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Of social and digital philosophy

By Jean-Claude Elias - Mar 20,2014 - Last updated at Mar 20,2014

There was an announcement on Google, just a few days ago, reminding us we that are celebrating this year the 25th anniversary of the Internet. My first reaction was “No way, it’s been only 25 years! It seems like it has been here forever. How were we living without it before?” In fact its exact “birth” date is a debatable subject. Some would like to go back to the Arpanet, the Internet’s ancestor that was introduced circa 1969, whereas a more realistic estimate would set the date around 1990 when the web as we know it became a well-established network, widely available and adopted.

For those who were there before 1990, can they really imagine how much this has changed our life, what is the actual impact of the revolution?

The impact of Information Technology (IT) is unlike that of any other technical field. It is massive and it’s all happening at lightning speed; it’s virtually immediate. It is also so strong, so powerful and so radical that it just cannot be ignored, postponed and studied or discussed “later”.

While most of the articles published in this column are about computers, the Internet, and high-tech in general, I allow myself now and then, and with the above in mind, to use this space to tackle matters pertaining to living with the technology, to the impact it has on us all. In a way it is still about technology but in an indirect manner.

This has prompted some readers to ask me to stay the course, to avoid talks of “the social philosophy of digital” (to quote one of these readers) and instead to keep bringing them clear, sound news about hardware, software, up-to-date high-tech gear, networks, new ways to work, and so forth. In parallel many also are those who seem happy to be entertained and at the same time informed about the various aspects of living in the high-tech digital world, how it affects us socially, mentally and psychologically.

Granted, in most technical fields there would be a separation between the description of the technology, its tools and its physical devices on one hand, and the human impact it may have, on the other. Whereas the first part would be the specialty of the field’s professionals, those who work in it, the second would be the prerogative of philosophers, physicians, psychologists, scholars and researchers who are able to take a wider, unbiased look from outside the industry.

Again, IT is a case that is unheard of in modern history. The shock is strong and is immediately felt. Therefore talking about the impact goes hand in hand with any talk about the machines, the networks, the apps, etc.

For a minute forget about the 25-year-old Internet and think of smartphones and the free-to-use communication messenger channels like Skype, Viber, WhatsApp or Tango. Think also of the number of tasks we now do online, exclusively. Online shopping, ticketing and e-banking, these three “apps” alone, have radically changed our life, not forgetting the cloud and social networking of course; and it’s been six to seven years only, not 25!

So how can we brush aside the social impact and separate it from more tangible matters like megapixels, gigabytes, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, USB3.0, hybrid hard disks and the like? Remember for instance that in the expression “social networking” there’s “social”; that says it all.

Whereas the input of independent researchers and scholars is necessary and is welcome, it is perhaps up to each one of us, users, parents, educators, young, old, at work or at home, to do our own analysis, to realise what this is all doing to us, for better and for worse.

And if this article was too “social or intellectual” to some readers’ taste, I promise to get back to technical specs and news of high-tech innovations next week.

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