ICT : wrong theories, real questions
Myths in the ICT discourse

Éric Guichard, ENS - INRIA

June 2003


This text is a condensed version of the original one, written in French. For the fuller version of ideas and arguments, and access to the footnotes, please go to the original text.

Last year in La Jolla, we discussed extensively the ICT1. Today, I would like to return to this debate in order to show that much of the reasoning concerning this subject is erroneous, either through intellectual laziness, or, more often, for ideological reasons. It seems to me important for us, members of Pugwash, to understand the mythical character of such discourses and also the reasons why we are brought to accept them in spite of scientific training. This should allow us to develop a more critical attitude when we study the relations between science, technology and society. We seem sometimes to remain caught in a scientific positivism that leads us to attribute an intrinsic value to technologies that are the products and toys of humans. My purpose here is to go beyond both the defamation and the idealisation of technology in order to define a position that allows us to understand the socio-political contexts of the ICT.

1  Usage and functions

ICT have never clearly been defined. Nevertheless, they are supposed to have positive consequences on education, culture, development, and even democracy. Technological effects on society have rarely been higher esteemed. Today, the number of studies aiming to specify these effects is on the increase. The human being is the main actor and the notion of usage is central in these studies. It is worth noting that they are historically closely linked to industrial demands that are often the results of a panic-wave: how to make sure that the users, the clients, adopt and buy the products developed. In the area of techniques and their appropriations, foresight has always been a difficult exercise. Furthermore, the studies are not easily accommodated: they make reference to social sciences, but the social scientists are rarely accustomed to study techniques, and the engineers who produced the techniques are poorly armed to explain social practices and appropriations. The usages also overlap, which can make them difficult to distinguish. In my opinion, it is wiser to focus less on usages and more on the functions of the ICT. I shall here distinguish between three such functions: (1) interpersonal communication, (2) cultural exchanges, and (3) intellectual production.

1.1  Interpersonal communication

Interpersonal communication is closely linked to the development of cellular telephones. It is also of a special nature in the ICT-domains that favour the oral and instantaneous rather than the written and diachronic. In theory, the former kind of communication shouldn't enter into the functions of the ICT. However, because the industrials integrate it into their productions (possibly because it is the only profitable function), we are obliged to study it.

The possibility to perform instant exchanges has its advantages, but it is not as new or as innovative as it may seem. Consider the oft-quoted myth that the usage of mobile telephones would offer the poor in developing countries crucial information that would help them liberate themselves and develop. The story is nice but problematic: 5 minutes of communication in Africa often cost the equivalent of a day's salary. In order to explain this paradoxical situation, arguments which appeal to the ingenuity of the « consumers » (who pay nothing) and to the generosity of the firms, have been put forward; but these arguments have little or nothing to do with the ICT.

Observe that this myth, spread by the telephone companies, is quite elaborated: it is exotic, liberal, and has a moral edge. Accordingly, it is not easily resisted. These utopic descriptions have been widely spread, but that is no reason to accept them.

With the digitalization of the various forms of writing (text, image and sound), transmission of cultural goods is easy. These are clearly individual or collective intellectual products.

One could think that the information transmitted through the Internet by newspapers, radios, television, etc. would help us in making rational choices. That would then be a positive effect of ICT. However, the difference compared to the radiophonic information systems in countries where such are widely spread appears small. Likewise for developing regions where neither waves nor newspapers reach the villages and where electricity that Internet requires is absent. In this context, ICT does not really transform the traditional situations. Compared to the past, we see a difference in size (power of diffusion, multiplicity of sources) rather than kind. We may also observe that, at least in the French language, there is a confusion that is carefully nurtured by the media: when they spread information in the Shannon sense (in bits that are not always meaningful) they purport to provide us with substantial, coherent information. During these last months almost all media have repeatedly claimed that Iraq possessed arms of mass destruction. Where the ICT in a position to prove that the classical media were lying? No, evidently not. In such cases, the new technologies are for the worse, not for the better.

Consider now the present forms of lasting culture, like music or cinema. Imperialistic effects are there apparent: the conquest of the Far-West is far more integrated into our national heritage than that of, say, New Zealand. This is enforced by the ICT, with economic consequences: it is easier to sell that which is promoted. But even there, ICT is not really special; the same old recipes occur:

  1. To begin with, the new technologies, for all their purported emancipation, are not allowed to threaten the ruling economic and moral order. Cultural products have owners and therefore a price. Those who wish freely to enjoy these goods are labelled thieves. Remember Napster! One thus employs heavy legal battery to strengthen the monopolies preceding the ICT (cf. the practices of the RIAA and the DMCA).
  2. Secondly, we can apply ancient methods to new technologies: once the potential small thieves are stigmatized, the larger owners can steal from one another. This is not new: in the 16th and the 19th centuries, many pirates and forgers where among the new editors who wanted to shake up old monopolies. The same phenomenon is reproduced in contemporary editors: the Murdoch Group and their subsection NDS are in a legal process for having decrypted and placed on the net for free access the films of DirectTV, Echo Star and Canal +. The desired and achieved goal was the latter's ruin. They were subsequently bought by News Corp of the Murdoch Group that imposed upon them never to raise legal complaints concerning these procedures, and to « destroy all documents and testimonies they had concerning the practices of the Murdoch Group ».

However, it is not sufficient merely to denounce unacceptable practices on economic and political fronts. We must also question our own gullibility. How can scientists like us believe in the myths promoted by the ICT ideologists? How can those who love rigour accept such vague reasoning concerning purported positive relations between ICT and information, or ICT and culture? Can it be because we want to believe them?

1.2  The intellectual technologies

It is extremely difficult to measure the cognitive benefits of the new technologies. It involves for each individual to understand the advantages she or he enjoys when using a computer or Internet. The few results that have been established are disconcerting: in France, 2001, 87% of the internet users did not know how to use a search engine (by a survey involving 2 million users). Only a very small minority of internet users use information instruments that really augment their cognitive capacities. The obvious conclusion is that informatics and Internet only benefit people who have a solid social infrastructure and cultural capital - beyond the economic capital required to buy a computer, etc. It is thus essential to be quite rich in every sense in order to benefit from the ICT. In contrast, no studies disclose the lost energy in getting rid of junk mail, publicity images, mails with viruses, repairing the machine when damaged, explaining to colleagues why they have received pornographic messages, loss of privacy, etc. In conclusion, it would seem that only about 3% of the internet users genuinely benefit from the ICT - an extremely small portion of the entire population. For the others, these advances can be a costly adventure that blocks their cognitive capacities rather than promoting them.

2  Technological virtues

My goal is not to argue that ICT are worse than their reputation, but to show that the above arguments put forward to prove their benefits are erroneous. Either because their reasoning is too vague, or because they are laden with ideologies.

We must beware of ideologies that often rest on technical determinism and understand that techniques that result from science are not themselves a part of science. Their social implications depend above all on society and, ipso facto, on human choices. In order to understand this situation better, we should increase the intellectual exchanges between researchers of distinct disciplines: natural sciences, social sciences and technology. We could then laugh at the myths presented to us, but also see how our cultures function just like those that we consider primitive: in spite of our technological advances, intellectual knowledge linked to our wide use of written text, moral and ethical demands, we still accept to live in a world of gullibility, irrationality and deceit. Our modernity seems sometimes regressive.

In studying more rigorously the fruits of our work (such as the Internet), counteracting the monstrosities produced under cover of blind faith in contemporary technologies, we could understand and explain why the worst softwares are most widely spread, how phenomena like Echelon function, and assess the reality of cyberwars.

We have work ahead of us.


1Information and communication technologies.