Rites, Rituals and the Passage of Time: Change in a Technological Age
By Llorenç Valverde
Translated by Anne Kay
Just like every year, when these dates come around, we are to be found repeating a ritual with origins remote in time. We take our academic robes out of the wardrobe, and we come to this hall in a procession led by the ancient symbols of this university, which vouch for it as heir to the Lullian University, created at the end of the 17th century, not without great endeavor and having had to overcome many obstacles, and which lasted only until the 19th century. Once in this hall -- and following an established order -- a member of the faculty prepares to give the first lesson of the course, this time for 199798. All of the professors, who have put on their academic ornaments, wear the symbols of their dignity.
Each color represents a field of knowledge. The cape, the cap, the cuffs -- each one plays a part that is related to the activity and merits of the one who displays it. For example, the academic gown is frequently referred to as the Roman gown. Beyond the simple joke, the toga -- in spite of its Etruscan origin -- was made popular by the Romans, and so we are dressed like real Romans. The ritual has continued since time immemorial, since the first university embryo -- the student cooperatives -- formed in Bologna in the 12th century and which still occurs in universities throughout the world. Sometimes I have been asked about the importance of those symbols, and in spite of considering myself to be more an iconoclast than anything else, I have reason to believe they must be preserved. Therefore I do not abstain from participating in the acts where they are required; nor do I abstain from using them whenever convenient.
In fact those symbols are about the only things that have not changed in the university and, reasonably, the only things that can last if the university, as an institution, has to do so. So here I am, dressed in this archaic way -- anachronistic for many -- willing to speak about something so apparently new as the new information technologies and about some of the ways they will impact our way of life.
The Constant of Change
The contrast between what is new and what is not so new is one of the constants in the evolution of humanity. We search daily for new things, trying to improve our quality of life or simply trying to go further -- to overcome real or invented difficulties, or virtual ones, as we would say today. In fact we learned from the Greeks to ask ourselves questions, to ask about the reasons for things, and as a result of this constant inquiring activity we sometimes obtain answers, and those answers make us change our vision of the world. When our vision changes, it is we ourselves who change, as we are really what we know. Those symbols constitute the sign of identity, which presides over this constant process of transition from what we were -- or what we knew -- yesterday to what we will be -- or will know -- tomorrow.
From this perspective, universities have passed from being student cooperatives to being what they are now: places where official inquirers are gathered and controlled and where the pupils are taught to ask questions explaining to them some of the answers that nowadays we consider to be valid. And so it is true: We know that many of the things that we think today are correct will surely make the people who follow us laugh, just as now we can laugh at some of the theories that were thought to be correct by our forefathers.
It is therefore necessary to escape from the pure and simple conception of the university as a place where, via verification that the pupils have obtained certain knowledge, qualifications are distributed that allow them to carry out certain professions. In the first place, it could be said that even before starting, the certified knowledge needed to carry out a particular profession was obsolete. In the second place, what we really need is for future professionals to be prepared to face this ever-changing world. It is because of this that thinking of a university only as a place of content has induced some illustrious minds to suggest that university degrees -- like yogurt -- should carry expiration dates, without thinking that the only thing that has not expired since the beginning of time is precisely that capacity of humans to question themselves, to ask ourselves constantly who we are. Paradoxically, each time we get the answers, each time we think we are advancing, we realize we were not who we thought we were. Even so, it should be said in passing that this very inquiring activity has become the principal impulse to world economic activity; in other words, it is the fountain of wealth and progress.
The Good and Evil of Technology: An Ageless Paradox
If there is one thing that has produced the sensation of change, it is the new information and communications technologies. Computers are now 50 years old. Personal computers have not yet reached their legal age of consent. The Internet is still a baby in diapers. However, every day we hear voices that cry out about the effects of those technologies -- some in favor, some against. The same has always happened over time. Some -- the technophiles -- praise the benefits to be derived from the popularity and use of these technologies. Others -- the technophobes, the prudent, the Luddites -- warn about the perils, even catastrophes, inherent in those same technologies. You can be sure that both groups are right or, if you prefer, neither is right.
The truth is that not even in this paradox are we original. I will explain what I mean with a reference from Plato that I often use. Socrates explains to Fedra the story of Thamus, king of an Egyptian city, who has as a guest the god Theuth, inventor of many things -- writing, for one. The god shows his inventions to the king, saying the king should inform the Egyptians. The latter asks what advantages they would bring to his people. Each argument by the god is judged by the king according to his own personal vision.
It is extraordinarily significant what happens when the god Theuth offers writing to Thamus as a finding that will improve the wisdom and memory of his people. Faced with those arguments, Thamus reacts by indicating to Theuth that he may be very good at inventing things but he has no way of evaluating what is good or bad about his inventions. The king continues, saying that what Theuth was presenting as the recipe for improving memory could produce the opposite effect: those who might use writing would stop using their memory because they would refer to external signs instead of using their internal resources. Referring to wisdom, he says the effects would be even worse because it would supply his pupils with lots of information without adequate formation, and consequently they would be converted into a disgrace for society because they would be taken for wise people but would really be ignorant. And Plato had not even lived with computers or the Internet.
Through that story, Plato is revered as one of historys first Luddites. It is the neo-Luddites who have raised him onto a pedestal. They are the heirs of the artisans who opposed by force the technologies that at the beginning of the industrial age, they saw as the instruments of their own destruction or, put another way, as instruments of a change of scenery in which their role lost importance. The instinct of survival in all its manifestations is terribly human, and the Luddites fought for theirs. Technology, however, is even more terribly human, because it deals with one of the most proclaimed manifestations that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal species.
The diverse forms of technology are no more than examples of our reaction before manifest disconformity with things as they are. We do not like to be cold, and so we invent clothes. We invent houses to protect us from inclement weather, and agriculture to avoid having to search for food. Not enough provisions arrived by land, and so oceangoing vessels and aircraft were invented. If you can go far enough away, you have to be able to tell your loved ones that you have arrived, and so you have to be able to communicate with them. The steam engine, the very bête noire of the first Luddites, permitted the manufacture of more things at a good price, which therefore made them more accessible to more people. Those forces changed the very structure of society -- for good or for bad -- because each step forward has had its cost, sometimes visible and sometimes not. We have injured, and we continue to injure, our surroundings, and what is worse, we injure ourselves -- the human character that we push to do things as we do them.
With the story of Thamus and Theuth, Plato warns us about one of the inherent perils in the technology of writing that few people would identify as such, because its daily use has made that peril somewhat invisible. But Platos reflection has to be seen -- there is no alternative -- as a serious warning: if you use it, you have to know that you will gain over here but you will lose over there. Prometheus and the fire, Pandoras box, and the imprudence of Icarus are other examples of serious warnings about some of the perils -- and manifestations -- of technology. One must learn to reflect on the pros and cons of each technology, but one must do so with respect -- not fear -- in order to genuinely improve our quality of life while not becoming servile slaves. Technology and culture go completely hand in hand. Without the slightest doubt, technology has to be at the service of culture, but equally without the slightest doubt, technology also is culture.
Perhaps as a contrast to Plato, it is worth mentioning Sir Francis Bacon, who was the first to point out the connection between science and technology and the potential improvement to the human condition. Bacon created a utilitarian concept of knowledge wherein the only end to knowledge was to dote on humans with new inventions and wealth as a means to happiness, thereby completely displacing the previous aim, which was to demonstrate to the nonbelievers -- and to the others -- that the Christians god was the only real god. The printing press, gunpowder, and magnets are the three discoveries that Bacon mentions as the ones that have had the most influence on human affairs.
It is not well-known, on the other hand, that we owe to Bacon the discovery that only two different signs are needed to codify any written information. In other words, more than 300 years ago, the principles were established that have made the actual boom of information technologies possible: the digitization, the codification in two signs -- zeros and ones -- of any kind of written, audio, or visual information that has allowed information to be stored and transmitted with extraordinary ease. That development is what many believe to be the key to a new social transformation, inasmuch as it has given rise to a new form of economic activity. It is often said that we have passed from an economy based on the treatment of atoms and matter to an economy based on the treatment of bits -- of information: zeros and ones.
It turns out that at any one time, the vision we have of the world -- the one that we know and are familiar with -- depends on the technologies we have at hand to help us to answer the questions that are continually bothering us. Today the dominant technology is the one associated with the confluence of information and telecommunication. Many voices can be heard proclaiming that the magnitude of the changes associated with those technologies will belittle the changes that arose from the hands of another confluence of technologies, the one that originated with the changes introduced by Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press -- an invention of Chinese origin.
Gutenberg, with his blacksmiths idea to use mobile characters in the printing press, became one of the first -- and certainly one of the foremost -- people responsible for one of the most important technological events in the history of humankind -- so much so that today, more than 500 years later, I would dare to say that we have still not been able to assimilate the magnitude of those changes. Now it seems that information technology, such as multimedia and the Internet, is being heralded as the cause of death of the printing press, of the Gutenberg galaxy, an announcement that has been made for some time. One should not exaggerate.
Once more, faced with apocalyptic voices, the usual contrast between good and bad can be found. Some greet the announcement with open arms, full of hope and joy. Others greet it with fear and disillusion, without thinking that their complaint against the technology that is coming to change -- or destroy -- the world as they know it is the same reproach that can be made of the technology they defend: the printing press. It is also the same that King Thamus makes of the god inventor of writing. In this sense, it must not be forgotten that Miguel de Cervantes attributes the cause of Don Quixotes supposed madness to the books he had read, apparently in excessive numbers. In other words, that technology -- in this case, the printing press -- is one of the causes of evil, inasmuch as it had propitiated Don Alonso Quijanos access to it. And now that we have reached this point, it would not be de trop to mention that Tirant lo Blanc is one of the few books that Cervantes saves from the bonfire that he decrees as the prophylaxis for the illness that the books had provoked.
Replacing Old Technologies with New Ones
It is curious to observe how those who lament the catastrophes associated with information and communications technologies and who emphasize the harmful effects of technology in general also defend a form of life that is absolutely conditioned by another technology. In other words, it is still acceptable to complain, in general, that people read little and that few books are bought. To that complaint I naturally adhere wholeheartedly. But who would dare say, in contrast, that the Internet is used little and that it is an example of our inevitable and rapid decadence? We are so adapted to the printing press and to the society it configured that it is difficult to find any negative connotation in the changes it propitiated. Allow me to mention some of them in the form of an inventory.
Yes, I am still talking about the printing press, although I could be talking about the changes propagated by popularization of the Internet. Those arguments -- excess information, isolation, and lack of presence -- are bread and butter for their detractors.
The overdose of information that the printing press generates creates the need to learn to read -- something that was a luxury before the massive production of books. The need for teaching people to read brings to its surroundings the need to create and extend a schooling system to more levels of the population, which, mutatis mutandis, is still the one we have -- or suffer. This is a splendid example of a vicious circle, such as the ones we find in the ancient texts. There is a passage from Lazarillo de Tormes in which the blind man breaks the wine jug on Lazarillos face. While the blind man cures his injuries with the little wine that is left, with a notable dose of irony and sarcasm he reminds him of the hard contradictions of life, because before, the wine was the cause of his troubles, and now it is the cure for the troubles it created.
The Academy as Technology Protagonist
The academy has become yet another protagonist of the changes associated with the arrival of the information technologies. Time and again, we have heard and repeated the comment made by Seymour Papert, one of the gurus of artificial intelligence -- artifical intelligence being another in a wonderful chain of daring, meaningless terms. Papert said that if a hundred years ago it had been possible to hibernate a surgeon and a teacher and bring them back to life now -- each one in a present-day workplace -- the surgeon would hardly recognize the modern operating theater, but the teacher could identify quite well the paraphernalia of a classroom.
Paperts observation may be a bit exaggerated, but what is not exaggerated is the message it conveys: We continue to use the same system of schooling that, beyond the contents, is conditioned and adapted to the printing press and to the requirements of the industrial age. The students that that system once prepared were generally destined to work in factories on production lines. The classroom itself was created in the image of a factory line, and the system worked, provided it produced what was needed -- that is, students who were calm, obedient, and not particularly imaginative. But in a society fashioned on information technologies, that educational model leaves the majority of students ill equipped for problem solving and independent thinking -- two essential qualities for living in our society. Simply put, we are using the methods, contents, and objectives of the past century to form people who have to live in the next one.
It is quite true that the system survives because it is based on humans own communications skills -- techniques that could hardly be improved upon by any technology. In fact, it would be hard to imagine developing a technology for storytelling -- which is what this is about -- more completely interactive than the way of human interaction. Yet proof of the undeniable values of traditional education, the high percentage of what is called school failure, is still cause for concern. Perhaps we do not yet comprehend that we have passed from a society in which the school supplied more than 90 percent of the whole knowledge students would receive and to a society in which that percentage has been reduced dramatically.
We cannot afford to educate only 20 percent of our youth. We need to educate them all so they can live in the world we are shaping -- a world that is ever more complex. It is even more obvious that the school system has to be essentially public as long as it is the fundamental organization in any democratic system. I am bewildered by the growing penurious situation that the public education system finds itself in recent times -- bewilderment that increases when I see that that mistreatment of the school system goes hand in hand with such measures as declaring televised soccer a national heritage. Either I have not understood anything or, worse, I have understood everything. As the Romans said, everything is settled with bread and circuses.
But todays social structure does not resemble the Roman one at all. Citizens need to be educated, and within the new social structure, technology is a basic tool for obtaining information.
Breaking the Text-and-Illustration Symmetry
In the same way the printing press and the telescope served to destroy the concept of the universe the Greeks elaborated and that had been valid for more than a millennium, we find ourselves today before another confluence of technologies that have created a practically unlimited virtual space. So-called cyberspace presents unlimited challenges and induces the most daring to believe we are at the beginning of a new era in which humankind will fuse and be confused with silicon prostheses connected in a net. We should remember Niels Bohr, who said it was very difficult to make predictions, especially if they were about the future. But it is not so difficult to observe that the effects of the conjunction of the printing press and the telescope were noticeable in every order of life, from religion to the way to carry out and communicate science. It must not be forgotten, for example, that the printing press broke the existing symmetry between illustrations and text.
Before Gutenbergs invention, it cost the same to produce a pure text as it did an illustration. That symmetry disappeared with mobile type. And soon afterward, Copernicuss ideas; the data that Tycho Brahe had started to collect and that were analyzed and used by Johannes Kepler; the observations by Galileo; and the work by René Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and colleagues ended up giving an interpretation of the universe in equations -- text, after all -- instead of the Greeks explications, based on pictures. The need and the opportunity of Brahes intervention, as well as that of other people, are manifest by the fact that there are no Venetian editions of the Elements of Euclid. An extraordinary era of scientific development began, which extends to our time and which, with a certain bias, one can say culminates -- for the moment -- in the invention of the universal machine that is the computer. In this sense, it is essential to remember that the symmetry between text and illustration or graphics is not recovered precisely until the arrival of Postscript, an information language that the majority of modern-day printers use.
The New, Uncontained Idea Box
With the printing press another form of economic activity also was born that today feels threatened -- with good reason -- by information technology. That form is none other than the one based on the business of putting into boxes and selling other peoples ideas. Books are the first great example of that kind of container, but they are not the only ones. Record albums, videos, and CD-ROMs also are examples of that kind of container. The new information and communications technologies threaten the industrial process of putting ideas into boxes, where those containers of minds end up lined up on shelves for us to buy. It is a well-known and profitable industrial process but one from which the author of the ideas earns usually very little.
Until not long ago, those who wanted to publish ideas had no other remedy except to submit to this industrial reproduction process. Today any one of us can make our ideas available literally to the whole world without needing anyone to put them into containers. The capacity of reproduction -- which previously depended on an industrial process and consequently on determined overheads such as capital investment -- has now become unlimited. Above all, it has stopped depending on capital investment and necessary overheads to manufacture the corresponding containers. All we need, theoretically, is a computer, a modem, and a telephone line.
That is how the ideas are on their way to returning to the place where they belong -- that is to say, in the middle of all human activity. And we owe that to technology. I do not mean that the industrial process the printing press generated is about to disappear. I mean that for the first time it has to face a competitor with very significant differential characteristics. The means for publishing ideas in the past century -- such as radio, television, and recordings -- follow the structure model designed by the printing press. It is an industrial process that directs the whole framework -- one in which ideas played a secondary role.
Cyberspace therefore becomes an immense communication space in which, next to old structures, new possibilities for economic activity have emerged -- which we know little about, but the little we know leads us to believe that insularity, far from being an obstacle as it was in the industrial era, could become a significant advantage, allowing us to compete on equal terms with territories that do not have our limitations. The prime matter of this economic activity is bits, which is the way in which digitization has codified everything we hear, see, or think. It is in this sense that technology, this particular form of technology, is becoming an authentic prosthesis for the mind.
However, we must not lose sight of the fact that to digitize ideas, there first must be ideas. Consequently, creativity and imagination -- or whatever stimulates them -- must stop being the privileges of a precious few and become important parts of values that need to be promoted in every order of life -- not just in education. Like the wine that was used for curing de Tormes, the new technologies of information and communication -- besides generating new formative needs -- should also be used to satisfy a large part of those same needs.
In that sense, I must mention that today a group of activities called Extensive Campus have begun. They initiate a new era in which this university really has to exercise its will and mandate to be the university of the whole Balearic Islands. It counts on support by the new communications and information technologies for the university activities to reach Minorca and Ibiza. The whole university community must participate regardless of its geographic location.
Finally, it is not daring to say that the world of ideas -- the exercise of the imagination and creativity -- is more than ever becoming the central axis of human activity. Imagination and creativity are the values that must be protected and promoted if we wish to participate in the future -- if we wish to have a future. In addition, there must be places for all who are willing to participate, whatever their fields of specialty, whether those fields be in the arts, science, or technology.
Among the many slogans that emerged in May 1968, one of the best known is the one that demanded that imagination take over as power. Imagination and creativity should impregnate daily affairs in every order of activity, and to attain that objective, we use the most powerful tools at our disposal. Personal computers were born as emblematic products of countercultural movements within technological development. The roots of the movement date back to the antiestablishment movements of 1968, during which the antisystem technological movement began, with the aim of freeing technology from the control of the state and industry. We have recently passed the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the May revolt, and with the perspectives that the Internet is already beginning to give us, I will not be the one to doubt the viability and the need for this objective.
I am sure that those who do not see that the technological changes we have lived through propitiate a sort of new Renaissance are mistaken. In this frame, humanism has its role strengthened, because it is the only thing capable, at the moment, of controlling and guiding the correct use of the tools we have at our disposal via technology. It is in this way that technology once more becomes one of the most indispensable allies of culture.