The Internet and social media have given organizations and people more windows into the world than the three major television stations of the 1950s.
This development of information technology has had both positive and negative effects. On a positive note, everyone is a publisher and an advocate. You don’t have to be NBC to reach 3 million or even 30 million viewers with a story. You could be a celebrity or an environmental advocate, reaching 50 million or even 500 million people with your tweets. Citizens have more power thanks to a laptop or smartphone within reach.
Plus, everyone can access news, stories, and blogs that interest them. The information technology hodgepodge – as TS Eliot calls humility – is endless. Information technology has also enabled the development of countless new forms of medical technology, defense technology, and consumer products.
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On the negative side, the internet and social media often spread lies and misrepresentations. They enable authors to use digital tricks to craft statements and stories. Hacking and other forms of cybercrime are ubiquitous. Furthermore, experts have observed that citizens can easily disseminate information that represents only one point of view. This leads to political polarization and can incite prejudice and hostility along the lines of race, gender, sexual identity and religion.
The internet and social media are accused of helping to create a red coat/blue coat war in which we have very few centrists in our government. Although there are more centrists among the citizens, they are underrepresented in Washington.
We continue to live in this chaos—unlimited freedom, endless capacity for learning, pronounced tendencies toward rigidity, intolerance, polarization, and even violence.
Is there a way out? No, there is no way out.
Like industrialization, information technology has been both a blessing and a curse. The Industrial Revolution changed the world. It accelerated the development of capitalism, giving rise to new forms of transportation, communications, food production, medicine, and consumer goods. It also leads to poverty, exploitation, alienation, pollution and class warfare.
We have not addressed the tensions inherent in industrialization in the nineteenth century, so we should not expect to address the tensions inherent in information technology in the late twentieth century.
Perhaps the main thing we can do is to recognize that information technology, like industrial technology, is inherently conflicted. In fact, there have been two IT revolutions, not one: first the industrial revolution, and then the information technology revolution. Nuclear technology has the same tension. IT1 and IT2 are neither inherently good nor inherently harmful.
This realization must be made more explicit in our politics. We need Congress, the President, and state governments to accept the tension and try to balance it every week, recognizing that it is impossible to overcome. A few things that could be done include creating a congressional oversight committee and a presidential commission to design metrics to measure and track these two IT tensions. Media can also create scorecards.
Various newspapers and media watchdog sites have “fact-checking” services. There may be a monthly scorecard on “technical balancing act”. Ignoring or oversimplifying these two IT tensions should be avoided at all costs.
Wisdom includes accepting tensions, but continually striving to balance the values of efficiency, economic growth, liberty, equality, security, and stability that are vital to our nation and civilization itself.
Dave Anderson edited Leverage: Political, Economic, and Social Frameworks. He wrote this article for The Fulcrum.