Fri, Jan 14, 2000 - Page 12 News List

Slave or master to the hi-tech info era?

By Bob Kuo

A new millennium has arrived and everyone agrees the 21st century will be dominated by information and technology. But, in an era like this, could great intellectuals such as Confucius or Plato be discovered? Would modern people recognize their great wisdom?

These questions are difficult to answer because of the many paradoxes in contemporary society.

First of all, it is understood that knowledge is an organized whole, whereas information is fragmentary. The acquisition of knowledge is very time-consuming, often taking years or decades.

The organization of information is speedy. An Internet user can read billions of units of information in a short time. Whether he comprehends it or not is not an issue here.

The consequence is that there are more people today dealing with more information in less time. In such an environment, who has the patience to carefully study the knowledge that was created by those ancient thinkers?

How can this knowledge compete with the up-to-the-minute data produced today, much of which is beautifully packaged, but lacks substantial content?

The development of technology surfaces out of the curious relationship between knowing and acting.

Six thousand years ago, Egyptians were able to build huge pyramids that lasted thousands of years. This means the Egyptians had a profound erudition and knew how to turn that knowledge into practice. But how exactly they constructed the pyramids remains a mystery.

Let's look at the situation in Taiwan. We have millions of people with advanced degrees, and the prevalence of the Internet provides us with ample resources. Yet, many buildings constructed in Taiwan can not withstand earthquakes and heavy rains.

This illustrates another paradox between knowing and acting. What is knowledge? What is useful knowledge? How is this knowledge transmitted? How can you practice knowledge in life?

Ironically, these paradoxes are not resolved because of the advancement of technology.

In addition, the development of modern technology makes people more indifferent to their surroundings. Technology connects the whole world, and even outer space. But at the same time, it alienates people from their environment.

The great philosopher Gadamer thinks that the progress of technology undermines traditional values and causes an estrangement in people's relationships.

This is one of the primary causes of angst for people living in modern society. Technology can bring people closer or it can push them further apart.

Another problem is that one of the purposes of technological development is to make the government's work transparent to the public and improve cooperation within industry.

However, clever and dissembling governments and industry leaders paralyze us by providing reams of information and analysis that obscures the key issues.

Despite these paradoxes, there is one clear point that can be made: society progresses by evolution. During the process of evolution, we can lead society towards the way we would like it to be.

To welcome the new millennium, one thing is essential to us all: to apply all we know about human society to construct our society of the future.

An ideal society is one that integrates technology and culture in a harmonious way, not in such a way that we are enslaved by technology.

Bob Kuo is professor of information systems at National Sun Yat-Sen University.

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