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Im Netz - Die hypnotisierte Gesellschaft

Der neue Bericht an den Club of Rome. By Juan Luis Cebrián

Juan Luis Cebrián: Im Netz - Die hypnotisierte Gesellschaft. Der neue Bericht an den Club of Rome, With prefaces of Don Tapscott and Ricardo Díez Hochleitner, Deutsche Verlags Anstalt (DVA), Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 3-421-05307-3

19.10.1999 · Reviewed by Jürgen Turek

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In the face of multifarious new perspectives for social life in the 21st century, there is a growing debate about the question of how we want to live tomorrow. The flood of books and articles makes it difficult to identify the really important developments for social live. Gloomy prophecies on one side contrast enthusiasm on the other. Who really knows what will happen? According to the enthusiastic scenarios, new technologies will first and foremost realize great benefits for mankind. The electronic house, for example, shall help to increase the people's comfort enormously. Modern biotechnology and genetic engineering shall help to increase life expectancy and nutrition quality significantly. Electronic traffic systems shall help to avoid the collapse of our infrastructure. Technology everywhere. For a lot of people, the information society constitutes the basis of an absolutely new social world. However, for many others, the emergence of the digital society is also a source of fear. In this context, to distinguish between real dangers and unrealistic worries is not an easy task.

In his report to the Club of Rome, the Spanish author Juan Luis Cebrián deals with this issue. From his point of view, it is not helpful to fight against technological and social change instead of accepting it as unavoidable. In this context, it is necessary to analyze possible risks and advantages, and to look at how chances and problems are distributed. The core question is, whether there will emerge a new gap between the well informed and rich on the one side, and the uninformed and poor people on the other. Many people perceive this as the new social question comparable to the conflict between capital and labor in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Club of Rome asked the American Don Tapscott, President of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, to comment on the arguments of Cebrián. He has done this in the form of a short preface. From a comparison of the debates about digitalization in Europe and the US, a difference in the respective ideological approaches to cyberspace versus the physical, legally and politically better organized "Touch-World" becomes obvious. In Europe, the expectations are often too apprehensive and critical, whereas in the US, they are sometimes too euphoric and naive. Hence, a synthesis of European and American viewpoints seems instructive.

Cebrián starts by looking at the history of the information revolution. In his view, the beginning of this revolution had been at the end of the 20th century, when satellite broadcasting, mobile telecommunications and the Internet became more and more useful and practical. In his mind, the convergence of these technologies is of special importance. Cebrián not only points to the past and current speed of these developments, but also ventures a projection. He describes what developments have taken place since the 1950s and how phone, fax, TV and radio have fundamentally changed the communication habits of people. Now, with the Internet, satellite and mobile communication facilities, new ways of thinking are necessitated by technological change, which properly conceptualize the information society.

In order to describe the volume of possible future developments, the author quotes the American writer Douglas Coupland: "One can not reverse the invention of the wheel, the radio or the computer. When we will be dead for a long time, mankind will develop computers further, and sooner or later - this is not a question of "whether" but only of "when" - "something" will be created, that has its own intelligence. This "something" is unavoidable. It will happen and we will not be able to reverse it."

In case this is true, the problem for Cebrián is how mankind can handle its explorations, civilization and the emerging new super-organism of society. The main challenges for him are the social, economic and political consequences of the Internet-Society as well as the consequences for education. The possible perversions such as Internet-addiction, isolation, extremist or pornographic contents, manipulation, political demagoguery or swindle all raise the questions of who enjoys the power in this "brave new world" and in what ways power may be exercised. Who has the greatest influence, the telecommunications industry, the software engineers of Microsoft or the state? As a European, Cebrián favors the state option: "It remains the first task of administrations to ensure that there will be no concentration processes in the Internet and to enact laws which save the private and constitutional rights of people in the Internet-Society. The preservation of these rights as well as the fight against net related crime need new agreements and international institutions."

In addition, he believes that there is a great need for action concerning the economy, as new technology affects two basic mechanisms of the system: market and hierarchy. Both are going to be substantially transformed in the new economy. Proved structures of control will erode. Also, the whole structure of supply and demand will change, as well as traditional determinants of employment such as predictability and social security. All this is shaken by the information revolution, which will fundamentally change the established nets of individualized employment contracts, social status, personal security or union engagement. These developments are upsetting a system, which has tamed the conflict between capital and labor for 200 years. This is what makes their occurrence so dramatic.

Now, what are the consequences for politics in the information society? Cebrián demands that compensation is fostered, but not at the expense of pluralism. On the contrary, the digital society could be an excellent instrument to achieve equality for all people without foregoing pluralism. However, this requires a lot of money. Only immense investments will help to prevent new social gaps between the winners and losers of the information society. According to him, "We must invest this money into the citizens, not only for them to learn how to command new technologies, but also to enable them to realize what consequences the usage of these new technologies will have."
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