Science Directions

Over the past 20 years, since the invention of the World Wide Web at a Swiss physics lab, there has been an astounding evolution in how we learn, educate, communicate, do business, socialize and play. Although most of us probably use electronic communications every day through telephone, television, e-mail and the Internet, the implications of this evolution for the science and practice of psychology are becoming increasingly salient.

APA has organized task forces exploring the implications of the Internet for psychological research and testing and is exploring the opportunities in distance education, health and mental health care and health and mental health promotion.

This evolution has spawned a host of new questions and opportunities. How will childhood be different when our toddlers can surf the Internet before they can read? How does education change when information can be gathered and disseminated on a global scale never before imagined? How are relationships changing as interaction takes place via mouse and screen rather than face to face? How does constant accessibility affect notions of privacy and identity?

The new order, born of the information communication technology (ICT) evolution, is called the "information" or "knowledge" society, and it underscores a commerce in knowledge, not material goods. Psychologists and APA are uniquely positioned to participate in the development of this knowledge-based society as scientists, as health and mental health deliverers, as educators, as publishers of research and scholarly information and as information resources for the public.

For example, psychological research can help illuminate how to build a communication infrastructure that capitalizes on learning opportunities, optimal human-machine interactions and motivation. It can also harness the Internet as a powerful data-collection and analysis tool.

APA, in its role as publisher, offers a wealth of expertise on using information technology to promote research and education. APA's Web site, which delivers information to consumers, students, educators, policy-makers, researchers and practitioners, is accessed more than 1 million times each day, and it offers a model of harnessing information technology to promote the goals of "e-health" and "e-education."

In December, APA sent a delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva and co-sponsored by UNESCO--the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization--and the International Telecommunications Union. The formal outcome of the summit was the adoption of a set of principles and plan of action promoting the information society at national, regional and international levels and ensuring universal global access to ICTs.

Let me focus on the contributions of psychological science. Although it may be clear that psychology's expertise is crucial to the development of the information society, our participation must be actively pursued--to move policy and programs beyond the nuts and bolts of hardware and software to behavior. To illustrate: Behavioral and social sciences were notably lacking in discussions at a pre-summit conference on the role of science in the information society and at summit events on science and education.

What was discussed was the science and technology of building a communications infrastructure; the need to use ICTs to expand the reach of science; the value of making scientific data accessible universally, especially to developing countries; and the need to bridge inequities in use based on gender, geography and development.

These are important and pressing concerns, but what psychology brings to the table--attention to the science of the information society--is critical to its success. This is the science that tells us how to build a system so that people can interact, learn and use it well. It is the science that tells us how changes in communication possibilities affect other aspects of our lives, including learning, social interaction and development. And this is the challenge to psychology--to seize the opportunity to bring attention to the science and application that will help develop an information and knowledge society that serves us well.

You have heard many calls to help spread the word to policy-makers, the public and other sciences about who we are, what we do and what we can contribute to important contemporary social issues. Now you will hear it again. Psychology has the opportunity not just to participate in the development of a truly global knowledge society through new research questions, new educational possibilities and new ways of delivering health and mental health information, promotion and treatment, but also to help guide this development.

So as you turn on your pocket PC or reach for your telephone, or even your television or radio, think of how your work can contribute to the development of the rich knowledge society of our new century.