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The Global Culture of Digital Technology and Its Ethics

Krystyna Gorniak-Kocikowska
Southern Connecticut State University

The revolutionary nature and global character of digitaltechnology, questioned only a few years ago,are undeniable today. It hasalso become obvious that this technology generates a new lifestyle, newstandards of human behavior, new values; in short, a newculture/civilization is emerging due to the use of digital technology.

In this proposed ETHICOMP2001 paper, an attempt will be made to examine the way in which values -- especially ethical values -- will find aplace in this new global culture/civilization of digital technology. (Theterms 'culture' and 'civilization' will be used interchangeablyhere, because the problems addressed in the paper apply both to what wastraditionally defined as 'culture' and as 'civilization.')

The focal point of the paper is the relation between valuespromoted by the new 'digital civilization,' and the traditional moralvalues created by the major world civilizations -- values that guided themfor centuries. The problem of whether these values are compatible or inconflict with the new 'global ethics of digital culture' will beaddressed in order to examine the character of the globalization process.

With respect to values, the globalization process will most likelyprogress in one of the following two ways:

  1. Globalization could be a process of selection, inclusion,promotion, and blending of the values of traditional cultures with the'newcomer' culture. In this case, all areas of the world would beinvolved in and contribute to the creation of global ethics (globalcivilization, in a broader sense).
  2. Globalization could take the form of a hostile takeover andruthless destruction of traditional values of the local cultures by the newdigital civilization. Hostility and ruthlessness could be hidden behind thepretense of following the first way.

Although the author of this paper favors the first way, thelikelihood that globalization will actually progress in the second wayseems to be greater. The paper will offer some arguments supporting thevalidity of this projection.

Traditionally, the ethics of a particular society was supported,protected, and promoted by that society’s religion or, for instance in China, by a philosophy whose social impact was similar to that of religion.This is still largely true for civilizations other than the westerncivilization.

Besides being the generator and the guardian of society sethical code, traditional religions contain three other fundamentalcharacteristics: creed, cult, and community structure. Without acommunity of believers there is no religion in the traditional sense.

Samuel P. Huntington pointed out that the West generated greatpolitical ideologies, but never a major religion. However, the Westcontributed to one major change within a traditional religion by reforming Christianity. One of the outstanding characteristics of Reformed Christianity has been the emphasis on individual salvation. Another important feature is the Protestant ethics, which -- as was shown brilliantly by Max Weber -- supported 'the spirit of capitalism.'

A very important change the Reformation brought to the structureof Western societies was the separation of church and state. One of theresults of this separation was that churches lost formal control overscientific research and over almost all other forms of intellectualinquiry. Eventually, secular forms of ethics were as well created.

Where the church lost control, the state or private enterprisetook over because the production of ideas, and even more so technologicalinnovations, are costly, they always need financial support. In the freemarket economy of a capitalist society, money has to generate money. Ideasor technological innovations must have at least the potential to in someway benefit the system that enables their production. Otherwise, thefinancial support will eventually be withdrawn.

The spiritus movens of capitalism is individual competition.Capitalist societies promote individualism. No wonder that the mostsuccessful secular ethical theories focus on the individual. The ethical'theory du jour' with a growing popularity at least in the UnitedStates, seems to be ethical egoism. At the same time, the 'classic' Protestant denominations with strong individualistic tendencies, forinstance Presbyterians, are struggling to maintain their membership. One ofthe explanations of why it happens is that the present secular theoriesplus the concept of individual spirituality satisfy the needs of formermembers. On the other hand, the membership in community-orienteddenominations like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostal, or the Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) is growing. Overallhowever, the influence of traditional religions on people's lives in theWest is in decline.

This is the environment that produced the invention of computertechnology and generated the computer revolution.

To sum up: Computer technology and ethical egoism both are theproduct of secular research within a free market capitalist society of theWest, especially the United States. The majority of non-western societies,and some western as well, follow ethical rules created within traditionalreligious systems. These rules are centered on guiding the individual inproperly fulfilling his/her role within the society, which means thesuperiority of the society over the individual. The tension between thesetwo approaches must inevitably produce conflicts. Hence, a clash ofvalues reflecting different civilizations in many places on earth isinevitable as well. This clash of civilizations (to borrow SamuelHuntington's term) could be very strong in the case of ethical values because of the often highly emotional approach people have towards such values.

The changes that computer technology is bringing to peoples's lives are revolutionary. One of the features of every revolution is that itis at the same time both a process of creation and of destruction. Therevolutionary process itself is a very rapid one, which means that there islittle or no time for a thorough and deep reflection on it while theprocess is actually in progress.

The computer revolution undoubtedly brings benefits to people, butit will also contribute very strongly to the rapid destruction oftraditional cultures and their values. This will be a painful processespecially in the (many!) cases where it will not be accompanied by anygains.

One possible way of at least minimizing the harm, if notsuccessfully solving this problem, could be through incorporating theexperiences of the process of interreligious dialogue into the process ofcreating a global ethics of the digital civilization.

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