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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #17      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates         April 25, 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  ####
    *** Arthur C. Clarke's Palador and Net consciousness (Jiri Baum)
          `An intellect more powerful than any other in the Universe'
    *** Speeding toward meaninglessness (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Why time-saving devices don't save time
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Arthur C. Clarke's Palador and Net consciousness

    From Jiri Baum (jiri@baum.com.au)

    Sue Barnes wrote in NETFUTURE #14, "As our communications technologies extend our sense into a united global embrace, the ecology of self dissolves. This is the final paradox of cyberspace."

    Her article reminded me of something that, half a century before her, Arthur C. Clarke wrote. I do not know if he ever expanded on the idea, but in his short story Rescue Party, he mentions "one of the strange beings from the system of Palador. It was nameless, like all its kind, for it possessed no identity of its own, being merely a mobile but still dependent cell in the consciousness of its race. Though it and its fellows had long been scattered over the galaxy in the exploration of countless worlds, some unknown link still bound them together as inexorably as the living cells in a human body.

    "When a creature of Palador spoke, the pronoun it used was always singular in the language of Palador."

    As in all science fiction, the first and perhaps most important question is, do we want it? Is this a desirable outcome for mankind? I do not know the answer to this question, and I fear that an answer is not really possible. But we must nevertheless try to answer it, or we shall be swept up by streams of time we do not understand.

    To leave on a brighter note, I close with something that I haven't yet heard of with respect to the Internet. I wonder if it'll emerge? "In moments of crisis, the single units comprising the Paladorian mind could link together in an organization no less close than that of any physical brain. At such moments they formed an intellect more powerful than any other in the Universe."

    Jiri Baum (jiri@baum.com.au)

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

    I would like to put Jiri Baum's question to any readers who are in a position to pursue the matter further. One of the prominent themes within the culture of the Net, showing up in varied forms, has to do with the expected emergence of some sort of mystical / collective / higher / global consciousness. I suppose there are many ways to think of this, but some of the most obvious examples of collectivity--for example, mass hysteria, group hypnosis, and the kind of national consciousness that developed in pre-war Germany--are not very savory. Moreover, how exactly the Net is supposed to support a desirable sort of collectivity is not something I've seen elaborated. It all seems uncomfortably vague, if also mystically tinged and reassuring to some.

    I'm interested in hearing any suggestions about forms of higher, collective consciousness that might be "emergent" from the Net. I'd also like to know--from both the optimists and from those who are as skeptical about this as I am--what it is that gives rise to these extraordinary, near-mystical visions of the future.


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    *** Speeding toward meaninglessness

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

    Social commentators have for decades been telling us that time-saving devices don't really save time. Not that many of us need to hear it. Who does not know from direct experience that the technological mastery of time somehow translates into the increasing PRESSURE of time?

    No one has put the case more vividly than Helena Norberg-Hodge, in a book called "Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh." A linguist, she has studied the high Himalayan culture of Ladakh for two decades, watching its transition from an isolated, "primitive" -- and remarkably joyful -- society to a society under westernized development.

    One of Norberg-Hodge's Ladakhi friends told her: "I can't understand it. My sister in the capital, she now has all these things that do the work faster. She just buys her clothes in a shop, she has a jeep, a telephone, a gas cooker. All of these things save so much time, and yet when I go to visit her, she doesn't have the time to talk to me."

    But does this mean you and I can save time by giving up, say, our automatic washing machines? The answer is "no," so long as everything else remains the same.

    However, everything else would not remain the same. If we were to begin washing our clothes by hand, other conditions of our lives would also tend to change, including our choice of clothes to buy. And if many people made similar choices, the entire texture and pattern of modern life would slowly be transformed.

    This is easier to see by looking at what actually occurred with the arrival of the washing machine. There was, first off, the need to earn the money to pay for the machine. And for the electricity or gas. And for the automatic water delivery and disposal systems. And now also for the various environmental damages resulting from the machine's manufacture, the production of energy to run it, and the discharge of its detergents.

    But that is not all. The washing machine changes the sort of clothes we buy, preparing the way for new fabrics requiring special care. It modifies standards of whiteness, of sterility, of neatness and social presentability. It encourages additional washings at the slightest whim. It requires a significant chunk of floor space in the home, accounting for a slice of the mortgage.

    There is no end to such outward-rippling effects. For example, the washing machine's manufacture depends upon everything from large-scale mining to a sophisticated infrastructure for long-distance transport -- which contribute, among other things, to the time-consuming geographical sprawl of our lives.

    You see, then, that this appliance presents itself as a labor-saving device only when we look at it "atomistically" and do not consider the larger pattern. Unfortunately, our society's failure to reckon with pattern remains deeply ingrained despite our various flirtations with holism, organicism, and the rest.

    But there is a still deeper problem underlying our passion for "time- saving" or "labor-saving" devices. These phrases imply on their faces that time and labor are enemies to be vanquished. Activities we wish to "save" ourselves from are activities we have already pronounced meaningless.

    So our growing collection of labor-saving devices testifies to a growing alienation from almost every function of life on earth. Everything is to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, an ever more efficient race through an ever more meaningless landscape begins to feel oppressive rather than liberating.

    Norberg-Hodge, describing her experience in Ladakh, captures how the confused search for meaning within a "labor-saving" culture leads to contradiction:

    Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, `How terrible; what a life of drudgery.' They forget that they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountains with heavy backpacks.
    She adds,
    They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club -- across a polluted city in rush hour -- to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege.
    I own a washing machine. I also own an increasingly troubled conscience in the presence of the question, "What would society be like if each of us began to take responsibility for his own participation in the overall pattern?"

    The question is not so odd. We have already been forced to begin thinking of ecological balances as intricate, interweaving patterns that cannot be grasped atomistically. Surely any human culture -- including our modern, technologized culture -- must be approached with a similar mindset.

    Taking responsibility, however, cannot mean, in the first instance, declaring for or against machines, which are as much symptom as cause of lost meaning. A harmonious pattern of life can be woven only with threads of meaning. These threads cannot be legislated, nor can they be created with a machine-destroying sledgehammer. We discover meaning only within ourselves and within a living world.

    When we do discover it, the consequences for the machinery around us will, I'm convinced, be apocalyptic. But our final judgment upon technology cannot usefully be trumpeted; it must be the quiet statement of lives infused with the qualities of time embraced rather than time fled. To live one's life in the deeply considered, present moment is to find the mastery and proper use of every mechanical impulse.

    I, for one, can declare that it is not easy.

    (Stephen L. 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."

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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.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #17 :: April 25, 1996

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