The Infomedia Revolution: Opportunities for Global Humanism

Paul Kurtz

This article is adapted from Paul Kurtz’s keynote address to the Thirteenth Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union-in Mexico City in November 1996. The theme of the Congress was “Global Humanism and the CyberAge.” It was the first human-ist World Congress held outside of Europe or the United States, and was co-hosted by the International Academy of Humanism and the Asociación Mexican Ética Racionalista. Founders Patricia López Zaragoza and Mario Mendez-Acosta have launched a new Spanish-language magazine called Razonamientos.

The IHEU was created in 1952 and has now almost one hundred organizations from thirty-three countries. It is relocating its headquarters in London, England—one of the great infomedia centers of the globe—effective January 1997.

We may ask, Where does humanism stand at the present juncture—at the end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the twenty-first? Many of the critics of humanism today predict that it will decline. This prognosis in my judgment is mistaken. On the contrary, humanism, I submit, is at a promising new beginning, and there are unlimited horizons in the unfolding infomedia Cyber Age. But it will grow only if humanists seize the opportunities that are emerging.

There is a vast ethical and cultural vacuum in the world today. The processes of change are so dramatic and far-reaching that the world needs a strong humanist presence. For among the competing religious and ideological factions, humanism alone presents a cosmic outlook based on the methods of scientific inquiry and a set of values that enable us to transcend ancient differences and to build an authentic global community in which all members of the human family can participate.

Let me be clear at the offset as to what I mean by humanism. I am here referring to secular humanism, that is naturalistic, non-theistic, denies the existence of God and immortality, and seeks to provide new meaning to human life. This form of humanism believes in the possibility of objective knowledge, and it encourages the continued development of science and technology to understand and cope with nature and the use of reason and technology to solve human problems. It expresses a new humanistic ethic that is responsive to human interests and needs. It is committed to democracy, universal human rights, the separation of church and state, and the building of a world community. And last, but not least, secular humanism is optimistic about the human prospect, and it affirms our ability to control future events and to ameliorate and enhance the human condition.

Let me begin by stating the negative case of those who believe that we have reached “the end of the secular century”` and that spirituality will again come to dominate the world. These critics believe that a basic paradigm shift (to use the language of the late Thomas Kuhn) is or has occurred.

Various intellectual and social developments have led to this pessimistic appraisal. First of all, there is the virtual collapse of Marxism, and second, we are witness to widespread attacks on the Enlightenment. If at the end of the nineteenth-century socialist and Enlightenment ideals had a powerful appeal to intellectuals, at the end of the twentieth century this is no longer the case. Although Marx was a seminal thinker of the first rank, the transformation of his philosophical views into a totalitarian and terrorist state ideology was one of the great paradoxes of modern times. The failure to fully appreciate the importance of the open society, a free press, the legal right of opposition, majority rule, due process, and the rule of law was no doubt one of the reasons. Socialism, if it meant anything, included an appreciation for democratic values, human rights, and freedoms. To violate these in the name of a utopian end was to contradict the basic principles of humanism. Nor did the Marxists fully appreciate the explosive character of free-market entrepreneurial economies, which were able to innovate and to develop new products and improve living standards for ordinary working people, far greater than any centralized state planning boards.

In no small measure, anti-clerical secularism at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was accelerated because of its alliance with socialism. With the collapse of the socialist movement, secularism has been weakened, and fundamentalist and conservative voices have challenged the very idea of the secular state. This confrontation is occurring everywhere. Today we are challenged on all sides by those who wish to bridge the separation of church and state and fee; emboldened to do so. This is in spite of the growth of political democracy throughout the world.

Another intellectual force that has emerged to challenge humanism is postmodernism, a rather esoteric but significant movement. Drawing on Heidegger, French philosophers,’ and others, postmodernists have launched a major attack on modernity and the Enlightenment. Of considerable significance is the fact that postmodernists have attacked both science and humanism. They have criticized the ability of science to understand and master causal relationships or even the capacity of language to describe or represent the external world. Science, they maintain, is one narrative among others, no more true than other mythic systems. They have derided rational inquiry as a prelude to reform, and they have rejected the development of free and autonomous individuals—both ideals that are fundamental to humanism. Postmodernists have thus disavowed any idea of the progressive improvement of the human condition, which they maintain is an illusion. They bemoan the pervasive influence of technology—while they use it to etch out their ideas on word processors, listen to stereophonic music, hop about the world on jets, have heart bypass surgery, or use antibiotics. Postmodernists appear to us to express an undue pessimism about social reform; they are overly subjective, even nihilistic. Humanists throughout the world’ have responded by denying that the Enlightenment project is over and point to the continued promise of scientific technology and democratic ideals for human improvement.

There is still another movement, the new or old spirituality that has emerged to confront us. This is anti-intellectual, anti-modernist, and even pre-modernist in outlook. It includes fundamentalists of all sorts—Islamic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Judaic, and Hindu; but it also includes the growth of newer cults of unreason and belief in the New Age. What I have in mind here is the worldwide fascination with claims of the paranormal—psychics, faith healers, alternative medicines, extraterrestrial abductions, near-death experiences, reincarnation, etc.

If Friedrich Nietzsche could proclaim at the end of the nineteenth century that “God is dead,” we are not so certain that this applies at the end of the twentieth century. We were, fortunately, able to see the destruction of two virulent European ideological movements in the twentieth century—fascism and Soviet com-munism. We may ask, will we be able to prevail over the revival of religious ideologies and paranormal faiths, which likewise threaten our humanistic values? The recrudescence of ancient religious dogmas has led in no small measure to the emergence of old ethnic rivalries and nationalistic hatreds—of which the former Yugoslavia is the most brutal example. These conflicts are based on chauvinistic loyalties and prejudices, which are beyond all reason. Interestingly, they are fed by postmodernist concerns with multiculturalism and the abandonment at any effort to develop universal values that transcend ethnic bound-aries or extreme cultural relativism.

There are other profound economic and technological changes on the present scene, which enormously complicate any analysis of humanism in the present situation. Free market economies are now global in reach, and they are expanding by leaps and bounds, encouraged by the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and other treaties. In this process huge conglomerates have developed, transcending national frontiers. Unfortunately, they are often more powerful than the nations in which they do business. Although competition for markets is fierce, there is a concentration of power in fewer and fewer corporate hands. Marxists may perhaps seek to derive some satisfaction from these developments. What was unforeseen by Marxists, however, was that the processes of capi-talist expansion continue unabated. New corporations proliferate and entirely new industries spring up almost overnight: the com-puter industry, telecommunications, biotechnology, and the emer-gence of nanotechnology are some recent illustrations. Supporters of these developments welcome mergers and acquisitions, claim-ing that a truly global economy is the result, benefiting all sectors of the globe. They argue that the economies of scale require it, and that efficiency, productivity, lower prices, and innovation are the result. Their critics maintain that there are dangers in this unre-strained growth, that dominant centers of transnational corporate and economic power have emerged, that constant downsizing has placed in jeopardy large sectors of the labor force, and that the dis-appearance of local and regional companies threaten the well-being of democratic societies. The challenge we face is whether the global conglomerates can be regulated and directed toward positive benefits for the entire world community. I will not seek to resolve this controversy here.

Of special concern are the implications of this trend for the info-media revolution—which is perhaps as great as the industrial rev-olution in its impact on world civilization and its implications for humanism. We need fresh thinking applicable to the new social realities. Democratic humanism presupposes an educated citizenry, who are be able to make reflective choices. It presupposed a free market of ideas, where an informed public opinion would deter-mine the main policies and the chief officials to carry them out.

The worldwide growth of infomedia conglomerates in the Cyber Age now challenges this premise—though, as we shall see, it also provides unparalleled opportunities for humanism. I have been actively involved in the knowledge industry’ with firsthand knowledge of the rapid processes of change that we are now undergoing. We are confronted with oligopolic control of the media of communication. Regretfully, some seven or eight media conglomerates now dominate the major media in North America (we may end up with only three or fours) and the same thing is happening worldwide. The primary purpose of such companies is to make a profit, and this means garnering high rat-ings and mass viewership. The main focus is on entertainment, not information; sensationalism, not education. The constant bat-tle is to increase the number of spectators for films, television, and radio programs and to persuade consumers to buy books, magazines, recordings, and the products of advertisers.

The growth of the mass infomedia have no doubt been a great boon to literacy and education. The impact in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has been incalculable, confronting old ideas and values with new ones, and bringing the backwaters of humanity into the modern age. At the same time they have undermined the level of taste and appreciation in affluent societies, and espe-cially the capacity for critical thinking and humanist values.

I should point out that democratic humanists have objected vigorously to totalitarian societies where the state has a monop-oly on the means of expression and communication. Today Western democracies are becoming more narrow in their view-points, limiting creativity and the quest for truth, because the oli-gopolic infomedia tend to blot out critical and radical dissent and to emphasize pop culture. Here the infomedia goliaths often homogenize and distort the message. They are responsible in no small part for the dumbing down of culture. The picture is not entirely bleak, for it is still possible to publish dissenting maga-zines and books, form associations, appear on radio and televi-sion. So there is still some diversity, but it is becoming increas-ingly difficult to express alternative viewpoints. The outlook that prevails in the mass media is a vague kind of religiosity or spiri-tuality, at least in the United States. There is also a growing anti-scientific attitude. There is an inflated fascination with the para-normal universe, and a science-fiction view of reality captures the imagination. In the present context, even the old-time religious miracles—angels, the Shroud of Turin, weeping statues, the Virgin Mary—have all come back with a vengeance. Positively, the mass media have encouraged more liberal attitudes toward human sexuality and there has been a loosening of the grip of religion. Nonetheless, television is a moral wasteland, full of vio-lence and vulgarity, sensational-ism and banality.

The frontline battle for a more humanistic society, I believe, will be fought out in the mass media, particularly since satellite transmission has transformed television and radio into a global phenomenon. Humanists need to influence and modify their directions. Conservatives attack the media in the United States for having a liberal and secular bias, and they maintain that secular values are espoused on television. Indeed, this is often the case. There is a kulturkampf . The Christian Coalition and religious conservatives are constantly lecturing Hollywood about the corruption of values; at the same time that they are against abortion, pornography, and homosexuality, they are for capital punishment and guns. Proponents of civil liberties defend freedom of expression and oppose censorship. The com-mercial domination of the airwaves, as I have argued, increasingly turns programming primarily to advertising purposes.

That is why I believe that it is important to arouse public opin-ion in democratic societies against the exclusive domination of our main sources of information and education. We need to defend quasi-public television and radio networks in order to ensure alternative viewpoints—the British Broadcasting Corporation in Britain, National Public Radio and educational television in the United States, and similar channels in Europe and elsewhere. I am here not referring to government media—they, too, can suppress diversity—but nonprofit stations. The major churches have learned to use television and radio with profit, and they have garnered great numbers of supporters. Religious organizations already own television stations. Alas, most humanist organizations until now have been largely inef-fective in this regard. We need to own our own radio stations and television channels and produce our own programs. If this is beyond our reach, we need to undertake massive campaigns to ensure diversity and high quality programs. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has recently established a Council for Media Integrity to monitor the main networks and attempt to get accuracy in scientific report-ing, at least about claims of the paranormal. CSICOP’s World Skeptics Congress, convened in June 1996, had 1,200 partici-pants. The theme was “Science in the Age of Media (Mis)Information.” Humanists worldwide need to do the same.

An exciting new development that is overtaking us rapidly is the emergence of the Internet. The best and the brightest minds are surfing the Worldwide Web daily, not only receiving E-mail, but making use of the storehouse of information that is now available. The Internet provides a new free market of ideas that is open to diversity. It is instantaneous and transnational. People in Mexico City, San Francisco, London, Beijing, Oslo, and Bombay can talk to each other. What an incredible tool, far eclipsing the telegraph, short-wave radio, telephone, and televi- sion. A new dimension has thus been added to the global com-munity. According to recent estimates, over 15 million households in the United States now have access to the Internet, and, given the great commercial use, there are some 40 million users. President Bill Clinton has promised that by the year 2000 every child will have access to the information superhighway. It is estimated that Europe has five million persons on the Worldwide Web, and these are grow-ing in India, China, and even Iran—to the consternation of the mullahs. This new technology is thus transforming world culture by creating for the first time a worldwide network of human beings participating in dialogue. Is it a cacophany of discordant voices or does it hold forth the promise of developing a genuine world community?

The Internet enables us to tailor information to specific groups of people. It enables, for example, atheists and humanists worldwide to communicate with lightning speed. This is how we were able to create the Campus Freethought Alliance almost overnight on more than forty campuses. But it does the same thing for all other groups—from cat fanciers and race car own-ers to neo-Nazis and Scientologists. Will this mean a splintering of societies into fractious groups, or does this mean that users of the Internet can share common ideas and values across narrow ideological and religious lines?

What should be the response of secular humanists to this ongoing information revolution? And how shall we respond to the naysayers—nihilist postmodernists and fundamentalists—who have given up on the prospects for constructive reform? Since I believe that the scientific and technological revolution cannot be turned back or shut down, those societies that encour-age scientific and technological developments will thrive. Those societies that nourish an anti-scientific state of mind—such as the postmodernists in the academies and the fundamentalists at large—will stagnate and decline.

We especially need to keep the Internet open and free. Humanists must have Web pages to espouse humanist ideas. The U.S. Congress has tried to censor the Internet against “pornogra-phy,” and also the Chinese government has attempted to restrain it. Some, like the French, have complained that the language of the Internet is in English. It has been estimated that 90% of the world’s languages may disappear in the next century.` For there will no longer be isolated pockets of culture. Who will control the Worldwide Web in the future is of crucial significance. The mega-conglomerates are now engaged in an all-out struggle for control. We must resist the drive toward further media concen-tration of this new technology.

An important battleground for humanists is within the system f education. High cognitive skills are essential in the Cyber Age, and it is out of the schools, colleges, and universities that future leadership will emerge. On our side is the fact that the new class that is emerging needs to be well educated, cognitively and technologically skilled, for education is the key to running the cor-porate global economy. It seems to be personally responsible, interactive, not passive. It is to be open to new ideas. The old class division between proletariat and capitalist no longer is relevant, for what is emerging is a new elite, based on those who can master the knowledge industry; those who cannot will fall by the wayside.

Every society needs to expose students to the best education in science, the humanities, and the arts. As part of a well-rounded education, humanists especially need to emphasize critical think-ing, scientific literacy, and moral education. With an overload of information, it is often difficult for the average citizen to know how to evaluate the competing claims to truth. That is why from the very earliest we must teach children critical thinking. At our dialogues with Muslims, sponsored by the IHEU, on Averroes and the Enlightenment in Cairo in 1994 and in Amherst, New York, in 1996, it became clear that the Islamic world will fall behind unless it allows its populace some educational freedoms and some appreciation for the questioning, critical, and creative mind. To have an open, inquiring mind is considered to be dan-gerous by authoritarians, for it may spread to hidebound reli-gious dogmas and social prejudices. Education, to be effective, must be thoroughly secular. This means that we must work for a cultural reformation, shaking the very foundations of intransi-gent systems of belief and value.

Of special significance for humanism is the role that new developments in science and technology can play in developing a new humanistic weltanschauung. Secular humanism, by defini-tion, bases its view of nature and its cosmic outlook on the tested theories of scientific research. Pure metaphysical speculation without some empirical verification is methodologically inade-quate. From this vantage point, humanism needs to be allied to the sciences. This means an application of the methods of ratio-nal and scientific inquiry—the quest for falsifiable hypotheses that can be tested by the evidence, and rigorous standards of logical coherence. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and sev-enteenth centuries in Europe is ongoing. The application of the methods of science and technology have transformed this planet and can continue to contribute to human betterment.

Some pessimistic critics of science are already forecasting the end of science,’ maintaining either that the major discover-ies that are to be made have already been made, and/or that nature is so complicated and the human mind so limited that we have reached the end of a four-century scientific drama. This view seems to me to be short-sighted. Who can say with confi-dence that science has reached an end, and/or that there will not be new and even more exciting discoveries?

Other critics of science bemoan the impact of technology.’ Environmentalists and ecologists rightly point out the dangers that abusive runaway technologies can cause to the natural envi-ronment. The problem is not to turn off the technological clock, as some critics of science want to do, but to develop new, safer, and more wholesome technologies.

The great challenge, as I see it, in the new Cyber Age, is for humankind to express Promethean courage. We should not with-draw into a womb of impotent fear and trembling, nor allow a new failure of nerve to overtake us. But to do this requires a transformation of our values; and here humanism can take the lead. The ancient systems of value, predicated on mythic reli-gious foundations, were spawned during a nomadic and agricul-tural age. They continue to block human progress, not only in urban, but in postindustrial information societies. We need to transform our values in the light of reason, testing them by their consequences. The effort to teach moral education and values clarification to our children independent of the churches, which humanist organizations in Western Europe are advocating, is part of this humanist reformation of society.

A humanistic cultural renaissance focusing on education and using the media and the Internet is essential for the developing world; for unless it adapts, it will not only miss the bountiful benefits of the industrial age, but of the great opportunities that the Cyber Age offers as well.

 


Notes

  1. Irving Kristol, Robert John Neuhaus, Paul Johnson, and other religious and conservative pundits.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, etc.
  3. Jürgen Habermas in Germany, Post-Deweyan pragmatic humanists in America, and Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut in France, for example.
  4. I founded Prometheus Books, the largest humanist press in the world, have published several magazines and newsletters, and have worked closely with tele-vision and radio producers.
  5. These include: General Electric (NBC), Disney-Time-Warner (CNN), Cap Cities (ABC), Westinghouse (CBS), Paramount-Viacom (Sumner Redstone), News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch), Advanced Publications (SlNewhouse), Tele-Communications (John Malone).
  6. One should recognize, however, that with the new computer methods of translation it is entirely likely that even if English is at present the dominant lan-guage, it would be possible for anyone speaking any of the major languages to translate what is said into their own language.
  7. See the new book by John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996).
  8. The Unabomber was so hostile to technology that he moved to an isolated cabin in Montana and mailed bombs to those involved in scientific research and application.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


This article is adapted from Paul Kurtz’s keynote address to the Thirteenth Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union-in Mexico City in November 1996. The theme of the Congress was “Global Humanism and the CyberAge.” It was the first human-ist World Congress held outside of Europe or the United States, and was co-hosted by …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.