Week 9: Information Technology and Community

As last week was reading week for the students at the University of Waterloo, there was no blog entry. This week (week 9) is about information technology and the impact that it has on communities. An excellent BBC series explored the social impact of information technology recently. It was called the Virtual Revolution:

This week a number of topics will be covered. First we will look at the objectives of the design of the internet, what its “founding parents” had in mind in the initial stages of the existence of the net.

Next, we will look at what the research says about how the internet is being used today, on an international basis, through the World Internet Project.

Finally, we will focus on two topics that have generated a high degree of debate on the impact that information technology is having on people today: Is the internet making us stupid and are video games making us more violent?

The foundation of the internet

Internet culture was initially based on libertarian principles of freedom of expression and practice, absence of censorship or control by governments, companies or individuals and that culture has continued to influence the internet today. The following excerpt from the Virtual Revolution explains:

The video contains quotations from John Perry Barlow’s the Declaration of the Independence of Cyber Space. Further excerpts from the Virtual Revolution series are available on YouTube.

The World Internet Project

The World Internet Project is based at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The Center’s Director explains the role of the World Internet Project:

Every two years they undertake a study of issues related to the internet. In 2009 this study covered ten countries (not including Canada) and their study showed significant disparities in how the internet was used and what people thought about it in these countries.

The following chart shows the percentage of people, by gender, using the internet in the countries in the study:

While in the US, Sweden, Portugal and the Czech Republic there is little difference in the percentages of men and women using the internet, there is greater difference in the other countries. The study does not speculate on the reasons for this but it may be indicative of gender equality issues in these countries that may lead to gender digital divide issues in the future.

The study looked at internet use by age and found that the largest percentage of populations using the internet are under age 24 with the lowest percentages of populations in the 65 or older age range. This “age digital divide” is argued by the authors of the study to be essential and a matter of urgency:

“Bringing the internet to more older people has now become a global concern… Most countries have large aging populations that don’t use the internet at all, which is a significant issue as increasingly more of the world’s important information is available primarily online.”

The World Internet Project, 2009

Reasons given for the failure top participate echo other studies. They indicate that for most, expense is not an issue, rather the reasons given are: a lack of interest or a feeling that the internet will not be useful to them, not knowing how to use it and being confused by the technology.

Credit card use on the internet was considered next. Respondents were asked how concerned they would be about the security of their credit card information when or if they ever bought something online.

Disparities existed here too. In seven countries 60 % of people said that they would never go online to buy anything while in the US and Sweden only 13 % and 22 % respectively said that they would never but anything online. This may have economic implications in terms of economic growth.

The impact of the internet on relationships with family and friends has been an area of some debate – would the internet strengthen or weaken these? The study found that the internet had had a generally positive impact on relationships between respondents and their friends and family. A minority reported that the internet had reduced contact with family and friends.

Most survey respondents reported that the internet had increased their productivity at work while a small percentage said that the internet had reduced productivity.

Significant percentages of those surveyed believed that the information that they accessed was not reliable but at the same time most saw the internet as an important source of information (in spite of the apparent contradiction here). Most looked for news online and most students used the internet for school related work. Perhaps significantly, some students never used the internet for school work – perhaps indicating another digital divide.

Statistics Canada examines the use of the internet by Canadians. The following table shows the activities of home internet users in 2007 and 2009:

Increases in usage are apparent in most areas with the magnitude of increase indicating areas of greatest change.  Use of an instant messenger application appears to be the only area where usage declined.

These studies have provided an insight into global and Canadian internet usage and attitudes. Next we will take a closer look at the impact of information technology in two areas: stupidity and violence.

Is the internet making us stupid?

Nicholas Carr, writing in the July / August edition of the Atlantic Magazine argued that the internet was “making us stupid”. The article generated a significant degree of controversy.

In the article Carr argues that (quoting McLuhan) media shapes the processes of our thoughts. New media (such as the internet), he argues, will have a specific impact on how we think.

The internet is said to have reduced people’s attention spans and increased “power browsing’, superficial skimming of content to the detriment of “deeper thought”. Our capacity for deep reading was being reduced and the way that our brains work was being reshaped. These factors, he argued, meant that the Google was making us stupid. He explains this further in an interview with ABC news. His comments are supported by Jesse Hirsh:

Carr’s comments have been very controversial with the UK’s Daily Telegraph headlining an article with:

The author of their article argues that Carr has selectively quoted his reference sources, ignoring elements that question his thesis, argues that the brain can “right itself” – that change made by the internet, if they exist, need not be permanent and that Carr’s argument is based on an assumption that books have superior knowledge to the internet which may not be true. He also argues that internet multi-tasking mat actually improve the way we think.

The following video debate explores the issues involved further:

The debate on this are continues with both sides arguing strongly of the validity of their position.

Is information technology making people more violent?

Another vigorous debate is over whether information technology is making people more violent.

This debate has reached the highest levels of government and provoked calls for greater control on the production of video games.

In an interesting article (posted for students of the course) Schulke presents arguments about the moral side of violent video games, arguing that they can be morally justified.

Three main charges are made against violent video games:

1. That they train players in the skills needed to harm others.

2. That they degrade players capacity for empathy.

3. That they directly encourage anti social behaviour.

First, the moral arguments will be examined and then the evidence around the above three charges will be looked at.

Schulke looks at the morality issues from three ethical standpoints. The first of these is Kantian ethics. Morality, from Kant’s point of view is about how we treat other people and what the intentions we had were that informed our actions. In video gaming it is argued tat this is applied in terms of whether our real life gaming opponents have been respected – if they have been then violent video game playing is seen as acceptable – this will depend on the attitude adopted.

Arguments are also examined around the morality of violent attacks on video game characters and their similarity to people and it is argued that as avatars cannot feel pain, lack consciousness, have no similarity biologically and cannot ‘die’ like humans, that it is morally OK to ‘kill’ them. However, it is also argued that in some circumstances an avatar becomes an extension of the gamer who can be affected by attacks on the avatar. This may be because they have invested time and/or money in the avatar’s creation and this is lost, leading to a sense of loss by the gamer. However, this is quite different from real life death. Schulke argues that violent video games are acceptable from a Kantian perspective.

Aristotelian ethics are considered next where the main concern is the impact that participation in simulations of excessive, indulgent acts will have on the cultivation of an individuals moral character. Schulke argues that some games morally justify violence and that these would be acceptable in an Aristotelian sense because there is a moral justification for it and therefore the gamer’s moral character would be positively developed. Other games, in this approach, may be less acceptable.

Utilitarian ethics are based on the balance between virtue and negativity and which is greater. Games may have a negative side to them but if that is outweighed by its positive features then it is acceptable. A few examples are given; Does the fun that a gamer has playing the game outweigh the cost of a minor risk of violence? Do the jobs that are created by the video game industry and the contribution that the industry makes to the development of new technologies out weigh the impact of its violent aspects? Other benefits are also highlighted: Greater visual perception and cognition of space, hand eye coordination and motor skills. In each of these cases the Utilitarian judgement on ethics will be based on what provides the greatest utility to society.

Violent video games and the real world

The evidence around the impact of violent video games in the real world will now be considered. Do they:

1. Give players real world killing skills?

2. Weaken feelings of empathy?

3. Motivate players to commit violent acts?

Do video games make players more skilled at hunting others? Is there an analogy between action in a game and those in the real world -? Evidence has been presented to suggest that killers in Washington and Columbine had used violent video games prior to embarking on killing sprees but no evidence yet exists that there was a link between these activities – it is argued that the evidence is not there now (there are not sufficient similarities in behaviour) but that evidence could emerge on this in the future.

The second argument around this is that violent video games destroy empathy. For David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, morality was based on a natural identification with each others’ feelings – if we can feel each others’ experiences then we are less likely to harm them. Empathy is therefore very important in preventing violent behaviour and anything that reduced empathy would be likely to result in an increase in violence.  The evidence around tis does not support the argument that empathy is reduced – the most that they argue is that there may be temporary changes in feelings. These studies have been based on studies of subjects’ responses to violence on television and may not be reliable. There is also evidence that people who have become violent after watching video games were violent before they had contact with the games.

The third argument, that video games motivate people to commit violent acts is the least supported in the literature on violent games. There appears to be no evidence of direct linkage that has yet been discovered. Some argue that contact with someone who plays violent games can cause people to become violent and there is also little evidence to support this.

Finally, on a broader level, there is no evidence to suggest that, as video games become more graphic and violent, society as a whole is becoming a more dangerous place. As the following video shows, since 1992, crime has been going down:

In conclusion

This week we have considered issues in the impact that information technology is having on community. We looked at the objectives of the internet’s design and the impact that may have had. We considered broad research on how peoples’ lives may be changing and noted differences between countries. We then looked at two topics on which there is significant argument today: is the internet making us stupid and is society becoming more violent ans a result of violent video games?

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