plan" in which NTT offered facilities, funds and technical assistance for 1000 elementary, junior and senior high schools to set up Internet connections.
According to a survey of senior high school students conducted in December 1997, students who have almost no knowledge about the Internet are 22% male and 26% female. While 14% of male students have used the Internet, 5% are regular users. Of the 11% of female students who have used it, only 0.9% are regular users. This survey also shows that 27% of 11th graders do not have access to a personal computer at home: 37% have their own computer and 33% can use a computer owned by their families. The Ministry of Education made public in 1998 their policy that all junior and senior schools are to be equipped with the Internet by 2002. However these strong pressures from the policy makers have brought about confusion and perplexity among teachers who are not ready for these developments. Although most schools are equipped with personal computers, only 17.0 % of teachers are able to supervise how to use computers in the class, a survey indicates (Monbusho, 1996). Even those teachers who said they were using a computer are not comfortable enough to utilize it as a tool for better learning.
There are three types of educational programs practiced in Japanese schools. The most prevalent program of information education is to aim at getting students accustomed to a computer and teach them how to search for information relevant to classroom topics or to exchange information with other schools. Most teachers accept computer technology as a given and adapt themselves to it without seriously pondering the impact of these cultural practices upon users' psychological functioning. They are busy in acquiring teaching skills in how to use a computer in their lessons.
Yutaka Saeki, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, The University of Tokyo, has expressed his worries about the urgent introduction of computer into schools. He warns that these types of information-gathering activities do not enhance the ability to think, while the ease of obtaining information through the Internet fails to convey to children the value and the importance of information and how much time and money has been spent to consolidate such data. He said that this type of information education is unlikely to develop children's higher-order thinking skills. Saeki has insisted that educators should discuss about what kinds of education are helpful for young people who have to survive in the information age. Similar arguments are seen in the United States. Educators express their doubts that information available over the web does not foster higher-order skills such as problem solving, critical thinking or teamwork. Even accomplished teachers are overwhelmed by the task of helping their students impose meaningful structure from information gathered (Rochelle & Pea, 1999). Saeki insists that we should discuss what kinds of human beings we should produce through education for the 21st Century, which leads naturally to discussions on how to teach.
Two other educational programs have been developed that are more geared toward fostering thinking ability. As you know, programs for media literacy are most developed in Canada. We should keep in mind that the mere employment of a computer in a class does not guarantee either better learning or cultivation of wisdom and intellect. The task of education in the age of information is: How to guarantee time for making thought and the senses mature and how to train children for wise navigation of the web. More information does not mean more wisdom. In the information age the individual is assumed to be responsible to make a wise and thoughtful decision utilizing diverse and abundant information without being dictated by it, incorporating one's experience and information into one's sensibilities and thinking. How can we foster such kinds of faculties? How a computer is employed in classroom teaching should be modified depending upon the purposes mentioned above. Children, especially in elementary schools, should be exposed to joy, sorrow, bitterness, embarrassment and other emotions caused by interactions with human beings in the flesh in their daily life before they are exposed to pseudo-human relations in cyberspace. The danger is that human sensibilities and the capacity for imagination will deteriorate. We should take a research report (Kraut et al. 1998) more seriously that increased exposure to cyberspace has resulted in reduced social involvement. Young people should have real experience in the real world. How to prevent these negative phenomena from taking place is another task of education in the 21st Century.
The Digital Revolution and Developing Countries
A final consideration, and perhaps the most important one, is what to do about the global rich-poor gap. In the modern era after Gutenberg's invention of the printing machine which facilitated mass publication, the worlds people in which live psychologically broadened, beyond these communities based on those of physical proximity. Expansion of mass education promoted by modern nation states has made most people literate. Now they can enjoy reading essays and stories of remote lands, great men, fantasies and so on through print media such as books and newspapers. Dissemination of the concept of 'nation' took place also through the spread of mass education as well as through print media as discussed by Anderson (1991). The nation as "an imagined community" is successfully constructed in people's minds.
However, many developing countries are still struggling to raise literacy rates. South Asia has emerged as the poorest, the most illiterate, the most malnourished, and the least gender-sensitive region in the world as documented in the 1997 Report on Human Development in South Asia (1998). According to the UNICEF Report (1998), the net enrollment rate in primary school in the region in 1995 is 75% for boys and 63% for girls, while the adult literacy rate is 63% for men and 36% for women. The greatest problem is that almost half of the children enrolled have dropped out before the completion of primary cycle, which has lowered the functional literacy rate (Minoura, 1998). For these countries teaching media literacy is far from reality, since they have to first remove illiteracy by universalizing the quality of primary education.
Advanced industrialized nations, long after they have eliminated illiteracy, are entering the information age featuring electronic media, and are enjoying a materially affluent life while people in the developing countries are concerned more with how to survive material scarcity including such basics as food and safe drinking water. The progress of industrialization has enabled people to be concerned more with how to live well than mere survival. In this process education has played a significant role in fulfilling people's desires for a better life. We should keep in mind that developing countries have not yet reached this stage of educational expansion and that many have not yet set up even a nation-wide supply of electricity, a basic infrastructure for information technologies.
Developed countries which have completed the agenda for the modern era, are not free from serious problems. People in these countries are facing existential questions. What is the purpose of life? Should I live or not? If yes, what for? They can sustain their biological existence easily and enjoy a good material life surrounded by abundant information, but some feel that they have lost the reason for living. No web site can answer this type of existential question. Everybody has to seek his or her own solution.
Polarization of the rich and the poor is a stark reality of the present world. On the threshold of the 21st Century, about a quarter of the world's population are illiterates. Progress has not only bypassed them, but they also appear to have become the victims of progress. To them new information technologies have almost no meaning. In order to reduce the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, developed countries should help the poor countries to make a major breakthrough in both raising literacy rates and in introducing new information technologies.
I foresee a gloomy picture of new media society rather than a bright one in two senses: a gap between the rich and poor at the national level and the emergent division between the well-equipped and mal-equipped for the information age at the individual level among people in rich advanced countries. Most of consumers of information technologies are not yet equipped with intellect to become a wise user of new media to cope with the powerful market economy which is forcefully driving at information society. A widely divided society may emerge, which brings about bitterness, animosity and resentment on the part of the information poor. We should discuss how to avoid this type of the worst scenarios.
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