Need a new villain? Let's try the internet

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2008, 12:00am

Why not blame the role of internet technology for the big mess we are in? Let's face it: the causes and solutions are so complex, the stock markets across the world so up and down (mostly and decidedly down), and the explanatory coherence of most political and financial leaders so limited as to make one want to throw up one's hands and become nostalgic for the arrant simplicities of boastful Marxists.

But simplicity is quite difficult to achieve right now, unless one wishes to indulge in some finger-pointing.

The usual suspects are well known: let's charge those greedy Wall Street investment bankers. Better yet, let's just blame Wall Street - or even the whole system of capitalism itself. Even easier, let's just blame US President George W. Bush.

But what about internet technology - those computers and their sinuously linked networks that churn out numbers and financial equations, and mathematical and investment models, faster than we can think and in general create e-entities more complex than we can possibly figure out?

After all, if someone would just pull the plug on the internet and computer technology, you could also pull the plug on some true internet-enabled villains - such as short-selling attacks on currencies and equities, derivative packages and hedge funds.

Jeffrey Cole, founder and director of the Centre for the Digital Future, at the University of Southern California, says that 'computerised selling is certainly aggravating the process. People are overcome with this whole sense that things are happening too fast.'

Precisely such insecure revulsion against new technology infamously happened in 19th-century England, with the Luddite revolt notorious for its destruction of new machinery that actually increased labour productivity, just as IT does today.

The problem with today's IT revolution is its raw speed and unknown flight plans. The advantages of this technology are huge, to be sure.

But, in important instances - especially in the wholesale movement of vast sums of money internationally - the blazing speed of today's technology does not, necessarily, accelerate our ability to make terrific decisions or elevate our level of wisdom.

Serious people can raise serious moral and ethical questions that deserve to be considered without being lumped into the Luddite rubbish bin.

One such question is whether technology is our slave or whether technology enslaves.

Dr Cole rightly suggests that 'no one wants to eliminate this technology, but then people say: I need time to figure it out!' But we do need to make sure we are harnessing this technology instead of the reverse. I think the current crisis does raise this question: who is in control?

Besides, one gets tired of blaming banks and Mr Bush. A new villain is needed, and I have given one to you - and not totally without reason. Are there times when IT and computers really are not your allies?

Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and veteran journalist