The IT Revolution, Knowledge-Society And The Quality Of Life: A Deeper Perspective–M.S. Srinivasan

[Revised version of an article published in Sri Aurobindos Action]

The advent of Information Technology (IT) was greeted with euphoria.  The techno-prophets and pundits all over the world predicted that “IT revolution” will “change everything” from economy and commerce to society and culture; it will completely revolutionise the way we think, live and work; it will create the paperless office and ultimately it will herald the golden age of knowledge.  This is the hype.  This article examines the facts and reflects on their future implications for creating a better quality of human life in the light of a deeper spiritual perspective.  The main objective of this article is to examine the philosophical and spiritual implications of IT which are ignored in the mostly technical and managerial discussions on IT.  This author believes that India with her deep and profound spiritual and philosophical heritage, has to be a thought-leader in such discussion which can give a higher direction to technology.  This article is a humble contribution from an Indian mind in initiating such a discussion.  The inspirational source of this article is the spiritual intuition of ancient and modern Indian seers like the Upanishadic sages, Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda.

Key Perspectives: the use of IT: the present facts;  IT and quality of life; higher knowledge and the true knowledge-society; IT, education and culture; IT and human unity; IT and the destiny of matter

 The Use of IT: The Present Facts

Nobody can deny the tremendous impact of IT in the economic, industrial and commercial life and also to a lesser extent in the social sphere, like for example its potential for distributed decision-making, tele-commuting or work-life balance.  However some of the not-so-desirable impacts of IT are now becoming more and more visible.

Many thinkers have expressed their apprehension that IT may lead to a widening gap between the info-rich and the info-poor.  And since in the future the main source of wealth will be “knowledge” and not capital or material resources, the gap between the info-rich and info-poor may lead to a corresponding gap between the economically rich and poor.  Initially it was thought IT will be eco-friendly because it seemed to be non-polluting, and reduce paper consumption.  But some of the latest research shows most of these optimistic hopes have not materialised.  Discarded computers are found to be highly toxic to the environment and posing serious waste-disposal problems.  The utopia of paperless office has become a joke because, after the advent of IT, paper consumption has increased manifold!

Let us now have a look at the way IT is used by humanity at present.  For any technology is only a tool; how much it benefits humanity depends to a large extent on the quality, motives and values of the consciousness which uses it.  So a quick glance at the present patterns of IT usage may indicate the present condition of humanity and what IT cannot change.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Millennium Edition, the most frequently used search-word on the Internet is “sex” with an average of 1.55 million searches a month; in the second place comes “chat”, which means some form of gossip, with around four lakhs searches per month. Not all chat in internet may be of the gossiping type.  There may be professional chat corners which may be useful for the chatters.  But in general internet chat may be called as global e-gossip! We need not reel out statistics to show that the most extensive use of IT is in business or E-commerce; it is obvious to everyone who is watching the rapid spread of IT in Business.  Next to business, the other large-scale use of IT is in the defence establishment and for spying, which means for power.  According to the well-known futurist thinkers Alvin Toffler, the future wars will be fought more in cyberspace than in geographical space.  In India recently a top commander of the Armed Forces exhorted the officers of the army to prepare for the “info-war” of the future.  According to a report, one of the most efficient and effective user of IT is the Alqueda terrorists! The other area in which use of IT is spreading fast is Entertainment.  So, what are the predominant motives for using IT? It is the motive for power, wealth, sex, gossip and entertainment.  Surely, IT is also used for education, research and medicare.  But the use of IT for these higher motives is relatively much less in comparison to its use for the lower motives.  This is because the dominant interests of humanity in its present condition are not those of knowledge but of wealth, power and enjoyment.

 IT and Quality of Life

So what IT has changed? Definitely not “everything”.  To change “everything” there must be a radical change in human nature.  Interestingly, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve of US, talking about the financial meltdown said:  “Its human nature,  unless somebody can find a way to change human nature we will have more crisis and none of them look like this because and no two crisis have anything in common except human nature.” (Greenspan, P, 2008)  And no technology, information, bio or nano, can change human nature. Biotechnology can perhaps bring about some fundamental changes in physical nature by genetic engineering and therefore can be of great help in curing uncurable diseases or genetic defects.  But from a long-term perspective, such changes effected by bio-technology may not amount to much interms of health and well-being of humanity.  For as long as the inner nature of human being remains defective, this imperfection will creep into the physical nature through the “psycho-somatic” principle and new diseases will replace old ailments.  For example medical science was able to more or less eliminate cholera or tuberculosis in the West but they were replaced by cancer and HIV.  Bio-technology may one day find an easy cure for cancer or HIV but as long as the inner nature of man is full of greed, negativities and perversion, this inner darkness will manifest itself in the physical in the form of new maladies.  This principle applies to all attempts to achieve human or societal perfection through outer methods like technology or organization.

This author would like to mention here that he is not against the use of IT in business or entertainment or defense.  What he is trying to convey here is that as long as the dominant motives and values of human life are utilitarian, materialistic, sensuous and selfish, technology by itself, however high, powerful and efficient it may be, cannot lead to any radical change in human life.  On this subject of limitations of technology, Peter Senge, a leading and influential management thinker, made the following thoughtful observations, which are worth pondering over:

“Many people seem to believe that technology is the major driver of change-that is a conventional cultural story in industrial societies.  Personally, I think that only the most superficial changes are being brought about by technology. The sole exception I would make to that is in so far as technology moves information, you can argue that Radio Free Europe did more to break down the Soviet Union than political pressure, so clearly the movement of information is not trivial. But did it change so fundamentally how anybody thought? Did it pave the way for the emergence of effective twenty-first-century institutions in Russia and in Eastern Europe? Surely, the events of the past few years would lead us to question that.”

IT might have helped us to become faster, more efficient and productive.  But does a faster and a more productive or efficient life lead to a better and a more qualitatively superior life?  Here again Peter Senge’s reflections on this question are interesting:

“Now most of what is going on in technology, I believe, falls into the category of doing what people have always done, but faster. We westerners seem especially attracted to ‘more’ and ‘faster’ as the essence of innovation.  We never think we do anything fast enough, so we always want to do things a little faster.  This is insane at some level, since no one has ever figured out how to enhance the quality of life faster. Usually, things that enhance the quality of life involve slowing down, not speeding up. But, of course, we are focused more on quantity than quality of life, so speed is very alluring to us.” (Senge, P, 1998)

However, as Peter Senge indicates the benefits and potentialities of IT are not trivial.  Among all technologies, IT has the highest potential for uplifting humanity.  When this potent gift of modern technology is used at the service of a greater idea and higher values, it can be a powerful instrument for a true and lasting social transformation.

The Higher Knowledge and the True Knowledge-Society

It is undoubtedly a powerful instrument of knowledge and  has the potential to create a knowledge-society, which means a world governed by knowledge. This brings us to the question what is the type of knowledge or knowledge-society which can prepare and eventually change human nature and therefore truly change everything, and how IT can help in disseminating this higher knowledge?   What is a true knowledge-society?  A society in which knowledge is used mainly for a more efficient and productive pursuit of wealth, power, enjoyment or the corporate bottomlines cannot be called a knowledge-society; it is still a utilitarian society.

In a higher perspective, a true knowledge-society is the one in which knowledge and learning is the dominant motive of humanity; it will be a society in which knowledge is sought not only or mainly for the practical benefits it brings, but for the joy of knowledge, and for a better understanding of the higher laws, aims and values of life and organize the outer life according to this higher understanding.   In such a society, the motives of power, wealth and vital enjoyment are subordinated to this higher motives of knowledge and not the other way round as it is happening now.  In other words, in a true knowledge-society, education, research, and culture, and not economics, business and politics, will be the dominant social organ.  IT in such a society will be an instrument mainly of culture and not controlled by commerce as it is now.

Here again, we would like to clarify here some of the possible doubts, misconceptions or misunderstandings which may arise regarding this conception of knowledge-society.  We are not making any condemnatory moral judgement on the motives of wealth, power, pragmatic knowledge and enjoyment, or on the organs of wealth and power that is business and politics.  The motives of power, wealth and enjoyment are some of the psychological needs of the human being and have a significant role to play in human evolution.  These are the motives which awaken the individual and the community from the inertia, indolence and mechanical routine of physical nature to the dynamism of the vital nature or the life force; these are the motives which bring vitality, vigour and prosperity to the individual and the community.  Similarly, business and politics are indispensable organs of the human society because they are a collective expression of some of the fundamental psychological needs of human beings.  In any society of the past, present or future there will be business, politics and the social organism; there will also be luxury industries, which cater to the vital enjoyment of people.

For, we cannot eat knowledge or wear knowledge.  We need commerce and industries to produce the utilities and luxuries for people.  We need government to co-ordinate, regulate and direct the various organs of society.  We need pragmatic knowledge and the people with the appropriate temperament, inclination, motives and the capacity for the efficient organisation of the material, economic, social and political life of the community.

But in a spiritual vision of human society the motives of wealth, power and enjoyment are not the highest motives and aims of life.  These are the motives of the physical and vital nature of humans.  But a human being is not merely a body, or emotions, senses and their desires which together constitute what we may call as the vital nature of humans.  There is a higher nature in us beyond our physical and vital nature, which is made of our mental, moral, aesthetic and spiritual being.  To rise into this higher mental and spiritual nature is perhaps the next step in human evolution.  The central aim of this next, future step in human evolution will not be mere socio-economic development of the outer life of humans; it will be the inner evolution of the individual and the collectivity or, in other words, the mental, moral, aesthetic, psychological and spiritual development of the human being.

The main motives of this higher stage in evolution will not be power and wealth; it will be the higher values and aims of life like truth, beauty, goodness, harmony, unity, freedom, equality, perfection and ultimately the Divine, which is the source of all values, ideals and perfections. The enjoyment that is pursued in this higher stage of evolution will not be solely or predominantly the sensuous or vital enjoyment but the aesthetic and spiritual enjoyment of the beauty and joy of life. The knowledge that is sought after will not be merely the materially pragmatic knowledge but the psychological, aesthetic and spiritual knowledge, which will lead to the concrete realisation of these higher motives, values and aims in the inner and outer life of human beings. For “knowledge” means, in the Indian spiritual conception, not information; nor is it practically useful knowledge which can be “­leveraged” for “competitive advantage”.  Knowledge means inner illumination which brings more consciousness or awareness; which leads to greater self-knowledge and a deeper world-knowledge and uplifts us to a higher level of consciousness; liberates us from ego, desire, bondage and suffering and transforms us into a new human being.  The knowledge-society of the future will seek this liberating higher knowledge.

And this is the next and the most logical step in the higher evolution of humanity.   The present urgent need is to tackle the maladies of hunger, poverty and inequality which are related to the problem of Equality, which is a fundamental higher value of the human spirit.  All the power and potentialities of IT has to be used extensively to awaken humanity to the need of Equality and Distributive Justice and disseminate the knowledge which will lead to a more and more equitable distribution of wealth, power, resources, knowledge and culture in the society.  However, we must also start thinking on the next step in the evolution of IT, which is perhaps to include in its purview not only outwardly utilizable knowledge but also inwardly pragmatic wisdom which will help people to become better human being and realize their spiritual destiny.  The well-known science-fiction writer and the great prophet of science, Sir Arthur Clarke made the following interesting observation:

“When the world’s collective conscience finally succeeds in mobilizing sufficient political will and resources to banish the twin scourges of poverty and hunger, we will be left with another more insatiable but far less destructive substitute¾the hunger for knowledge and wisdom.  Let’s hope the world will never run out of that particular hunger.” (Clarke, A, 2008)

IT, Education and Culture

Some contemporary thinkers believe that in the future the use of IT will shift from business to education.  If this happens it will be a welcome trend.  But the nature of the impact of such a shift depends on the values and vision of education.  If the aim of education is predominantly utilitarian, or controlled by commercial motives or the interests of business then there is not likely to be any qualitative change in society.

For example, at present there is a grow­ing demand and pressure on the educational system to create a system of education, which will prepare the individual for the “New Economy”.  We must note here that the demand is not for a system of education which will prepare the individual for the whole of life or to create a better human being but to provide skilled employees and great entrepreneurs to run and lead the “New Economy”, as if human society is nothing but economics, business and commerce!  But human society also has other important organs like culture, religion, education and politics, which also need good workers and great leaders.  Our society needs great teachers and educators, efficient and honest administrators, and great statesmen.  It also needs great thinkers, artists, philosophers, saints and sages to provide creative ideas and higher values.   A holistic system of education must be able to serve the knowledge­-needs of these other organs of the society.

But the present social consciousness is not very much interested in the development of these other organs of the society because it is dominated by the temperament, mentality and values of the commercial man.  Here again, we are not making any moral judgement on the present condition of the society but only describing the fact of the present society.  For such may be the evolutionary needs of the present age. But as the human society evolves and moves on to a higher level of con­sciousness, the power-balance between the different organs of the society will begin to radically change and herald the true knowledge-society, which we are talking about.  In this knowledge-society of the future, the dominant social organs will be those institutions of culture, education and spirituality, which will impart the knowledge that will lead to the higher evolution of humanity in the mental, moral and spiritual dimensions of life.  And the other organs like business and politics will play a subordinate and supportive role to the dominant organ of culture.

But this scenario we are sketching is not entirely futuristic.  In almost all ancient civilisations the dominant social organs were not business but religion, culture and poli­tics.  For example, in the golden era of the Vedic age in ancient India, the entire society aspired for spiritual knowledge, which liberates the soul. In the ancient Indian Upanishads, we can find descriptions of people from every section of society seeking spiritual knowledge.  There are in them descriptions of king-sages giving spiritual instructions to high-caste Brahmin seekers; a poor cart-driver, who is an illumined yogi, instructing a king on spiritual knowledge; a wealthy merchant belonging to the low-caste and an illegitimate child of a woman who tells her son that she “knows not who was his father” seeking for spiritual knowledge.  We are perhaps moving towards a similar type of knowledge-society in the future. But the future humanity will be more intellectually and technologically advanced than the vedic age. There will be a more systematic and scien­tific approach to spiritual knowledge and an attempt towards a more extensive and wide­spread diffusion and application of spiritual knowledge for the enrichment of the whole life of man. And Information Technology in this future society will be an instrument of education and culture for disseminating this higher knowledge to the society.

Here comes some of the unique potentialities of IT.  Among all technologies human mind has invented so far, IT along with the modern communication technology has the highest potential to make knowledge the dominant motive of human life and herald the true knowledge-society. For the modern information-commu­nication-entertainment technologies- (ICE as they are called now) with the audio- visual aids and techniques like the multimedia, graphics, animation, etc. can make knowledge and learning a joyful, interesting and entertaining activity.  In fact, ICE technologies can convert education into entertainment and entertainment into education.  In the eastern spiritual tradition there is a precious body of psychological and spiritual knowledge which can steer the higher and future evolution of humanity towards its spiritual destiny in a higher consciousness.  ICE technologies have the potential to impart this higher knowledge in a very effective manner, through concrete multisensory symbols, images and stories.  When this happens, it can bring immense benefit to humanity.

Modern business is using IT not only extensively but also with great enterprise, dynamism, creativity and innova­tion. If IT is used with the same enterprise and creativity in education, human develop­ment and health care and spirituality, it can have a much more positive impact on humanity.  For this to happen there has to be an elevation in the motives and values and vision of humanity to a higher level, towards those higher motives, which will lead to the fulfillment of the evolutionary destiny of humanity and the planet earth.

IT and Human Unity

And one of the major goals of human evolution is human unity.  Many great thinkers, seer and sages all over the world have dreamed of this ideal of unity.  Most of these dreams or visions conceive some form of external economic, social or political unity or world-government as the ideal of human unity.  However in a deeper and a more holistic perspective, the ideal is an inner unity of consciousness expressing itself in an outer organization of world-unity.

In this deeper view, the evolutionary destiny for the human collectivity is a globally conscious humanity inwardly conscious of its unity in its mind, heart and soul.   This spiritual destiny can be realised only by a spiritual education and culture which makes each individual inwardly aware of the unity of consciousness in her deepest and highest self, where she can feel all others as part of her own self.  As we have said already, IT can be a powerful tool for this spiritual education of the individual and the collectivity. It can also help in creating an ideal external environment in which the inner unity of humanity can emerge.  This inner unity has to emerge as the result of a moral and psychological change or transformation in the human consciousness. This inner change in the collective con­sciousness can come either from a strong pressure of the external environment or an inner pressure from the divine consciousness or from a conscious collective spiritual discipline, or in other words, some form of collective yoga.

The change brought about by the pressure of external environment is a slow process of natural evolution.  On the other hand change effected by the inner discipline of yoga is a rapid, accelerated process, which can achieve in a few years what the external method does in a thousand years.  But the information and communication technology, by its capacity for easy and quick networking and global connectivity can considerably accelerate the pace of external unification of humanity.  This global cyber-environment will have a corresponding psychological impact on humanity and prepare the human consciousness for the eventual realisation of its inner unity.  For example, IT enables people who are geographically separated in different countries and continents to work together in cyber-space.  This creates a global social habit which is favourable to the external unification of humanity.  In this way, external unification of humanity in the cyber-space will prepare and habituate the human consciousness and life, both psychologically and socially, for the eventual realisation of the inner unity in the inner space of human consciousness.

But ultimately outer connectivity created by IT must lead to inner connectivity in the psychological and spiritual realms.  IT can help in broadening the human mind through a greater interchange and sharing of ideas and experiences across global and cultural borders.  IT may create global cultural communities based on shared values, ideal and experiences, which may one day supplant geographical and political nationalism.  Cultural communities create a deeper bonding at the mental level than the social and political unities.  But such global cultural fraternities, if it is organised around dogmatic and exclusive ideals may also lead to intense cultural conflicts on a global scale.  Another problem with Information and Communication technology is that it encourages too much of useless chatting whereas inner connectivity requires inner silence.  There is no technological solution to these obstacles created by IT to inner connectivity.  They can be neutralized only by a system of education, which can internalize ideals like tolerance, mutual understanding, universal humanism and inner peace in the consciousness of people.

IT and the Destiny of Matter

When we look at the evolution of IT with a discerning eye, we will see that it is a movement towards creating an intelligent material environ­ment responsive to the consciousness of human beings. According to some IT prophets, in the future every material object or gadget from doors and windows in our home or electric shavers to the automobile will have a microchip, which is a tiny electronic brain, that will monitor and control that object or gadget according to our needs, tastes and require­ments; and all these tiny electronic brains will be connected through TV and the Internet into some sort of a global electronic brain.  And again, when we examine the evolution of Computer Technology, we will see that it is a movement towards replicating human consciousness and its faculties in a Machine, which means in Matter. This movement at present has given birth to a new field in computer science called “Artificial Intelligence” or AI in short.   The aim of AI is to simulate or replicate human consciousness and its faculties in a machine. According to some computer experts, the computers of the future will be able to think, feel, sense, speak, communicate and interact with man. (Kurzwie, R, 1999)

What is the hidden significance of this evolution of IT?   Here comes the importance of Sri Aurobindo’s integral vision which reveals the spiritual and evolutionary significance of this technological advance.  According to Sri Aurobindo, a perfect, total and integral Consciousness is the source of creation.  The goal of evolution is the return of the entire human and terrestrial creation, made of Mind, Life and Matter back to its source, which means become one with or participate in the Perfect Consciousness.  This applies not only to Mind and Life, but also to Matter.  So Conscious Matter is a part of the evolutionary destiny of our planet.  For, in this world-view not only Mind, but also Life and Matter are in their essence expressions of consciousness.  There is a consciousness involved in Matter.  A particle of matter is nothing but a point of consciousness, self-lost in its own whirl. (Srinivasan, M.S, 2007)

When we examine the evolutionary process of Nature, we will find that consciousness (in whatever degree or level) begins to mani­fest in matter when the material organism acquires a certain complexity and appropriate instruments to manifest a given level of consciousness. We can see a similar pattern in the evolution of IT.  IT will give to Matter and the material environment the needed complexity and the instrument so that the consciousness of the Spirit hidden in Matter may manifest and communicate with the consciousness in humans.  This­ will create a conscious and intelligent material environment responsive to the consciousness of humans.

Thus, there is a still higher planetary destiny beyond human unity.  It is the Unity of Conscious Matter, which becomes flexible, responsive and receptive to the consciousness of the Spirit in Man.  And IT has perhaps a role to play in preparing the material life for this higher destiny.

References:

  1. Clarke, Arthur, ‘The Future of Food’ (A summary of interview with Arthur Clarke by Nalaka Gunawardhane, The Hindu, May 4, 2008.
  2. Greenspan, Alan,  8th Sep 2009 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8244600.stm
  3. Kurzwie, Ray, ‘Spiritual Machine,’ The Futurist, Nov.99, p.14-21.
  4. Senge, Peter, ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ (eds) Rowan Gibson, Rethinking the Future, Nicholas Brearley, London, p. 122-46.
  5. Srinivasan. M.S, ‘Future of Matter’, a series, Next Future, January to August, 2007, Next Future. http://nextfuture.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/jan07/nf_home.htm

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