DE RERUM NATURA:  A  POVERTY  OF  ATTENTION

MANILA
, March 7, 2005 (STAR) De Rerum natura By Maria Isabel Garcia  -  The United Nations seems worried. It will hold a summit this week called the UNís World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that wants to close in on what it would take to narrow the "digital divide." The digital divide is the gap between the technology haveís and have notís, sort of like an order of worlds, tech-wise. But the World Bank is questioning the numbers that spell the UNís "digital divide," saying that the UNís target of 50 percent of the worldís being connected in terms of fixed-line telephones by 2015 has already been achieved as of this time and even more so ó 77 percent of the worldís citizens are already connected via mobile phones. But the UN seemed to hint that even if its targets have been reached, the divide is still "real" and therefore, would have to be addressed. Its Digital Solidarity Fund, which will be the collector of voluntary one percent contributions from "private technology service providers" worldwide, hopes to be able to give to community "digital" technology projects, mostly in least developed and developing countries.

I think the World Bankís numbers are closer to reality. I have traveled to the last remaining real Kingdom in Bhutan and though they refuse to use a traffic light and have "dzongs," temples on mountaintops, that lift their prayers to the heavens, they still find a need for Internet access. Watch National Geographic and you will see how ubiquitous mobile phones are even in the places you have always thought was too exotic to have them. Leonardo DiCaprio, in an interview with Jay Leno a month or so ago, recalled his adventure with a very isolated tribe, a tribe he supposedly chose because of its insulation from the modern world. DiCaprio recalled being interrupted in the initial process of engaging the tribal chieftain with matters of great anthropological interest. The chieftain digressed from the topic of their exchange and asked him: "Leonardo? Leonardo DiCaprio?" DiCaprio said, "Yes." Chieftain asked: "Titanic?" DiCaprio said he was speechless and he later found out that there was a mini-satellite dish installed in the village that enabled the tribe to watch American movies. Close to home, the DOST has just extended its "Interconnectivity Project," which enables the purchase of necessary hardware and software to enable the public schools of Central Luzon to have access to the Internet. I was told that since the projectís inception in 1998, Regions 4, 6 and 11 as well as a municipality in Region 5 have been "wired." While this certainly opens the doors for these schools to be part of a digital community of minds, I hope private individuals and corporations do their part in ensuring that the teachers and students of these schools have continued access through the years because once these are open, minds will be, too, and these worlds are open to young minds; it will be such a waste (and cruel) to close and open them, depending on the state of our governmentís budget.

But I think the "divide" will remain real, not in hardware or software but in terms of what we do with the hardware and software. We keep forgetting that technology is not progress itself but a means to it. The word "technology" was not even a word for popular usage until the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1861. But even the hard-core technologists and intellectuals at MIT who soak in the thrilling experience of inventions and mechanisms come up with the insight that there should be something distinctively elevating about the technology and the pace that it has afforded our lives before we can say that we have unconditionally arrived into the "sapiens" of being "homo," in other words, the meaning of being "human." Do we really think better now that we can think faster? Have we really improved relations now that we can have many of them in a network of electronic address books in our computers and cellphones? Is the world safer, friendlier because we are now all "wired"? While over 200 years ago, one would have to look at someone in the face in battle in order to kill him, satellite communications now enable wars without having to encounter a single human face. Ironic isnít it for a technology rooted in the Latin "communicare," i.e. "to enjoy in common"? Communications technology made it possible for the world to be "wired" but to be "connected" requires more than the ingenious hardware and software our technologists develop for us.

To be "connected" still requires the "ancient technology" which is, in fact, 190,000 years old. I am referring to the human brain which has remained the same size for 190,000 years (age of modern humans or Homo Sapiens) despite our own assessments that we have made leaps and bounds in human consciousness and civilization only in the last 40,000 years or so. While the Homo Sapiensí brain has evolved to figure out mechanisms underlying how aspects of Nature work and feeding them to a computer that can do 70 trillion calculations per second (the fastest computer on record so far), each and every one of us still only have 24 hours a day to make something of this one shot we have at being alive. We still yearn for the same things people did in all of history Ė we want to know where we came from and where we are headed, we want to be connected, we want to know we mattered, and that what we do will be worthwhile. Parchment in the ancient days is the monitor screen of today and just like when an ancient human looked at the night sky and wondered, as do the astrophysicists of today looking at closer views of distant galaxies. It is still you, not the computer, who would have to make sense of the data and tease the possible meanings they hold for us. It is still the same material we are looking into, inner thoughts and outerspace, to know ourselves, the universe and our place in it. The material has to enter our consciousness carefully; it has to be "mindful" in order to matter.

Much more important than increasing the speed of our ability to respond to information then is to improve the quality of our responses. Content should not be sacrificed for speed. Nobel Economist Herbert Simon puts it so succinctly: "What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." A poverty of attention. We are all stricken with this chronic impoverishment, paralyzed or unable to comprehend a breadth of choices. Students routinely "cut and paste" Internet articles as against cultivating their own take on an issue. When I think of it carefully, I realized that the persons who said or wrote the most thoughtful ideas to me even before e-mail came to be, still do so now via e-mail but the ones who have always been sparing or thoughtless with words, still are, even on constant e-mail or text messaging. There will always be people who will be switching from one communications medium to another, without making progress in content. Itís still the same old story. An idiotic message remains idiotic whether it appears in a cave or on your mobile phone screen. It is just much easier to delete it on your mobile screen.

* * * For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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