NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #4 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates January 15, 1996 ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's note We're making progress *** Homogenizing global society (J. David Stanton, Jr.) How long can that pen pal club offer a taste of different cultures? *** Don't try to control technology; adapt (Christopher D. Frankonis) Avoiding cultural chauvinism *** Bigotry and openness on the Net (Joel Ben-Avraham) The lines between "us" and "them" get blurred *** Prejudice on the Internet (Mark Grundy) Freedom and a whiff of danger *** Basement Wiring: More Metaphors for the Infobahn (Robert Richardson) An unsettling vision from downstairs *** Editor's apology to Dick Carlson There are layers of meaning in every message *** Liberation and oppression on the Net (Stephen L. Talbott) Who is the big, bad wolf? *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $500 writing competition Are we masters of the Web, or trapped in it? *** An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines Keep your submission focused *** About this newsletter -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Editor's note (32 lines) The quality and variety of contributions to NETFUTURE continue their encouraging rise. The one problem is that we cannot begin to acknowledge all contributions, let alone publish them. We have, however, been convinced by readers to allow the length of each issue to remain on the longer side. One thing we're looking for is ways to serve our readership and promote the responsible use of technology. Our first project is an annotated reading list. This will contain everything from old classics (like Joseph Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason, which belongs near the top of any such list) to the latest relevant releases. Lowell Monke, who teaches computer technology to high school students, has volunteered to maintain the list. You can see its bare beginnings here. Lowell also has begun to list other resources as well--for example, academic programs relating to technology assessment. Send your suggestions directly to Lowell (email: lm7846s@ACAD.DRAKE.EDU). You will find below "An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines." We are, I think, conducting a distinctive experiment in online discussion. The original uncertainty about whether NETFUTURE would be a discussion group or a newsletter may have pinpointed a valuable challenge: How can we carry on discussion at a much higher level (more coherent, more healthy for participants, more profitable for readers) than is evident in most news and discussion groups, while avoiding the formality and delays of newsletters and journals? SLT -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Homogenizing global society (66 lines) Response to "The ultimate pen pal club" (NF-3) From J. David Stanton, Jr. (email@example.com) Candi Brooks (firstname.lastname@example.org) describes "the ultimate pen pal club." This provoked some thought on my part, which she may find distressing: The very technology that enables her pen pal club will help destroy what she finds most attractive about it, glimpses of other societies. Even before the Internet, per se, became a significant factor, global society had begun a homogenization process. McDonalds in Moscow and Beijing, EuroDisney in France come to mind as examples. Efforts to preserve unique aspects of societies (eg, Quebec secession and "official" French) show that many view this as a "bad thing." Our use of the Internet contributes to this homogenization, particularly in the area of language. Even Ms. Brooks' attempts to have her pen pals spell "correctly," although obviously tongue-in-cheek, are subtle pushes toward fewer English dialects (now I'm doing it by using a US English idiom). Is this "good" or "bad?" In the long run, I think it is good, but at the same time I realize that the cost will be huge. I believe a global society will help people (or at least myself) feel that we are all "us," and that there are few, if any "them." In other words, it will be easier to identify with other human beings because we will all be part of the same culture. (An in-depth discussion of why this may be good or bad will have to wait for future articles. I am sure many other readers have their own views, and I hope they will share them with the rest of us.) I don't believe this will occur quickly, or that all sub-cultures will disappear. My point is that a global society is emerging, and our use of the Internet to communicate internationally is a contributing factor. Please do not construe this article as an attack on Ms. Brooks or her ideas. Her article helped me to consider these ideas and attempt to share my views with the rest of NETFUTURE's readership. BTW, this philosophy stuff takes a lot of thought and time ;-) J. David Stanton, Jr., Senior Analyst Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Office of the Budget, Bureau of MIS * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * David -- Will a global society really help us feel that "we are all `us'"? The United States has been as intensively subject to homogenizing media as most any nation on earth. Yet by many accounts we're now becoming more fragmented and walled off from each other than we used to be. And by some accounts the media actually cooperate with us in helping to make this happen. SLT * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Steve, I've given this some thought, but I just can't find a convincing argument for the issues you raise. (Which isn't to say there aren't any, just that in the short time I can give this, I can't find them.) The optimistic part of me believes that we (ie, U.S. society) will get over the current state of affairs by learning to accept responsibility for our own actions, and working to better our own lives without expecting some- one to do it for us, and stop blaming someone else for our problems (eg, don't you expect your coffee to be served hot?). J. David Stanton, Jr. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Don't try to control technology; adapt (33 lines) From Christopher D. Frankonis (email@example.com) 1) We have to be wary of a couple things when it comes to discussing technology and responsibility. For one thing (and perhaps this is just my utter fondness for Kevin Kelly's book OUT OF CONTROL), there is something about the nature and pace of technological advance at this point in history that makes next to impossible a certain degree of actual control. The challenge is not in controlling the direction and force of technology, but in adapting to the new spheres of interaction and experience these advances create. This is of course nothing new; it's one of the fundamental activities of human beings and always has been. I think we sometimes like to believe that because technology is created by us, we therefore also have dominion over the avalanche of its effects. This is not, for better or worse, the case. Where our strengths and weaknesses will be discovered is in how we approach and how we handle the new worlds our technology makes for us to live in. 2) We also need to be careful when asserting that the net is corrosive of culture. There might be buried within this notion a sort of cultural chauvinism, wherein we fail to accept that perhaps what is occurring is the development of new sorts of cultures, based upon either new aspects of human interaction, or new combinations of old and extant aspects. I don't claim that this is what is occurring, only that it's something we ought to take into consideration. For a long time, the net was a rather insular little place. Only recently has the population of the net increased to the point where such new emergent definitions of culture might soon begin to become apparent. This is all very much a young thing, whatever it is. Christopher D. Frankonis Editor, Hands Off! the Net in the resolute urgency of now -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Bigotry and openness on the Net (101 lines) Response to "The Internet As Terminator" (NF-3) From Yoel Ben-Avraham (yba@LearnSkills.com) [Much deleted - SLT] Finally, as a Jew and an Israeli, let me tell you one thing. Individuals with whom I have a community of interests in professional spheres, but due to race and politics can't permit themselves to be seen in public with me, communicate with me regularly via the Internet. On a similar vein, I can't help but feel that the Internet was one of the major contributing factors to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Certainly the hysterical attempts of the Chinese government to censor Internet access and the contents of Internet messages indicates what totalitarian governments fear most -- the free flow of ideas and the open exchange of opinions. Will this "free flow of ideas and the open exchange of opinions" eliminate the bigots in our world? I doubt it. Bigotry is first and foremost a psychological crutch for people suffering from lack of self respect or negative self image. What it hopefully will do is enable individuals with strong healthy personalities capable of exploring alternative ways of understanding our collective human reality to dominate the stage, relegating the dark corners to those unfortunate unable to do so. YBA @Learnskills.com the premiere on-line training service for more information send email to mrktg@LearnSkills.com or visit us at http://www.LearnSkills.com * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Yoel Ben-Avraham -- Could you elaborate a little on the basis for your optimism? In a world trying to cope with an epidemic of ethnic hatreds, and in a world that has long been moving away from community -- and given a medium that now makes it easier than ever for us to avoid coming fully to terms with each other if we prefer not to -- just where do you see the indications that, as a society, we're likely to move toward greater community and harmony? To do so, it seems as if we'll have to succeed at an even greater challenge than the one we've so far been failing. We certainly must urge the individual to rise to the challenge you propose. (That's what NETFUTURE is all about.) But doesn't the urgency of the challenge arise from the fact that the prevailing current is running very much in the opposite direction? Steve * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * From Yoel Ben-Avraham My company @learnSkills.com uses this communication medium, the Internet, to train people. To help them acquire new (primarily computer related) skills. Through this very sterile medium, blacks, whites, Jews, executives, gas station attendants with aspirations and active professionals all work together to learn new concepts, acquire new skills. The total "blindness" (they can't see each other), "deafness" (they can't hear each other) enables them to circumvent their preconceptions about "others" and communicate freely on the "focus" -- the learning. But, the reality always seeps in eventually. After the lines of communication have already opened up, after the mutual respect for problem solving and mutual assistance in understanding concepts has already developed . . . the little side comments show up. The kind of thing that causes the recipient to ask, and slowly the partners to this dialog (often a group experience) begin to learn about the aspects of their partners lives that normally would have caused them to tag them as "stereotyped" in one way or another. There almost always is a "revelation experience" for some of them. The sharp clarity that hits like a pain in the gut when they realize these "fellow cyber-naughts" they've grown to admire and count upon for mutual support during the learning experience, these people belong to what was always referred to (in one form or another) as "them". The lines between "us" and "them" get blurred. True personal growth, mutual tolerance all benefit as a result of these experiences. >We certainly must urge the individual to rise to the challenge you >propose. (That's what netfuture is all about.) But doesn't the urgency >of the challenge arise from the fact that the prevailing current is >running very much in the opposite direction? I feel no urgent challenge. Unlike the tidal waves my forefathers must have felt in Europe between the world wars, or other similar occurrences in our history, Jewish history doesn't lack tragedies, this tidal wave is neutral. It isn't inherently negative or positive. It is simply a unique opportunity for either. I sometimes feel like a surfer, the Internet swell is occurring as the result of endless little causes that all combine to create our currently reality. No one person can influence it in any measurable way. My task is to ride the wave, and try to exploit its existence to traverse it towards something constructive. True, others will use the same phenomenon to disseminate hatred and bigotry. The difference in the Internet medium is, it is a relatively level playing field. For every falsehood that is broadcast, a reasoned detailed well supported by available documentation response will be made equally publicly available. I sincerely believe that in an environment that in its essence is unemotional, reason will always prevail. Hence my "optimism". YBA -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Prejudice on the Internet: freedom and a whiff of danger (75 lines) Response to "The Internet As Terminator" (NF-3) From Mark Grundy (Mark.Grundy@cisr.anu.edu.au) Give us inkblots on a page, and we'll read into them creatures of our fantasy. In the shapes of clouds we see the images of our lives, our dreams, and our hopes and fears. We've always made myths out of our jumbled and incomplete experiences. We've done it with weather, we've learned to do it with newspapers and tv bites, and we're starting to do it with the internet. We judge our world before we experience it. Our judgement is creative. It fills in the gaps where our knowledge fails. It focuses our efforts, clarifying our visions, identifying our opportunities and threats. Prejudice -- to judge before experiencing -- is not limited to just one culture, and it's not a blight on humanity as a species. Every mammal has prejudice as part of its survival training. The trick to mastering our prejudice is not to purge it and cripple our efficacy, but to accept its value in the moment, and to rise to the need to change it as imagination yields to experience. The main difference between the internet and other social experiences is not its diversity or complexity, because we can find diversity and complexity in every community. What distinguishes the internet most from other social experiences is how well we can control the experience itself. We can walk down a crowded city street and see plenty to challenge us, but we cannot control the bandwidth of that street. We cannot choose to encounter people wearing only yellow shirts, or remove anyone from the street who wears a green shirt. Yet these facilities come free on the internet. Our right to censor our environment no longer wars with our desire for society and community. We can have our cake and eat it too. This heady power -- to give ourselves just the world we want to see, appeals very strongly to our self-determination. Ideally, it could help us make great leaps between who we think we are, and who we believe we could be. It can surround us with saints, and screen us from sinners. But it brings with it some whiff of danger. If all we see of the internet is the community we've created for ourselves, then will the internet make us more or less parochial in our views? Will our society become more or less divisive? Will we see more or less conflict in our community? Moreover, the internet is not just a passive world of data sops, as television has been. Through the internet, we can not only dream our lotus dreams, but also act on them remotely, screening ourselves from direct consequence by distance and anonymity, taking action while preserving our little myths. It's not just that we can engage in infantile flamefests with people we've never met, cackling over our own supposed cleverness, and ignorant of whatever harm we might have done their feelings. Sitting in our comfy chairs at home and armed with a mouse and credit card, we could contribute money and ideas to the liberation of political prisoners in Turkey, or to the bombing of a bank in London -- all without changing our current, perhaps quite sedentary, lifestyles. We can wreak change on the world without being changed by our acts ourselves. What I would like to ask this group is twofold: Firstly as we're forced by the growing volume of internet traffic to make balder value judgements on what we expose ourselves to, how do we keep from becoming social ostriches? How do we balance tolerance against efficiency and purpose? Secondly, how can we make ourselves accountable for the material consequences of our broadcasts? What support, infrastructure and personal code is necessary before our global internet citizenship becomes at least as responsible as our national citizenships? On a cheerier note, can anyone think of ways that internet citizenship is already more responsible than national citizenship? Dr Mark Grundy, | Phone: +61-6-249 0159 Education Co-ordinator, | Fax: +61-6-249 0747 CRC for Advanced Computational Systems,| Web: http://cs.anu.edu.au/~Mark.Grundy The Australian National University, | ACSys: 0200 Australia -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Basement Wiring: More Metaphors for the Infobahn (130 lines) From Robert Richardson (firstname.lastname@example.org) BASEMENT WIRING: MORE METAPHORS FOR THE INFOBAHN Only after I had bought and sold the basement was I prepared to puzzle out what it meant. It served as foundation for a hundred-year-old Victorian in an upscale neighborhood overlooking downtown Providence. I had toured through it for the first time just before closing on the purchase of a condominium one floor above, a tastefully rehabilitated urban apartment with wood floors, high ceilings, and a thoroughly modernized kitchen. I will confess in a moment what all this has to do with the Information Superhighway. But first I should say I have a delicate relationship with basements, with all of the rooms, in fact, of any building where I take up residence. I thrive on the protections of the home; nothing disturbs me in quite so pathological a way as the thought that something is wrong with a house where I'm living. The wrongness of a house can be physical, a quiet onslaught of termites, or contractual, as in the sudden intrusion of a former renter threatening a lawsuit. This particular basement was fantastically stockpiled with unusual building supplies and all the accoutrements of a workshop for creating stained glass windows. There was a whole wall lined by a doubtlessly valuable stack of bricks that must have been a nightmare to man-haul down the stairs. There were old window casings and a vast array of equipment for marine lighting and wiring--stacks of the brass cages that fit around lightbulbs out on docks. There were five-gallon buckets full of metal washers and three-foot spools of plastic tubing. None of this was the sort of junk that renters usually leave behind, but then that sort of miscellany was there as well: a rickety wooden valet on casters, a framed photo of a cockateel, a weightlifting bench. Then there was the wiring and plumbing, the structural internals of a large old house, indeed all of the wiring and plumbing that had ever been installed in that house, left in various states of disuse and disarray. Where old electrical wiring had been partially dismantled, trailing ends of wire had been left dangling and exposed, making it an act of faith to swat one's way through them. Over the course of a century, as many as a half-dozen telephone and doorbell systems had been installed; now it was impossible to say which ones currently supplied the various services. Wanting to clear out some of the junk, I learned that the developer who revamped the building had made the basement a condominium unit unto itself, an unusual step that was probably a violation of zoning laws. This is part of what kept me awake nights. The Condo Association had no final control over its own basement. Then there were other, more immediate calamities the first year we lived there. A pipe froze and burst over Christmas weekend while we were away; six inches of water flooded the entirety of the basement, whomever it might have belonged to. Not once but twice the sewer main leading out of the basement clogged solid with roots, alerting us to the situation by flooding our bathroom with soapsuds from the third floor clothes washer that backed up through our toilet. A third-rate plumber's assistant not only failed to clear the roots but left off the cleanout cover, resulting in a minor flood of raw sewage in the basement. It turned out the wiring had been handled with panache that made the plumbing seem robust and reliable. We discovered it was pretty much random which sockets and light fixtures throughout the building were wired to which service points. Nearly all the outside lights were wired to a single unit whose owner had rented it out for a couple of years. The renter threatened to sue for money she'd spent on the association's electrical bills. The association whimpered and forked over a ridiculously high settlement to avoid going to court. And paid again to have the wiring set right. Meanwhile, upstairs, I was working on a novel in which a basement from my childhood had a role to play. It was the basement of the house my maternal grandfather built, or almost built. He never quite brought himself around to finishing the place once it was comfortable to live in. He was a drunk and he put his energies elsewhere. I found a pint of whiskey he'd hidden in the basement once when I was five. I was astonished to have turned up such a thing; in retrospect it makes perfect sense. So, there, as I churned out basement prose, as the legal infrastructure of property ownership swayed in the currents of Rhode Island technical slop, as the plumbing infrastructure below me belched sewage and my own internal plumbing gave way to a peptic ulcer, because basements were the larger part of my universe just then, I began to consider that the most apt metaphor of the National Information Infrastructure might not be a neat ribbon of asphalt after all. The Superhighway Metaphor was big on the presidential agenda just then. I suddenly thought: no, it's not so much a superhighway as it is the basement of some old Victorian painted lady. Because the Net is, first and foremost, gothic. Files lie everywhere scattered and broken. The facts one gathers cannot be authenticated. The trend is to interconnect everything, but the ties are gopher burrowings and madly spun webs. Yes, uncharted interconnection is serendipitous, as dreams may also be, but it is pre-cognitive, anti-structural. And the culture of the Net, at least that part you might describe as "pop" culture, has a subterranean hue. The lights flicker; in fact it's the flicker of digital images onscreen; the work is done under cover of night. You get the feeling that the corporations may be destroying the environment, but courtesy of the Net you can drink bootleg vodka while hiding in the belly of the monster. Your friends are in the box with you, safe and sound. So is it Internet as bomb shelter? Well, yes, looking back, the Net is one answer to the questions that occupied the doomsday strategists. Those fellows are out of work these days, though, aren't they. Now the only problem is that the society onto which we are fitting the National Information Infrastructure is not a sustainable one. In at least one basement in America, the cracks and breakdowns are long since beginning to show. Sometimes I worry; sometimes I just sell my worries and move to a rental in the suburbs. Even in quiet suburbs where the basements are a more recent, less-dilapidated vintage, I cannot help but think that this information age of ours could use a few doomsday theorists of a new sort. After all, we don't really know where we are headed, except for a few prognostications about video on demand. Maybe we should be prepared for the worst, in case that's what we end up manufacturing for ourselves. So call it the highway if you must. But, if we should trudge stupidly onward into a crime-ridden ecological disaster of a future society, let's be sure we're able to at least download advisory bulletins from alt.pave.the.earth. (Robert Richardson is a freelance writer living in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. His book _web.guide_ was published by Sybex this past fall. His feature articles and a monthly column on Information Superhighway technologies appear in computer industry publications such as LAN Magazine.) -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Editor's apology to Dick Carlson (80 lines) Response to "Kill the droids. Up with the machines." (NF-3) Readers of NF-3 will recall an item from Dick Carlson, in which he related his encounters with a droid-like human being and a helpful Web site, concluding with the line, "Kill the droids! Up with the machines. Resistance is futile." As editor, I appended this remark to the piece: > [Nice story. Now spell out what bearing it has on the particular values > you consider worth striving toward, or even just how it relates to the > question whether the Net has been improving the overall efficiency of > our access to meaningful and relevant information. SLT] I was criticized for that by a fair-minded reader, and some correspondence resulted. This correspondence seems relevant to the purposes of this list--as well as to the question of fairness to a contributor. SLT * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Dick -- An irate reader (Sten Drescher) has drawn my attention to the fact that I may have communicated something regarding your piece very different from what I intended. To judge from his reaction, my "Nice story" may have come across as sarcasm, whereas I was actually struck by the piece as a genuinely nice story. I only wanted to go on to say in the remainder of my comment: "Now add a certain additional element of analysis that would bring the story fully into the netfuture universe of concern." It was part of my purpose in NF-3 to illustrate some possible paths from this or that line of thought to the particular issues we are trying to focus on. Anyway, I can now see that there might be an unfortunate parallel between my phrasing and a certain common usage that goes something like, "Nice try. Now do something sane." That definitely wasn't my intention! I'd be happy to set the record straight in print. (And do consider following up on your first piece.) Steve * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * From Sten Drescher I'm glad you cleared that up. I guess I just hear too many radio talk show hosts (from all sides) who air callers with opposing views just to say 'You idiot! How stupid can you be!' (; . Which points out that flaming people isn't limited to on-line pseudo-anonymity. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Sten -- Well, you know, I wish I could say that that was that, but I've been thinking about the matter since first responding to your complaint, and I have to admit that the "parallel usage" I referred to probably wasn't entirely accidental. That's the kind of thing that happens when one gets a little too smug in one's stance, and the "one" in this case happens to be me. I will apologize in the next issue regardless of whether Dick Carlson found any offense in my comments. Thanks for shoving my face into it. (No sarcasm intended!) Steve * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * On a concluding, humorous note, Dick Carlson responded by saying: > I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not sure what piece you're talking > about. This may mean I write too much, in too many places. Could you > remind me? > > Thanks! > > Dick So I guess we all have reason to feel a little funny about the episode! On my part, the apology is sincere, and I invite readers to challenge me on any question of fairness that arises in connection with NETFUTURE. Sometimes a litte embarrassment is the best medicine for an editor. (I'm tempted to add some remarks about the medium in which we're communicating, but converting an act of contrition into a sermon always puts one on dangerous ground.) SLT -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Liberation and oppression on the Net (134 lines) LIBERATION AND OPPRESSION ON THE NET Who Is the Big, Bad Wolf? Stephen L. Talbott Almost from its beginning the Internet's promoters have alternately embraced this communications Hydra as the People's victory over the System, and then fretted about it as the ultimate weapon of the System against the People. Awareness of technology's varying potentials is healthy, so far as it turns our attention toward the choices through which we realize one potential or the other. Unfortunately, however, this shift of attention has not yet occurred. On the one hand, the source of liberation has largely been looked for in the technology itself, rather than in the deepened wisdom of its users. Microprocessors, distributed intelligence, packet switching, and publicly available encryption technology typically figure strongly in this view. On the other hand, the Net's oppressive powers are usually attributed to manipulations by "them" -- anonymous power brokers, whether in huge commercial enterprises, the shadowy military-industrial complex, or the regulatory agencies. On either view, you and I seem to be pawns in a game for which we share little responsibility. Of late, the rhetorical balance seems to be tilting in favor of the System's machinations and against the People's mechanisms. The tilt is reflected, for example, in the remark with which a colleague passed to me a story about the threat of censorship on the Net: "The idea that the Net is intrinsically, by architecture, a haven for free speech that can't be `shut down' to silence people may be a truism that like many such will blow away under the breath of the big bad wolf." We can only hope that the truism is being blown away, since human values -- including those implicit in the "free speech" slogan -- can never be underwritten in any essential way by technology. But that does not mean we should leap to the other end of the balance and become obsessed with the big, bad wolf. Yes, there will always be organized attempts to curtail freedoms -- and these need attending to -- but that is not the direction from which the greatest dangers arise today. After all, the early features of the Net that made censorship difficult -- the scads of BBSs, the overall string-and-baling-wire architecture, and the infinitely flexible routing -- are all either still there more powerfully than ever, or more easily institutable (and on a larger scale) than before. Moreover, the social resistance to censorship remains resolute. The threat of censorship as usually conceived is one that, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, we have consciously moved away from. We were moving away from it even during the sole reign of the three, government-regulated television networks, when as a society we indulged in a steadily more enervating diet of violence, sex, and outrageousness. During the big, bad network era, Joseph McCarthy metamorphosed into Archie Bunker. That doesn't look like a rigidifying pattern of censorship, even if it does look like the triumph of mindlessness. The mindlessness may, in fact, be the essential point. The real dangers arise at both ends of the balance, where you and I offload responsibility upon impersonal powers. It hardly matters in this context whether we vest our hopes in the mechanisms of technology or vest our fears in the machinations of the System. In either case it is the mindlessness itself -- the failure to be fully awake to our own choices and their consequences -- that threatens our undoing. So while it is perfectly fine to point a finger at, say, the commercial behemoths dominating the media, we need to recognize the critical degree to which the finger is self-referential. As a society we've shown a strong proclivity toward the kind of features and production values that large, powerful, commercialized operations are best at providing. The television model is rapidly showing up on the Net, through no one's fault but our own. Number of hits (ratings), fast action, entertainment first, a "where it's happenin'" mentality -- these count more and more. Hardly surprising, when you consider that we're the same people who established the earlier patterns of television usage. We yield up our freedom when we function on the half-conscious level that energizes the technological and economic structures feeding us mind-numbing production values. There's a kind of self-imposed censorship here. We can't be free while acting at the level of reflex, association, and instinct. In other words, you and I are the ones who huff and puff and inflate the big bad wolf to monstrous proportions. I'm not aware that the hundreds of thousands of employees in the wolfish corporations are very much different in their work ethic, moral values, and general purposes from those of us in most other corporate settings. We willingly merge ourselves into one seamless operation, from board member to janitor. The Apple Computers and Microsofts of our society continually progress, or try to progress, from challenging Big Brother to being Big Brother -- all as a result of a "natural" evolution to which most of us yield ourselves in our own corporate and consumer contexts every day. Where, then, does the bad of the big bad wolf arise? Only from that same pattern of "innocent," half-awake behavior that is to be found in nearly every corporation. A System can only sustain itself in the presence of a drowsy people willing to be Systematized. At the other end of the balance, much the same sort of mindlessness underwrites the faith in technology's redeeming potentials, and with the same consequences. In this regard, it is important to realize that the logic of the Net itself is...*logic* -- digital logic. And logic wants to be universal, ever more rigorous, more tightly woven. Logic, that is, wants to be articulated with logic, until there is perfect, overall consistency. It is not hard to imagine that the increasing universalization and rationalization of computerized technology will lead to new forms of oppression, despite all hope placed in it -- no, because of the hope, which betrays an inattention to ourselves. In the end, we will find that the technological juggernaut is identical in nature with the System. The faceless machinations of sleepwalking corporations and the automatic mechanisms of technology were made for each other. But logical, self-sustaining mechanisms (whether manifested in thought, social institutions, or machinery) can become thus fixed, rigid, and coercive only when we sacrifice our freedom and our mindfulness to them -- when we cease to be fully awake. A set of rigid structures is, in fact, the best evidence that we are not awake. If the Net is indeed evolving in the direction of such structures -- if we are breathing new life into the big, bad wolf -- then the situation is indeed grave. But the first step in any true remedy is for each of us to look within. (Steve Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflection is part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced." -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $5000 writing competition SPIDER OR FLY? Are we masters of the Web or trapped in it? How can we take full responsibility for computing and networking technologies? Full details in the next issue of NETFUTURE. Also, contest information will be posted on the Web. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines (16 lines) Keep your submission focused Try to avoid the "quote and respond, quote and respond" approach typical of discussion groups gone amok. Responding to someone else's piece is fine--and the more vigorously the better. But do it in the context of your own, focused contribution. The quote-and-respond method encourages you to let your own comments run all over the landscape, even if the original piece was an integral, coherent essay. It's alright to make it your whole intention to contradict the point of someone else. Just be sure that your remarks have their own unity and coherence. In other words: don't write unless you have something worthwhile to say in your own right, and if you do, allow it to stand alone as a nice piece of writing. It will then also be more effective in redressing the sins of your antagonist. Try to say one thing well; don't panic about leaving this or that point unrefuted. All civilized discussion requires picking up a certain thread and consigning others to an uncertain fate. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** About this newsletter Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #4 :: January 15, 1996
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