Cybermorality

October 18, 2004
Freshmen entering Baylor this fall were born in 1985. Consequently, they have never known a time without cell phones, computers, the Internet and other attendant trappings of growing up in the information age. This is an entertaining tidbit of possibly useless knowledge, but it should cause us to investigate the larger impact on them and on society as a whole. Just as television impacted my generation in ways social scientists could not have imagined, technology and its impact is even more pervasive on the current generation. The information age, according to Quentin J. Schultze in his book Habits of the High-Tech Heart, presents itself as a panacea for all the problems of our age. Schultze, however, is not buying it -- at least, not completely.
One result of growing up in the United States in the first part of the 21st century is the propensity to adopt each new piece of cybertechnology uncritically. It is accepted as fact that each new "technological gadget" will help us achieve ever-greater efficiencies in our personal lives as well as in business, science, education and government. Our problem, according to Schultze, stems from our tendency to be "largely unreflective, voracious consumers of cyber-novelty and information trivia." In our minds, we have become convinced that these cybertechnologies automatically will make us better people, no matter how they are utilized. Schultze maintains that their benefits depend on whether or not they are responsibly understood, developed and employed in the service of the greater good of society. Ultimately, he says, "Unless we cultivate virtuous character with as much energy and enthusiasm as we pursue cyber-technologies, our technological mindedness and habits will further unravel the moral fabric of society."
To this end, Habits of the High-Tech Heart harkens back to John Seely Brown's and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information published by Harvard Business School Press in 2000. They, too, cautioned against viewing technology as the ultimate solution to all of our needs and desires. Brown and Duguid called on users to view technology and its benefits through the eyes of an enlightened skeptic, not with tunnel vision, but taking time to look around us. It was the first serious examination of the effects of the new technologies on our social lives in the new millennium.
Schultze carries their arguments a step further. He draws upon the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French historian and political philosopher. Tocqueville journeyed to the United States in the 1830s to study a fledgling democracy and to try to ascertain how a representative form of government whose citizens were so purely self-interested could survive among such a highly individualized populace. What he discovered was a people whose individualism was tempered by a commitment to one another and the common good. Through voluntary attachment to mostly religious organizations, Americans' self-interests were infused morally by "habits of the heart." Thus, Schultze posits, "without such habits of the heart today, we will face growing moral confusion in the midst of our informational wealth."
Schultze holds a PhD in communication from the University of Illinois and is the holder of the Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication at Calvin College. As a professor of communication, he is no Luddite. He is an informed scholar and practitioner who sees the benefits as well as the potential misuses of information technology. For citizens living in the early 21st century, Schultze's call to "sojourn with heart through life, using information technologies as virtuously as possible" is a call we should heed.

Hair, BS '76 (University of Tennessee-Nashville), MDiv '80 (Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary) and MLS '82 (Vanderbilt University), is associate professor, associate dean and director of University Libraries.
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