BIS, Oldenburg, 2013
ISBN: 978-3-8142-2285-1 (print)
In his most recent publication, Against the Tide: Critics of Digitalisation, Otto Peters brings together some of the most formidable and critical voices and compelling perspectives on the potential hazards of digitalization. The viewpoints presented range from personal, anthropological, and pedagogical to more scientific and technical, and arise from multiple disciplines. Peters has long been a respected scholar in the field of distance education, and while Peters’ earlier work has advocated the affordances of digitalization, this latest book is an abrupt shift to the darker side of digitalization. The assembly of critics Peters has gathered come from around the world and different walks of life: journalists, educators, scientists, philosophers, lawyers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, to name a few. Their one shared bond is a deep-seated belief that digitalization will have a profound and lasting impact on humankind – and not only in positive ways.
Each chapter in Peters’ book is structured similarly: he first provides a brief profile of the author, and then gives an overview and interpretation of the critic’s contribution and how the critic’s views have been received (e.g., including summaries of press and publisher reviews). Peters next provides his own commentary on the critic’s perspectives and his/her role as a critic amongst critics. (This role is also reflected in the descriptors within each chapter title, such as: the heretic, the humanist, the dramatist, the hesitant sceptic, the apocalypticist). Peters’ commentaries take an even-handed and minded approach to the critics’ ideas, and Peters also considers the implications of their criticisms within the context of today's society. Never dismissive of the critics showcased within the book, Peters is judicious yet critical in his analysis, acknowledging when a critic has made broad generalizations, is narrow or one-dimensional in his/her views, or is caught up in technology hype. He also carefully reviews the basis of each critic's arguments and their relevance. At the end of each chapter are detailed references to related works for those who wish to explore further. In its design, the book chapters are non-linear and succinct, providing comprehensive insights in quickly consumable information chunks, and suitable for both online and paper reading.
As to the critics themselves, the majority of those profiled predict a future that is dark and uncertain, at times even apocalyptical. Weizenbaum, the first critic profiled by Peters, began to raise ethical issues about the role of digitalization in the early 1970s, declaring that science and technology cannot be considered independent of humanity; this “dehumanization of man” described by Weizenbaum is a recurring theme throughout the book (p. 20). Some of the critics are extreme in their views, and eerily similar to the internet zealots they criticize. There are radical ideas, such as the anthropological change predicted by Strauss, who imagines humankind without technology, and Meckel, who delivers her critique using a futurist parable of the last “human” who has become completely digitalized. Even more extreme are the views of Baudrillard, who imagines a world run by machines, and Virilio, who perceives a rapid decline in humankind and believes a secret society of technologists is helping it along. A substantial number of critics have journalism backgrounds where, as Peters writes, “bad news sells better than good” (p. 80). Carr tells cautionary tales of the drawbacks of digitalization, such as a distracted and superficial society unable to reflect, and of computer use resulting in permanent changes to brain plasticity. Noble finds that technology is becoming a distraction and an escape from reality, and Greenfield predicts the greatest impact will be on children and their development, resulting in a future generation that avoids social interaction, is less empathetic and reflective, and cannot learn from experience. Lanier, Keen, and Gaschke warn that digitalization causes a flattening of information, of culture, and of human beings in general. Both Joy and Tapscott foresee digitalization leading to massive changes in economic, social, political, and cultural systems and resulting in an unpredictable aftermath of catastrophic events. Palfrey, Gasser, Sigman, Schirrmacher, Turkle, and Cebrián describe the well-documented physical effects that can come from excessive computer use: information overload, isolation and alienation, addiction, and the sense of loss and anxiety experienced when not being able to connect online. An abundance of the complaints are leveled at the internet and new media, with critics pessimistically focusing on technology shortcomings: we can no longer learn and work as we had before. (Gaschke is particularly harsh in her criticism of the e-book and its deficiencies.) Here perhaps both sides of the debate could work toward finding middle ground and take into consideration the potential affordances of digitalization, thus heeding advice Peters himself gave over a decade ago: “…the replication of traditional learning and teaching methods will not lead very far. On the contrary! It prevents us from discovering, developing and applying the marvelous powerful approaches made possible by networked computers.” (Peters, 2004, p. 223).
Be assured that the book is not all doom and gloom. Many of the critics are ambivalent and optimistic that it’s not too late for humankind to change its ways. The same critics who predict devastating and irreversible effects of digitalization across every level of society also see the future as one that has not yet been defined and where the path in which humankind is headed can be averted. They counsel readers to be more of aware of the negative aspects of digitalization, to make more time for reflection, to take work and life at a slower pace, to engage in more face-to-face discourse, and, most importantly, to find a holistic balance that allows maximization of the positive effects of digitalization and a dulling of the negative. Other guidance includes spending equal amounts of time in personal interactions and physical activity as is spent in front of the screen, to be responsible and self-disciplined in technology use, and to apply a good dose of suspicion and reason. All excellent advice.
Peters' book may elicit exasperated sighs from technology advocates. At the same time, his work gives readers cause to reflect on the role of digitalization in their lives and its potential to negatively influence not just daily life but society as a whole. The critics’ arguments cannot be easily dismissed and create a need to reflect on the moral and ethical issues that have been raised – and hopefully initiate further discussion and dialogue about these issues. It should be a must read for educational technologists. (The book is available in print form at cost, and free in a digitized version: ).