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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #16      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates         April 22, 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  ####
    *** talk.netfuture? (Sebastian Mendler)
    *** Linking minds and machines
          Note on a speech by Frederick Brooks, and a comment
    *** An American philosopher and Internet chat groups
          Collective action and community are different things
    *** Web called 'ultimate act of intellectual colonialism'
          It's English or nothing
    *** Are the spiders crawling down your back? (Kirk McElhearn)
          Alta Vista shivers
    *** There is no planned obsolescence of software (Chris Howard)
          Is the editor a conspiracy theorist?
    *** Hardware vs. software upgrades: different issues (Mike Fischbein)
          We don't know how to make reliable software
    *** About this newsletter

    *** talk.netfuture?

    From Sebastian Mendler (smendler@well.com)

    How about you keep the newsletter as a newsletter, but set up a separate mailing list/newsgroup called NETFUTURE-D or something similar, where the issues raised could be discussed? You could mirror the discussion to a Web page -- with a little work, you might even be able to link the discussions to the places cited in the original text (true hypertext!)

    Just my .02. I enjoy the newsletter; keep up the good work.


    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Skip --

    I'm open to the possibilities. Someone else would have to take the initiative to manage the thing, however.


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    *** Linking minds and machines

    Interesting article in the March, 1996 issue of Communications of the ACM. It's the 1994 acceptance speech by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., the recipient of the first annual "ACM Allen Newell Award" for career contributions bridging computer science and other disciplines. Fredericks is Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina. The speech was delivered at SIGGRAPH '94.

    Worrying about how the U.S. is becoming a "nation of consumption" given over to entertainment and recreation, Brooks has quite a lot to say about the failings of television and its effects upon our lives. Then he goes on to chide his audience:

    Well, what has all of this to do with SIGGRAPH? Quite a bit; SIGGRAPH also worships TV and its fame. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Electronic Theatre. Year by year we increasingly choose what to honor by the standards of the TV culture. It is increasingly an Electronic theater, rather than a showcase of computer graphics. We are treated to luminous dancers, bogus lip-synched music, and cheap distortions of 2D video images of the real world.

    Every year there are wonderful exceptions, from "Luxo, Jr." to the "Devil's Mine Ride," but I am struck that so often I can only marvel at what has been accomplished, rather than delighting in it.

    Earlier in his presentation, Brooks spoke about artificial intelligence, remarking that "the field has accomplished surprisingly little for the time and the investment. One need look only at the present state of speech recognition and of handwriting recognition to see how far there is to go, despite how much work has been done."

    He also noted how the developers of expert systems suffered a "rude awakening: somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 to 3,000 rules, the rule bases become crashingly difficult to maintain as the world changes....So today we have a useful expert system technology, with many examples of systems with a few hundred rules, but not the infinitely extendable tool originally dreamed of."

    Brooks argues that intelligence amplifying (IA) machines can always beat artificial intelligence (AI) machines. That is, "a machine and a mind can beat a mind-imitating machine working by itself."

    Personally, I'd put that a little differently. A machine and a mind can routinely perform machine-like tasks better than a machine alone. (Actually, the case should be put more strongly; without minds, there are no machines.) It's not so clear, however, that a machine and a mind routinely perform mind-like tasks better than a mind alone. The presence of the machine easily degrades mental performance. For example, if one of the mind's distinctive tasks is to recognize new paradigmatic possibilities within a particular field of study, then the machine (with its highly sophisticated programming based upon existing paradigms) can be a difficult obstacle for the imagination to overcome.

    What may be obscuring the distinction between these two cases is our increasing willingness to convert social functions, commercial and otherwise, into machine-like tasks.


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    *** An American philosopher and Internet chat groups

    Two interesting items crossed my desk at the same time, and make for a curious juxtaposition. One is from Peter Friedman, former Apple executive and now CEO of LiveWorld Productions, which is making a business out of professionally managed Internet talk shows (chat rooms). Interviewed for Online Business Today (vol 2, no. 4), Friedman displayed an exuberant, if naive, optimism about how the Net brings people together:

    What do I like about the Internet? That it can bring people together. It will enable people, especially children to see and participate in and shape the world without the barriers of the past. I like chats---you meet people and if the chats are managed well, you learn things.

    Some have said that computers and the Internet are the next steps in the dehumanization of the world. That's not true. The Internet heralds a stage of technology, perhaps the first in one hundred years, that actually brings people together; families, friends, new friends.

    The other item was an article about John Dewey in the New York Review of Books (May 9, 1996). My early and minimal brushes with Dewey's work never endeared the man to me, but this article quotes him regarding earlier technologies that helped to "bring people together," and I couldn't help hearing his remarks in the context of our own day. It is easy to forget, amid all the claims for revolutionary technological breakthroughs, that technology has carried us consistently in certain directions for several hundred years.

    Here's the text, authored by Michael J. Sandel. The Dewey quotations are from The Public and Its Problems.

    As Dewey wrote, "The machine age in developing the Great Society has invaded and partially disintegrated the small communities of former times without generating a Great Community." The erosion of traditional forms of community and authority at the hands of commerce and industry seemed at first a source of individual liberation. But Americans soon discovered that the loss of community had very different effects. Although the new forms of communication and technology brought a new, more extensive interdependence, they did not bring a sense of engagement in common purposes and pursuits. "Vast currents are running which bring men together," Dewey wrote, but these currents did nothing to build a new kind of political community. As Dewey stressed, "No amount of aggregated collective action of itself constitutes community." In spite of the increasing use of railroads, telegraph wires, and the increasingly complex division of labor, or perhaps because of them, "the Public seems to be lost." The new national economy had "no political agencies worthy of it," leaving the democratic public atomized, inchoate, and unorganized.
    But we never seem to require much convincing that the next technological advance will somehow neutralize or reverse the tendencies seen in conjunction with earlier technologies.

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    *** Web called `ultimate act of intellectual colonialism'

    The following short note came from the New York Times, via Edupage:

    Anatoly Voronov, the director of Glasnet, an Internet service provider in Russia, says: "It is just incredible when I hear people talking about how open the Web is. It is the ultimate act of intellectual colonialism. The product comes from America so we either must adapt to English or stop using it. That is the right of any business. But if you're talking about a technology that is supposed to open the world to hundreds of millions of people you are joking. This just makes the world into new sorts of haves and have nots." (New York Times 14 Apr 96 Sec.4 p1)

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    *** Are spiders crawling down your back?

    From Kirk McElhearn (kirk@lenet.fr)

    Alta Vista is a repository of, more or less, everything that goes through the Net, with the exception of e-mail. It is an extremely powerful indexing engine which contains over 20,000,000 web pages and a database of 11 billion words, as well as a dynamically updated the base of newsgroup articles. But, a lot of e-mail is there. Any mailing lists that are archived will be indexed by their spiders. So that only leaves private e-mail. Which is not really that private.

    When I subscribe to a mailing list, no one asks me if I have given up the rights to use my posts for any reason. Although my words are public (but only in a limited sense, that is, to those who are also subscribed) I might not want them to be at the disposition of just any robot around. After all, Digital never asked me if they could use my material to show off their computers (because the goal of the operation is just that: advertising for the powerful computers that Digital makes). And what about my rights? Here in France, everyone has a legal right to verify and modify any information concerning them that is kept on any database. I wonder how Digital would react if I asked them to remove some of my posts from their database. Or if I wanted to exercise my right to the copyrights on those words.

    Many people compare electronic information, and communication, to books, saying that books are permanent, and electronic information is not. I think that this is an example of just how permanent such information can be. Not only is it still floating around somewhere, but it is indexed in a database where someone can easily go fishing for it.

    The danger of this is obvious. Let us say that I have been posting to the alt.sex.minerals newsgroup, talking about how I like to do it with pumice. In ten years, if my wife wants a divorce, she can hire a bot to go snooping around and find that post, along with others, and get child support, keep me away from the kids; the whole nine yards.

    Or what about some young hacker, who later grows up and is elected to congress. The other party may find it useful to find out if he was spouting anarchist ideas in his youth. He will not be able to say he did not inhale.

    Or what about someone trying out netSex on IRC. Do those words get recorded too? Just think of the gold mine of information for blackmailers, if they can find out the real name behind the persona, that is available all too easily.

    Many of us have ideas that we later renounce, but when the words are there in black and bits, it is hard to place the necessary distance between the us-then and the us-now. Okay, I am probably ashamed of some of the things I did when I was a teenager, but I would not like to have to defend them now.

    It seems difficult to control this kind of snooping. Companies will make money from our words just as they always have. And the search engine is useful to those who are searching for information. But the danger is real, and it is right around the corner. I am not a Luddite clamoring for a return to the dark ages; I think the Internet will change the way our future happens. But we must be aware of the dangers, and react accordingly.

    The first thing, is to demand that we be able to strike from the record anything that we no longer want available. We should have the right to filter what is made available in this manner. No one has the right to exploit our words without our permission. While Alta Vista is not financially exploiting them, it is using them to advertise, which comes down to the same thing.

    The second thing is to be aware that someone is listening. That whatever we say on the Net will be stored someplace. If Digital can do it, I am sure they would sell the necessary equipment to any government agency that asks for it (which they have probably already done). Alta Vista is more cost-effective than wiretaps.

    The final thing is to fight for encryption. The only way to make sure that confidential, or personal e-mail is safe from wandering eyes is to encrypt it. Of course, this is not possible in every part of the world. Countries such as Iran and France can put you in jail for using encryption. But this right needs to be fought for, and now.

    Don't forget, the walls have ears.

    Kirk McElhearn

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

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    *** There is no planned obsolescence of software
    Response to "Advertising and the pressure to upgrade" (NF-15)

    From Chris Howard (choward@iastate.edu)

    Dear Editor,

    In your reply to Mike Fischbein you say:

    A few decades ago a furor over "planned obsolescence" (particularly in automobiles) helped to kick off the consumer activist movement. Our discussion about employees resisting automatic software upgrades makes me wonder whether the forces of planned obsolescence haven't largely re-gathered themselves and snuck up on us from behind (encouraged, no doubt, by our own cooperation). What is the high-tech industry if not a massive, concerted experiment in accelerating planned obsolescence to the extreme?
    Is this really what you meant to say? Are you a conspiracy theorist? I think the thing tends to be market driven: sell new upgrade, make more money. But saying it is a "massive, concerted experiment" seems to be a bit much. Do you think Bill Gates and other software moguls get together on midnight conference calls and "concert" their upgrade strategies? Do you think they build in obsolescence? Built in degradation of software features exists in some cases, usually based on licensing and time limits. But I haven't seen anything that makes me think MicrosoftWord erodes over time, forcing me to purchase it again (which is what happens with cars).

    I agree with Mike. And I think your reply missed the mark.
    Chris Howard

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Chris Howard --

    Why does "massive, concerted experiment" suggest to you a conspiracy theory? Especially when the immediately preceding phrase ("encouraged, no doubt, by our own cooperation") is intended to prevent any such reading? The experiment I had in mind was one in which most all of us participate in our own ways. (You may have noted that nearly everything I've said in this forum has aimed for that sort of universality.)

    Granted, the analogy was a moderately loose one. Software isn't rendered obsolete in exactly the way cars are. But you've heard a fairly forceful statement here by someone (Kevin Jones) who has found it difficult to ignore the pressure to upgrade--which sounds very much like "the pressure to consider the old software obsolete."

    Certainly, as you say, the thing is market-driven. Which is to say that your, my, Kevin Jones'--and Bill Gates'--complicity in this market reality is very much at the heart of the experiment to which I referred. I don't know how much more massive such an experiment could possibly get.

    In my own view, what links the experiment to the idea of planned obsolescence has a lot to do with how far the broad thrust of technological development now runs on by itself, without conscious societal effort to subordinate it to worthy ends. The questions is much more likely to be "will it sell?" or "will it entertain me?" than "is it healthy?" or "what social tendencies will it serve?" I am therefore much less inclined than Mike Fischbein (following article) to see technical "improvements" as actually being improvements--that is, as improving the human lot. The life that shapes itself around gadgets can all too easily be a hollow one. The heaping of (gratuitous) new capability upon (gratuitous) new capability can, in this light, be seen as a primary vehicle for a kind of built-in, guaranteed, fast-paced obsolescence--as long as we all go on accepting the gratuitousness.


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    *** Hardware vs. software upgrades: different issues
    Response to "Advertising and the pressure to upgrade" (NF-15)

    From Mike Fischbein (mfischbe@fir.fbc.com)

    An interesting point, but I believe it is a partially (only partially) flawed analogy. I assume you mean computers when you talk about "high-tech;" I don't see airlines retiring usable 737s, carpenters tearing apart old furniture to use better glues, and so on.

    The flawed part comes when we examine the computer goods closest to this question: the hardware. Only rarely is hardware made so that it doesn't work as well after, say, five or even ten years as it did when new. As I recall, people were never disturbed about manufacturers coming out with improved products; it was about design decisions or intentional mis-features that would render a given article useless sooner than following reasonable design and manufacturing standards. My 11-year old Macintosh still works; my sister uses it for short MacWrite letters. Last year, on my annual Naval Reserve training, I worked in a government office that ran mostly on 80286 based Zeniths running DOS 3.3. They worked just fine.

    In short, while neither of those examples would be purchased new today, when they were built they were built with a reasonable degree of conscience, care and skill.

    The less flawed part of the analogy comes when we look at the other half of the computer equation, software.

    Now, it's partially flawed because, while I believe the effects of planned obsolescence are there, the intent is not. I believe that most programmers are trying to do a good job, but programming is harder than most people (even programmers!) realize. The result is the current plethora of poor and mediocre quality software.

    Back to the automotive analogy. If cars were either very expensive or just weren't built right (couldn't be built right) and had frequent failures, doors dropping off, windows cracking, engines catching fire, etc., and this was true of nearly all brands, people wouldn't be surprised at these things happening. Nor would they object to replacing these fragile objects once or twice a year. Of course, if someone (Henry Ford, say), figured out how build a reasonably priced car that wouldn't fall apart, that someone could sell a lot of cars. Even if they were all the same color.

    The problem is, to date, we haven't figured out how to generate quality software on demand, nor how to convince the general market to use the quality software that is available. As I allude to in my earlier submission, the mass market computer field is driven far more by advertising than by any technical argument. Looking for objective technical rationale in the "upgrade, upgrade, upgrade" push is doomed -- it isn't a technical push, save for those very few who are working at the real limits of today's technology (and that group isn't complaining -- they're working hard at advancing the state of the art).

    No one is forcing an upgrade upon the vast majority of computer users out there. Oh, Microsoft would really like you to keep contributing to their coffers, but if the operating system and applications you used yesterday met your needs then, why do they not meet them now? Bravo to resisting "automatic" upgrades: figure out what the gain may be before leaping.


    Mike Fischbein mfischbe@fir.fbc.com CS First Boston

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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 .

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #16 :: April 22, 1996

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