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Is too much access dangerous?

Is too much access dangerous?

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Is too much access dangerous? - The "Yes" argument, according to Jeremy Rifkin.

The Internet, e-commerce and globalisation are making a new economic era possible. In the coming century, markets will slowly give way to networked methods of conducting business, with profound implications for the future of society. By the middle of the 21st century, capitalist markets will largely be replaced by a new kind of economic system based on networked relationships, 24/7 contractual arrangements and access rights.

Now is the time to ask a simple question: Has the quality of our lives at work, at home and in our communities increased in direct proportion to all the new Internet and business-to-business intranet services being introduced into our lives? I have asked that of hundreds of CEOs and corporate executives in Europe and the United States. Surprisingly, virtually everyone has said, "No, quite the contrary." The very people responsible for ushering in what some have called a "technological renaissance" say they are working longer hours, feel more stressed, and they candidly admit that their personal and social relationships are slipping. They say they are more impatient, increasingly frustrated, and are even less civil in their dealings with colleagues and friends - not to mention strangers. And what's more revealing, they place much of the blame on the very same technologies they are so aggressively championing.

For some time, we have believed that the only debate worth having in the new economy is how to ensure that everyone is connected and has access to the new world of cyberspace. Now, an equally important issue is looming: Is too much access as big a problem as too little?

The techno gurus promised us that access would make life more convenient, free us from unnecessary burdens, lighten our loads and give us more time. Instead, the very technological wonders that were supposed to liberate us have begun to enslave us in a web of connections from which there seems to be no easy escape.

If an earlier generation was preoccupied with the quest to enclose a vast geographic frontier, the dotcom generation, it seems, is more caught up in the colonization of time. The term 24/7 has become accepted in our vocabulary in the past six months and is quickly coming to define the parameters of the new temporal frontier. Every spare moment of our time is being filled with some form of commercial connection, making time itself the most scarce of all resources. Our e-mail, voice mail and cell phones, our 24-hour electronic trading markets, online banking services, all-night e-commerce, and 24-hour Internet news and entertainment all holler for our attention.

And while we have created every kind of labor- and time-saving device to service our needs, we are beginning to feel like we have less time available to us than any other humans in history. That is because the great proliferation of labor- and time-saving services only increases the diversity, pace and flow of commodified activity around us. For example, e-mail is a great convenience. However, we now find ourselves spending much of our day frantically responding to each other's electronic messages. The cell phone is a great time-saver. Except now we are always potentially in reach of someone else who wants our attention.

All of which begs the question, What is the goal of this feverish technological activity? What happens when our lives are embedded in hectic, around-the-clock relationships? The telltale signs of our new time angst are everywhere. For beginners, look what's happening to the first generation of dotcommers. Millions of kids are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. If this were simply a matter of "genetic determinism," why is it we don't hear of millions of children "acting out" in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America?

Social conservatives talk about the decline in civility and blame it on the loss of a moral compass and religious values. Has anyone bothered to ask whether the hyperspeed culture is making all of us less patient and less willing to listen and defer, consider and reflect? In the click click culture, we shouldn't be surprised if everyone is poised more and more toward a hair-trigger response. Think road rage.

Maybe we need to ask what kinds of connections really count and what types of access really matter in the e-economy era. If this new technology revolution is only about hyperefficiency, then we risk losing something even more precious than time - our sense of what it means to be a caring human being.

Until now, we have asked only the question of how best to integrate our lives into the new technology revolution. Now we need to ask a deeper question: How do we create a social vision that makes these new technologies a powerful complement to our lives, without having them take over our lives?

The "No" argument, according to Ray Kurzweil

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Reflecting the duality of human nature, it is power that amplifies both our creative and destructive aspirations. Imagine describing the dangers that exist today (enough nuclear explosive power to destroy all mammalian life, just for starters) to people who lived a couple of hundred years ago; they would think it mad to take such risks. On the other hand, how many people in the year 2000 would really want to go back to the short, brutish, labor-intensive, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, disaster-prone lives that 99 percent of the human race struggled through only a couple of centuries ago?

Jeremy Rifkin describes a not quite dystopian but nonetheless depersonalized future in which our most intimate relationships and qualities, even our personal thoughts and time, become mere commodities to be exploited by manipulative marketing agencies. Indeed, who has not resented the relentless onslaught of 24/7 communications with e-mails and voice mails streaming in from all directions?

But Rifkin defies common sense when he implies that these changes are disempowering individual decisions. Highly distributed electronic communication has been a pervasive democratizing force. In the 1991 coup against Gorbachev, it was not Yeltsin standing on a tank who destroyed the coup, but rather the clandestine network of early forms of e-mail, fax machines and cell phones owned and operated by ordinary people that destroyed totalitarian control of information. Through the rest of the 1990s, the remarkable trend toward democracy and free enterprise that we have witnessed was not an accident; it has been fueled by the democratising power of real-time, decentralized and increasingly inexpensive means of person-to-person communication.

This phenomenon is not restricted to formal political systems. The Internet is empowering the individual in every sphere of life. Patients are no longer restricted to obtaining health information from only their physicians; they come to their medical visits armed with increasingly sophisticated insights and information about their condition. Online communities of persons with specific chronic conditions are speeding awareness of new treatments. It can be shown, for example, that such online communication facilitated the political pressure that accelerated the testing and dissemination of the AIDS "cocktail" treatments.

The massive disintermediation of middlemen by the Internet is directly linking buyers with providers. Armed with a simple Web browser, a consumer can find the lowest prices for her personalised requirements. Systems are now being developed that will custom-assemble products. A consumer browsing the Web will be able to select from a broad array of materials, patterns, sizes and styles of clothing and see exactly how each combination looks on her own body-based on her personal body scan - and then have her specific choices manufactured just for her. We'll see similar services evolve for a wide range of products and services. Rifkin complains that this trend represents a commodifying of our personal choices, but it really represents a profound personalization.

The power of the Internet to connect buyers and sellers will enable commerce to take place directly between artists and their fans, cutting out several layers of intermediaries. Of course, we have some work to do to make sure that the artists get paid at all, but Rifkin's vision of all-powerful marketing departments that manipulate ill-informed consumers is the opposite of what is taking place. The Internet gives everyone a front-row seat, and anyone with a good idea - from a couple of "Yahoos" working on a college-dormitory project to teenagers with music-swapping software - direct access to the world's markets.

Statistics show that these technologies are improving productivity and fueling economic growth. Yet even these results are understated because the productivity statistics fail to consider the qualitative improvements in products and services. These productivity gains are fueling exponential growth in the economy, and even the rate of growth is growing. The escalating power of computation, communication and the pervasive miniaturisation of technology are actually powerful deflationary forces, which is the real reason we're not seeing inflation amid unprecedented economic prosperity.

Rifkin is correct that human time is our most precious and limited resource. But these technologies are not taking time away from us, but rather are giving it back. Our forefathers and foremothers toiled long hours just to prepare the evening meal. Today, I can order a week's groceries by spending a few minutes on the Web. I can chat by - take your pick - voice, videophone, e-mail - with new friends on the other side of the world who, I've recently discovered, share my interests. These changes are not commodifying my time. They are providing personal empowerment to achieve my most precious goals. Now if I could just figure out what those goals are.... I'll have to confer with a few of my new friends


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