The New Times (Kigali)

4 June 2012

Rwanda: How Technology Is Impacting On Our Lives More Than Ever Before

IT is no longer news. The world is utterly and irreversibly changing right now before our very eyes, thanks to the exponential growth of the Internet, a global communications tool linking humans together in real time as never before.

This sort of massive computer networking changes human relationships with time and space in a fundamental way. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to suggest that much of today's world is experiencing an important change, in fact a paradigm shift, in the way in which it works.

Let us consider for a moment the effect of computer networks on the speed of knowledge transfer, and hence on the speed of cultural and technological evolution. Before the invention of the written word, it was not possible to codify knowledge or to save it over time. 'When an old man dies', so goes an African saying, 'a library goes up in flames.' How many libraries have we 'lost in flames' over the years? In pre-literate times, progress depended on the capacities of humans to remember and, hence, progress was pretty slow. This is what is happening in Africa, despite some progress in literacy levels.

With writing, but especially with the mass-produced book in the last century, knowledge became independent of its bearer and independent of time. Knowledge was still fixed in physical objects. It was, however, not yet independent of space.

With computer networks, and with an increasing migration to wireless styles of communicating, knowledge is being liberated of the constraints of space. When a network appears in a home, an organisation, in a city, town or country for that matter, every innovation, every creative thought, in fact every possible solution to a given problem becomes widely and nearly instantly available over the course of the network.

This sort of computer network will accelerate the growth of culture and science. It will permit a greater diversity of science and culture, representing the ideas and emotions of many more groups of people, to become available to larger and more diverse audiences. At one time, it may have required thousands of years to double our collective knowledge about the world. Now, according to some calculations based on the mathematical study of what is termed 'novelty', it seems that this doubling time has been reduced, so I am informed, to less than three years, at least in certain knowledge domains such as engineering. There indeed is some speculation that a hypothetical point in the not too distant future will occur, called the Singularity. At this point, knowledge will double in a single moment, leaving mankind utterly unable to even understand what is happening. According to Kevin Kelly, we are indeed creating a world that is totally 'out of control'.

Liberating ourselves from the constraints of space means change in our definitions of territory, which in turn has serious implications for the ways in which we define law and politics. It also alters the way we explain community and human settlements, which traditionally have been based on the need to be close to physical products and the centralized structures of power. The recent growth of e-activities points out this rise of new kinds of communities and social structures, in "e-learning", "e-shopping", "e-banking", "e-ticketing", "tele"-working and "tele-medicine" and so on and so forth.

In the past, the credo of science, the industrial world, and materialism was simply "if I can't touch it, it is not real". Today, it is nearly reversed to the point where it could be said "if you can touch it, it's not real." Information has become more important, in political, economic, social, and philosophical terms, than material objects. It is no wonder that information is power!

It can also be argued that to effectively deal with the new powers afforded by technology, humans would need an equivalent 'moral' upgrade, an effort which has traditionally been part of the spiritual domain.

Let me finally say that this rather complex subject presents an important spiritual challenge of our time. One of the fundamental aims of spiritual practice has been to extend human identities, to overcome feelings of separateness with the rest of mankind, nature, and the cosmos. Some of the techniques of spiritual practices could be used to arrive at a more holistic view of technology. In that sense, the merging of man with technology could be seen as part of larger mystical task within the context of the universe.

It will always be difficult to decide on the merits of pessimistic and optimistic spiritual interpretations of technology. It could be argued that for every new power and possibility that technology brings, technological progress takes away other components of humanity which we desperately need to cling on. I guess this is not an exaggeration! For some to survive in this stressful, unpredictable world of high technology there may be a great need for the enduring legacies of spiritual practice. The new edge of technology may need the new age of reviving of spiritual practice. Without them, we may not be able to survive. We cannot afford to be held hostage by the Internet and indeed modern technology that mankind in the first place invented. We must be prepared to be masters of our own destiny without sacrificing spirituality and other important aspects of our lives on the altar of technology.

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