NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #165 October 25, 2005 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- A Publication of The Nature Institute Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk in submission to its inevitabilities? NetFuture is a voice for responsibility. It depends on the generosity of those who support its goals. To make a contribution, click here. CONTENTS --------- Editor's Note Where We Have Come To (Part 1) (Stephen L. Talbott) On Kevin Kelly's "We Are the Web" DEPARTMENTS About this newsletter ========================================================================== EDITOR'S NOTE A publisher considering the reprint of my 1995 book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, has suggested I write a new introduction looking at developments of the past decade. As it happens, Kevin Kelly has already written an essay doing just that, and his remarks provide a convenient foil for my own, very different assessment. In the first half of my proposed introduction, below, I offer a counter to Kelly's excessively utopian view. In doing so, I draw upon various things I have written in NetFuture over the course of this decade. In Part 2, planned for the next issue, I will seek the ground for a more hopeful and positive understanding of the Internet Age. SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== WHERE WE HAVE COME TO (PART 1) On Kevin Kelly's "We Are the Web" Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) During 1994-1995 I wrote a book1 suggesting that the emerging culture of the Internet was infected by a massive and potentially disastrous confusion between our full human capacities and the technical capabilities of the new digital machinery. It's not that the technical capabilities had nothing to do with us. Quite the opposite. The point was that they lived first of all within us: we had to conceive the computer and be capable of thinking like a computer before we could build one. And that's exactly where the danger lay. This thinking and the machine it spawned were extremely one-sided expressions of ourselves. If we continued investing our energies in such one-sidedness, allowing the rapid spread of digital machinery continually to reinforce our own imbalance, then (so I argued) we would eventually descend to the level of our machines without even realizing it. And we would mistake our own descent for a glorious ascent of the machine to a human and then a superhuman level. The ultimate threat, I claimed in The Future Does Not Compute, was not the operation of the machine "out there" in the physical world, but rather the ongoing amplification and imperial aggrandizement of the machine within us. This is what makes the externalized technology so extremely dangerous. Now Kevin Kelly -- who, as editor of Wired magazine, was as close as anyone to the epicenter of the Internet cultural explosion -- has written an article reviewing the fate of the Net over these past ten years.2 He is impressed with what he sees. Citing one great surprise after another, he traces the Net's evolution into what he considers to be a vast planetary intelligence -- a global computer comparable to the human brain, except that, unlike the brain, this computer doubles in size every few years and is always on. He calls it, with reverential simplicity, "the Machine": In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning. Our biggest surprise, Kelly avers, will be our dependence upon "what the machine knows". Paradoxically, "the more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves -- as if they'd had a lobotomy". Recalling the alarms raised by those of us who, in 1995, were skeptical of the burgeoning Internet hype, Kelly marvels that the subsequent evolution of the Net could, without evident exception, have proven our worries so thoroughly groundless. As for me, when I review Kelly's paean to the Machine, I am tempted to wonder how I could have gotten things so thoroughly right. Spooky Godlikeness ------------------ It would be foolish to take Kelly's rather-too-Wired commentary as in all respects broadly representative of our contemporary, Internet-influenced culture. But the tendencies and direction of his thought, and the temptations not resisted, bear witness to powerful shaping currents within today's global society. And they are exactly the tendencies and temptations I was concerned to highlight in 1995. The fundamental confusion coloring nearly every word of Kelly's essay stems from his implicit equation of technical achievement with positive value. The achievement itself, to be sure, is not in question: The scope of the Web today is hard to fathom. The total number of Web pages, including those that are dynamically created upon request and document files available through links, exceeds 600 billion. That's 100 pages per person alive. How could we create so much, so fast, so well? In fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year plan. The accretion of tiny marvels can numb us to the arrival of the stupendous. Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers -- all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.... Why aren't we more amazed by this fullness? Kings of old would have gone to war to win such abilities. Only small children would have dreamed such a magic window could be real. I share Kelly's goosebumps, just as I have long stood in awe of every 747 I see lumbering down the runway in pursuit of its unlikely dream of flight. We ought to marvel at these things. They are, in their way, expressions of the boundless human spirit. But Kelly continues his survey of the 300 or so square inches of real estate on his Internet terminal this way: This view is spookily godlike. You can switch your gaze of a spot in the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking. Recall the past? It's there. Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of almost anyone who blogs (and doesn't everyone?). I doubt angels have a better view of humanity. Spooky godlikeness, for Kelly, appears to be a matter of technical wizardry -- the kind of wizardry offering us whatever we want in the most convenient and least disturbing way possible. His god is content to entertain us with signs and wonders in the form of an endless stream of amazing devices with cool uses. The one thing this deity doesn't seem particularly concerned about is how all these wonders bear upon the inner qualities of our lives or the development of our personal and social character. If someone else were to recite Kelly's litany of marvels, referring to the result as "spookily devil-like" (for the devil, too, can work technical miracles), one wonders how Kelly would discriminate between the two possibilities. Nothing in his entire essay acknowledges the need for any such discrimination. He seems unaware that every novel possibility for action gains its meaning only through the endlessly subtle modulations lent to it by the human actor. He also seems unaware that a technological fixation distracting our attention from these human modulations is a guarantor of social destruction. This is not to dispute our thorough dependence upon the new technologies. But dependence is no proof of positive value. I wrote emphatically in 1995 that, given our drive to transfer almost all society's business to the networked computer, we would soon find the computer essential to our most routine business. It certainly has become essential, and I as much as the next person often remark to myself how much longer it would have taken to obtain this or that text in the pre-Web era, or how much more complicated this or that attempt at communication might have been. But to leave the matter there is to remain in the most naïve position imaginable. It is to ignore, for example, the classic paradox arising when we shift our attention from the particular services of the machines we call "labor-saving" to the people whose labor is being saved. Our jobs now demand of us these "conveniences" of instant access. Are our lives less complicated, less hurried, less pressured? Are they less laborious? But perhaps more importantly, the focus on utility and convenience distracts us from questions of greater significance. If our ability to cope with future crises depends upon our reflective depth, our powers of self-recollection, our inner quiet, our ability to invest a few words with profundity rather than many words with shallowness, our sensitivity to the subtle qualities of things and not merely their superficial logic -- well, then, we have to recognize that the ease with which we commandeer unrooted and decontextualized "information" from all sides can be as much a distractive threat as a ground for hope. What amazed me when I wrote my book, and still amazes me now, is how easily the purely outward changes -- for example, the accelerated tempo of our transactions or the convenience and wider reach of certain sorts of communication -- are mistaken for positive changes of character, as if being able to move faster told us anything at all about the value of where we were going. Yet within the corporate research and engineering organizations responsible for the ever more central role of technological development in society today (I can testify to this from many years of experience in these organizations) change itself -- its cleverness, its technical virtuosity, its unexpectedness and novelty, its promise of still more change -- produces a hypnotic fascination. This fascination, rather than any careful thought about the real and most pressing needs of the surrounding society, drives the entire research, development, and marketing effort. When speaking with those who work in the daily grind of the high-tech industry, I have never found it necessary to elaborate this point. It is immediately understood. The Logic of Democracy ---------------------- The prevailing dogma a decade ago, according to Kelly, held that most of us had no need to upload; we were consumers, not producers. Today, by contrast, "the poster child of the new Internet regime is BitTorrent .... it assumes participation, not mere consumption". One symptom of the new order is the "near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds". Another is the "vast and growing gift economy" where everything one person posts to the Net is immediately available to all the rest of us. The resulting abundance of choices "spurs the grateful to reciprocate". The simple hypertext link, the "most powerful invention" of the decade, "unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible": This sudden tilt toward consumer involvement is a complete Lazarus move: "We thought that died long ago." The deep enthusiasm for making things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the great force not reckoned ten years ago. This impulse for participation has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social networking -- smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action -- into the main event. All this might make you think that families, neighbors, and friends never gave each other gifts before the Net came along. Likewise, we didn't actually do much of anything because we lacked machine-mediated interactivity: no one had yet given us the opportunity to send emails, make our own videos, write our own book reviews on amazon.com, or post our favorite photographs to a website. And before the rise of fifty million blogs, there were not several billion humans who spent much of their time speaking meaningfully with those around them; everyone was forced into silence, shackled by the poverty of the technical infrastructure. Certainly the Internet has made possible radical shifts in the distribution and character of our communication. But you might think this would prompt Kelly to ask about the nature of these shifts. After all, the individual has only so much time in a 24-hour day to take in meaningful words and gestures and respond in kind; nothing has given us more time. That my "input" can now come from fifty million bloggers rather than the newspapers, journals, and friends I formerly attended to does not enable me to assimilate more words than before. It only alters (and very possibly scatters) the distribution of my attention. This alteration, which I will touch on later, has its importance. But there remain numerous questions one could ask here, and the first one to occur to me is this: Have children and their parents managed to deepen the qualities of their interaction over the past decade of the Net (and is there any single question weighing more heavily on our future than this one)? Discussion of interactivity in general seems inevitably to touch sooner or later upon democracy and its supposedly enabling technologies. Kelly's way of thinking about the matter becomes evident when he concludes that because hyperlinks make it possible "for almost anyone to annotate, amend, and improve any map embedded in the Web", "cartography has gone from spectator art to participatory democracy". So in one breath a particular technical capability put at our disposal transmutes into an expression of one of the most profound (and still relatively rare) achievements of global history. This kind of thinking reigns throughout much of our culture. It required years and many misspent billions of dollars before Western policymakers realized that post-Soviet Russia was not going to transform itself overnight by implementing a tidy set of democratic and capitalist "mechanisms". Much more than the well laid-out logic of a new constitution and the availability of new voting machinery is needed before you get a functioning democracy. The mechanisms have no positive meaning at all except insofar as they can be wrestled into productive dialogue with the values, ideas, aesthetic judgments, qualities of selfhood and individuality, habits of private initiative, and communal experiences that are the substance of democracy and capitalism. And once you realize this, you cannot help asking how the new mechanisms are playing into and modifying all these historically conditioned qualities. Interactivity in the abstract means almost nothing; however, mistaking it for the individual's inner achievement and society's cultural achievement means disaster. Town Meetings and Telephone Answering Systems --------------------------------------------- Kelly's emphasis upon Net-based interactivity compared to old-media passivity suffers from a further misunderstanding. Yes, the electronic town hall meeting is more interactive, more participatory, than sitting like a couch potato and absorbing whatever is beamed at you through the television screen. But this restriction of one's imagination to the comparison of one technology with another -- leaving the whole depth of the social human being out of the picture -- is a telling symptom of the technological mindset. Given the entire drift of our society, you have to recognize that what the electronic town meeting most critically substitutes for is not the one-way broadcast, but the original, vibrant community gathering with all its sweaty human presence, intense personal challenges, full-bodied engagement, and serendipitous community-building. And so far as this is the case, the new, interactional technologies do not counter the effects of previous, more limited media, but rather extend them. They embrace a vastly larger field of human activity, enabling us to reduce even the most multidimensional and deep-reaching human exchange to forms that are relatively thinner, more distant, less focused, less communal, and not always easily distinguishable from mere distraction. Human society has never been anything less than a nearly unsurveyable field of intense personal interaction. When Kelly says that "linking unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible", he is so beguiled by mediating technologies that he has lost sight of the society he is supposedly talking about. And in noting the transactions we have transferred to the Net, thereby changing their scale and time frame, he has not asked himself why this is good, nor has he asked how the character of the transactions has been altered. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the extension of the world of online transactions might be accomplished through the progressive impoverishment of a realm of fuller human exchange. Press '1' for a Friendly Bot ---------------------------- There is a general principle here that I have referred to as the "fundamental deceit of technology". The deceit shows up in an almost universal misconception -- namely, the belief that the worrisome effects of any technology will very likely improve with future generations of the technology. Consider the telephone answering system. Technology pundits these days like to say that more sophisticated voice recognition software will lead to more user-friendly computers. The frustrations of the current telephone answering systems will yield to -- have already in some respects been yielding to -- kinder, gentler, more solicitous capabilities. When I call a business in the future, the options will be more numerous, and I'll be able to negotiate those options with voice commands more complex than single phrases. True as this may be, it ignores an obvious fact about the new capabilities: their reach will be extended. Where primitive software eventually routed me to a human operator, the "friendlier" version will replace the operator with a software agent who will attempt to conduct a crude conversation with me. So the earlier frustrations will simply be repeated -- but at a much more critical level. Where once I finally reached a live person, now I will reach a machine. And if you thought the number-punching phase was irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of 400 words, and the compassion of a granite monolith! In other words, the technical opportunity to become friendlier is also an opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level. This is no accident. The technical improvements we apply within a restricted arena entail exactly the sort of broader reach that carries them beyond this arena. Programs that do a better job recognizing spoken words like "one" and "two" are almost certainly based upon technology that we can now apply, if only clumsily, to a much wider range of speech. Certainly the technology is getting more sophisticated -- no one would deny that. But my frustration on the telephone was not, in the first instance, a frustration with the state of the technology. What bothered me was an artificial disruption of the normal potentials of human exchange. Yes, an ill-considered use of technology was the cause of my discomfort, but what I wanted, in a direct sense, was relief from the disruption, not technical advance. And if the technical advance prepares the way for a yet more critical barrier to human exchange -- well, forgive me if I say this does not necessarily imply progress. My own observation suggests that, since I first voiced this concern about telephone answering systems, many of them have gotten much better. Some designers have paid attention to the needs of the actual users of these systems and to the limited domain within which the software can operate satisfactorily. But, at the same time, many other answering systems have gotten horribly worse. And this dual potential was very much my point. So long as we look to externalized technology for the improvement we seek, we only participate in a vicious and endless cycle: technical progress comes between us and certain of our expressive powers, and we complain. The complaint is met by an honest assurance that the responsible technology is getting better -- which we all can see is true -- so that the remaining, muted complaints are dismissed as Luddite. Never mind that the improvements at issue will move the spear point of the complaint yet a little closer to the tremulous heart of the human condition. Our Most Reliable Gadget? ------------------------- Kelly's failure to reckon with this truth leads him to continue along the same rutted path traveled by so many Net enthusiasts of 1995. In effect: "Everything is getting better, and the problems will soon disappear". Today the nascent Machine routes packets around disturbances in its lines; by 2015 it will anticipate disturbances and avoid them. It will have a robust immune system, weeding spam from its trunk lines, eliminating viruses and denial-of-service attacks the moment they are launched, and dissuading malefactors from injuring it again .... The most obvious development birthed by this platform will be the absorption of routine. The machine will take on anything we do more than twice. It will be the Anticipation Machine. How does Kelly miss the fact of an ever-accelerating technical arms race between those with virtuous and and those with destructive intentions? Or the fact that the very openness he celebrates opens the Net to the influence of anyone and everyone -- but now in a largely anonymous environment lacking the previous social constraints? Are we finding that we spend less time today than we did ten years ago dealing with complications to our lives caused by malicious acts, whether casual or calculated, by people with little direct connection to our lives? Will the ever more sophisticated tools available to those implementing "self-healing mechanisms" on the Net be unavailable to those with darker motives? And as for routine: do any of us working with the tools of the digital age find ourselves less preoccupied by routine than we used to be -- unless, of course, we simply off-load our drudgery onto others? Or again: The fetal Machine has been running continuously for at least ten years (thirty if you want to be picky). I am aware of no other machine -- of any type -- that has run that long with zero downtime. While portions may spin down due to power outages or cascading infections, the entire thing is unlikely to go quiet in the coming decade. It will be the most reliable gadget we have. This is like saying earth's weather is generated by nature's most reliable machine -- it's always producing nice weather somewhere. (Try telling that to the people of New Orleans.) Preoccupation with abstract features of technology can lead all too naturally to the most extraordinary disregard of reality. When, however, we overcome our fixation upon the outward forms and capabilities of life's machinery, centering our thoughts instead upon the human being, then questions of benefit and danger begin to gain the coloring and complexity they deserve. We can then do the necessary work to rise above the unavoidable limitations of our automata and coerce them into the service of our own ends. With this in mind, and given that my 1995 book (and especially the first chapter) still seems to me just about the best response I could offer to Kelly's 2005 essay, I would like to move on to consider the Net in the more positive light of our human potentials. (Part 2 of this essay will appear in the next issue of NetFuture.) Notes ----- 1. The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1995. Available at http://netfuture.org/fdnc.
2. "We Are the Web," in Wired 13.08. Available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.08/tech.html. Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2005 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. NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html . Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web: http://netfuture.org/ To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html. This issue of NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/2005/Oct2505_165.html. Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #165 :: October 25, 2005
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