Sir Robert observed that the changes Communications and Information
Technology have brought about in our lives - in the workplace,
at the market, in the home - are certain to be nothing compared
to the changes that they will bring about in the next three decades.
Moreover the only thing certain thing about those 'huge, transforming,
disruptive, changes' is that we are wrong as to their detail.
There is 'an unpredictable certainty.'
Sir Robert argued that against this background, in the light of broadening social consequences, and of barriers against that dissemination, we need to be very aware of potential problems. Sir Robert consequently welcomed, both personally and also formally, as senior scientific adviser to the government and head of the Office of Science and Technology, the WCIT's initiative in organising these fora. He valued their purpose, both in bringing together a few people here, and their wider application; the first forum achieved roughly a thousand hits on the Website in a short space of time.
Sir Robert went on to introduce the first speaker, Chris Rees,
director of Charteris Management Consulting. He observed that
Charteris gave Chris an authoritative position from which to speak.
The company focuses on briefing management (which in Sir Robert's
definition, often means older people with problems) on Information
Technology. He also noted that Chris served as Senior Warden
and Chairman of Westminster Synagogue and was both Student and
Tutor in Philosophy; with a special interest in the Italian Renaissance.
Chris began by confessing his trepidation following such august speakers and to address such an august audience in august surroundings. However he made no apology for beginning by referring back to the subject of his academic study, one Pacino, the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Florentine renaissance in the fifteenth century. This Pacino, was the leader of the academy in Florence, and translated all of Plato and his work remained the authoritative non-Greek edition until about 1850. The man wrote letters to all the great men of his day; five volumes of his correspondence are already in print and a sixth should appear before the millenium.. Unfortunately Pacino did not say much about technology, he was not much interested in commerce, although vocal on almost everything else. There is one reference to the key technological development of his day, printing. It converts the Latin word for printer impressorium into the Latin word for oppressor oppressorium, and seethes with a general impatience for the process.
Chris was able to isolate two primary questions;
He applied these questions to the issue of fraud. Chris asked whether there was worse fraud, more fraud, a greater capacity for fraud as technology grew more complex. He felt no doubt that the volume processing capacity of IT and the speed of communication do facilitate fraud.
He suggested however that the temptation for the fraudster to transfer money around and take money out of a banking system is not new.
He went on to state clearly that the tool for combating fraud is embodied in technology itself. He described his own involvement in the privatisation fraud audits of the eighties. One could apply once for shares; the way to accumulate shares was to make many applications; many tried to achieve this, believing through their understanding of the technology there were ways to hide. They couldn't and didn't. Chris' team used technology like fuzzy matching to achieve the highest prosecution rate of any system whatsoever. He suggested a similar scenario with credit cards. There is lots of credit card fraud but equally effective ways of counteracting it.
Chris also gave the example of money laundering. Proceeds from drugs etc are certainly moved around the system using banking technology. However the largest problem for money launderers is still the task of placing money in the system in the first place. It has remained so since money laundering started, probably soon after banking; either in the fifteenth century or 2BC depending on your perspective. The issue is, fundamentally, one of control, and strategies to enforce that can be remarkably simple. In Italy no transaction over 4,500 lira can take place without a bank account and hence clear identification. The Italian Foreign Exchange Office has taken over the job of detecting money laundering and identify transactions taking place in banks using statistical methods. However new technology, through neural networks and information systems management etc, can be very useful in the identification of money transactions, patterns and discrepancies
Chris then raised the ethical issues surrounding Privacy. The government certainly has the scary potential to combine data, to correlate it with that possessed existed by the DVLA or the Inland Revenue for a long time.
The public is however very sensitive to this danger and there is very little evidence of large scale abuse. The police can and do misuse the PLC, as a number of recent cases have highlighted. The problem is however, ultimately, corrupt policemen. Security lies in the probity of the public servant.
Take the fascinating example of the Hong Kong Road Charging experiment. It failed. It did not do so technologically. The technology succeeded brilliantly. It failed because senior government figures did not want the whereabouts of their cars revealed. Cars tracked in the centre of town reveal the secret paths of the adulterous politician.
The problem of Privacy, at least in England, lies as much in the gullibility of the English as in the increasing sophistication of technology. The Englishman will tell the most intimate details of his sex life to the market researcher on the street who has a formal list of questions. Technology facilitates but it does not invent the violation of privacy.
Chris described the double edged sword of technological advances in education. High speed PCs can make the teaching capability of the best teacher accessible to a much wider range of students. They make available new subjects inexpensively. However they also denature the classroom situation, and break down the healthy discourse of the group.
Similarly the availability of the web site and of CD Roms adds value to many student projects. However Chris is appalled, as he watches his young son study, by the shallowness of 99% of material available. Ironically enough it is only by exposure to that shallowness that his son is motivated to pick up the Britannica and 'get some real research done'. Technology, Chris argued, is too easy. In many ways it's an extension of television.
Chris then summarised his argument regarding the ethical issues with which technology confronts us. They are present, and pressing but they are not new. They are merely exacerbated and accelerated by the new technologies on offer.
He then turned to spiritual issues. He pointed to a problem posed both by distance learning and by computer games; that of sitting too long in front of a screen. If the body, he argues, is the chariot of the soul, then we have a responsibility to keep it in shape. He spoke of his work in the field of expert systems; a technology that employs knowledge of key individuals to achieve results. He has tried to encourage clients to make key knowledge available throughout the organisation in the awareness that systems are used to de-skill jobs.
The most significant spiritual implication of IT is the 'domination of the momentary'. Computer games take a stage further the strategy of advertisements, TV and computers themselves. They shift time scale to promote an incessant undemanding hype and excitement. Teachers everywhere know that the key to learning is attention. All spiritual practices, prayer, meditation, reflection demand and depend on stillness. Anything that destroys that stillness is problematic.
'Be still and know thy God.'
Chris concluded by suggesting that the way to confront these spiritual and ethical issues is not to push government for legislation but to continue with the kind of activity this colloquium represents.
Sir Robert introduced David Prior as the leader of the Centre
for Marketplace Theology, an institute that strives to provide
people in the work place with Christian theology. His rich and
varied background includes travelling as a visiting lecturer all
over world. He is author of seven books, including Creating Community,
published in 1993.
David introduced himself as virtually computer illiterate. He had however derived much of the material from his talk from the Internet with the help of his daughters' friends.
He chose to start not with an Italian philosopher but with Etienne Pascal. Etienne Pascal was a magistrate and tax commissioner, born in Clermont Ferrand, in central France. When his wife died, he moved with family in Paris and then to Rouen. He educated his children at home.
His seventeen year old son Blaise, observing the burdensome calculations which often kept his son up until two o'clock in the morning, set to work devising the world's first calculating machine. His invention based on a series of rotating discs, became the basis of the arithmetical machine until modern times. Blaise was a brilliant mathematician and physicist. He was also credited with inventing the hydrostatic press, a means of measuring altitude by reading barometric pressure.
On the 23rd November 1634 aged 31, Blaise Pascale experienced Christian conversion. He entered a monastery, came under influence of the Jansenists, and from then on engaged the casuistry of the Jesuits, the rationalism of Descartes and the scepticism of Montaigne. Seven years after his death at the age of 39 of his Pensées, a Christian apologetics, were published.
David claimed Pascale as one of his heroes; a hero moreover, who would have been intimately involved in the information revolution, had he lived in our century .
He went on to consider three perspectives relating to the spiritual and ethical implications of IT and to illustrate each with a reference to Pascal.
'More people can have greater access to more information more often'. Or, 'We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning" wrote the post-modernist writer , Baudrillard, who David (debatably) characterised as nihilist. David argued that cyberspace culture's 'pervasive line' is that increased exposure to information is in itself good, both for individuals and for society. One Harvard lecturer in 1978 referred back to the forfeited right of people 'not to know'; not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip nonsense and vain talk. The person who works and lives a meaningful life has no need of excessive and burdensome information.
David claimed that one either rants or raves about IT and that his own inclination was to rant, though he would like to be reasonable.
He quoted that 'the mightiest hard drive, the most sophisticated word processor and the most powerful search engine on the planet will not download wisdom into the human soul. He thought it would be hard not to agree tentatively with that claim but would probe deeper to expose a wider uncertainty about a mass of information and a loss of meaning. He quotes Pascale "There was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace, which he tries in vain to fill with everything around him; seeking in things that are not there, the help he cannot find in those that are." David would submit that Pascale opens up a perspective on mass information available on the Internet
David observed that there was nothing wrong with virtual reality, so long as virtuality does not usurp or replace reality. Indeed a poem of T.S. Eliot remarks 'humankind cannot bear very much reality'. It may however be that the virtual reality in which we live becomes a kind of escape. A virtual world is only virtual as long as we can contrast it with the real world. One of the worrying aspects of young people getting involved in virtual reality, is that the distinction between virtual reality, reality, and what David would want to call Ultimate Reality becomes blurred.
Pascal again, wrote about the Fall, by putting words into the mouth of God 'He wanted to make himself his own centre and do without help. He withdrew himself from my rule setting himself up as my equal in his desire to buy happiness for himself. But I abandoned him to himself.'
When we turn on, log on, jack in, we feel we connect with a system which transcends the finitude and the frailty of our off line lives. Yet in fact this reality is only the virtual work of human minds and hands. We are withdrawing into ourselves, a human concoction. Narcissus has taken up residence in Cyber space. We simulate in order to be simulated. Timothy Leary (a 1960s LSD Guru) claimed that Personal Computing was the LSD of the 1990s.' (He also claimed that Bill Gates was a psychedelic experimenter at Harvard.)
The need for constant stimulation has become omnipresent in our culture. David's notes linked back, like Chris', to the need for silence, stillness and reflection. Pascale wrote that 'our nature consists in movement. Absolute rest is death'. We have great difficulty in being quiet. One of Pascale's great themes is Diversion, the cost of boredom and anxiety. Cyber space may prove to be the greatest temptation yet offered to human kind to lose its soul in diversion. David quoted a CD Rom game released in 1995, called Afterlife, which advertised 'The first World Building Simulation that allows you to simultaneously manage two pieces of unreal estate; Heaven and Hell."
He concluded with a quote from Linear. 'The Internet exists for people to connect with eachother; but to connect with the mystery of the universe the Internet won't do. God doesn't have a web site.'
Peter Dawe claimed that the two talks raised many problems. For example, as far as Virtual Reality was concerned, it could equally be argued that the church is a human construction of a virtual reality.
He observed that many of the problems we face now are concerned do with a loss of community. Up until recently he only had two communities; the community of his son's school and the community of his work. Without a local pub or church, he had no constant interaction. The Internet allowed him to generate a community. The only disadvantage is that it is likely to be a single interest; imagine an entire community interested in Mauritian postage stamps. And of course not all interests are as innocent, there are many morbid developments in computer games; road accident simulation etc.
Mr Dawe commented that the Internet gives us something that traditionally we are taught to value, namely freedom of speech. In the past only a controlled press could reach a wide audience. With the Internet anyone can potentially reach a large number of people to expound the most strange and objectionable ideas. On one side this is of value but without constraint or responsibility it is also very dangerous.
The Internet, as it was set up, opened the opportunity to introduce routine digital signatures. We could know who sent the information and gather feedback. For National Security reasons this was not allowed. If digital signatures were the norm we could reach a point where we discounted correspondence without them.
Mr Taylor denied having profound thoughts on ethical issues; profundity was out of the remit of ministers. At the same time he felt he could participate in the debate with a fresh mind because has not yet spoken on subject.
He pointed out that the Church has not always been entirely comfortable with the dissemination of wider knowledge. When the bible became more freely available, it upset those members of the church who found that when they were not giving out the word of God, they were receiving questions; not quite the same thing.
We need to be careful. That more information is more freely available is not necessarily a bad thing. Mr Taylor would throw back a question - does church still think there is a danger inherent in information? He hopes the answer is no. There is nothing wrong with information per se; the focus must be on the development of ourselves so that we can handle it. In a sense, part of the task ahead is to promote people's spiritual development as well as to give them access to an incredible resource.
Mr Taylor notes that there is a common misconception that if one goes beyond talk one is abusing something precious. People also opposed the dissemination of books.
He gave a straightforward example of his younger son who forgot his art book at end of term; the Internet allowed him to discover the painting he needed to write about in the Uffizzi gallery itself.
The Internet is anarchic. If designed for anything at all, it is designed to be anarchic. It is designed to be able to resist an attack on any part of its system, which is why if there is a block on any part of the superhighway, all the other parts of the superhighway will compensate for them. If you send a paragraph on the Internet to New York, the message will be broken down and sent on different routes and actually joined up again when it arrives.
We are now in the unusual position of being able to access information from any part of the world. Censorship is therefore difficult to maintain. China is finding out, that it is impossible to bypass the larger system. There are, again, good and bad implications of this. Germany understandably dislikes the display of Nazi information, but cannot close it down. Is this a problem of the system, or of the individual who wants to activate it?
The government cannot regulate an anarchic network. There is no national border which electronic and digital signals recognise. The Internet is an inherently global consideration, to the dismay of those national ministers who have striven to stop the unstoppable.
We pride ourselves on our freedom in England. We do not, however, articulate or legislate on it. In America a recent challenge about display of information on the Internet went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court overruled Congress. There is no such precedent here.
The Church needs to think about these implications, but it also needs to use the network. There is a vacuum, not in the system itself because it cannot support a vacuum, but a vacuum of spiritual discussion. People who are using the new highways need help to think about how they want to use them; not in a virtual sense but in a practical sense.
MM was encouraged, but concerned, by the negativity of key speakers. There is a huge opportunity for educationalists, and for the church, to create a sense of balance. Children, who are incredibly good at using IT, and those of us who are involved with their development, are concerned to see this opportunity seized.
PB felt too much time was spent talking about regulation and control. Education is very important and we must teach people how to use computers to benefit from them. Data is useless until it is put together in the human brain. He offered an anecdote; two theologians were working with a computer, they typed the question into the computer 'Is there a God?'. The answer came back 'on your knees'.
What concerned him was the unspoken assumption of a homogeneity of disadvantages and opportunities. It was important to be aware of differential exposure, enrichment vs. corruption; for example according to class and age.
There are two models for the Christian's relation to community.
The first is Gaia, a dream of complete interconnection of access.
Over and against this is the Old Testament image of the Tower of Babel, a kind of early Internet, the intention of which was to get everyone to speak a kind of foreign language. Babel was simply too large, too hubristic, it allowed all kinds of corruption to spread. Perhaps, most importantly, communities work best when they are small, when they are local, and when people can meet with one another. An uncritical use of the net, can mean a substitution of a real community for an unreal community.
HT disagreed with Chris, maintaining that cryptography introduced some important new ethical issues. HT is a member of many different communities. He would compare the Church community which is broadly based, has an important richness with the Internet communities which are chosen. As a Christian HT considers himself chosen rather than the chooser. As a society however we like to emphasise how much choice we have and how we can exercise it. If one is fascist one can find, on the Internet 100,000 people, who may completely agree with me. Social access is therefore very important. We can no longer assume a separation between children and adults children's technological dexterity overcomes the things we have been keeping apart from children, it raises the issue of our own hypocrisy.
We need to redefine what we mean by society and community, if we are going to make an opportunity rather than a threat out of technology. One of the few things a forum like this or those of us who have been working in IT and communications for a few years, can do is to contribute to thought about the wider issues. What is the natures of the net? Who within it has common interests? The vast majority of the public do not have much understanding of what the Internet can offer. It is important to think about disabled communities etc, rather than scare mongering.
Four comments in relation to Chris' talk;
Thomas met his wife on the Internet (and they now have a baby son) and thus must praise the community it offers! Thomas notes that the single biggest question his Australian software company is asked is 'how can I limit access to information?' The second largest question is 'how can I gain access to illegal information?'
Thomas has never been asked how to get information on the church. Nobody has asked about Christian Websites. When one looks for church involvement, one finds sporadic references to esoteric sects and cults. Traditional christianity is not there, or if it is, its not easy to find. This issue must be addressed.
Roger would distinguish the possibilities of de-cyphering of information; 'access to it all' to the opportunities for communication; 'access to them all' that are on offer; to fifty million network users now who are sure to become a billion shortly. Before the pornography issue arose, it was hard to deny the value of the former; access to all the information of all the libraries of the world must be a good thing. It was the communication aspect that was more ethically challenging. Because people with strongly similar interests tend to group there is a trend towards single issue, single interest, human beings. New acts of communication and education are required to ensure that people who use this amazing facility understand its full breadth.
The millennium problem is relevant to this discussion. Both experts
and the public press are deep in speculation about what will happen
when, as the century ends, computer systems all over the world
go down. The only people who have really grasped the extent of
this problem to date are computer literate. Elsewhere one hears
rumours of a universal solution of the 'Bill Gates will come up
with something' variety. Bill Gates, of course, is not paying
the slightest attention to the problem; because he knows there
is nothing he can do to solve it.
As the day gets approaches it is clear that even if the whole of the Western world's systems were adapted, the pirated software in Russia and China could never be put right. This leads to a great deal of fear which in turn leads us to eternal realities. We don't know what is going to happen. God is in final control.
In the Middle Ages, communities may have been God-fearing (and possibly religious, although he noted that this is not necessarily the same thing) but ultimately they were isolated because they had to be. New technologies can keep communities alive that would otherwise would be in state of decline. The government, for example, has in the past closed small village schools because they could not deliver the National Curriculum. Video conferencing could import the needed expertise. Similarly, doctors on line can diagnose ailments in remote areas, or on oil rigs etc. Satellite provides a remarkably cheap way to leap frog technology can be leapfrog technology into Asia and Africa. Technology can keep communities alive.
At the same time one cannot force access to technology or control it, in the same way one cannot control who has which book. All one can do is to give opportunities.
And competition is important here. When BT was privatised in 1984, 78% of households had phone; now 93% are equipped, because prices have fallen and choice has expanded.
Self regulation is essential as technology grows. One simply does not have to watch the undesirable. Indeed technology can help you not to watch it. It is easy enough to pre-ordain that one cannot get access to what is unsuitable. The development of individual responsibility is the issue here.
Finally, anything that is illegal in every day life is also illegal electronically. There are, on an ethical basis, no new crimes. There are new ways to commit crimes. The challenge once more is our individual development.
Whether we like it or not we are in a global community, which cannot be reversed. That community is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual. Those with ethical and spiritual concerns must go out and populate those communities rather than allowing them to become an enclave of the anti-social minority.
People now use phones now to pay their bills, not only out of convenience but also because they prefer anonymity. After the attempt to kill thousands of people on the underground on Japan, within twenty four hours, on the Internet, three very distinguished microbiologists, with PhDs coming out of every ear, had offered advice as to where the terrorists had gone wrong; how they had failed to kill their maximum target number. No one on the radio or Channel Four spoke on such issues. The messages were secretly circulated on the Internet.
Frankly ministers of the crown are deceiving themselves if they don't think it vital to regulate the communications of those who want to give advice on how to kill large numbers of people.
Need for initiatives cost not problem. We talk about Information
Technology very much in the same way that a virus infects a body
and the point is if the body is healthy, can sometimes turn that
to advantage rather than be overwhelmed by it.