Commentary

For man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. Francis Bacon

In recent decades, technology and information technology (IT) has emerged as a pervasive force in world affairs. Nowadays, IT is everywhere around us, from the computers we use for work and leisure to the RFID chips that are monitoring and tracking the movements of consumer goods and soon, perhaps, real human bodies (Mass 2014), to smart cities (Orasch 2019), smart farms (Horgan and Rotz 2019), and the artificial intelligence algorithms that increasingly define your window into the world (Susarla 2019). Technology and IT is a pervasive, powerful, ubiquitous, and now essential part of our everyday world. It does not matter whether you live in an advanced industrialized nation or a country struggling to rise from the oppressions of military, political, or economic colonization—technology is something important to all.

You can get a sense of the pervasiveness of technology in your life if you do a little experiment. Try to go without technology. Try to go without information technology. How long can you manage? Chances are, you can’t go more than a few minutes, maybe even a few seconds, without looking something up, connecting with some network, downloading some program, or accessing some website. It is even worse than that for some people. More and more, technology is part of your life in a way you do not have any control over. The proliferation of smart devices, smart televisions, smart fridges, smart speakers, and smart thermostats has meant an almost total penetration of technology into the life of the modern human. Consider your own life and ask yourself the question, “Is there a space where information technology, computers, smartphones, and the networks that connect them does not penetrate?” From banks to universities, gas stations to coffee houses, computers and artificial intelligence are now profoundly connected to everything we do. There is no denying it—computers penetrate our lives.

So how do we understand this ubiquitous penetration of information technology? Some pundits would say there is. Some theorists gaze at the breadth and scope of IT in the modern world and conclude there is a revolution afoot. For some analysts, it is not merely that IT has a profound and pervasive impact; for some, IT (in particular, but technology more generally) is spawning a revolution that is changing the world and the way we exist in it. For these individuals, IT is something more than just a neat new tool or toy to play with. For these people, technology in general (and IT in particular) is the highest attainment of human ingenuity, the quintessential human tool of salvation, and the ultimate manifestation of spiritual grace. Indeed, for some, technology and information technology is a genuine religious experience (David Noble 1999), a calling from God to create a world in the image of power and control. Call them the high priests and prophets of technology if you like. Read a few of the more prosaic hymns to IT that have been penned and you could be forgiven for believing that IT is sweeping away the detritus of previous ages and purifying/preparing us for a new-world technological utopia. According to the “priests of IT,” old ways of producing and consuming, old ways of existing, and even old ways of being in the world are being washed away and replaced by a new golden age of techno-AI-wizardry that is leading, they have no doubt, to Shambhala, heaven on Earth, and perhaps even the Second Coming. You may be forgiven for doubting the existence of these “true” believers, but they definitely exist, as you will see when you read David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology.

I have to say, there is some truth, or at least some potential behind, even the most phantasmagoric of the opium promises. New technologies are massively disruptive and, more importantly, come with incredible progressive potential. Since 2010 there have been dramatic declines in the cost of several modern energy technologies, and these declines are having an major impact on how people get there energy. As Jatin Nathwani, professor of Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo notes,

The revolutionaries of yesteryear never dreamed of the scientific and technological innovations that could light up distant shelters and communities in the darkest corners of Earth. We are on the cusp of an energy revolution that has the potential to improve the quality of life for the world’s most disadvantaged and poor.

Distributed-energy technologies such as micro-grids can provide an electricity-deprived citizen with power — and the ability to create income. This pathway to power delivery is a disruptive force that will forever change the relationship between electricity user and producer. It makes it possible for a citizen with little capital to bypass the heavy hand of bureaucracy and authoritarian dictators.

Distributed energy empowers the powerless. These decentralized energy systems give households the ability to negotiate directly with energy entrepreneurs and access electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis (Nathwani 2019).

These distributed energies are important. “Energy poverty stalks a third of humanity,” says Nathwani, with devastating consequences for those who experience it. “The vicious cycle of energy poverty begins with the lack of access to affordable energy” and ends with suffering and even death. “Those who rely on traditional fuels, such as firewood, must spend several hours each day collecting fuels. This burden falls disproportionately to women and children, and it robs them of education and income-generating work.” Not only that, but reliance on traditional fuels contributes to the carbon burden of the plant, and leads to illness and death from pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (Anonymous 2018). New energy technologies can solve that poverty and vastly improve the quality of life of billions of people around the world by providing easy, local, clean, and cheap access to an essential of modern life, economic growth, and general prosperity–clean electricity.

Despite the existence of a technological priesthood paying homage to the power of “IT,” not everybody draws spiritual inspiration or sees utopian outcome from a consideration of the testosterone heights of our technological prowess, nor is the is the world turning into a rose garden of energy prosperity and economic utopia over night. There are downright dystopian possibilities afoot. I, for example, cast a dystopian gaze at the world-wide war now being waged on the World Wide Web (Sosteric 2017). Others who are less dystopian are more critical and do not agree with the utopian projection and Elysian analysis of the techno-evangelists. These others—these “heretics” as we might call them—see technology as, at best, having a neutral impact on society and, at worse, having a profoundly deleterious impact. For the heretics, IT and AI revolutionize nothing. Improvements there may be, but overall, IT merely reactualizes and re-enforces common social, political, and economic relationships, giving rich elites actors like Mark Zuckerberg, incredible power to shape, even destroy, democracy. Cambridge Analytica, for example used Facebook to help sway the U.S. election (Sosteric 2018) for a decidely authoritarian candidate (Giroux 2018). For the technological heretics, IT represents and supports the same old status quo hierarchies and inequalities as existed before. Perhaps it even reinforces and recreates them! The (information) rich use these technology to stay rich, and the (information) poor stay poor, experiencing more and more suppression, and at the mercy of evolving technologies.

It is interesting to read these technological heretics, these party-poopers, these annoying little realists as they list their litany of technological crimes, and in this course, we shall bear testament to these crimes as they are perpetrated in the high-tech sweatshop, through an expanding digital divide, and in the socioeconomic system. The testament will be brief and not totally damning, for it is true that technology brings with it a cornucopia of benefits that we should not overlook. Nevertheless, neither should we ignore the negative outcomes of technology wherever we may find them. What we need is a balanced account—a realistic assessment combined with the political and social will to drive technology in the directions we desire. Technology can neither save nor damn us. Important (and even revolutionary) it might be, but salvation it is not. IT is the outcome of human ingenuity and nothing more. More importantly, as we shall see in this course, the application or misapplication of technology, whether it helps or hinders, saves or damns, is the result of human choices and human relationships. We cannot forget this. As convoluted as the trail of causation might become, we must always remember that IT starts with human choice. Technology causes nothing and revolutionizes nothing. IT is merely an appendage of humanity—someone is always at the helm. In this course, we will look at who that might be.

This course is about information—IT in particular, and technology in general. Although I would have liked to restrict this course to an examination of information/communication technology, that was largely impossible. Concepts and ideas from the study of technology interpenetrate with the specialized substudy of IT. Separation requires space (i.e., pages of text), and in a short course of this nature, there is no space for separation, so a unified presentation is adopted here. Throughout this course, we will talk about IT, technology, and information as if talking about one thing. Thus, we will assume, for example, that the general technological analysis conducted by David Noble of the religious substrate or pseudoreligious technological fantasies of humankind apply to the study of IT, and I believe they do. There are equivalencies—one is a subfield of another, so this is a justifiable strategy.

In this course, we shall discuss technology and IT and its impact on society. We will start by looking at several theorists (presented by Frank Webster) who all have differing perspectives on the importance and impact of IT. From our brief look at theory, we will move on to examine IT in the educational system. From there, we will examine a case study of workers’ negative experiences of IT as they assemble electronic components in high-tech sweatshops. After that, we will look at the digital divide (the difference between the information haves and have-nots), follow through with an analysis of the religious underpinnings of technological culture, and close the course with a classic sci-fi commentary on the relationship between technology and “transcendence” (a theme introduced by David Noble).

I have to admit that we are jumping around a bit in this course. It is a necessary circumstance if we are to get a sense of the breadth of concern about IT. It is not a small area of analysis. Like the analysis of gender, IT penetrates every aspect of our lives. IT is a big area of study, and no single course can do justice to its depth and breadth. Consider this course a sociological IT primer only.

Still, despite the jumping around, there is an organizing theme. By the time you are finished with this course, you should understand that technology, or IT, is not something that is out of our control. The computer that I sit in front of to do my work, the cell phone that keeps us connected to our families and friends, and the ubiquitous cameras that now watch our every move are all constructed, implemented, and ultimately controlled by human intent. We have control of IT, and although sometimes this control is wrested from us, and sometimes our ideas about information technology influence what we do with it, ultimately, technology and its direction, its historical flow, and its uses and abuses are all open to analysis, understanding, and control. As we will see, there is nothing mystical in IT at all.

Who will be interested in this course?

I think everybody who is moving toward a career where IT is present will be interested in this course. If you are going to work with technology, you should familiarize yourself with the issues and theories so that you are able to understand and control how technology is being used to shape your work experience. If you are an administrator, you should take this course so you can better understand how the mythology of technology (the propaganda, if you will) determines the way you see and implement technology. If you are going to be a producer of technology, it makes sense to understand what IT is (and is not) and how it is embedded in our sociopolitical-socioeconomic (and even mythological) structures so that you can avoid replicating status-quo inequalities and oppressions.

Ultimately, the goal of this course is to impart a more critical perspective on IT—and who would not want to have a more critical perspective on technology? What is the alternative? As David Noble suggests, the alternative to adopting a critical perspective is the acceptance and propagation of a corporate fantasy of technology and IT. The alternative is unwitting participation in a dogmatic doctrine that has heavily influenced the evolution of our social and political systems. If we allow ourselves to be swept uncritically along in these techno-myths, then IT and those who control it control us. Ultimately, our goal must be to recognize that IT, technology, or anything else for that matter, does not exist sui generis. IT is embedded in social, political, and economic relationships that may be contested.

This course was designed and written by Dr. Michael Sosteric. Michael has taught at Athabasca University for close to 20 years in the areas of sociology, inequality, the sociology of religion, the sociology of mysticism, and social theory. His recent interests lie in the area of the sociology of religion, consciousness research, mysticism, systems of enlightenment, spiritual empowerment (see his “Sociology of Spirituality” group), and the applicability of these to sociological thought and personal and social improvement.

Required Readings

Anonymous. 2018. “Household Air Pollution and Health.” World Health Organizatoin. 2018. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/household-air-pollution-and-health.

Giroux, Henry. 2018. “‘Shithole Countries’: Trump Uses the Rhetoric of Dictators.” The Conversation. 2018. http://theconversation.com/shithole-countries-trump-uses-the-rhetoric-of-dictators-89850.

Horgan, Mervyn, and Sarah Rotz. 2019. “Forget Smart Cities (for a Minute), We Need to Talk about Smart Farms.” The Conversation. 2019. httphttp://theconversation.com/forget-smart-cities-for-a-minute-we-need-to-talk-about-smart-farms-112187://theconversation.com/forget-smart-cities-for-a-minute-we-need-to-talk-about-smart-farms-112187.

Mass, W. 2014. “RFID Implants: The Benefits vs. the Dangers.” The New American, 2014. https://www.thenewamerican.com/tech/computers/item/17688-rfid-implants-the-benefits-vs-the-dangers.

Nathwani, Jatin. 2019. “Empowering the Powerless: Let’s End Energy Poverty.” The Conversation. 2019. http://theconversation.com/empowering-the-powerless-lets-end-energy-poverty-83628.

Sosteric, Mike. 2017. “World War Three Is Being Waged in Cyberspace.” The Conversation, 2017. https://theconversation.com/world-war-three-is-being-waged-in-cyberspace-84974.

———. 2018. “Why We Should All Cut the Facebook Cord.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-we-should-all-cut-the-facebook-cord-or-should-we-93929.

Susarla, Anjana. 2019. “The New Digital Divide Is between People Who Opt out of Algorithms and People Who Don’t.” The Conversation. 2019. http://theconversation.com/the-new-digital-divide-is-between-people-who-opt-out-of-algorithms-and-people-who-dont-114719.

Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)

Just another loud mouth sociology professor, teaching sociology courses. Check me out here at the Socjourn, over there at The Conversation and at academia.edu.

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