Information Technology and Technologies of the Self

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"Information technology has an ambiguous impact on society. This situation calls for a two-level ethical analysis. On the one hand the issues of power and control must be reconsidered under the viewpoint of institutional structures, i.e. of living norms. On the other hand, the technological shaping of society, taking the character of power, oppression, verbosity and dogmatic belief, should be at the same time reconsidered under the viewpoint of a plurality of living forms, i.e. within a framework of deliberation and dissent. This paper presents briefly both issues, taking into account Michel Foucault's concept of "technologies of the self".


"Information technology is dramatically changing the foundations of democratic societies. Political questions are open to public discussion not only in a representative form in parliament but also in all kinds of mass media. The crisis of modern democracies can be understood as a change from the relationship between politicians and their public in parliament to their exposure to mass media as Walter Benjamin (1936) clearly saw in 1936. This implies, according to Benjamin, new selection criteria, similar to the change from theater to film, and from Greek sport to sport based on quantitative tests. But, more radically, information technology is a dominant way of shaping our cultural identity and/or imposing this identity on others.

This situation calls for a two-level ethical analysis of the role of information technology in modern societies, according to the distinction made by Michel Foucault (1984) between a code-oriented and a self-oriented morality. Foucault calls the methods and techniques through which we constitute ourselves "care of the self" or "technologies" (or "practices") of the self. This is a key point in ethical thinking since Antiquity, where philosophy itself was conceived as a practice of self-regulation through a continuous project of self-representation. Such a project means becoming concerned with relationships of truth, power, and desire. The practice of liberty or the "care of the self" should prevent oppression and strive for authenticity, i.e. for solidarity and plurality in our lives as individuals and communities.

My aim in this paper is to analyze some aspects of the intersection between information technology and technologies of the self. My guiding question is, How can we ensure that the benefits of information technology are not only distributed equitably, as Ronald Doctor (1991) rightly stresses, but that they can also be used by people to shape their own lives? In a first step, I will briefly point to some characteristics of a society shaped by information technology as analyzed by some leading thinkers. These analyses show that information technology shares the ambiguities of all technological products. In a second step, I will show the mutual dependency between moral rules and technologies of the self with regard to the social impact of information technology."


"This paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science (ASIS), Pittsburgh, October 25-29, 1992, Panel Session: Information Democracy: Power and Control Issues. It was published in the Journal of Information Ethics 1996, Vol. 5, No.2, 19-28. Republished with the title "Information Technology as an Ethical Challenge" in: Ubiquity (Vol.9, 2008).

The matter of this paper can be object of an intercultural dialogue that aims at questioning the self itself. Which is the relationship between ZEN-Buddhism and today's digital message society? See the workshop on "Information Technology and Hermeneutics" organized by the Research Group on the Information Society (ReGIS), Tsukuba University (Japan) in June 5-7, 2003. See also my paper On Hermeneutics, Angeletics, and Information Technology: Questions and Tentative Answers as well as the papers published by Toru Nishigaki (University of Tokyo) and Takehiko Daikoku (Meiji University) in: Shiso (Thought), Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2003, 7, No. 951, as well as: "Intercultural Information Ethics. A dialogue" by R. Capurro and M. Nakada (2007)."