MOOC: Is the Internet Age Utopian or Dystopian?

The technological period we live in is utopia for those of us who are tech savvy and able to afford the gadgets we want for pleasure or need for work. Increasingly life is organised digitally where we are rewarded by our banks for not visiting their branches and supermarkets expect us to be able to use their barcoding machines ourselves. News, advice and information are more and more online. Payment systems are too – so convenient for us after hours or at the weekend, or if you are on holiday and forgot to pay a bill.

The reverse side of this is, if you don’t know how to use a computer you are pretty near unemployable in a modern office.  With more online services, local services such as bank branches and printed newspapers are cut back. Those who are physically isolated by distance from the internet, too poor to afford decent internet connection or a computer, or are unable or unwilling to learn how to use modern means of communication, find they are catered for less and less.

On the bright side, perhaps the biggest winners in this internet age compared to those in previous eras can be some of those who face discrimination in normal society due to a physical condition (including aging) or mental disability. They can develop dynamic personalities and participate as equals in forums and online groups and even earn an income online which they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past.

On the question of technological determinism (the paper by Daniel Chandler), it seems to me that the technology certainly has unintended consequences, so as humans we can’t always control or predict the outcomes or uses inventive minds find for what we create. What we create is obviously determined by the state of our technological knowledge at the time. But this in turn evolves into something new, crafted by the questions researchers and inventors try to solve, either out of moral inquiry or for their consumer bosses in business. Both are usually aimed at moving us closer towards a utopia whether by a moral or commercial imperative.

One obvious aberration to this comforting thought is the German chemist, Dr Fritz Haber. He invented both the process for turning nitrogen from air into artificial fertilizer – a wonderfully useful invention for mankind – and the poisonous chlorine gas deliberately designed to kill enemy soldiers in trenches in World War One.

But I am optimistic and when I see what mobile technology can do for poor farmers in India and Africa, and the internet providing far more access to education that ever possible before, I believe technology will lead us closer to utopia than dystopia.

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