Almost every day somebody complains to me that he does not have enough information. I reject these complaints. I believe there is more than enough information around us. The complainer probably lacks something else. He is unable to select information, to convert it into usable knowledge and to act on the basis of it. People usually do not understand me when I say this.
This is probably because I simply cannot join those who see the Internet, satellite television, teletext, mobile telephones and other similar inventions as a new era of Mankind, as a new, better world. Aldoux (sic) Huxley would say Brave New World. I am reminded of the communist times. The communist leaders liked very much to talk about the "scientific and technological revolution" in a very similar way.
I agree with Barbara von der Heydt (see Religion and Liberty, No.5, 1996). She says that the greatest problem of our civilisation is that it is incapable of defining the difference between information and knowledge. Yes, I think this is a basic insight.
It is obvious that the cultural and intellectual heritage which we all share is the result of gradual maturing over many centuries. It is not the result of sudden change. Do not let us then overestimate the importance of the latest information which quickly appears on teletext before our eyes. Sometimes it is much more important to preserve one's detachment. We should not trust the latest information. We should be able to integrate it withing the existing whole. I am a relatively conservative person and I am a little afraid that we exaggerate our praise of things new.
Our post modern society seems to be interested in new, unusual, marginal, untested ideas, which unbalance us and destroy our peace of mind. This pushes the fundamental, well tried and tested, stabilising values, to the margins. I am afraid that we are losing firm ground. We need firmly anchored behaviour and firmly anchored attitudes. The Internet will hardly help us in this.
If I have not spent dozens of years reading encyclopaedias at home, I will obviously not be using the Internet very often. If I do not know what to look for in the encyclopaedias, I will not be able to find my way through the Internet either. New information is meaningful for me only if there is a firm structure for me to place it in.
Some decades ago, economics discovered a subsidiary subject. It was named information economics. It was founded by a Chicago economist, George Stigler. An economist has a well tried and tested methodology, Stigler told us emphatically in 1961. Thus an economist immediately, subconsciously, distinguishes supply and demand. (...) Thus there is a difference between supply of information and demand for information. Several dozen television channels is for us supply, we cannot influence it, but we can influence the demand for television news or entertainment. Some people have their own, very well motivated interest to act on the side of the Internet supply, others have their own interest to act on the side of the Internet demand. Sometimes supply and demand meet, at other times they do not. But I have to insist that this has nothing to do with knowledge as such.
After forty years of communism, the Czech Republic has a relatively small amount of social capital, social trust, moral cohesion, responsibility to others. I am not quite sure whether television and the Internet contribute to the creation of social capital. I tend to agree with those sociologists who warn that television and computers "privatise" our free time, fragment our society and lessen our social capital.
I therefore conclude: we have enough information. Some of us lack the ability to select what is important and relevant and to apply it.
(Jan Culik's note: This article provoked a spate of negative reactions in the Czech Republic, especially from people who are aware of the enormous potential of the information superhighway. I published a couple of articles in the Slovo newspaper, warning that it is dangerous if the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic is ignorant of the current information revolution and its deepening impact on the world economy.
Czech scholars and scientists, deeply worried that the Czech government has reneged on its promise to increase funding to the same GNP percentage as is customary in the EU countries, published a Declaration in support of Research and Development. Prime Minister Klaus angrily rejected the Declaration.
On 2nd May, 1997, I wrote in the Slovo newspaper that surely the future of the Czech economy would be determined by the ability of the Czech Republic to innovate. I warned that a society of haves and have nots was being created in the Czech Republic because there was now a large class of Czechs who have no access to the Internet. If the government does not attend to this problem, this will have a negative impact on the Czech economy, I said.
On 31st May, 1997, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus reacted to my article of 2nd May, 1997, by the following piece.)
(...) There is no doubt that a new scientific discovery, once it has been transformed into a technical invention, greatly contributes to the growth of the economy.
However, it is a question whether it is more important to pursue research and to discover new things or just to implement existing inventions in manufacturing. We have to ask ourselves first of all whether a country has an economic system which provides sufficient stimulation for the introduction of new ideas into industry. At least since Schumpeter, economists have known that innovation greatly contributes to economic growth. But beware: innovation is the practical application of new ideas. This has nothing to do with the scientific discovery as such.
Also, it is not necessarily more productive to pursue scientific research than to purchase production licences. This is what the debaters in the Czech Republic fail to realise. (...) There is no direct link between research and the growth of the economy.
Communism used the expression "science" and "scientific-technological revolution" constantly. Under communism, scientists had an incredibly privileged position in society which they will never have again. Yet neither science, nor the economy flourished. Some scientists still fail to realise this.
Jan Culik, lecturer at the University of Glasgow, says that "the key to the future economic survival of the Czech Republic in today's world of fast technological change will be the ability of Czech scientists to invent new technologies, so that they can be quickly and effectively implemented in Czech industry" (Slovo, 2nd May, 1997). That, for me, is an almost absolutely absurd notion.
Scientists do not usually invent new technologies. Scientists within a particular country cannot know all technologies, used within that country and it is certainly not possible for scientists themselves to implement these new technologies in Czech industry.
Technology is created by technicians. Managers and economists decide where to apply it. They only do this if it produces economic effect. (...) The role of a scientist is totally different.
Moreover, Mr Culik gives the same importance to the Internet. (Somebody has recently nicknamed it wittily the "Infernet" - derived from the world "Inferno".). Mr. Culik is afraid that a new social inequality is arising in the Czech Republic, a class of informed people who have access to the Internet and a class of the uninformed, to whom the access to the Internet is denied. That is why the Czech government should compulsorily introduce Internet to the public.
If Mr. Culik is a true scientist, he should know that science is not about information, but about knowledge, about thinking, about the ability to create general concepts, about the ability to build models and testable theories and about the testing of these theories.
Science is NOT about the Internet. It certainly is NOT about the compulsory introduction of the Internet.
A number of scholars, for instance recently Jeremy Greenwood of the University of Rochester, have pointed to the fact that the computer revolution of the past two decades has failed to produce increased economic growth or productivity. (...) There is usually a serious time lag between the introduction of new technologies and their impact.
This also applies to computers. Many of us know this very well. Just look around yourselves - you see how many computers are used just as if they were fancy typewriters. Computer and software manufacturers have been incredibly successful in persuading us that we must have their latest product - regardless of how expensive it might be. And yet these costs are far from negligible for Czech firms.
This is why I simply do not believe Mr Culik when he asserts that Czech society is becoming unequal and that this will paralyse economic development.
Internet is only a tool. For one person it is a great advantage, for another it means nothing. But that is how it is with everything in the world.
The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic