March 20, 2004

Global Ethics in the Age of the Internet

By Joseph Salim

As technology continues to progress and access to the Internet proliferates worldwide, traditional barriers, such as time and distance, have been overcome by the fluid interaction and exchange of diverse civilizations and cultures. The confluence of access and information has led to the emergence of an interconnected global village, in which events in one corner of the world can bear important and sometimes devastating consequences in the other, as witnessed by the tragic events of 11 September 2001. While universal access to this vast network of information has clearly enhanced our overall knowledge, it has also exacerbated complex ideological, political and social disparities among various communities in the underprivileged fringes of our global village.

With the advent of information technology, modern class systems are no longer determined by birth but increasingly by access to opportunity. One of the neglected corollaries of technological advancement is the creation of envy and animosity among those who have suddenly become aware of what the world has to offer, only to be frustated by the inability to access such opportunities. Previously concealed by geographical constraints, the ubiquitous impression that others are living a more prosperous life merely by being born in a country that offers seemingly unlimited opportunities for advancement has thus created a mixture of resentment, expectation and hope among those struggling in poverty-stricken and oppressed conditions. Individuals attempting to maintain their cultural identity while pursuing their aspirations face difficult choices that transcendent simple economics. Such tensions can result in cultural clashes between civilizations, and those who are unable to reconcile cultural differences or forgo their cultural identity find themselves grappling with an ever-changing dynamic that eludes comprehension.

Unless basic ideological needs of human beings are reassessed, it is doubtful that economic aid and technical expertise alone can bridge the increasing rift between cultures. From unconscionable acts of persecution to the horrors of war, it is often the difference in the belief of what is right and wrong that has motivated and served to justify the greatest atrocities.

The more engrained and inflexible an ideology, the harder it becomes to accommodate and tolerate difference. From friendships, family relationships and even self-perception, individual ideology is the very thread by which our lives are tied within the fabric of society.

The reality of globalization requires that we learn to embrace diversity and plurality while fostering an innate sense of unity and harmony. We must seek to equip ourselves with the tools that will enable us to comprehend our fellow human beings more profoundly and to conduct ourselves in an appropriate and universally acceptable manner, regardless of particular ideology, race or religion.

All of us share a direct responsibility for improving the state of the world; however, notwithstanding popular perception, the process of initiating true global change must begin from within, for ultimately any society is only as benevolent and tolerant as the individuals who comprise it. By seeking to first educate and improve ourselves, we can set in motion the mechanism to effect substantive change on a universal scale.

One key to pursuing such an internal transformation is the acquisition of awareness and understanding of the prevalent social, cultural and ethical issues that impact our daily lives. The more informed, involved and concerned we become as citizens of the world, the more effectively each of us can contribute towards building a more peaceful, just and secure society.

Considering that the equalization of opportunities is not reasonably foreseeable in the near future, what is needed are new tools that will enable us to cope with the ideological and social disparities brought to light by technological advancements. While it is perhaps human nature to consider our plight as being unique to our time, such a myopic view of history puts us at danger of repeating the errors of the past. Indeed, the clash between civilizations and cultures is in no way a phenomenon that is unique to our time; the only difference is the scale with which such clashes occur. The world population is exponentially expanding. We have access to more information than ever before and can communicate it faster and more effectively across the globe. Universal access to this global web of information has levelled the playing field, and the world has shrunk into a global village.

In today`s multilateral world, prosperity and hope live alongside doom and despair. In a world marked by diminishing borders and clashing ideologies, the necessity of collectively developing and formulating universal standards of ethical behaviour has become an urgent priority that can no longer be ignored. The development of a shared global ethic to guide human action mandates an in-depth study of our duties and obligations alongside our fundamental rights and liberties.

Joseph Salim, D.M.D., is Executive Director of Virtue Foundation, as well as of The Nour Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the common principles underlying various disciplines and schools of thought.

77 UN CHRONICLE No. 4, 2003