FMBR Editorial: Nov, 1999
The Computer Age
e have heard much about the world’s entrance into the computer age. The computer and the web have certainly had a profound impact on our society – and on most of the rest of the world as well. It seems clear the trend will continue in ways that will, no doubt, continue to surprise us. It has already revolutionized everything from banking to manufacture, agriculture and sales. Few companies larger than “mom and pop” stores even try to exist without a “web page” from which they expect to get much of their business. The entire pattern of interactions forming the national economy has been radically changed and the end is not yet in sight.
The change has taken its toll. Small local businesses face competition from those large enough to use the web as a promotional and marketing tool. Many will not survive. Among individuals, many of the poor are locked into their poverty by a lack of computer skills. Others have simply been left behind, bewildered and confused, unwilling or unable to accept the changes. Yet computers and the web have enormously extended the horizons of those who have learned to use them – and choose to do so.
The effects on the poor are clear, there are efforts being made to compensate. But there is also the question of the effect on those who do grasp the changes and make them their own. How will their psyches be changed by the technical revolution? What about those who are riding its crest? How will they be affected and will it be for the better or worse? It seems evident there will be both positive and negative effects. As said, the web already provides an enormously extended horizon to those willing and able to use it. As more people learn what it can do for them, the greater its possibilities will become to those able and willing to exploit them.
The expanding potential, however, is not an unmitigated blessing. For one thing, the web depersonalizes the interactions it supports. At one time a person had to go physically to a store to buy anything and then had to deal with a salesperson there. Later, purchases could be made by telephone but there still was direct contact with another person. In a small town environment most people personally knew the clerk or telephone operator. This ceased to be as true in the urban environment, but at least there was still a person there with whom one had to deal. Now, no matter how carefully a business may tailor its web site to give its customers a homey, informal feel, there is in fact no person visible. Indeed, computers are even depersonalizing telephone contacts. The many jokes of trying to find a “live person” to handle a question or complaint is testament to this fact.
Or consider “chat” groups. Many see them as a fascinating way of interacting with others. Yet they do not see those others. They do not know their faces or even their names, only their “handles.” What they know about them is only what the others choose to tell, and that may be pure fiction. Indeed, one of the attractions for many people is the opportunity to be anonymous. For one thing, this allows them to “flame” others with whom they disagree while remaining behind the veil of anonymity. What does this say about their sense of responsibility?
A sense of responsibility is often considered the measure of a person. Indeed, it is often thought to be the goal of incarnation and the root of karma. If this is so, what is the computer age and life on the web doing to us? What does it take to be responsible in this age?
Marshall Pease, November 1999