Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri At Al-Hewar Center

Islam and the Age of Information

The very values and features that have advanced progress and innovation in Western society are exactly those that the Qur’an and the sunnah have advocated many centuries ago," such as trust, cooperation and egalitarianism, said University of Richmond Professor Dr. Azizah al-Hibri at a recent discussion at Al-Hewar Center. "Unfortunately, the failure of Muslims to follow faithfully their religious prescriptions has caused them dearly and resulted in serious civilizational costs, most recently in the area of informatics."

Dr. al-Hibri came to Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C. , on February 25 to talk about "Muslims and the Challenges of the 21st Century: Information Technology in the New World Order."

The Information Revolution has created a New Economic Order," said al-Hibri, which has made the world smaller, but individual human experience much larger. Unfortunately, though, at this point the Muslim World, with the exception of a few South East Asian countries, is still struggling to catch up with the technological revolution, and remains a witness rather than a participant.

She also argues, however, that America, which was at the vanguard of the revolution, is now beginning to lose its competitive advantage over Europe and Japan, and has had to resort to international joint ventures in order, in part, to import some new technologies developed abroad. She examined how this happened and what it portends for the future.

But she also made an intriguing comparison between this revolution and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. She pointed out that England, which was lagging behind the rest of Europe, was able to gather all of the new information and capabilities together and literally "leapfrog" over the other countries to become the undisputed leader of the Industrial Revolution. She argued that there is no reason why the Muslim countries should not be able to use the same technique to become a major participant in the current information revolution. "Unless the Muslim World is willing to make the necessary changes, the consequences to its future will be disastrous," she warned.

Dr. al-Hibri described the impact the Information Revolution has had on American business and society, arguing that the open exchange of information became a hallmark of the information revolution, which began in Silicon Valley, and has changed some conceptions of competition in business.

The Silicon valley revolution, she said, began when William Hewlett and David Packard started an electronic instrumentation business in their garage in the late 1930s. They developed a new business ethic which rejected authoritarian hierarchies and operated on the basis of trusting and motivating employees. This philosophy came to be known as the "HP way" and its hallmarks include an environment of trust, cooperation, egalitarianism and close professional ties. This style of management became extremely popular in Silicon valley and has led to the openness and sharing of information that have nurtured its astounding innovations.

Because of the high amount of information sharing among competing companies, the phrase "co-opetition" has been added to the American lexicon. Indeed, many of the engineers tend to see themselves as employees of the entire Valley rather than any one specific company.

Dr. al-Hibri discussed the theory of the "Third Wave," put forth by American futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, which is the new information society that is knowledge-based, requires globalization in various aspects, including business and finance, and has economies that operate at accelerated speeds. It demassifies production, media and other aspects of society, introducing instead industrial customization, just-in-time inventories and proliferating channels of cable television.

Proponents of the Second Wave, which is characterized by mass production, mass education, and specialized corporations and universities, said the Tofflers are still trying to cling to power on the American scene. For this reason, they predict that the next major conflict will not be between the West and other nations, as Samuel Huntington predicted, but between Third Wavers pursuing change and Second Wavers who will defend their vested interests in obsolete industrial structures.

Marshall McLuhan, another influential futurist, foresaw the approaching changes associated with the Age of Informatics, and he understood that this age would bring about a new society characterized by greater connectivity and networking, said al-Hibri. McLuhan argue that the printed word is being quickly replaced by the electronic medium. To illustrate his point, he coined the phrase "The Medium is the Message," meaning that the electronic medium is non-lineal, simultaneous and interconnected whereas the medium of print is visual, mechanical, sequential and lineal. The non-linear Third Wave thinking compels integration with commitment, participation and decentralization.

Al-Hibri examined the development of the Industrial Revolution as a way to understand the trends of the current Information Revolution. Significantly, she said, Britain, the country that led the Industrial Revolution, had lagged technologically behind other European countries for quite a while and was then able to leap to the forefront. In fact, Europe as a whole had lagged technologically behind other civilizations, such as the Chinese, which appeared at one time to be on the verge of their own Industrial Revolution but were hampered by political instability.

Several developments in Europe were significant to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Most important were the rise of towns and cities and the formation of guilds for craftsmen living in those cities. In formerly agrarian societies, cities introduced a new freedom from traditional institutions which led to new opportunities and rewards for initiative, daring and industriousness.

Other European countries, however, shared many of the characteristics of Britain, but it was, according to historian William McNeil, the "pervasive looseness" of British society that helped to catapult it past other countries in the Industrial Revolution. This looseness was the result of political developments as well as economic changes. By the eighteenth century, serfdom no longer existed in Britain, and commerce was energetic, forceful and open to risk-taking and innovation. Commerce and mobility among workers and social classes significantly increased the free flow of information. The invention of movable parts printing also made it possible to diffuse knowledge massively and inexpensively in the form of printed books.

This density of information acted as an impetus for further industrial innovation, said al-Hibri. That is why the "openness" in the British society as a whole, and in the cities in particular, was a crucial ingredient in its ability to leapfrog the other more technologically advanced European countries.

Almost all technological advances made during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution were the result of the efforts of craftsmen, not scientists, said al-Hibri. Furthermore, intercontinental diffusion of knowledge was accomplished with the help of immigrant skilled labor, entrepreneurs, and indigenous technologists who plagiarized new inventions after learning about them through their travels. Some historians have concluded that the inflow of good minds, combined with society’s receptiveness to new ideas, were among the main reasons for the industrial success of countries such as England, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Today’s information technology is very different from the older mechanical technology. It reflects a closer relationship between science and technology. For these reasons, diffusion of technology through publications may be more effective today than it was in the past. It is still true, however, that there is a significant amount of technique which cannot be imparted except through "hands-on" training or face-to-face discussion. Consequently, even in today’s Silicon Valley, companies do include non-compete provisions in contracts with their employees. The enforcement of such provisions, however, has been quite lax for a variety of reasons, not least among them is the aversion of the skilled technicians, who are in short supply, to restrictive behavior.

The diffusion of technology through publication, migration, and plagiarism, to mention a few avenues, reveals the following features about the transitory stage leading to the Industrial Revolution. First, there was a large and mobile supply of skilled labor in Britain, particularly, and the rest of Europe, generally. Second, there was significant diffusion of technological know-how despite all legal and other restrictions. Third, the technologists of the Industrial Revolution rejected traditional hierarchies and affiliations, opting instead to cooperate with other technologists and entrepreneurs to achieve progress.

In fact, said al-Hibri, the achievements of the Industrial Revolution were no more than a conglomeration of mostly incremental advances made possible by an increasingly inclusive and interdependent nexus of technologists who came from different disciplines but discovered that they could build on each other’s innovations to improve or increase the efficiency of their own machines. Their ability to innovate thus increased, and the quantity of innovations multiplied exponentially, thrusting Britain and then the rest of Europe to the forefront.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Information Revolution in Silicon Valley have remarkably similar features, said al-Hibri. Both required a significant breakdown of traditional modes of operation, the dismantling of authoritarian hierarchies, substantial free flow of information and cooperation and teamwork among technologists.

This is no doubt a surprising conclusion for those who think of the Industrial Revolution as giving birth to societies which are highly (linearly, hierarchically) structured, standardized and centralized. Some of that era’s greatest achievements were the clock and the assembly line. These and similar achievements added more building blocks to the regimentation of society in the industrial world, ultimately stifling individual creativity and initiative. But these were the features of a mature industrial society, not a struggling one that is teetering on the edge of innovation and creativity, said al-Hibri.

Underlying this whole upheaval is a tacit rejection by the craftsman/technologist of the view that an innovation is a private property that belongs to the inventor as a personal/corporate asset. Instead, the technologist views innovation as belonging to the world at large, to humanity. Consequently, the technologist (including the hacker) is in constant search of the free flow of information. Companies that recognized this fact early in the days of the Information Revolution did extremely well as businesses.

The fact that this discussion could move so readily between Britain and the US, the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution, shows significant commonality between the two experiences, said al-Hibri. As has been shown above, certain of the distinctive features of Silicon Valley were shared by industrial regions in Medieval and eighteenth century Britain. This then invalidates the thesis that the features of Silicon Valley are peculiar to the Information Age. In fact, this analysis has demonstrated that these features are more distinctive of an innovative environment in which the excitement and vigor of the innovators break down traditional barriers.

In order for the Muslim World to leapfrog into the Information Age, concluded Dr. al-Hibri, it must not only focus on acquiring information technology with its infrastructure, but it must also create hospitable conditions that involve fundamental political and ethical shifts. Muslims must start learning how to live by the ideals of the Muslim society, which promote trust and cooperation. They must also bring about a society, based not on oppressive hierarchies, but on shura and respect for the freedoms of the citizens.


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