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March 31, 1998

21st Century Life and Love: Human Aspects of the Information Age

by Konrad M. Kressley

This is the eighth installment in a series about the future. This article explores some of the ways in which the emerging Information Age technologies will transform human relations in the next century. The current crop of futurists is divided on whether the electronic world will bring mankind closer together or isolate people from one another. Read this and decide for yourself.

New Ways of Making Contact

For over a hundred years, electronic devices such as telegraph, telephone and television have made it possible to establish both passive and active communications over long distances. The arrival of the World Wide Web constitutes the most recent chapter in the history of communication. E-mail and interactive electronic exchanges have certain advantages over traditional printed paper and mail communication. One of them is nearly instantaneous speed. There is also a significant cost advantage. Paper, ink, printing equipment and mailing fees cost an originator a pretty penny; with electronic communication, the recipient bears much of the equipment, transmission and printing costs. No wonder every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to get his newsletter or advertising message "on line." In the not-too-distant future, people without computers or other receiving gear will be left out of the loop as print media recede.

Now to the human consequences. Potentially, every person on the globe will soon be able to communicate with everyone else. At least, that's what those gushy computer ads on TV want you to believe. Those same commercials also dote on the false but commonly held notion that universal communication exchanges will lead to global human understanding and world peace. That works if the communication partners share a common affinity. But considering the many clashing world views and religions, I suspect that greater knowledge might actually lead to greater hostility. Imagine how Bombay's citizens would react if the folks from Madrid offered to share the pleasures of bullfighting with them. Of course, the Indians could also pleasure the Spaniards by promoting sterilization as a birth-control technique. Or, how about a wine festival for Teheran? Most Americans have little contact with their next-door neighbors; are they really eager for soulful electronic exchanges with, say, a Venezuelan hair dresser or a tractor mechanic from Kirghiztan?

The electronic superhighway has many lanes and promises to become far more than a vehicle for human understanding and world peace. Futurists contend that commercial uses such as advertising and retail sales are becoming the dominant force. Other sectors provide entertainment, education, miscellaneous information and personal contact opportunities. Meanwhile, the raunchy underside of the medium offers gambling, pornography, satanism and other materials that used to arrive in a plain brown envelope.

Internet enthusiasts gloat over the interactive potential of the electronic super highway. Unfortunately, it's not quite as open and egalitarian as some people want you to believe. In fact, the medium is quite manipulative. Did you get a disk for 50 free hours of America on Line? Sure, you'd like to sample AOL before subscribing, but once the disk is inserted, the first command instructs you to key in your credit card number to activate an account. Jan Sauer, a local university reference librarian, cautions students about using the net as a research resource. Typically, the people who propagate electronic information are motivated by a self-serving agenda. At best, it is one-sided; at worst, it's downright dangerous or misleading.

Now to the more personal aspects of the electronic super highway. If you're not familiar with it yet, the net shares many characteristics with talk radio. In a "chat room" or forum, anybody can say anything and remain totally anonymous. It's said to be quite liberating to vent your feelings without having to identify or explain yourself. While friendly and informed discussions dominate, there's also a dark side featuring racism, vulgarity and other things most folks would normally be ashamed to say openly. Constitutionally protected free speech? Hardly. The Bill of Rights was written to protect individuals who espouse unpopular sentiments, not anonymous hate messages or malicious rumors. Finally, anonymity is an invitation to misrepresentation. You hear a a lot about romance in cyber space. There have been some unpleasant surprises when electronic pen pals come face-to-face.

So, does electronic communication really bring people together? In some way yes, when you consider the potential for immediate contact with so many other people. On the other hand, communication partners remain rooted in their own world, often anonymous, and unaware of the context of one anothers' lives. Openness and intimacy ring false when people never experience one anothers' physical presence or have to answer to one another in the real world.

Electronic Democracy

Some futurists suggest that information-age technology offers the opportunity for instantaneous and complete democracy in the realm of government. They suggest that voting, which is now a chore, can soon be conducted from the comfort and privacy of people's homes. Ideally, people could watch a political debate and click their computer terminal's mouse on "yes" and "no" icons as the discourse unfolds. Afterwards the votes get tallied and the people have their way.

On closer examination, this appears to be another bad idea whose time has come. To begin with, typical public policy issues are enormously complex and require serious and careful deliberation. They also reflect the views of competing interests in society. Backers of the electronic referendum assume that most citizens are well informed and public spirited. Wrong again. Most folks, unfortunately, have neither the interest nor the energy to grapple with the complex issues of the day. As election turn-out declines, opinion researchers report that most voters pay more attention to candidates' appearance and personality than any substantive issues raised during campaigns. In addition, public opinion is quite fickle, subject to ignorance, hysteria and passions of the moment. Now, you want everyone to cast a vote on every possible issue? Get real. I foresee two possible outcomes. One is that most people would quickly lose interest, yawn and flip the channel to more entertaining programming. That, unfortunately, would leave political power in the hands of various special interests who have pulled the strings all along. The other possibility is even more chilling. Electronic democracy offers a great vehicle for demagogues, leaders who discard reason and rely on emotional appeals to turn people into angry mobs and ultimately destroy the fabric of a democratic society.

Virtual Reality

Though not intrinsically a communication system, the human consequences of Virtual Reality need to be discussed in this context. Basically, Virtual Reality involves a variety of electronic devices that create illusions when connected to an individual's sensory organs. Up to now, most VR is visual and auditory in nature -- jazzed-up arcade entertainment for jaded suburban teenagers. It is about to get sophisticated. I am a member of the Sierra Club and enjoy outdoor activities. How about an Appalachian mountain hike in 2020? With Virtual Reality, it can be done at the mall or even in your home if you can afford the equipment. Before entering the virtual environment chamber, you put on real boots, backpack, canteen and other hiking gear. Once inside, you step onto a contoured omnidirectional treadmill, which can be set for light, moderate or strenuous effort. It also counts expended calories. Thanks to 3-D holographic projections and an omni-max screen, you will be passing through truly magnificent scenery. A premium sound system provides a background of bird calls and rushing water. Meanwhile, a Pine-Sol mist lets you smell the forest. Air pressure and temperature drop as you approach the summit. Here, the treadmill pauses so you can retrieve your sweater from the backpack and take a swig from the canteen. Now, back to the lodge. Best of all, this adventure can be programmed to fit your lunch break. Next week it's the Colorado Rockies and then the Dolomites.

If you've visited Disneyworld, you know that there's nothing really farfetched about this "virtual hike." All of the technology is at hand. Futurists speculate that the next generation of VR, some forty years down the road, will dispense with the machinery and duplicate the same experience via electrodes and sensors attached to your skull and other body parts. In other words, illusions will be replaced by direct sensory stimulation.

Virtual Reality devices have many advantages. Besides entertainment, there are practical applications. For example, a real estate sales person could "walk" a client through a house, or military training could simulate a combat environment without putting soldiers in real danger. Furthermore, individuals can be observed and evaluated throughout a VR session. Secondly, these devices allow handicapped or disabled people access to a world that would ordinarily be out of their reach. Most important, however, is Virtual Reality's convenience and low cost compared to real experience. Experts say that television's success as a dominant entertainment medium owes as much to the low consumer cost as to the intrinsic quality of the programming.

There's also a downside to Virtual Reality. The medium has its limits and will ultimately turn into a stylized experience that capitalizes on consumer taste and technological hyperbole. To get an idea, think of walking among the special effects of a typical Spielberg film. Reality? I doubt, for instance, that a virtual Summer jaunt through Maine will include the swarms of voracious insects that normally engulf the tourist. Third World experiences will snip out the beggars a-la-Disney. The medium is enormously manipulative and, like the internet, steers users through a predetermined "menu." Finally, the current evolution of VR is oriented to individual users. There appears to be little room for human interaction, creativity or improvisation. Like television, Virtual Reality is a passive experience and isolates people. Remember the movie "Avalon"?

Revolt of the Cultural Creatives

In a recent issue of American Demographics, the market researcher Paul H. Ray noted an emerging culture which seems to stand in contrast to what we have described so far. "Cultural Creatives," as he calls them, are sophisticated consumers of Information-Age technical and cultural products, but with a primary concern for maintaining human autonomy and authenticity. You could say that they fear both cultural and commercial manipulation. Typically, these people abhor the insidious and relentless advertising industry, which is driving more and more middle Americans into an acquisitive frenzy and ultimate bankruptcy. Cultural Creatives often think that less is more when it comes to consumer goods, and they prefer to spend their income with the experience industry, be it eco-tourism, religious retreats or other "authentic" experiences that maximize the role and consciousness of the individual.

Cultural Creatives are also characterized by spirituality, self-actualization and altruistic causes such as preserving the environment. They are more literate and watch less television than the rest of the population. As consumers, they demand authenticity and resent mass-merchandised, phony products. Newer is not necessarily better; tradition is worth preserving. When it comes to food, they seek out nutritious and organic foods with a gourmet flair. Boutique beers are in, McDonald's is out.

A factoid: Did you know that Thomas Jefferson blamed domestication of the horse for the physical decline of the human race? You might also recall that futurists at the turn of the century predicted the decay of the human body as labor-saving mechanical devices made life easier. Little did they imagine the Yuppie sports-and-fitness craze decades later. Well, now information-age technology has the potential to augment or replace various intellectual functions. Think of reading a book about prehistoric times or watching a movie such as Jurassic Park in a Virtual Reality setting. One of them requires an active imagination to create images, the other is a totally passive, if far more emotionally charged, experience for a viewer. Fortunately, a renaissance of culture, based on human imagination, creativity and artistic skills is at hand. We see it as "Cultural Creatives" actively begin to counteract the dehumanizing and manipulative aspects of the Information Age, leading the way to a higher civilization where technology is the servant and not the master of human existence. Prepare to celebrate the human spirit.

Information Age Sexuality:
What's Love Got To Do With It?

More than you think. If you read an earlier installment about the future of bio-engineering, you know that sexuality and reproduction are in the process of becoming divorced. Technology now makes it possible to have sex without reproduction; the next step is reproduction without sex. The long-range impact of these development cannot be understated. Anthropologists tell us that sexuality has always played a defining role in various civilizations. Why? It seems that sex was equated with reproduction which, in turn, had serious economic and power implications throughout history. The dominant sexual morality essentially determined who could reproduce, and under what conditions. Ruling authorities also arranged pairings to preserve dynastic lines, breed productive offspring, etc. Men and women's complementary economic and biological roles made families an indispensable social institution in traditional societies. The idea of love and affection between sex partners, believe it or not, is a relatively recent development in human history!

So what does the future hold? If reproduction becomes a separate category of human activity, sexuality is destined to accentuate pleasure and volitional interpersonal relationships. Romance? You bet. The trend toward greater freedom and self expression is well under way. We are witnessing a whole new range of affinities, long suppressed, including hetero-, homo- and bi- sexuality. The trans-gender phenomenon will also become more commonplace. While many people may find the emerging range of sexual identities offensive, we are unlikely to return to the Puritan era. Remember, too, that this variety of sexuality is hardly new, but has always existed behind closed doors. Like it or not, we are about to reap the fruits of greater honesty and freedom.

Information-age technology is also bound to influence love and sexuality in the next century. No, I'm not talking about computer dating or phone sex, but various virtual reality devices that which could link romantic partners over distance or provide robotic substitutes for a human lover. Connected through the internet, an individual wearing a wired "touch screen" leotard could interact with an analogous humanoid robot manipulated by a similarly equipped romantic partner at another location. Meanwhile, Japanese computer technicians are said to be working on "sex-bots," a class of robots that eliminate the need for a human partner. I'll leave the design of the sex-bots to your imagination. Suffice it to say that they won't transmit diseases, complain of a headache, or grow tired of your company. They can be programmed to satisfy every desire. Other futurists regard it as a harbinger of legal and hygienic prostitution. These crude mechanical devices will eventually be replaced by direct stimulation of the brain's pleasure centers.

While pleasure may come easy, there's an emotional aspect that many futurists forget. I suspect that the Cultural Creative generation, discussed earlier, will also revolt against dehumanizing of sexuality. Real love is more a matter of mutual giving than personal gratification. Love is a mysterious, complex and sometimes painful human emotion, where ecstasy comes through personal bonding more than physical stimulation. Future cyber-sex may well address various physical aspects of human relationships; I doubt that it will satisfy the longings of our souls.

The next installment in this series will be that last. The cycle will be closed with a look at religion and spirituality in the next century.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL