"Are you are attracted and repelled by the Internet at the very same time?"
I came across the provocative question above in an advertisement in Fortune magazine recently. In the accompanying text the advertiser, MCI WorldCom, describes how experience has shown them that the Internet makes people experience many different emotions at the same time.
While the advertisement is targeted specifically at the business community, the question should strike a chord in many of us.
Undoubtedly, the technical and business developments of the Internet excite many users because of the endless possibilities it opens up. At a lecture in Singapore late last year, Internet pioneer Dr Vinton Cerf described how domestic appliances such as the humble refrigerator can be fitted with LCDs and scanners that detect the bar codes of products, and through the Internet remind the user what food items are past their expiry dates or need replenishing.
Dr Cerf (who coincidentally is also associated with MCI WorldCom) added that, in the future, when you are in a vehicle equipped with global positioning system capabilities, the Internet would allow you to locate a variety of services. Thus, even if you are in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, you will still be able to find what you are looking for — from shops providing photocopying services to Thai restaurants.
Renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough who said that Man's passion to communicate and to receive communications seems as central to his success as a species as the fin is to the fish. Look at what this passion has spawned.
A paper from the Global Internet Project estimates that the number of Internet users tripled between 1993 and 1995 to somewhere between 40 million and 60 million. This number is expected to swell to a quarter billion regular users this year.
Companies such as the UK-based easyEverything will no doubt speed up the rapid growth of users. Since the middle of 1998, the company has been opening numerous outlets with each megastore having 400 or more Internet workstations and charging low rates for two-megabit connections and flat screens.
easyEverything's logic is compelling for the person on the street — why buy an expensive home computer with its frequent technology changes if you are very likely going to use it for a very short time daily? With the efforts of companies such as easyEverything to bring in unconventional users, and the growing number of people going online, the gap between the information rich and poor is narrowing. easyEverything already envisions itself as the post office of the 21st Century.
Net gurus have pointed out that the advantages of having the Internet far outweigh any problems. I would agree, but all the same, the costs and the negative consequences ought to be considered, however unbalanced the equation may seem.
For some of the more obvious problems, demand will drive the creation of technical solutions. Thus, for hacking and for what society deems negative activities such as cyber-gambling and cyber-porn, we see solutions in the form of advances in encryption and secure delivery of sensitive information, along with blocking devices that keep out "undesirable information".
However, as a sociologist, I think we should also consider some of the less obvious and perhaps more far-reaching social consequences of the Internet, including changes to behaviour, identity and our social life. For millions of users, the appeal of the Internet lies in its use as an information acquisition and communication device, as well as its interactive ability.
Like the telephone a century ago, the Internet, in providing these humble but critical utilities, has become an instrument that many cannot live without. This dependence is the basis of the Internet's capacity for changing the lives of its users and, through the aggregation effect, brings about significant social change. We will look at examples from sex and religion, the mainstay of dinner conversations.
SEX AND RELIGION
The technology offered by the Internet can dramatically increase the scale of what was a "traditional" service — mail-order brides and other forms of matchmaking activities. This scale is increased at both the demand and supply side — by allowing more clients, mainly men, to seek partners from Third-World countries, and by enabling more countries to be involved in such schemes.
Another example is sex tourism, which can be disguised under the cloak of tourism, and within this, under a number of other seemingly innocent guises romance, adventure, and even culture.
The Internet has become an important vehicle for the promotion of sex tourism because of the need for highly localised information, and the added bonus of privacy when it comes to information delivery. When travelling to any place in the world, there are websites that can tell you where to go to for sexual services, how much you have to pay for them, and even some accounts of those who have visited these places.
However, information and action flow both ways on the Internet. When addressing these issues through its website, human rights organisation Equality Now urges its readers to take action against sex tour operators by writing to their law enforcement agencies. I found several excellent pieces addressing the issue on other websites, two from Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island, and one from Natalie Collins of the University of California ? Los Angeles.
On the topic of religion, how do communities of faith maintain ideological purity and fervour in an increasingly pluralistic climate wherein the broadcast and interactive functions of the Internet have enabled a proliferation of ideologies and identities? A personal experience may serve as an illustration.
Two years ago, the Trinity Theological Seminary in Singapore assembled a group of theologians and professionals to debate the issue "Homosexuality and the Church". I was invited to present a sociological perspective. The team spent a year or so writing and discussing each of the six papers. Towards the end of the project, we met up with a group of gay Christians at their request.
What struck me in this session was a casual remark that the gay community in Singapore had already "scrutinised" and debated the implications drawn from our papers. E-mail and many of the gay web pages on the Internet have no doubt significantly contributed to this debate. These websites, some with their own chat functions, represent more specific examples of how the Internet has allowed such special interest groups to flourish by providing information resources and various forms of support.
The proliferation of information over the Internet has also provided a wider spectrum of viewpoints on all issues. For example, Exodus International manages a website that represents conservative Christian viewpoints on homosexuality. On the other side, the Skeptic Tank website is dedicated to "exposing destructive beliefs and ideologies", including conservative homosexual viewpoints.
These examples indicate an important point. In the digital information age, it becomes increasingly difficult (but not impossible) to maintain moral and ideological stances because of incessant challenges from competing viewpoints.
This has implications for governments in their defence of foreign policy; corporations in protecting their business practices; religious and ethnic communities in preserving and propagating their beliefs and ways of life, and parents in how they socialise their children. As a father of three young children, I often wonder how the Internet will impact the next generation.
In the digital age, one major challenge to today's parents is ploughing through the information maze in order to explain consequences with much greater clarity than our parents needed to do. As communities of fate increasingly face competition from communities of choice, we need to ensure that the personal choices our children make are informed ones.
A historian writing about Finland suggested that the Finns embrace new technology with great passion because they have a weak craft tradition and a general infatuation with modernity.
Too many societies share this enthusiasm. In our rush to be passionate adopters, we need to be mindful of the social consequences, both good and bad, of such embraces.
We should indeed feel attracted and repelled by the Internet at the very same time.
Associate Professor K C Ho is the co-ordinator of the Information and Communication Management Programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. To contact him, please write to: [email protected]