In one of my very first college classes in 1995, I studied Neo-Luddism—the belief that the use of technology has serious ethical, moral, and social ramifications. It was of great interest on campus at the time, as email was emerging, laptop computers were more affordable and began replacing word processors (and typewriters), and the Internet was becoming ever more mainstream. I remember pondering with my classmates where we thought technology, and digital technology might lead us; and furthermore, what would happen to societies, like the Mennonites or the Amish, that refuse technological innovations, like zippers and refrigerators.
At the time, it was a discussion about humanity and books, with ideas about economic inequality. I remember someone quoting Noam Chomsky, “The Internet is an élite organization; most of the population of the world has never even made a phone call,” he had stated at the time. Looking back today, I chuckle at the irony—the internet has been made accessible to almost everyone via the phone and vice versa! I’m not knocking Noam Chomsky, whose writings profoundly influenced some of my social and political formation, but choose his quote on the elitism of the Internet to explore how far and wide—and accessible—digital technology has come. With what I have seen, where will be as a global society in 25 years, in effect, by the Internet and the converged information system and network that it brings?
Firstly, I believe that the societies with neo-luddite tendencies will remain steadfast to their values, and perhaps find a resurgence of people, young and old, that seek to disconnect or live privately, off the Internet. Secondly, I believe that mainstream society will continue to value less and less, real life and lived experiences, opting for an Oasis-like, virtual existence, like that in Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One. I believe that this will be partly because of vast economic disparities and global destruction. In Cline’s novel, The Internet/digital technology are the escape, it’s the elites that experience a pleasurable real-life existence…
But I don’t believe it’s all doom and gloom.
I believe that because of the shared knowledge the Internet allows and the new capabilities it will offer to teach and learn—instantly and everywhere—the advancements in science and engineering will come at lightspeed. Furthermore, we will begin to see previously underdeveloped countries become empowered because they will adapt quickly because of technology, appreciating the previous lack of such access and resources. This will challenge long held geopolitical relationships and likely give birth to new global powers.
Yet despite my conflicting view of the decades ahead, I wish that books and public libraries around the world prevail, despite the evolution of instant information and devices, may some of the neo-luddites agree, and persevere. I wish for this because I would hate for society, in a few generations, to forget the beta basis of knowledge transfer. If our smart phones, Internet, and other digital tools fail, books will once again be vital in sharing knowledge. I don’t think that will ever go away.