Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Paradox of the Digital Age.

Societies and cultures are in the midst of massive change due to the incredible innovation in the digitization of information. The evidence continues to mount that the Industrial Age is being superseded by the maturing of the Information Revolution. The economic engine of the Industrial Revolution was the capitalist free market system which facilitated the efficient exploitation of natural resources and triggered innovation in mass production resulting in the optimization of the division of labour. While allowing individuals to pursue their self interest in a liberal market environment is not without its darkside, the free market paradigm is largely responsible for the standard of living we in the Western World have enjoyed.

As the Industrial Age fades into history the nascent Information Age continues to use the free market economic architecture. This presents a significant social problem that will have to be dealt with sooner than later. The free market system exploits resources in order to generate profits. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the term 'exploit' is taken purely in economic context--meaning to make the productive use of an asset. But exploitation can also be defined as making use of something in  an unfair and malicious way for one's own advantage. There is a fine line between the two and when  the exploitation of an asset changes its nature there is inevitably  a moral line that has to be crossed. Recent misfeasance on Wall Street testifies to this ongoing dilemma that our society faces.

The problem that arises in the Information Age is that information--digitized data--becomes  the new resource to be exploited for profit. The engines of capitalism no longer solely focus on the exploitation of natural resources or the division of labour, but now values pure information as a marketable economic asset.  Much of our  personal information is now digitized and classified as an economic asset by innovators of technology and by the stewards of the digital highway. Our privacy--the very basis of our liberty--is now subject to exploitation for profit as minerals, oil deposits and labour were in the Industrial Age. This exploitation can be productive in nature or it can be malevolent in nature.

The basic tenet of John Stuart Mill's seminal tome "On Liberty" was the 'Harm Principle'--essentially meaning  to DO NO HARM. Although Mill's work was published during the Industrial Revolution  his  moral and political philosophy has never been more important for our digital culture to embrace. If we allow ourselves to have our privacy exploited in a productive and just manner societies and individuals could reap great rewards. But conversely, if our personal information is exploited in a malevolent manner our liberty will soon be lost. The consequences of the latter will set the stage for  tyranny and a return to serfdom. Who would have ever thought that the advent of the computer could possibly usher in a new Dark Ages. The paradox of the digital age.