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The Information Superhighway and Cultural Development
Author: Jin Wulun
Date: 2003-5-27

I . An Industrial Revolution in the Realm of Culture

The development of printing, especially the printing press, led to the first revolution in information technology in the history of human civilization. Printing is one of the four major inventions of ancient China. As early as the 11th century, China invented block printing, which spread to Europe through various channels and had a profound influence on the birth and development of printing in Europe. In a certain sense, one can say that the first revolution in information technology, triggered off by the invention of the printing press, was the forerunner of the European cultural revolution. This nurtured and gave rise to the later scientific revolution, and determined the path of Western civilization.

If we say that the invention of printing and the printing press led to the first revolution in information technology, elevating mankind from an agricultural to an industrial society, then the combination of computers and communication, the development of the information superhighway and multimedia technology will lead to the second revolution in information technology. This new revolution will enable mankind to take the giant step from an industrial society to an information society.

In an information society, information and knowledge will replace money and power and become the basic wealth and resources of society. The social model will undergo fundamental changes, and the value of knowledge will become the major value in society. The appearance of this new social order will be the result of new methods of production and communication, and it began by using computers for communication.

During the 19th century and until the mid-20th century, communication was divided into two basic areas: one area continued the achievements made in printing technology -- paper was printed and transmitted via material modes of transport; the other area involved communication by means of 19th and 20th century technical inventions such as the telephone, telegraph, radio broadcasting, television, facsimile machines, coded graphics and voice information. With the further development of this second area of communication, communications based on printed paper will gradually decline, and possibly eventually disappear from the historical stage as man enters the age of other forms of communication. This implies using electronis signals, which are more convenient in terms of rapid storage, sharing, and reduplication than paper. Printing presses taught us how to communicate in writing, while the information superhighway allows us to use electrons and photoelectrons to speed up communication and make it more convenient and more extensive, giving us communication beyond the restrictions of time and space.

This revolution in information technology is also changing methods of production; the automation of factories, off ices, and homes is accelerating, and computer networks now make it possible to work from home. The construction of an information superhighway has freed people from much heavy, tedious labour, and stimulated their creativity through all kinds of electronic services. Both material and spiritual life has been greatly enriched. One of the direct results of this revolution has been to promote an industrial revolution in the realm of culture and a cultural revolution in industry.

Luo Peilin, a Chinese electronics expert and academician, has emphasized the cultural connotations of the information superhighway. He believes that the information revolution created by the information superhighway is, in essence, an industrial revolution in the realm of culture, and that this new industrial revolution based on electronics technology will create an advanced technological cultural information system. This system will play an important role in the overall development of society and in enriching man""s cultural life.

1. The information superhighway is used to produce, process, and transmit information, and orderly information is knowledge.

2. Cultural life will be greatly enriched. People can receive cultural information and entertainment in writing, sound, and images from all over the world at the same time.

3. The development of the information superhighway has created new"cultural carriers"for man, and digital fiber optic communication can transmit works of art at the speed of light.

4. The information superhighway has increased human interactions, and stimulated the growth of knowledge.

All these point to the direction of cultural development in the hightech age. As Luo Peilin has commented: "The mark of progress in human society is not simply increased production of material goods, but the development of man""s cultural progress. " The unravelling of this industrial revolution in the realm of culture will not only trigger economic growth and development, but will greatly benefit the construction of cultural progress in society.

The information superhighway also has its negative side, for example, the use of the network for criminal purposes or to transmit false information or pornography. We need to be fully aware of these negative influences, and provide guidance and effective management.

¢ٍ . Promoting Global Civilization and Protecting National Culture

There are two main opinions on the effects of the information superhighway on future cultural development.

One is that, because of the spread of information throughout the world, Western culture will gain a foothold in many countries. In fifty years"" time there will be a single global culture with similar products, music, entertainment, and fashions circulating in the world market, while non-Western culture and philosophy will disappear.

The other view is that all types of culture will be revived, and each tribe will rediscover its origins. Just as today we are making efforts to maintain biological diversity, one day we will also work to preserve cultural diversity. If this is true, cultural diversity may become more important than a nation""s GDP. One""s own nation and its value system is most important, and people will not care whether one culture is "better" or "worse" than another, but simply seek to preserve the uniqueness of each culture.

World-wide human communication already exists, but the construction of the information superhighway will link various parts of the world even more closely, and while greatly improving understanding between people and dialogues between cultures, there is also the potential for increased conflicts. The search for unity, common ground and cultural integration in order to reduce or eliminate conflict, while at the same time maintaining cultural differences, provides a realistic foundation for the development of the human race. However, the opposition and conflict that exists between nations are not entirely due to isolation, there are conflicts of interest, and differences in language, beliefs, and values. The gradual elimination of such conflicts and differences can only be achieved by continuous communication. The construction of the information superhighway only indicates that the potential for global cooperation has increased, it does not imply in itself the resolution to conflicts. There is still a long way to go before possibility becomes reality.

Secondly, culture itself has both form and content. In terms of form, the whole world can use compact discs and electronic publishing to replace traditional printed books, but the question of cultural content is much more complex. Many originally believed that the laws, theories, and facts governing the natural sciences were applicable to the whole human race, but recent studies in the philosophy of science indicate that to some extent the natural sciences are also influenced by cultural tradition, cultural background, and value concepts, and needless to say this is even more the case with social science theory. Are Chinese medicine, the Chinese pharmacopoeia, Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion not flowers that blossomed from traditional Chinese culture? This naturally does not imply a denial of the commonality and universality of culture. It needs to be emphasized, however, that harmony and unity do not imply unity without contradiction, and can by no means be understood as a single identity.

For a long time to come, the global culture mentioned above can only be Western culture, and in particular American culture. This is the result of historical circumstances. For example, the Internet, which is currently referred to as a preliminary form of the information superhighway, was born in the 1960s in America, and the medium of communication is therefore English. The English language has also predominated for a long time in science and technology, in business, and even in the culture and entertainment industry. This, combined with the desire on the part of a minority of Americans to create a world monopoly, makes this situation unavoidable. We believe that after a global information superhighway is opened up, the cultures of all nations will have the right to develop and make a contribution to the development of human culture. In order to protect and develop the cultures of all nations, we urgently need to create an environment beneficial to the development of national cultures, so that they can develop in an atmosphere of mutual competition and promotion. Our motto is "one world with many voices, "not "many worlds with one voice. "

¢َ. Seize the Opportunity to Develop Traditional Chinese Culture

Traditional Chinese culture has a long history. Today, as international exchanges increase daily, it faces conflict with and competition from the cultures of other nations. Such conflict and competition occur not only in the spheres of science, technology, and economic power, but also in many cultural aspects. From conflict to truly harmonious coexistence will therefore take a long time. Traditioal Chinese culture has some characteristics that do not exist in Western culture, and we could say that the core of the so-called "East Asian Culture"is the traditional culture of China.

Historically, traditional Chinese culture did not generate modern science and technology, democratic politics, nor a market economy, nor does it have any direct logical continuity with these, can it nevertheless contribute to modern civilization and its future progress? The answer is yes for the following reasons:

1. The living culture of a nation is always born out of a specific time, and follows the development of the times. It constantly changes according to the laws of survival by regulating itself (either reorganizing or adapting). A fundamental reason why traditional Chinese culture has continued for thousands of years is perhaps because the culture is capable of self-organization, and that it has vitality and cohesion.

2. Traditional Chinese culture is a complex system, focussed on life, practical wisdom, aesthetic charm and interest. It has a universality that overrides time and space.

3. As scholars have explained, people usually interpret ancient or foreign cultures or thought from the angle of their own "realm of language, "or cultural background. These texts are understood and interpreted with the participation of the reader, and thus generate new meaning or revelations. These ancient ideas and cultures are of value because they can give rise to new ideas, which lead to outstanding global achievements.

4. Since the modern age, scientific and technological achievements have been used mainly in "a capitalist way, "and modern and contemporary Western rational, with science and technology at the core, has developed in a lop-sided fasion. This lop-sidedness is evident in particular in the excessive worship of appliances, the incessant pursuit of material possessions and pleasures, and in the attitude that nature is an object to be conquered or looted.

Some intelligent beings in the West have thus turned to ancient Oriental cultural traditions for ideas that might rescue people from the contemporary human dilemma. Of course, a clear mind must be kept in relation to this trend. First of all, this turning towards Oriental culture does not imply the failure of a scientific culture, nor the need for its replacement by ancient Chinese culture, which should rather play a role as a neutralizer(or "antidote"). In the collision and reactions between, and the merging of the two cultures, unprecedented human cultural developments might be revealed. Secondly, the position and function of traditional Chinese culture must be viewed in the context of contemporary global exchanges and cultural development. This will help to reinforce China""s self confidence and self respect. Chinese culture is both national and a glorious part of human culture. Thirdly, we cannot discuss this problem in isolation from China""s history and current situation. We are supplementing the bias of Western reason, and discussing its significance from the angle of creating a new cultural orientation from the conflict between and merging of cultures. This must be conducted in an open and tolerant way and never in a closed, ignorant, and backward environment. This is because with only traditional Chinese culture, a modern civilization cannot be created. Our specific current needs are to advocate a scientific spirit, popularize science and technology, absorb the achievements of Western civilization that are necessary to build a modern society, and closely integrate this scientific spirit with humanism.

Traditional Chinese culture can play a very important role in the construction of the information superhighway. Firstly, the concept of unity and a collective consciousness, duty and a sense of responsibility towards the group or community, and a sense of belonging are important characteristics of traditional Chinese culture. Today, the network or "cyber space" culture created by the information superhighway is creating a "global village, "of which everyone is a resident. We must all have an awareness of the whole and the collective, and establish an orderly network society through network communication and cooperation, which everyone is responsible for and is governed by its rules.

Secondly, traditional Chinese culture emphasizes self-cultivation and moral self-discipline. The information age is one in which science and technology, and human abilities are fully developed. The age requires that people use their abilities rationally, and apply moral discipline and control to themselves. Knowledge is exchanged through the global network or cyber space. Such exchanges demand that people do not rely on administrative control but themselves adopt certain moral standards. Criminal elements currently use their technological advantage to steal or control important information, or use the computer network to conduct criminal activities, seriously harming the global network system. Because they have superior technology and crime proves very attractive, conventional methods cannot be used to stop their criminal activites. This has led some Western scholars to believe that the only helpful force for preventing crime is individual consciousness and a personal value system. It can therefore be seen that, in additional to a legal system, improving concepts of morality is very important.

Jin Wulun(½ًخلآ×), MA, Professor of philosophy of science, the Institute of Philosophy, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He is specialized in philosophical problems of science, social implications of information infrastructure and the theory of knowedge. He has published about hundreds of papers and more than 10 books concerning a vast area of philosophy of science, knowledge economy and informationalism. 


Bureau of International Cooperation,Hongkong Maco and Taiwan Academic Affairs Office
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
2003.3.10 Copyright