Last modified October 11, 2006 by Nik

pt II: The Digital Revolution, Virtualisation and the Emergence of Cyberspace

From: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Technology and Spirituality, by Michel Bauwens

In the previous section we discussed how networks change our relationship with time and space, and hence, the social, political, and economic effects of networks are of a very fundamental nature. Liberating our social life from the constraints of space, means big changes in for example politics, which have always been based on territory; it means big changes in the organisation of human settlements, which again have been based on the needs to be close to the flow of material products and the centralised structures of power. Hence, the growth of all kinds of ‘tele’- activities: tele-education, tele-shopping, tele-working. How these things will turn out to be is still a matter of conjecture, but that they are changing our traditional ways of operating is a certainty. Possibly, quite a few of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution could be reversed. Already today, according to some recent U.S. figures we see phenomena like the growth of tele-working (almost half of the new jobs created in the last 5 years are tele-jobs), the fact that more jobs are created in rural areas than cities, and the extraordinary growth in the number of home-schoolers (almost one million). Our current level of technology allows us to produce more and more material products, with less and less manpower. Ultimately, only a few percent of the working population will be employed for material production. Again, this is a major shift in civilisation. In the thirties, under influence of organisational advances like Taylorism, manual labor was heavily automated and gradually expelled from the production process. Since the late eighties, a similar process is now at work concerning routine intellectual work. Many companies are undergoing processes like business process re-engineering which reorganise work processes around the advantages of the technology, and eliminate routine procedures. Hence the elimination of middle managers and white collar workers. The effect of the digital revolution on how we organise and experience work will be very important, and is even suggested by some analysts, like Jeremy Rifkin, that we seriously look at the hypothesis of ‘the end of work’, or at least at the hypothesis of the ‘end of the job’.

Part of this digital revolution is the process of virtualisation. To understand the nature of this process we have to look at how human beings transform the material world for their own needs. In the agrarian age and before, nature (matter) was being transformed by physical labor and mechanical devices (i.e. matter). Hence matter was being transformed by matter. During the Industrial Revolution, we inserted a new factor in the production process, i .e. energy (in the form of processed fuels). Hence matter was being transformed by matter, and by energy, and this lead to a quantum leap in productivity.

We are now in the process of adding yet another factor in this equation: i.e. information. Today, the natural world is being transformed not only by using matter and energy, but by the introduction of information, which leads to a new explosion of productivity. We can say that virtualisation is the increasing substitution of matter by information. This process has profound consequences for our ways of relating to the world. Between humankind and nature, between humans and other humans, between humans and machines, there is now a layer of information. And, this layer of information gains in prominence as the process of virtualisation intensifies. In the past, we were able to say, ‘if I can’t touch it, it isn’ t real’. This has been the credo of science, of the industrial world, of materialism. Today, this situation is being reversed to the point where one could even say, together with management consultant Tom Peters: ‘if you can touch it, it’s not real’. In other words: the informational, the non-material, has become more important, in political, economic, social, and philosophical terms, than the material. A pair of Reebok shoes, contains more non-material value (image, marketing, research) than its actual value in terms of the available atoms. Our social life is already virtualised to the extent that most of us would spend more time watching nature documentaries, than effectively walking in the woods! This process, which was begun by the emergence of television, will be intensified by the new cyberspace media. Multidirectional networked media like the internet are not just a continuation of the mass media, they represent an important shift, because they create a new collective mental space. Hence the notion of cyberspace, which means that next to the physical world, humankind is now creating a parallel ‘virtual’ world, which will co-exist with the so-called real world. If our ancestors have been living principally in a natural environment, and civilised humanity in an architectural environment, then our descendants will principally live in a ‘digital environment’. Cyberspace is where they will live an important part of their time, and what happens in cyberspace, will greatly determine the rest of their lives.

If we look at the different aspects of the digital revolution, then we clearly see that we are going through a major civilisational shift, and that these changes have metaphysical importance, as they affect the basic building blocks of our experience. It is not surprising therefore that we cannot confine our thinking to science, which deals with the ‘how’ questions, but that we must deal with the ‘why’ questions as well, the domain of spirituality and its schools of thought.

pt III: The (Two) Points of view of the Wisdom Tradition