Opportunities and Threats in the Digital Age: A prelude to Man’s Passage from Knowledge to Capability, Parviz Esmaeili
By Parviz Esmaeili
Managing Director of the Mehr News Agency and the Tehran Times newspaper
Tehran - Iran
The free flow of information was supposed be like oxygen for democracy, a dream that was not realized, but the involvement of citizens in the Digital Age could serve to reinforce democracy.
However, the globalization of the media and the plurality of voices do not show that a democratic climate has been created in the media. From a Western point of view, the use of the Internet is a prerequisite for the spread of democracy and freedom of information. Clearly, the literacy of citizens is largely dependent on the provision of technological tools by governments, but the tools of information have not been distributed equally.
Access to information is a basic right and there will be no information society unless everyone has access to communications networks.
People in various parts of the world have serious difficulty accessing the Internet. For example, in 2008 only five persons out of one thousand citizens in Africa had access to the Internet. Also, in some parts of the world Internet users cannot gain access to news websites or face the problem of filtering or monitoring by governments.
Challenges to Freedom of Information through the Monopoly of Information
Although the production of news reports is not restricted to a specific group in the Digital Age, the tools for the dissemination of information are still somehow monopolized by a particular group, and in reality, giant communications companies exercise great influence on societies.
About 70 percent of news websites are in English, most search engines use the English language, and most of the hosts are based in the United States.
Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." For this reason, the United States resists all attempts to decrease its share of Internet technology.
So the differences remain, and an increase in the quantity and quality of information tools will not solve the problem. The flow of information between the North and the South is not equal. Like raw materials, underdeveloped countries send news to developed countries and receive "information packages" that are processed and produced in developed countries.
Information is the most important manifestation of power in the Digital Age. Thus, the monopolization of information is the main tool of neocolonialism. And this has strengthened unilateralism.
The question is how the dissemination of news is controlled by giant networks like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. in the United States, and who benefits from it.
A study of the developments that followed the September 11 attacks and the restrictions that were imposed afterwards shows that power and security still control the flow of information.
Inequality in the News Market
The news market is chaotic and unequal. Now we are facing an unequal and manipulated situation in the news market, and that is why advances by the Third World are not reflected properly, Islam is equated with terrorism, and Iran's peaceful nuclear activities are depicted as a threat to global security.
The prevention of competition and a decline in quality are the result of an unbalanced market. Facing a tsunami of news, competition in news coverage, and the need to gain a wider audience, the world's major news networks have gradually started providing free services. Such an approach destroys the opportunity for competition and privatization and creates an atmosphere in which governments again gain dominance over the media with the consequent challenges such as workforce, technical, and structural problems.
The trend of bankruptcies of media outlets is continuing, with Readers Digest the latest victim.
Now important media outlets are seeking a way to stop the cost-free provision of news services. The free provision of news services actually turns media outlets into political institutions, which is a threat to freedom. Media outlets should only take news consumers into consideration.
Legal Challenges Persist
The Internet still has major legal loopholes. There are no comprehensive and compulsory laws on the dissemination of information. Of course, morality and freedom are victims of such a situation because freedom of information cannot be guaranteed in an anarchic atmosphere.
The Internet, which is the backbone of the digital age, still has many shortcomings. For example, since 1986 the most important internet protection protocols have still not become more efficient. Internet sites are easily blocked by hackers. Also, the cornerstone of many existing Internet protocols is dependent on the sincerity of users.
The intrusion of privacy is still rampant. It is still possible to create profiles and false identities to influence readers and harm others. But now legal structures are being challenged through various complaints filed against virtual networks.
In addition, governments which control technology can easily monitor and track down citizens and violate their rights. Can it be said that digital technology respects privacy?
Three decades of efforts have been made to convince countries to sign copyright conventions, but as Richard Stallman (1985) says, we have returned to copyleft. Creators of original works and scholars are worried that the results of their research will be stolen and registered by competitors before an academic conference ends, especially since research engines immediately register pirated works and there is no efficient mechanism to differentiate between authentic and pirated works or to rectify the situation.
An increase in personal and family revelations, which are usually made with the aim of making money, have emerged as a cancerous tumor in the world of communications, and the weakness of legal mechanisms facilitates such evil actions.
Religion and Ethics in the Digital Age
The Digital Age has provided an opportunity to promote ethics, but ethical thinking does not exercise authority over digitalism. Freedom and the observation of others' rights form the core of every type of ethical thinking. The Digital Age has provided unlimited freedom, but it has left the observation of others' rights to the users of digital tools.
Unlike the traditional media, there is no place for moral training in digital journalism.
Religion is the most important factor in the creation of civilizations. Despite the great opportunity for dialogue between civilizations provided by the Information Age, religious challenges continued as former U.S. President George W. Bush beat the drums of war for a new crusade. In a virtual society, religious and local customs fade and false religions and superstitions find an opportunity to spread.
Social and Cultural Changes
In the Digital Age, there are concerns that instead of having an information society, a virtual society emerges dominant. We are worried that virtual society targets social cohesion. Theoretically, the digital media should fill the gap between groups and nations, but actually we are witnessing an information gap between societies.
The information society suffers from an internal duality. The reinforcement of social cohesion in the virtual community does not lead to the consolidation of social cohesion in the real community. If the relationship between man and machine becomes stronger than the relationship between man and man, then social cohesion is threatened.
The Digital Age forces us to reassess social institutions since educational institutions are rapidly becoming dependent on digital tools. Thus, we need very flexible institutions that act intelligently in order to be able to counter the great wave of unpredictable changes.
The transformation of human memory into digital memory is also an important challenge. Digital teachers only restrict children to answering "yes" or "no" and there is no third way to encourage children to be creative, and that is why the digital media destroy our sense of the reality of time and place.
Culture begins when two people exchange information, and the media create cultures. Nowadays, cultural assimilation and the globalization of cultures have mounted a serious challenge. The speed of the transmission of alien cultures has created problems for those who want to defend their local cultures, and there are even concerns that small local cultures could become extinct.
The Internet has simultaneously provided the tools for cultural and political interaction and attacks. The identities of people who hold dialogue with each other should be clear for an interaction to be successful, which is something that does not exist on the Internet.
According to a survey recently conducted in 68 countries by Gallup and BBC, public confidence in newspapers is diminishing and confidence in journalism has diminished to the lowest level among professions. When a person does not know the source of information, how can he trust it?
Digital media have caused a change in the method and speed of spreading rumors. In such a situation, the social responsibility of media outlets is to differentiate true information from rumors and to encourage people to make correct judgments.
In the Digital Age it has become difficult to censor, but on the other hand, new and more efficient ways of censorship have emerged. The opportunity to eliminate censorship and end rumormongering was lost due to the new methods of censorship. The distortion of information and the dissemination of many distorted news items, as was the case during the Kosovo war, are examples of this type of censorship.
The news coverage of events like the September 11 incident, the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and the crash of an airplane into the Hudson River in New York shows that in such incidents, citizens who are on the scene now play a major role. This shows that the mass media is becoming more pluralistic and more democratic.
Opportunities and threats are the most important characteristics of the Digital Age. It seems that a more complicated situation is awaiting mankind when digital technology merges with nanotechnology, the most important characteristic being the news consumer's power of change. I call this age the Nano Digital Age, an age in which the news consumer will gain the ability to make changes to processes, an age that will open a network to us that will be far wider, more easily accessible, and more intelligent than the Internet.