IT: The Alchemical Transformation of our Modern World: The New Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons – a Critical Approach to the IT Era

            “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity (1).” – Albert Einstein. The obvious statement declared by Einstein before his death in the year of 1955 can be considered presently as a multi-layered revelation. When the first digital computers started developing during the ‘50’s, it was a clear indication to a few that a revolutionary path was paving the way to a brighter and more sophisticated future: or so it seemed. Moreover, the rise of information technology coupled with the drive and curiosity to cross boundaries of mundane repetitive tasks has enabled the profession to completely integrate with human achievements and societal changes. Technological innovations have been exponentially growing throughout time, an indication that the field itself and the individual interests are far from subsiding. The means for survival, wealth and accumulation of information, coupled with larger motives such as globalization, evolution and global dominance, has set the significance and boundaries for IT related issues. We shall take a closer look at how Information Technology has alchemically changed the structure of businesses, society and worldwide security, with a specific emphasis on the dire need to evolve with much caution and trepidation.

            Businesses worldwide are gravitating towards fast-paced, information gathering and data mining techniques to wield and market their products/services to consumers at lightning speed. “Information has become the lifeblood of business (2).” The shift from manufacturing to service-oriented sectors within the many industries is undergoing another dynamic change: the information-oriented era. TheU.S., being the most predominant country relying on the significance of computer technology could very well suffer from its great dependency on information, the ramifications being too costly in terms of privacy, human behaviors, employment and undefined circumstances. In addition, information itself of any kind and no matter how miniscule, has turned into a precious commodity, rather than a self-proclaimed right to living independently and without any external interferences.

            The competitive edge that information has brought is being sought after by the biggest and most effective corporations. Most of these institutions and governmental sectors are wielding the power of knowledge that’s driven by consumers through technological means, mostly through the use of IT databases and websites. However, the shift that resulted throughout the years has disguised the side effects or consequences that can result from complete reliance on technology. Though businesses worldwide (or at least in developed countries) are tech-oriented, machines are always limited in terms of behavior. On the other hand, the transformation of businesses has vastly changed in the last ten years, enabling companies to reap greater profits/benefits and be highly effective. One example of how technology is changing the face of society would fall under law enforcement and governmental institutions. Between the years of November 1993-January 1994, an electrical engineering student from MIT, David Lamacchia, operated a computer bulletin board that allowed 180 people to download illegal copyrighted software. The U.S. Courts (or any other court for the matter) would not be able to prosecute the student since the operating users were anonymous and no money was made by Lamacchia. The courts didn’t press the issue under copyright laws. The moral theme, and a significant one, would be the pace and the space of the issues at hand. Technology is progressing so fast that laws should be constantly revised and edited (the pace), and since technology is advancing rapidly, many new opportunities and conflicts are welling up (the space).

            Moving along, Governments are the number one users of information technology, keeping large databases and storage with an array of details and data (employees, military personnel, inventory, federal tax records etc.). If the system were to be taken down, then displacement issues and nation welfare would be at an immediate risk. Individual ownership of information is no longer available. It has become extinct with the rise of technical novelty, and a competitive advantage to those who use it. Many organizations are moving from data-centric to information-centric values, forming the spinal column that cements a firm’s entire operational form of activities and its success. The movement of current companies is shifting from a mindset of what can we do? To: how do we define and control the resources we have? Being economically active in our present day means we have to relinquish our rights to our own ideals, thoughts and sense of identity. To get ahead, one must have the courage to be transparent and public. As technology spreads within every business, its employees (or humans) would eventually become a conduit to the effectiveness of their technological capabilities. In other words, technology is changing the societal expectations of how businesses and their employees conduct commerce and trade, either through rigid corporate social responsibility (green technology for a better environment) or through the application of strict information policies regarding privacy. The pros and cons of IT are balanced and distorted; one advantage can equally yield another disadvantage. Ethical dilemmas have been questioned, and the ability to maximize profits and return on investments from IT gave rise to another alternative course of action: the need to minimize risks and concerns.

            When the know-how behind technology, specifically IT, was not yet implemented within society, physical labor and experiential learning techniques produced high quality products and services. However, it was a time-consuming process and the delivery of certain needs/wants to consumers required much patience. Those days, human interactions on a daily basis were crucial in getting things done. Nevertheless, time is a luxury no one can afford, and companies were forced to adapt to certain externalities and economic alterations that required a quicker and more efficient measures to be taken into account. Sustainability became the new terminology, and with a multitude of different mergers/acquisitions, global financing, and changing demographics, the scope and visions of firms have substantially acclimatized to the uncertainties. Furthermore, this has created new values within business entities in re-connecting with the general public based on social relationships and increased productivity in the workforce.

            According to a study initiated by Paul Attewell of City University of New York Graduate Center, productivity gains are not linked to the integration and rise of information technology, but rather on other modes of influence. He based his paradoxical studies on three levels, “the individual level, the group level and the firm or enterprise level (3).” At the individual level, Attewell claims that written communications rather than oral methods are slowing down the ability to convey messages more directly, and subtly implying that it would lessen the focus and goals of the individual. Moreover, he claims that the subject would be more focused on the technological aspects rather than the work itself. The second level deals with the group, and he claims that IT would sidetrack the assembly from analyzing and improving decision-making while wasting time reviewing redundant information. Last but not least, at the firm level, IT was created to stimulate competition or to deal with complex issues but does not necessarily increase productivity (only profitability).

            Despite the personal theories of Paul Attewell, technology is being exploited everywhere and everyday, to gain the highest competitive advantage. Functional departments in every company is integrating the use of information and high-tech machinery to advance and accomplish tasks that weren’t possible, or increasing performance, protecting valuable assets and set successful organizational structures. Changes in work ethics and achievements are not the results of technology itself, but through the methods of its use. The experiential learning curves and hard skills required to understand a job from the ground up is being eroded by the use of technology that can easily replace the tasks necessary to build understanding.

            Moving along, the structure of business technology and societal make-up has twisted the familiar to unrecognized non-stop transformation. An example of how the development of technology modified societies through business means can be found within the Scandinavian people of Sami. The Sami people were a “collectivist pastoral society (4),” meaning that the Sami people placed great emphasis on the group and society as a whole. Their perspectives were geared towards a holistic approach, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Their main source of food supply came from their known nature to herd reindeers and selling its meat. However, that all went downhill when snowmobiles were introduced to the Sami people. Even though it enabled them to herd more reindeers, and cut across great distances, the collectivist society immediately saw the shift to a more individualistic concerns and dependability. Those who could afford the machines have an abundant supply of resources that they could sell their supplies, while those who don’t were left to struggle immensely. The work formation changed dominantly to a more male-centric workforce and hierarchal levels were taking effect. Mechanical skills were needed and required much more attention than traditional methods, while the younger generation took a stronghold in society. Even though gains and losses cannot be avoided with the introduction of technology, the need to proceed with caution is one that should not be taken lightly.


            Cognitive scientist Don Norman established several standards that workers have to experience under certain environmental conditions that are relevant to the increased performance of firm’s employees. These ranged from high intensity of interaction, continual challenge, direct engagement with tasks and motivation. The applications of technology has replaced repetitive physical labor with more mental stimulation regarding work primarily, however, what results from the former is the lack of complete conscious integration of the individual with the task at hand. Technology has reset the button on mundane tasks, but only simplified it to the point where the person would be unattached to their vocation. The era of social computing is pressing the issues of diligence and work ethics to a new frontier. It’s bridging the world together, yet at the same time it’s bridging the conflicts as well. The boundaries of our everyday decisions and routines are highly interwoven with the appliance of information technology. Our primitive nature is being subdued by a digital makeover, creating homogenous like-minded individuals worldwide.

             Ivan Illich, writer of Tools for Convivality, surmised the great failure that we humans have failed to realize. Illich’s writings state how we have created these tools to replace slaves (a failed system) due to our inherent nature to accumulate and broaden the workforce to satisfy our needs. He further talks about the importance of human relationships and interpersonal strengths that computers lack. “It is the individual freedom realized in interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value (5)” can only be acknowledged when we have mastery over our own insatiable thirst for basic satisfactory needs, and our control over these tools would arise from a new form of thinking.

            Our culture has inexplicably become intertwined with technology on a massive scale. Our language and form of communication is heavily reliant on IT, and it is through this dependency that technology is spread throughout the globe. Machines are given the ability to convey messages, warnings and advice: acting more humane as time passes by. The dire needs to create inanimate objects interact with humans based upon their qualities through statistical and mathematical means is a dangerous byproduct of our imagination. Examples of such technologies are called “new domain (6).” These range from artificial intelligence, and speech recognition (GPS-voice automated), phones with embedded intelligent software’s etc. The growth of such technologies can be seen on a grand scale such as the marketplace itself, the driving force behind our growing economies. Being an R&D intensive society, costs are soaring to develop and compensate for significant breakthroughs, and software development is in its all time high. The connecting factors between the social and technological gap is extremely thin, as it has been proved that the public opinion strongly affects the selection of certain technologies. Furthermore, the increased creation of technology is bringing about a drastic social change relating to companies and institutions. Since costs are high, many universities and small to midsized firms are forming alliances with other capital-rich companies to integrate certain cutting edge programs or software’s. The future may very seem as a one giant database, or a huge interlaced corporation.

            There are many social implications and advantages that evolved with IT that have alchemically changed the way we live and interact with others. The most common and obvious effect seen from technology would be geography and the concept of a “small world.” Telecommunications networks have added new facets of connectedness that allowed countries to be linked, individuals to conduct businesses anywhere, video conferencing instead of flesh and bones and even sophisticated tools such as augmented reality and space exploration. This year of 2010 is seeing a rise, and much costs, to be placed within augmented reality software applications worldwide. The use of such a technology imposes certain sensory enhancements (sight, sound, even smell) through graphical interfaces onto real-live environments to access information, gain knowledge, or even to navigate through unfamiliar territories. The uses behind it are endless, but let’s take a specific look at its functionalities to determine where and how intrusive technology is getting year after year (and its benefits).

            Most Iphones and Blackberry phones are using augmented reality software’s to guide interest and capture a significant part of the market share. The use of “object recognition and computer vision (7)” along with live-video streams and a physical background can give power to surgeons who can view patients x-rays on their physical bodies, military personnel identifying new territories/enemy trails, labels on mechanical parts for engineers or even the most controversial effect of all, peoples information floating in midair. These discoveries may sound too exciting; however, they equally pose a threat to our national interest, to our privacy and mostly to our ability to use brainpower. Technology takes place in a social zone, and can recreate and set invisible measures that overstep on our privacy, rather than protect. The globalization effects have surmounted a few negative consequences with the rise of costs of new technologies, and have unfortunately brought developing countries to the front line of its dilemmas. As developed countries progress immensely forward, and competition remains strong, the cost of emerging know-how becomes increasingly expensive. These highly developed countries then seek developing countries where the labor force and skills are cheap and accessible. Outsourcing is a clear indication of that.Indiais becoming one of the most prominent promising economies, and technological innovations are soaring through the roof, however, cheap (physical) labor has become an attraction for countries such as theU.S.since it would be easier to find employees that can create as effectively, but require less welfare and care. Physical labor in itself is deteriorating with the rise of technology, and fewer and less developed people are being exploited for their work. What does that say about technology? It’s a grey area, one that cannot be pinpointed by mere speculation. As hard labor is sought after, technology is increasing. As technology increases, hard labor diminishes. And since technology spreads through language, culture and knowledge, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. When most countries are initiated in the upper echelons of tech-oriented philosophies, those minor helpless countries will feel great pressure from those who wield the power of information. Resources shall be exploited, and hard labor shall be a thing of the past. The integration of microchips, nanotechnology, IT databases, data marts, data mining and networks are all so miniscule and well-hidden from our daily routines that any malfunction or system failure can bring ultimate devastation to our functional activities.

            The tragedies of the commons, coined by Garrett Hardin, can be interpreted in more ways than just environmental degradation. As Aristotle stated, “what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it (8).” The tragedy itself lies within the context of resource depletion due to self-interest motives of individuals or groups that eventually fail to see the finite limit of the given supply. In other words, the aftereffects of consuming a technology for so long and relying heavily on its applications (being a resource) will ultimately result in a tragedy for all humankind. Men must take action in realizing that the tools at their disposals can be weapons for their demise. Adding on, population increases is a significant factor and a catalyst that would bring such a conflict to rise at a faster pace. As technology is created to serve the wants of customers, employees, work and daily tasks, the need to systematically use and create the technology to meet the demand would deplete the parts to create it. Further on, the biggest clash that would happen would relate to environmental concerns that Mr. Hardin has emphasized. Information Technology, or the use of information itself, drives the requirements of corporations and major institutions to widen their use of less environmentally-oriented machinery to deal with the multitude of subtle societal requests in the long-run. We can see the effects of such technological ramifications in advanced oil refineries, non-recyclable materials, and the absence of green technology. The increasing demographics, especially in the developing parts of the world, are creating ripples that need to be addressed as soon as possible in order to deter the outcomes of possible global north and global south rifts. The demands for technological innovation to meet the desires of such growing number of inhabitants might not be solved without economic repercussions. Only meeting such demands through information can technological growth be maintained, and a more fruitful way of living be secured.

            Further along, military expertise through information technology and booming ground-breaking technologies continue to pose a threat to the global standard of living and environmental conditions. The rise of nuclear reactors to the effectiveness of cybercrime has quickly weakened the notion of individual rights to privacy, security and individuality. Recently, a more conscious appeal was understood regarding the active cultural lag we suffer from. “As explained by James W. Woodward, when the material conditions change, changes are occasioned in the adaptive culture, but these changes in the adaptive culture do not synchronize exactly with the change in the material culture, this delay is the culture lag (9).” Sociologist William Fielding explained the concept relating the actions of human interactions to technical capabilities. Mr. Fielding correctly hypothesized that the technologies created a while ago allowed us to bring forth a better social system for all those who have been exposed to it. However, the cultural systems and institutions such as governments tend to “lag” or fail to adapt to newer opportunities that are offered by such advancements in technical capabilities. Moreover, the corporations wielding the services of such advanced technical know-how are doing it to serve their own intrinsic outdated needs, rather than humanity as a whole. When self-interests are let go, the application and use of information technology can solve and offer solutions to a myriad of issues.

            In our present digital world, the use of technology transcends many laws and boundaries, connecting the heterogeneous world to a homogeneous general bubble where differences turn to familiarities, and social clusters come together based on interests, demographics, religion, or sex. The users enter a universe where knowledge is not gained through experience, but rather through the click of a button. And through that simple click, we act as one. Different countries use very different technologies and can yield differing results. The very nature of technology yields multi-various variables in different settings. In developed countries, the use of IT would be integrated within every firm, house, and individual accessories: paving the way to a more interconnected society abundant with material gains, resources, high standard of living and sound governing institutions. However, when that same or similar technology is initiated into a developing country, the chances of both being similar are slim. Since societal structures set forth how and where technology would be implemented, the end results would be drastically different depending on the norms and customs that are embedded within that specific region. While most individuals within developed nations might own and use laptops to send emails, accomplish work-related tasks or as a mode of knowledge, other developing countries could limit the use to governmental establishments and to find alternative courses of action to build its infrastructure or uphold constant surveillance on its citizens due to communistic approaches. Concluding the social equation, information arising from technology can be summarized in three terms. Firstly, it “is a substitutable form of resource: It can take over and increase efficiency of all industries (capital, labor and materials). Secondly, Information is transportable: No matter where you are in the world, any individual may access and complete tasks at their own comfort. Moreover, it has set a new dimension to communications and interpersonal connectedness. Finally, Information is shareable: from open source software’s and development, the collaborative nature of developers, programmers, IT specialists and tech-aware individuals have formed and stabilized a flow of a collaborative community where source codes of programs have been re-modified and changed to suit certain needs (10).” Open source is a great example of the shift of real and tangible groups of people who meet and share knowledge through virtual networks. The selling of ideas and development is free, and unattached to the hassles of the markets, governmental interferences and limiting conventions. With changing shifts in information technology, and the availability of its applications by the general public, the channels of societies have alchemically been redesigned and restructured. This gives rise to another and final concern regarding information security and the need for a new global outlook on privacy.

            Privacy and security have been the most controversial topics in the scope of information systems and technologies. The collection and sharing of data has fashioned not just advances and anticipation to consumer needs, but embedded people with a sense of deep concern and worries. Privacy itself is part of a complicated inextricably linked social arena, and also on a hidden level, an aura or bubble surrounding the physical approximation of an individual’s relation to their environment (other words, personal space). Technology is similar in being part real and part non-tangible, just like the elements that make up privacy. On the other hand, privacy itself is hard to define and cannot be an autonomous feeling or a detached entity from technology. This evolves from the reason that technology requires the use of personal information and sometimes sensitive facts to progress and enhance it. Other noticeable factors have

            “Privacy is an important value to be maintained and protected although it is not an absolute good in itself (11) – Finding 2.” The way we perceive privacy laws and their seemingly inapplicable implementation is distorted by the very definition that summarizes the implications of what privacy really means. A person cannot fight against or for privacy without mentioning the close-knitted boundaries that set the trails for better and more meshed technologies in the upcoming future. The buying and selling of delicate information regarding our personal lives has turned into a sought after commodity by all sustainable agencies. Our individuality is playing a bigger part in the world economies, and information technology has brought forth our personas and clustered them into a collaborative network, where we are constantly exposed to threats and exploitation. A few examples of these would be when a “a Toronto woman’s medical record was printed on the back of real estate flyers…or when a candy company got hold of peoples names in a weight watchers program and sent them chocolate bars in the mail (11).” These types of situations might seem mild, but nothing when compared with harsher and more extreme cases pertaining to cybercrime, identity theft and national security threats. After the onset of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attack, the US had to forfeit for some time the past desperate calls of people who valiantly protected information and privacy, and with good cause. National disasters and civil conflicts can immediately bring forth the right to use extreme measures where personal information would be completely transparent to specific governmental institutions. Social sorting and personal profiles are kept in mega databases to build further awareness, tracking and targeting of meticulous details of citizens and non-citizens alike.

            International business law has set preliminary methods of protecting individual rights through certain laws and fair information practices. With the rise of globalization, and boundaries eroding in the electronic age, created the need for provisions to take place and regulate actors (states) to follow the agreements set forth. With increased international awareness, most of the United Nation’s acts are self-extracting but non-binding, they are one step closer to setting forth and adopting those laws in their domestic boundaries (under municipal courts). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 12 speaks about the right to privacy (“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy … (12).” The act itself puts forth the foundation for protection and security. Another source of non-binding yet effective law would be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This organization promotes global trade and economic development and has guidelines on the protection of privacy across borders (flow of information). Adding on, it states that the information collected should be solely done by the party concerned and only used for the purposes that it was collected for. Extra provisions entail that a third party can overlook the procedure to ensure that the correct application is applied.  

            Privacy laws might have been speculated and talked about for a long time, however, it is confounding to realize that originally under the U.S. Constitution, there has been no amendment or part of the Constitution itself that touched upon or specifically talked about the right to privacy.  The concern itself surmounted from the Supreme Court’s decision to establish it as a common human right, and would settle under the clauses of the 9th Amendment. The 9th Amendment proclaims that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people (13).” This subtly means that the 9th Amendment reserves rights to the people and somehow subdues the federal powers- although it’s open to interpretation. A self-expressed opinion, I believe that the scope of privacy back in the year of 1795 (9th Amendment implemented) was defined by the concept of individual rights to “personal space” and the liberty to act on one’s own freedom of choice. However, the word privacy hasn’t been documented in the U.S. Constitution since only with the application of technology, primarily information technology, have we seen societies bridge together intensely and at an extremely rapid pace. Furthermore, privacy is viewed nowadays as an eroded structure that needs to be protected for fear of losing a part of ourselves.

            A recent breach of contract that resulted from the governmental Bush administration, under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, has flared the public interests and concerns regarding the protection of national security. The IIPA makes it a crime to identify and expose covert intelligence agents. On July 14, 2003, Robert Novak put an end to Valerie Plame’s profession, the wife of Joe Wilson, as being a CIA operative working in highly classified positions (counter-proliferation). This was not just a national risk, but a clear violation of the IIPA and loyalties/nationalism towards the welfare of the U.S. Several people have been prosecuted, but no one was evidently held fully responsible for exposing the identity of a covert agent. Since only a select people know of Valerie Plame’s profession, the source who revealed the identity has broken the Intelligence identities Protection Act and doing so can be held in court or jail indefinitely. Valerie Plame’s case was slowly left behind, but her story lingered in the minds of many citizens: just how safe are we? Privacy issues are fundamentally impossible to discern from values and power. Municipal courts and legislation can only go so far in terms of organizational and orderly ways. “The American approach to privacy is sometimes called sectoral…as a result, the legal structure for privacy in the US is a patchwork quilt (14).” This statement clearly renders and reduces the notion of how privacy has been undermined and dismissed in the American social order. Most of the recognition of a lacking solid system adhering to privacy laws has not been discussed that often, however, realizing the problem firsthand allows for future changes to a better future.

            External limitations have always and will always get in the way of producing any means of more privacy-oriented technologies. For instance, the development of more protective IT-related tech could give rise to an increase/decrease in prices if personal information were to be dismissed. An economic factor, or more likely a benefit, would eventually take us back to an older primitive system of bartering. In this case, however, the barter would include the exchange of information for a good/service and vice versa. The company or firm conducting business with the individual might place higher care and stringent rules on privacy protection (for a higher price) or offering to record the personal data of individuals and use them for marketing and development schemes (for a lower price). This type of profit-making is a loophole which places the subject at hand with a difficult choice, but nevertheless, one that is up to the specific party. On the other hand, it could dire repercussions by minimizing demands in certain sectors if the cost was much higher than the worth of keeping private information.


Bibliography request upon demand. 








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