Friday, January 12, 2007

Between the PC and You is 25 years

In 1981 the US magazine Time proclaimed the PC as the Man of the Year Year. IBM had barely launched the industrial standard with the hardware and had invited Microsoft to deliver the operating software MS-DOS. In 2006 the same magazine elected You, the internet user, as the Time Person of the Year, thanks to the social networking and video services. It had taken a quarter of a century for hardware and software to become part of the cultural pattern of people.

This thought of a 25 years gap between the praise for the machine and the praise for the user struck when I had a talk with Hans Sleurink, publisher of Media-Update Newservice and Business Publications. He associated the thought immediately with a lecture he presented in 1999 about ICT, a matter of economic/cultural importance (strike out what is irrelevant). He told in short that so far politicians have always reacted to new technologies in terms of new jobs and economic stimulation plans. And politicians usually add, that Europe is behind the US. So, the reasoning goes: as long as we throw money to the new technology, we will create more jobs. And of course this approach does not work as it is technologically and economically oriented. We often forget the culture component. Not the arts or Culture with a capital is meant, but as the English say ‘the lower culture’. In other words, everything that people make, think and know and the way in which they get aware of their feelings and give shape to their acting. The realisation that technology is part of culture is often lacking.

Hans Sleurink points than to a survey of René Mayer, who performed a study for the European Commission. His assignment was to research the most important problems in the electronic market. Mayer came of course with the list of well-known problems such as language differences, the various legislatures. But on top of the list he put another problem:

The first handicap is an ideological one. Deeply marked by the industrial revolution on which it rose to the summit of its power, Europe remains attached to a very materialistic conception of economics. Historically, the first European institution was the Coal and Steel Community. Coals and steel could be touched, measured, weighed and quantified. Information, on the other hand, is an abstract good whose value economists have not learned to appreciate.
(Impact II. Mid-term evaluation: for an information strategy. Doc. IMPACT/44/93)

Mayer says that the European perception of what economically is valued (material matters) prevents that we can make profitable use of the digital technology (immaterial values). So it is no wonder that Europe lags. Had we incorporated culture into our European lifestyles, we would be more ahead in the game.


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