The Idea of "Cyberliteracy"

When you think about the future of our society, it is crucial to consider the modern IT society as a complex in which “Cyberspace” and “Realspace (real world)” interact with one another, and then understand the structure and characteristics of Cyberspace that is based on the totally different principle from the Realworld’s. I call this understanding of Cyberspace as “Cyberliteracy”. 

Why is “Cyberliteracy” so important? This will be explained in the rest of this article. 

Recently, “digital shoplifting” has been in question. Digital shoplifters might spot a nice restaurant in a magazine they have just flicked through in a bookstore and take a quick snap of data about the restaurant (the name, phone number, and map, etc.) with the latest camera-equipped mobile phones. The Japan Magazine Publishers Association and bookstores are set to launch a national campaign against digital shoplifting, thinking they are being cheated out of valuable sales and the action has almost the same impact to them as actual shoplifting. 

However, there has been a long tradition of allowing people to leaf through publications, and if you found an interesting book in a bookstore, you might just learn the title and the publisher by heart, and then order it from a different bookstore near your home. You wouldn’t think twice about memorizing names and telephone numbers of the fancy restaurants you spot in magazines and making a quick note of them immediately after leaving a bookstore. 

These actions with human memories have been allowed and people wouldn’t be charged with them since it’s really difficult to substantiate these actions. The significant difference between these traditional actions and digital shoplifting is that digital shoplifting will produce an identical copy of information that can be sent to many people straight away. This leads to poor sales of magazines and thus it’s essentially the same as stealing magazines and books. That might be why the action is called “digital shoplifting”. 

Here, you might have a simple question; why digital cameras are blamed while human memories are allowed? Cannot digital cameras be considered as extensions to our memories? This is where we have to think about the special characteristic of digital information, or Cyberspace that is based on digital information. This special characteristic is, in short, “Cyberspace does not have restrictions which exist in our Realworld”. 

In the Realworld, there are many restrictions both spatial and temporal. Our earth is covered by the atmosphere and is under the influence of gravity. These restrictions form a certain level of “natural order” that is a kind of balance and that has restrained people from doing certain actions. 

In the past, natural environments such as rock-ribbed mountains, vast extent of sea, and long rivers divided the world, so diseases and incidents happened in one area did not propagate to remote areas. In real cities, an entertainment district was kept separate from school zones or residential areas by parks, rivers, and roads. Our rational nature also prevented ourselves from going into the entertainment district during the day, and this kind of public decencies might have maintained a certain level of order in our society. 

Going back to digital shoplifting, traditional analog (silver salt) cameras are big enough to be spotted and require the film to be developed after taking photos, as well. Therefore, most people wouldn’t take a snap of a magazine or book pages in a bookstore. However, a digital camera mounted on a mobile phone enables you to do that with greater ease because it’s a compact and inexpensive digital device with quite high performance and easy to operate. In addition, you can check what you have taken immediately and send it to your friends straight away. These advantages of digital cameras make digital shoplifting fairly simple and easy and yet the damage could be serious. 

In regard to news related to dating sites and Internet collective suicides, until recently occupations, regions, and generations have limited the extent in which people socialize. If anything people have lived in rather exclusive communities, so it has not been possible for a Supreme Court judge to have an affair with a junior high school student, or young people who live in different regions get together in one place and commit suicide all at once. 

Whereas, Cyberspace is a digital space created by technologies and has no restrictions in principle unless created intentionally. As Cyberspace is seamless both spatially and temporally, it is possible that entertainment districts surround a court and people around the world communicate with each other. Additionally, digital information manipulations are all in all complete and comprehensive. A copy is identical to an original and the quality is not deteriorated even through several copy operations. It’s not attenuated or worn away when it is transmitted to distant places. 

Although it is almost impossible to retrieve analog data from a flood of information, digital data can be found with no sweat. There is an obvious limit to our ability to eavesdrop on telephone calls with our ears, but if you try to tap into e-mail messages, computers can easily spot the keyword you need in just about no time. 

Cyberspace has no “ambiguity,” “incompleteness,” “attrition,” “physical hazard,” “self stabilizing,” and “natural order” that the Realworld has. And this characteristic of digital information enables us to strictly regulate and control information. That is a cause of various problems we have lived with in modern society. 

For example, a university student could publish a campus paper featuring Hayao Miyazaki’s animation, however, if he uploaded the same content to his own home page, he might be charged of copyright infringement. The reason is, even if actual visitors to the home page are less than the number of subscribers of his campus paper, as long as it’s on the home page, it is considered as published to many people (anybody can access it if they want) and can be easily retrieved by searching on the Internet. 

This is why we need to have a viewpoint to understand the different principles between the Realworld and Cyberspace, and then try to resolve several problems caused by digital technologies. 

At first, Cyberspace was established as a fairly free space that was completely detached from the Realworld. However, it gradually deepened its relationship with the Realworld (it became incorporated into government, economic, and social systems) as the Internet gained its popularity, and thereby the freedom of Cyberspace also came to be controlled. 

This was when new challenges came up. 

Firstly, regulations of Cyberspace are obliged to be more exhaustive than those of the Realworld, reflecting the characteristics of digital information. Next, those exhaustive regulations bounce back to the Realworld which is then forced to make the most challenging transformation ever. 

After a manner, as the Realworld has several “restrictions” or natural orders, the effect of technologies has been naturally limited (incomplete) and bound to be relatively moderate. However, in artificially built Cyberspace, everything is done more completely and comprehensively in a most radical manner, therefore it’s necessary to control these excessive impacts. This proclivity might be bounced back to the Realworld and turn our world to a very strictly controlled society. 

Therefore, several problems we have in the IT society should be considered from two aspects; problems inherent in the structure of Cyberspace itself (technologies) and dramatic transformations of Realworld forced by interactions between two spaces. 

In the Realworld, while technologies have a much greater impact on society, society also selects, refuses, or orients technologies in its political, economic, and cultural contexts. In this light, it might be true that society chooses specific technologies. However, Cyberspace is a very space that is built up by technologies, so it can be transformed in any wise using these technologies. Operating Systems and application programs that engineers write every day may directly become a base on which Cyberspace will be built up. 

At all events, Cyberspace created in this way opened up new possibilities to us and that was a great information revolution comparable to the invention of typographic printing by Gutenberg in the 15th century. Cyberspace allows people around the world to communicate with one another via small information terminals, and it enables many people to share information on the network and collaborate with each other to yield appreciable results that we never previously thought possible to achieve. It provides individuals definite means to use the right “freedom of expression,” that might be one of great merits realized by the IT society. 

In order to address these new situations, new laws also have been rapidly developed. Digital signature methods to establish environments for e-Commerce are typical examples of them. At the same time, as digital technologies can easily go too far by their nature and they are at high risk of being misused or abused, these new situations also need to be controlled. Yet again, in order to achieve that, another set of laws is introduced to our society. Under the circumstances, new problems, such as an invasion of individual’s privacy and fortified international surveillance systems, have occurred in the name of seeking for conveniences of technologies or regulating illegal activities. The existing powers in the Realworld might eliminate the possibilities of new technologies, which is also one of the problems. 

It’s necessary to develop laws to address new situations, but on the other hand, that means our lives might be in danger of being on a short leash firstly by technologies, and then by laws. (It is as if technologies and laws come tumbling into your home.) 

For example, there has been an idea of embedding small computer chips or IC tags into books to prevent shoplifting and facilitate merchandise control. The books you have bought always transmit electronic information of some kind and anybody can decode the contents if they have a sensor, which means technologies can cover and control all our lives. Law revisions to prevent “digital shoplifting” will introduce new series of laws into our lives. 

New technologies are developed and then people start using them illegally. In order to regulate the illegal action, a mesh of laws is expanded. Getting out of the clutches of the law, more deftly plotted illegal actions will run rampant. In this way, our lives get completely trapped by technologies and then regulated in various ways by a bunch of laws. The technologies and laws become enlarged all the more and make our Realworld a more constricted space. What is worse, they clutter the whole of Cyberspace, which enables the scheme by enormous powers to attempt to completely control all mankind surely and steadily. 

This is the very reality of the IT society in which Cyberspace and the Realworld interact with one another. In this context, engineers, legal professionals, and every single individual cannot or mustn’t be unconcerned about technologies in Cyberspace from now on. To make our lives more affluent, we have to think about which technologies are used to build up Cyberspace, what kind of laws should be developed, and how to put these laws into practice from a completely new point of view. 

The present day, in the middle of the digital information revolution (IT revolution), can be considered as the era of an unprecedentedly great transition. However, it can also be a good chance for us to fundamentally rethink our life styles. Although that might be a burden imposed upon us, I wish we could find a solution by establishing “Information Ethics”. Figuratively speaking about what has happened in our world, it is like trying to cure a cell suddenly turned into cancerous with anticancer drugs, which might attain some positive results in the short run, however, that has a decisive damage on the human body (society) in the long run. Instead, it’s necessary to enhance the immunity of the human body and improve the body’s health so that it cannot become cancerous (make the most of technologies and laws.) This immunity of society might be old and new “ethics,” I think. 

Digital shoplifting itself is of course a problem, however, what is the most abnormal is the actual situation in which digital shoplifting has been widespread. Therefore, instead of thinking about embedding IC tags into books, you should take every institutional measure to prevent digital shoplifting in bookstores, or more basically, to improve the distribution system of books. At the same time, we have to rethink the ordinary ethic “we should not shoplift”. So, in Cyberliteracy, “Information Ethics” should be what caters to practical demands asking how to survive the future of the IT society. 

Our future, the “New Cyber Realw orld”, will either be a truly “brave new world” or it will turn into the nightmare world depicted by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in “Brave New World” and “1984” respectively; the choice is ours.
(translated by Junko Yano)