Joe Clark
Feb 25, 2001
Phil 342

Where Do We Go From Here?
Technology, Communication, and Purpose in the 21st Century

Throughout the ages of history, communication has been the cornerstone of human existence. For many thousands of years, humanity’s basic living unit was the tribe or small city, usually a community of individuals who lived very close to one another and to the natural world. But over the past few hundred years, this has changed. Today, humans often live among a mass of nameless people, a sea of humanity, and have lost touch with one another and the natural world around them -- and in so doing have, to some degree, lost touch with their own spirits. This often causes a sense of loneliness and even desperation at times in one’s heart. Every person has a need for individual worth, and also for love and friendship emanating from meaningful interaction with fellow humans. The Information Revolution, which has opened the doors for regional and global communications, holds promise for helping to fulfill these needs, even in this age of potential isolation. With the possibilities, though, comes a responsibility to act wisely -- a responsibility that humanity may or may not be ready to accept. Thus the question of our decade, this first decade of the 21st century, is "Where do we go from here? How do we use the tools in our grasp to foster communication and personal meaning?" Responsibility in technology can lead to a “beautification” of our personal lives, but lack of responsibility can be the effective death of the individual soul as well as society’s collective downfall.

Perhaps the greatest and most relevant discussion of technological advancement is in regard to the development of personal computers and information systems over the past twenty-five years. The rise of personal computers has deposited one of the most sophisticated gadgets in the human arsenal into the laps of almost everyone. The various applications of computer technology are still being explored, but it is clear that they are the key to the technology of the 21st century. The information systems that networked computers have brought into being are a source of hope and possibility for the future.

It seems clear that the future holds great promise technologically, but we have yet to answer some key questions. Surely our society is undergoing a technological transformation. But how will the changes affect us as individuals and as a society? Economically? Socially? Spiritually? The list of questions and reservations is nearly as long as the list of possibilities.

In some sense we can simplify much of the human condition to 1) a striving for social interactions among social beings, and 2) an endless search for personal meaning and worth. If these are, in the end, the highest goals of humanity, how can technology, specifically communications technology, be used to meet these goals? It seems clear that technology, if used in appropriate ways, can be of great benefit in the social realm. For example, when in the history of humanity could someone from Iowa converse with those in South Africa, Venezuela, and Japan, all at the same time, from a personal computer terminal, even bridging the language barrier with translation software? Such correspondences are not fiction -- they are very much a reality today thanks to Internet technology. The key here is that technology should never be an end in itself, but only a means. A great number of individuals have been involved in making video conferencing technology (for example) a reality. But the technology itself is not the end product, at least in a societal sense. The end product is when friends, diplomats, or corporate partners can communicate quickly and easily -- this is the truest goal.

Still, the second goal -- the search for personal meaning -- has been left unanswered. Can technology help in this arena as well? I believe it can. As is often said in criticism of technology, it has a tendency to be "noisy", to focus on details rather than overall realities. Quite literally, it tends to focus on individual pixels and arrays of bits, rather than on the reality of the composite image, which may be a beautiful sunset or starscape. This example shows a clear contrast between technology "in the small" and technology "in the large". Yes, technology IS about details -- without thinking in a modular sense, the complex systems used today could never have been developed. So thinking about bits and pixels is necessary. But once again, this is only the "means", not the end. The end is when an artist can bring forth a creation from his inner self and share it with the world. The end is when an author can record her thoughts and have them broadcast to the widest possible audience. The end is when a distraught teenager contemplating suicide "surfs" the net and finds a web site or chatroom devoted to uplifting the brokenhearted. The end is when friends and family can remain in touch via email and instant messaging programs. The end is when one can find solitude in the midst of the noise of technology by looking at the "big picture" sunset, the artist's painting, or the words of a friend. And, to be sure, the end at times is when the individual is free to turn the technology off, to find meaning in a real sunset, a visit to an art museum, or a face-to-face conversation.

So where do we go from here? What should be our goals as we enter the 21st century, with technology looming over us as either a Godsend or a curse? Obviously, technology can be used to harm and destroy -- history has proven that to be true. Technology can be used to promote class segregation, propaganda, and hatred. But it need not be this way. In the truest sense, technology is not the main concern. It is how we use the technology in our grasp -- that is the determining factor. If we choose to use technology to dialogue with those around us -- to better understand them, their culture, their ideas -- then technology will be a means of bringing us closer together, helping us carry out the goal of social interaction. If however, we use technology as a club to wield against those who are less technological than we are, then we are acting in the traditional human egoism and striving for first place. If we use technology to promote natural beauty through artistry and literature, with the realization that sometimes the only appreciable representation of a thing is the real thing, then we are using technology as a means to adding value to our existence as individuals -- we have added meaning to our life. If however, we use technology as a means of self-corruption, or we become so absorbed in it that there is no escape to real people and the real world, then we are abusing the systems we have developed and are treating technology as an end in itself. Where do we go from here? The possibilities are manifold, the right paths are few, but with wisdom and responsibility, the technological age of communication can enhance our lives and our spirits by bringing us closer to one another and closer to the thoughts and feelings that help us find true personal worth.