Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

The Liberating, Life-Threatening Digital Age

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

The digital age is upon us and already it has created more social change than anybody might have dreamt of even a few decades ago. Both hardware and software have come light-years away from their first, hugely clumsy versions and it would be foolish to try and predict what unprecedented applications will come on the market in the very near future, writes Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, President of the Club de Madrid/Former President of Latvia (1999-2007) 

All one can say with certitude is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and that more and more people of genius will come up with inventions that will surprise, startle and delight us and most definitely change our lives.

Children are now growing up for whom the internet and mobile communications are as much part of their early lives as mother’s milk or the baby bottle. They are supervised by their parents not just in direct contact, but through electronic means and they are entertained by canned nursery rhymes and ditties more often than at their parents’ or grandparents’ knee.  People on the street have taken on strange, hunched-over postures, with mobile phones glued to their ears and talking to themselves loudly in a manner that would seem demented to anyone not used to these particular technologies.

Face-to-face meetings, which still (but for how long?) dominate in the activities of both governmental and non-governmental bodies, are increasingly marred by people present in body, but absent in mind, responding to their e-mail while someone else is presenting a laboriously prepared paper or opinion, or merrily checking on their social networks while someone else is speaking right in front of them. What has remained of old norms of etiquette, when even guests at an official banquet keep peeking at their smart-phones under cover of their starched napkins, instead of following the outmoded custom of dividing their attention between the neighbour to the left with that on their right?

During the golden age of science fiction, just over half a century ago, the wildest dreams that authors could come up with were either interplanetary and intergalactic travel or thought transmission, including reading the minds of aliens. None of these has come about yet, but there were few intimations in even the most imaginative minds about the enormous changes in our lives brought about by new technologies of communication and information storage, retrieval and transmission. Science has far outstripped fiction and technological change has outpaced changes in national or international politics.

We all have heard the heartening stories about women in remote African villages gaining both income and dignity while getting crucial information about market conditions for their home produce on a simple mobile telephone. The whole world has witnessed the power of social media to multiply the influence of direct contact and contribute to mass uprisings that have toppled even seemingly invulnerable oppressive regimes.

In these and other situations, the possibility of instant communication has empowered individuals and groups and freed them from the shackles imposed either by sheer distance or a powerful authority. Yet none of this could have happened without the ground being prepared by access to literacy and the means to acquire even the most democratically priced of modern electronic devices. Digital literacy and the world-wide bridging of the digital divide will therefore continue to remain among the highest priorities of both developed and developing nations.

For developed regions of the world, such as the European Union, the quality of digital literacy has already become a central focus of even the most conservative of educational systems. Given that access to information is by now something almost taken for granted, the main challenge will be to teach children a healthy balance between the virtual and the real world; and for adults – how to make use of the information which will continue to wash over them like the waves of a raging ocean.

Dependence on the stimulation provided by electronic devices is by now as much of a recognized diagnosis as substance addiction and is almost as difficult to overcome, once established. Two- and three-year olds will scream more loudly if their i-Pad is taken away than they will ever scream at being parted from their teddy or their favourite doll.

Adolescents as well as adults will have the opportunity to become veritable philosopher-kings with all the information available at their finger-tips, but will use this to broaden their minds or to dull them? While social contacts can become a window on the world to the old, the ailing or the handicapped, they can also become a tool for mobbing, slander and the murder of reputations, whether deserved or not. The internet contains ready-made recipes for every conceivable manner of mischief, even as it allows one to look up the words of some half-remembered song or read up on the merits of some famous figure in history.

The medium is not the message, in spite of McLuhan’s claim to the contrary. The medium is the medium and the message is the message. The task of education, tomorrow no less than yesterday, will be to form minds capable of telling the difference between these two and to know how to act in consequence. Having access to much of the accumulated knowledge of mankind is well and good, but skills in sifting, choosing and analyzing information become more and more acutely needed. The accumulated information available should be there to serve us, rather than crushing us under its weight.

More than that –education will need to form minds capable of shaping new content and to become generators of information as well as consumers of it. Knowing where a popular revolution is brewing may be liberating (but also life-threatening), but  knowing what to put in place of the overthrown regime will be required, if a hopeful Spring is not to wilt into a leafless Autumn or even a frosty Winter of our discontent.

On the supply side: there is no doubt that the digitised world will form a continuously growing part of world economies. There will be keen competition for a share in this growth, but the rewards will be great and well worth competing for. On the demand side no decrease is in sight, and the appetite will only grow, both for entertainment and for education. How much of this information will be distilled into knowledge – that still remains the question. Surely, it will be up to each new generation, for whom this Brave New World will be as common and as trivial as electricity or modern plumbing had become only a few generations ago.

Looking at the signs around us, the world is sure to become different. How much it will become better – that is a moot point. Since hope springs eternal, one may be permitted to hope that each new generation will be at least a little better than the one before, even if the world around us shows dire signs of retrogression as well as occasional progress. Standing in line for over twenty-four hours so as to be first in acquire the latest gadget is – alas – not a hopeful sign for the mental and emotional maturity of those whose only aim will be the empty claim that they were among the first to acquire something.

Being the witness to some startling occurrence may bring anyone their much coveted ten minutes of fame, but will not usually be transformative for their lives. Posting a selfie of oneself brushing teeth may well place one’s features on the same media as transmit every frown and smile of world celebrities, but it is not likely to cause one to go down in history. Hopefully, even posting atrocities on YouTube will not give more power to extremist groupings than their real weight and influence deserve.

The digital world is upon us and there is an enormous potential for it to offer us what previous generations could not even dream of. It has great treasures in store, as well us pitfalls and snares. Babies and centenarians alike will be transformed by it. It only remains to make sure that it will be transformed for the better.

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