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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #23      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates           July 5, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Forgetting ourselves in the age of automatons (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Does the Internet have a future?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Forgetting ourselves in the age of automatons

    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    (In June I had the good fortune to travel to extraordinarily beautiful Sydney, Australia, to deliver the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the Internet Industry Association of Australia. The conference title was "The Internet: Hype or Reality?" and I was charged with considering the question, "Does the Internet Have a Future?" Following is the text of the address. As with all NETFUTURE postings, you may freely redistribute this text for noncommercial use. [SLT])

                               FORGETTING OURSELVES
    There is something slightly odd about every attempt to predict the social future. It's one thing to project the positions of the planets eight months or ten years from now. But the Net and society have to do with us. In the end, when we ask about the future of the Internet, it's ourselves we must try to predict. We are the ones who will invest the money, carry out the research, make the purchases, and otherwise nurture this emerging future by lending it the shape of our lives.

    So you can see the oddity. Imagine that some of us convened ourselves in a conference room in order to ask each other: "When are we going to get up and leave the room?" Or, worse, imagine paying someone a hefty fee to come and tell you when you will probably leave the room.

    The oddity, then, has to do with the effort to predict our own choices as if they were things that happened to us. But we can't really stand back and view our choices that way, except by vacating them--that is, except by giving up our continuing freedom in the present moment to make new choices. Surely, however, our crucial interest as human beings is to widen our sphere of freedom, not to abandon it.

    So something is missing from the passive attempt to predict the future as if it were a given that comes to meet us from without. If we are to remain free and responsible, then every attempt at prediction ought really to be, at least in part, a conscientious effort to choose the future. The only alternative is that descent into absurdity where in all seriousness we sit down together to assess when we will leave the room, avoiding any reference to when we may decide to leave the room, or when we intend to leave the room, or when it might be healthy to leave the room--as if it were merely a matter of analyzing past trends objectively and then projecting them forward.

    This is to forget ourselves, and forgetting ourselves is the supreme danger of the era of automatons, otherwise known as the computer era.

    So the first