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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #14      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates          April 2, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    ####  Don't forget the $5000 SPIDER OR FLY? deadline: April 30, 1996  ####
    *** Editor's note
    *** A hunger for the natural world
          An interesting report from Publisher's Weekly
    *** What Turkle misses (Sue Barnes)
          Virtual lives are not separate from real lives
    *** It's simple Kevin: don't upgrade (Siddhartha Mukherjee)
          Successful employee resistance has occurred
    *** Luddites and technicians keep society in balance (Don Davis)
          Both are necessary
    *** What separates a Postman from a Negroponte? (Claire Benedikt)
    *** Metaphysics underlies technology debates (Christopher Stahnke)
          Western culture has repressed certain aspects of the human being
    *** I, too, am starting to worry (Kirk McElhearn)
          A vision of neo-luddites in caves
    *** We relate to technology as to an archetype (Kevin Jones)
          A technological shaman within the male psyche?
    *** A further note about the stirrup (Dave Davis)
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    A number of notes in this issue respond to Kevin Jones' long complaint in NF-13. Kevin then adds his own postscript. First, however, comes a brief item about the "return to nature" literature, and further comment on Turkle and Postman by Sue Barnes. Sue is editor of the online journal, Interpersonal Computing and Technology. SLT

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    *** A hunger for the natural world

    A feature article on "Helping To Restore the Natural Order" in the March 25 issue of Publisher's Weekly discusses the flourishing market for natural history titles "with a spiritual bent." The article describes the literature this way:

    A common thread appears to be a numinous sense of the sacred in the natural world and of the healing power of reconnecting in a fundamental way with that world.
    An editor is quoted as seeing "a huge demand for this kind of book": "People are starved for connection with the natural world. They have lost their sense of intimacy with it and want `shamans' to guide them back."

    It's interesting to juxtapose this trend with the overall rush of society to go online. I'm wondering whether some among our readers have given serious thought to this juxtaposition and might be willing to share some of that thought.


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    *** What Turkle misses
    Response to "Can the `End of Education' Be `Life on the Screen'?" (NF-9)

    From Sue Barnes (sbbarnes@pipeline.com)

    Turkle's observation about the diffusion of identity is part of a larger cultural change in which technology is not marginal, but central. This is the point that Postman is trying to emphasize in The End of Education. As a soft determinist, Postman believes that certain characteristics are embedded in a technology that shape the ways in which the technology is used. Online communication has a bias towards fragmentation. Because we do not see our cyberfriends and they do not see us, it is easy for people to create false identities and experiment with different aspects of themselves. Today, the following paradox is emerging as McLuhan's predictions about electronic technology are happening.

    McLuhan's vision of extending our physical bodies through electric media is being realized in cyberspace. It extends our senses and annihilates physical space as it enables us to encounter the collective views of human society. We can now create, duplicate, and distribute a digital persona throughout the World Wide Web of computer systems. However, although we are bridging the barriers of time and space through global communications media, we are simultaneously destroying the unity of self. As our communications technologies extend our sense into a united global embrace, the ecology of self dissolves. This is the final paradox of cyberspace.

    Turkle does not grasp the implications of the above paradox. She does not have a problem with the idea of multiple selves because she believes that experimenting with online personalities can be beneficial to the person in real life. What Turkle fails to recognize is that people engaging in online relationships consider them to be real. They do not view them as a moratorium from their real lives. Turkle does not consider online experiences to be the same as actions in the real world. She states that today what disturbs us is when the shifting norms of the virtual world bleed into real life. In contrast to Turkle's perspective that separates virtual from real, I contend that online relationships are very real and they have real world consequences.

    People do not separate themselves from their feelings when they chat in cyberspace. The feeling of loneliness is a primary motivation for electronic interaction, not role playing. This medium is a perfect place for all the lonely people. However, when real life is replaced by online existence, not only do we see the end of shared narratives, but we also experience the erosion of a centralized concept of self. Turkle fails to grasp the full potential impact that this technology could have on personal identity. In contrast, Postman does. He has frequently reminded me not to be overly optimistic about computers and their impact on society. This warning, I would like to pass along to Turkle.

    Sue Barnes
    Editor, IPCT-J

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    *** It's simple Kevin: don't upgrade
    Response to "Damn the computers" (NF-13)

    From Siddhartha Mukherjee (sidd@pacific.mps.ohio-state.edu)

    Kevin Jones (jdesign@nas.com) makes some important points regarding the onslaught of poorly written software compounded by similar "upgrades". I (and no doubt many others) have my own methods of dealing with such problems .. DO NOT UPGRADE !

    Once a tool is battle tested, familiar and comfortable, there is really no reason to change it unless some feature proves absolutely essential for a project. Although this is only anecdotal evidence, I personally know of two cases where entire sections of clerical staff revolted upon being forced to upgrade to a new generation of word-processing software; in one of these they were actually successful in retaining their old packages...


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    *** Luddites and technicians keep society in balance
    Response to "Damn the computers" (NF-13)

    From Donald T. Davis (don@cam.ov.com)

    kevin jones remarks that technology's accelerating rate-of-change greatly undermines its utility. the editor replied that keeping up with these changes is precisely what many computer users like about computers. the editor also remarks, "What is needed, of course, is an understanding that accounts for both sorts of experience." please allow me to offer my understanding. i'm afraid it's a little subtle, so forgive me for not being clearer and more succinct.

    i suggest that the decisive difference is age. until we reach age 45 or so, new technology, and social change generally, seem to offer progress and opportunity. it takes most of us 20 years of riding the wave and exulting in our advancement, before we old-timers realize several things about rapid social and technological change:

    this is not to say that the old-timers' jaded view is more correct than the youngsters' view. just as the youngsters embrace all change uncritically as progress, the old-timers end up rejecting it all as fashion. further, i think it's unrealistic to appeal for moderation: these complementary qualities of enthusiasm and caution cannot reach full flower simultaneously in a single person. thus, i believe that the computing industry is just an accelerated and concentrated version of society's inevitable inter-generational tensions.

    the problem seems to be in the artificial intensification of this natural and necessary tension. this seems unnatural to us, and so seems avoidable. but, i don't think this intensification is new, even though people have always complained about accelerating change. rather, it seems to me that the rate of change probably has always been high. what accelerates is our sensitivity to social and technical change: when we're children, we don't notice it, as young adults we embrace it, and as we age we find it excessive.

    i realize that i seem to be dismissing kevin jones' complaint, but i actually agree wholeheartedly with him, and in every particular. the neo-luddites' complaint is as necessary and profitable to society, as the search for technical and moral progress is. luddites and technicians are to society, as the brake and gas pedals are to a car. as kevin jones points out, it's important to remember that this car has brakes, as we steer our course.

    -don davis, boston

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    *** What separates a Postman from a Negroponte?
    Response to "Damn the computers" (NF-13)

    From Claire Benedikt (hands@mail.io.com)

    What explains the fact that some people have no problem with computers and all their baggage (as a "Neo-Luddite" might conceive of it), and others, like the most recent poster Kevin Jones, feel so desperately overwhelmed, angry, etc?

    I know that there are both types of people. And I think the explanation is more complex than a generational gap, since I think we all know people in their late 40s that work well with computers and enjoy them, and people in their mid-20s who think just like Kevin Jones. I also believe it's more complex than "technophilia versus sanity," or however Neal Postman might want to phrase it. But on my own I can't determine quite what makes people like Kevin Jones see and feel one set of things, and people like Nicholas Negroponte see and feel another. Their childhood? Schooling? Is it psychology? Simply their attitude? Perhaps how much time they feel they have in their lives? What their first introduction to computers was?

    The fact that there are two groups, and that they feel quite oppositely about the same set of things, is well established. I get to hear from both groups all the time in one form or another. But I can't seem to find an explanation of why these two groups should exist at all, especially so distinctly from each other.

    Perhaps I'm not thinking along the right tracks.

    Claire Lisette Benedikt <> hands@io.com
    400 West 29th #9 Austin TX 78705 <> (512) 479-0724

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    *** Metaphysics underlies technology debates

    From Christopher M. Stahnke (CSTAHNKE@worldbank.org)

    There is an angle to the arguments surrounding the issue of technology that I think we should examine. It was brought up indirectly in Issue #11 by Alain Henon:

    "...these are all religious matters, arguments between those who believe the world is going to hell ... and those who think Nirvana is just around the corner in the form of the latest greatest electronic box on their desk. Silly."

    Arguments about technology mask profound metaphysical and religious issues. I suspect Mr. Henon meant to characterize the arguments depicted in Netfuture as religious and therefore silly. I, in turn, say that arguments about technology that are not rooted in the reality of our religious and metaphysical attitudes is silly. I do not believe that we arrive at "objective" and rational decisions based on neutral "data." As St. Paul told us, we see through a glass, darkly. The dark is our own conditioning. The point here is that we are all probably wedded to some fundamental point of view and are unlikely to change that view through intellectual argument. Some other force has to assert itself.

    Stephen Talbot (in issue #12) reveals a kind of metaphysical idea: "We all must work in our own ways to redeem, not only the high technologies, but every handful of earth that is entrusted to us -- to raise it to the highest possible level of human expression." Why does anything need to be redeemed? Redeemed from what and for what purpose? I only ask these questions because they indicate a very clear religious view that has a long history and tradition. Mr. Talbot obviously believes in the Fall, or something similar. Thus, anything that comes from this metaphysical basis is not going to sit well with those who believe that redemption is unnecessary. The important thing is to force nature to provide us with more information to enable human beings to have an easy and secure life with endless amusements. The modern technological elite (and their tools) exist to provide their clients with "freedom" from natural processes, and above all, to distract us all from finding any meaning to our lives that goes beyond narcissism.

    Mr. Talbot is right when he asserts that the computer is a very different sort of tool than a spade or a book. The computer is the expression of a certain portion of our intelligence that we deified long before its development, as Mr. Talbot says: "Ever so subtly we were encouraged to exchange wisdom -- which assimilates information to a living understanding -- for the objectified bits of information themselves." The significance of what he says is in the words "wisdom" and "living understanding." Just what does that mean? A believer in linear progress would say that we are constantly becoming wiser because we have more information. A living understanding? What's that?

    Regarding what is natural and not. I believe that boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. I think artifacts can take on a sort of "life" as in the children's story "The Velveteen Rabbit"; or, we can compare a city like Venice, Italy, with Houston: which is more natural? I think nature is always ready to break out from the inside of our artifacts.

    There is a natural tension between us and our environment. It is erotic. A good example is a garden, to what degree is it an artifact? I say the garden is the archetypal "natural" way for man to relate to his environment; it is a kind of intercourse with nature that is not unlike love-making. In the sexual act (ideally) we delight in our partner's pleasure and our own, arriving at a miraculous blend of the two. Distinctions break down. To what degree does our current technology enable us to have a playful give and take with our world? I suggest that it leads us to live increasingly in our heads, in fantasies.

    Peter Faller (in issue #11) brings up the issue of "options". Increasing our options is often presented as an end in itself. Is this the best philosophy we can come up with? Options force us to either ignore them or take them into account in terms of what we are doing at the moment. Either way they take a good deal of effort to sort through. Demand for options indicates a dissatisfied life, thus I believe we have this cult of choice because certain essential aspects of being human were and still are repressed in Western culture. Now don't get me wrong, I don't favor a rigidly limited life; but, for me, options offer an interesting and difficult existential problem, neither good nor bad.

    I love Kevin Jones piece in issue #13. I still think computers, for example, can be used wisely and non-destructively, but we usually lack the strength required to use such an amazing tool. Have you noticed how powerfully entrancing it can be? It is a form of magic, it has real power over us if we lack a clear purpose to our lives.

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    *** I, too, am starting to worry
    Response to "Damn the computers" (NF-13)

    From Kirk McElhearn (kirk@lenet.fr)

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for your article in NetFuture. I agree with most of what you say, and am starting to worry about it myself.

    I am a translator, and need to work on a computer. I have been on the Net for about 3 months, for professional reasons, and started out by madly surfing all over the place. Now when I surf I have the images turned off, for speed reasons, and surf less and less. I have, however, discovered the joys of e-mail, and this is something that I would not want to live without. Real words, thoughts, people, in spite of some flaming wars and stupidity. I have made new contacts and have learned many things.

    But I too feel intensely comfortable using my portable word processor (a pencil) with a tactile screen (paper). There is, as you suggest, something deeply human about such tools, that the computer does not have.

    When I got on the Net I thought it was the neatest thing. But as time goes on, it seems more and more insidious and dangerous. Oh, I see no great danger in having kids use it for research, the way I used a library when I was young. My son is 5, and he plays games on the computer for about an hour, and then gets bored, but he does not watch TV much either. I think the real danger is when parents let kids spend their days on they computer (or in front of the TV, or video game) rather than be involved in their lives.

    There is always a dark side to everything. I tend to agree with you that the dark side of the computer is predominant (especially the financial side). When you think about the ad campaign for Windoze 95, which was the lead story on the news here in France, it makes you wonder.

    I am sure you will get flamed for your comments, but know that there are those who agree with you. I have this terrible image of groups of neo-luddites living in caves in 50 years, something like today's Amish, far from the rest of civilization. I guess only time will tell who is right.


    Kirk McElhearn
    Translations from French to English, English to French
    Traductions francais-anglais, anglais-francais


    91 rue de la Mesangerie
    37540 St Cyr sur Loire

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    *** We relate to technology as to an archetype
    Follow-up to "Damn the computers" (NF-13)

    From Kevin Jones (jdesign@nas.com)


    Thanks for publishing my "rant," and for your kind introduction as well.

    I can assure you that many readers will quickly volunteer -- truthfully -- that they find joy and fulfillment at precisely the points where you have found frustration. I don't cite that as news--the Net is afloat with such testimonies daily--but rather as the background to which your comments help, in some small way, to bring a little more balance. What is needed, of course, is an understanding that accounts or both sorts of experience. But we're hardly likely to see that until voices like yours are heard more widely.
    I know you're right about this because I found joy in it at one time myself. Otherwise I never would have hung in there as long as I did. The thing is, I've realized in time that my attraction was addictive in nature, and part of the passion expressed here has to do with whatever forces in my psyche are bringing me to confront the addiction and move on.

    Another reader wrote suggesting that it's simple to ignore the continual pressure to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. It hasn't been simple for me. The fact that something in me has compulsively complied brings me to ask WHY. I see my own addiction as an individual expression of the addiction which holds ALL of us in thrall. The power of technology to addict is precisely its greatest danger.

    I've done some study of the work of Carl Jung, and my conclusion is that technology is in some way an archetype; i.e. a primordial pattern built into the psyche which has great power. Addiction typically arises from having an incorrect relationship to an archetypal force. The question is, what is the archetype in us which technology addresses, and how might we relate to it more correctly?

    I could go at great length about this, but I don't want to belabor the subject. I will say that I've concluded that one archetype or mythical figure which I find resonance with is the Magician. If you have any interest in exploring this area farther, I suggest starting with a book by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette called The Magician Within - Accessing the Shaman in the Male Psyche. I've found much here to explain my own past interest in technology, and inspiration on how my interest might be creatively redirected.


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    *** A further note about the stirrup
    Response to "Stirrups and social change" (NF-13)

    From Dave Davis (ddavis@copyright.com)

    Hi. I was pleased at the example coming up.

    Of course, Lynn White's thesis has been hotly debated among medievalists. But I think the basic abstraction you take, that tools effect social change, is illustrated well by the stirrup (and the printing press, and the waterwheel, and the town clock!).

    I would simply caution that the effects are non-deterministic--one might think that the stirrups lead to 'the Age of Mounted Knights' but they might also equally well lead to 'the Age of Cloistered Monks'! The historian observes the trends and tendencies.

    Cheers. /Dave

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    *** 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.

    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:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #14 :: April 2, 1996

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