Three Principles of "Cyber Literacy"

Cyber space has no restrictions
Cyber space keeps everything recorded
Cyber space imposes challenges on “individuality” 

I. Cyber space has no restrictions

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, and so on) with their latest camera-equipped mobile phones. The Japan Magazine Publishers Association and bookstores are set to launch a national campaign against digital shoplifting, thinking that they are being cheated out of valuable sales and the action has almost the same impact on them as actual shoplifting. 

However, there has been a long tradition of allowing people to leaf through publications. And It was common to remember the title and the publisher of an interesting book you found in a bookstore and then order it from a different bookstore near your home. You would not think twice about memorising 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 would not be charged with them since it is 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 then be sent to many people straight away. This leads to poor sales of magazines and thus it is considered the same as stealing magazines and books. This is why the action is called “digital shoplifting”. 

Here, you might have a simple question; why digital cameras are blamed while human memories are allowed? Can we not say that digital cameras are just means to complement our memories? This is exactly where we have to think about the special characteristic of digital information, or Cyber space evolving around digital information. That is in short, “Cyber space has no restrictions.” 

In the real world, 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 gives a kind of balance and has restrained people from doing certain actions. 

In the past, as natural environments like rock-ribbed mountains, vast extent of sea, and long rivers divided the world: diseases and incidents which 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, or roads. Our rational nature also prevented us from going into the 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 analogue (silver salt) cameras are big enough to be spotted and yet require the film to be developed after taking photos. That is why most people would not have dared to take a snap of a page of magazines or books in a bookstore. However, the feat can be done effortlessly by using digital cameras mounted on mobile phones which are very compact, inexpensive, easy to use, and highly efficient. In addition, you can immediately check what you have just taken and then 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 very costly. 

In regard to news related to dating sites and Internet collective suicides, our social lives were until recently limited by occupations, regions, and generations. As we lived in rather exclusive communities, it was not logically possible for a Supreme Court judge to have an affair with a junior high school student, or young people from different regions gather at one place and commit suicide together. 

Cyber space was an artificial space supported by technologies and has no restrictions in principle unless introduced intentionally.
As Cyber space is seamless both spatially and temporally, it is possible that an entertainment district is adjacent to a court and people around the world communicate with each other. Additionally, a digital copy is identical to an original and yet the quality will not be deteriorated even after repeated copy operations. It is not attenuated or worn away while being transmitted long way. 

Cyber space has no “ambiguity,” “incompleteness,” “attrition,” “physical hazard,” “self stabilizing,” and “natural order” that we can find in the real world. And it is also this characteristic of digital information which enables us to strictly regulate and control information. That is a cause of various problems we have lived with in modern society. 

II. Cyber space keeps everything recorded

If you try to perceive the difference between the real world and Cyber space in terms of our memory, or how we make our efforts to record information, you will realise that the directions of the efforts are extreme opposites. 

In the real world, for example, your voice just travels through the air and reaches people’s ears and then will soon be forgotten. Yet, only a few people around you will hear it. In order to get it recorded, you have to make extra efforts such as reciting it repeatedly, writing it down or recording it on a tape or a video tape. In ancient times, the Gospel, the Socr_tic el_nchus and the Buddha preaching were all handed down to posterity by their disciples who made considerable efforts to disseminate the teachings. 

Then in the course of time we saw the rise of Mass Media which served our needs to record various events and deliver the news to great numbers of people. Nevertheless, in the analogue world, newspapers just ended up being used as wrapping papers the very next day and radios and TVs were usually nothing but ephemeral entertainments. This is why we did not have to worry about our behaviour in the past as seen in some old sayings like “A wonder lasts but nine days” and “Leave one’s sense of shame at home.” That is to say, it required enormous efforts to record, pass on and save information. 

Cyber space has made it the other way around.

Once di gitalised, the information will stay in Cyber space nearly forever. Besides it can be spread far and wide quickly. It is no easy matter to delete your comments in Cyber space as they have been no doubt copied and saved elesewhere by the time you decide to delete them. Well, it may be almost impossible to delete them completely. 

Namely, it hardly requires any effort to record information in Cyber space which, on the contrary, demands us to endeavor to delete information. (There are surely some “tragic incidents” in which you lose your work instantly when your computer has been inadvertently powered off or you lose your long-time collection of data due to a hard disk crash. However, this vulnerability of digital information is not covered here.) 

Therefore, in terms of recording information, you have to make your efforts in completely opposite directions depending on which space you are in; the real world or Cyber space. This opposition is similar to the distinction between positive and negative film, or the distinction between concave and convex surfaces for a printing technology. Schematically, it can be represented as “the default behaviour in Real world = <forget>” and “the default behaviour in Cyber space = <memorise/record>”. 

Of course until recently, it was necessary to put a certain level of effort to digitalise information for the first time. In order to print out address labels for New Year’s cards, first you needed to enter address information one by one into your computer to build up an address database. Afterwards computers became networked enabling us to share digitalised data and collaborate on data entry operations. 

We have been contributing to build a huge database of personal information by volunteering personal data when we make payment at shops, deposit money in a bank, or use public services (for driving licenses or tax payment). Even e-mail messages sent from computers and mobile phones remain saved on the network permanently unless every effort is made to “delete” them. 

In this view, it was the emergence of the network which automated our data entry efforts. Furthermore, the Age of Ubiquitous Computing, which has been promoted currently, can be considered as striving to make computers deployed everywhere around us automatically collect, digitalise and save our personal information in Cyber space. 

Privacy problems we have seen today are quite simply rooted in this characteristic of Cyber space. This is why we need to have a viewpoint to understand the different principles of the real world and Cyber space, and then try to resolve several problems caused by digital technologies. 

III. Cyber space imposes challenges on “individuality”

One of the advantages of digital information is being able to search and collect necessary keywords from an enormous amount of text data. You can consider that the keywords retrieved this way are separated from their original context and then reconstructed anew. This “separation and reconstruction” is the paramount characteristic of digital information. 

Let’s take an example with books. We usually read a book sequentially by following the plot and the author’s thoughts in the way the author intended. On the contrary with digital text, we can go beyond by clicking words among sentences and moving to related pages about the person, events and other relevant information (hyperlink feature), thus we can randomly read various texts according to our interests. (This undoubtedly enhances the flexibility of reading, however, some people may end up just being busy gathering knowledge and unable to absorb and contemplate the things. It depends on how to use the new tools, and more importantly, the quality of individuals.) 

This relationship between words and text is exactly the same as the relationship between individuals and organisations. Individuals gained freedom from the regional and organisational shackles that have bound them in the real world and now are tested on their abilities in Cyber space. 

For example, mobile phones enabled individuals to communicate with each other without any spatial constraints like boundaries of home, schools and companies. Yet at the same time, a sense of belonging to traditional communities became weaker and weaker. Of course mobile phones can be used to foster communication among families, but it is because you intend to do so. The most important thing is that people are inevitably challenged at an “individual” level. One might say that Cyber space exposes “individuals” to situations where they are challenged and tested. 

Those “individuals” thrust out bare and alone are in danger of being taunted, manipulated or controlled by Cyber space. Even so, they also have a good chance of taking advantage of Cyber space to establish their own autonomous networks. This is again left to the discretion of individuals. 

The history of modernisation centered on the West can be considered as the process in which “individuals” attained freedom. Having come out of the age where we aligned ourselves with the order of nature and felt comfortable and secure, we established “individuality” and objectified nature, and furthermore started controlling nature to develop industries. Thus, what has been happening in recent years can be observed as a new and more drastic deployment of what modernisation has promoted for “individuals’ freedom.” If we compare the “individuals’ freedom” attained from modernisation to a “solid-to-liquid” transition of water, the recent equivalent can be considered as a “liquid-to-vapor” transition of it. 

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes “I mean by [malaises of modernity] features of our contemporary culture and society that people experience as a loss or a decline, even as our civilization ‘develops.’ … the whole modern era from the seventeenth century is frequently seen as the time frame of decline” (Taylor, 1991). We will no doubt experience the same worries despite the freedom attained in Cyber space and the uneasiness will be greater than ever before. 

For individuals having attained freedom from existing orders, it is certainly a big challenge to establish their own autonomous networks while being watched by Cyber space. Moreover, for us Japanese who have still been struggling to keep pace with the West in terms of establishing “individuality,” the challenge is expected to be very severe. Whether you like it or not, it is true that we are forced to face with this challenge and reflect on our lives as an “individual.” (translated by Junko Sato)

Source: サイバー生活手帖