Committee on Public Policy

Public Policy Issue Briefs - Economic, Social and Cultural Aspects of the Information Revolution

Economic, Social and Cultural Aspects of the Information Revolution

There is an emerging world consensus that humans are entering a new age, and that the emergence of the information society can be traced to advances in information technology. This juxtaposition of social and technological change presents anthropology with an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate and even intervene in contemporary change. Our methods, analyses, our comparative perspective allow us to provide useful analogues to contemporary events and to focus on both the potential of technology and the social and cultural pitfalls of technological determinism.

Advances in information technology have led to rapid adoption and adaptation of these technologies by people around the world. Within a mere 20 years, work life and home life have changed dramatically as businesses and individuals embraced and came to rely on desk top and portable computers, cellular telephones, digital calendars, among others as a necessary part of life.

The Internet, in particular, is the current focus of technological enthusiasm, both promise and excess, of the so-called Information Revolution. Through the Internet, one may access any person or place with an e-mail address. The establishment of websites by government, business, and individuals has increased significantly. The amount of commerce taking place “online” has increased, also. The Internet has encouraged the development of “virtual” workplaces whereby individuals work at home and telecommute to work. The Internet, too, has made possible the development of digital libraries, enabling any one to access digital documents. Some states have taken advantage of distance learning opportunities presented by the Internet, offering online courses and degrees from virtual universities.

Although technical advances in information technology are recognized as important, the human aspects of information technology have received little attention. Certainly, information technologies are changing the economy, society and culture. But how? To what extent do such developments fulfill their promise, and to what extent do they merely reproduce existing cultural distinctions? How are they affecting the conditions of our work as anthropologists – our research, our practice, and our teaching? To what extent are they having an impact on public policy, both in general and on, for example, research funding priorities at NSF?

Since the United States has been the world leader in developing information technologies, the US government in collaboration with industry has supported the research involved in developing those technologies. Recognition has been given to the human factors in information technology, and there is expressed interest in examining how technologies are designed and developed by technologists, how people use technologies, how technologies affect the work place, among others. Yet, other aspects of human life are just starting to emerge. Recent research by anthropologists on Silicon Valley is revealing how families shape and adapt technologies to coordinate easier their daily lives. This is in contrast to the commonly held view of technologies shaping family life.

Information technology is affecting education, both teaching and learning. In addition to teaching on-line at virtual universities, faculty members are being encouraged to post class syllabi, to produce CD-ROMs in addition to publications. More students are using the Internet for research, yet viewing the information gathered uncritically. How does a teacher impart critical evaluation skills for Internet research without having to check every web site cited in a research report? Faculty face concerns about copyright infringement of on-line publications, like CD-ROMs and course syllabi.

Information technology is changing our concepts of community and culture. The Internet and telecommunications have connected humans across the globe, transcending geographical space. In the “virtual” world, what is “community” and “culture?” What are the ties that bind humans in virtual communities? “Communities” as social and political support systems are being created through the Internet. High- speed connections enable rapid communications and political mobilization. For example, the rebellion of a local population in Chiapas, Mexico against the Mexican government moved from a local conflict to global one, followed by the world through the Internet.

The goals of the Committee on Public Policy are threefold: (1) to identify anthropologists who are studying economic, social and cultural aspects of the information revolution; (2) to determine the state of knowledge and to identify gaps in knowledge that need to be filled; and (3) to assist policy makers and those engaged in related research in understanding the human aspects of the information revolution.

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