• Goto netfuture main page
  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #25      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates         August 6, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** Prejudice and the Net (John S. Morris)
          What is not tested is not remedied
    *** CRTs, eye strain, and meditation states (Kevin Jones)
          Jerry Mander had it right when talking about television
    *** Noxious advertising (Bill Meacham)
          How do we escape the sickness?
    *** Teachers must train students for available jobs (Tom Zmudzinski)
          Opportunities to decide the nature of tomorrow's jobs are few
    *** The importance of context for emergent Net patterns (Reg Harbeck)
          Laissez faire, or a conscientious, persistent vigilance?
    *** How do we cultivate responsibility in cyberspace? (Marnie Webb)
          We fail badly enough in physical space
    *** Forgetting ourselves has a long history (Brad McCormick)
          It is better viewed as a need for self-discovery
    *** Bank loan officer and software don't differ much (Carl Wittnebert)
          The undeniable vitality of an impersonal logic
    *** Is your CRT or your environment the problem? (Nicholas Kushmerick)
          Flat-panel displays are often used in relaxing places
    *** CRT or noise? (Peter Marks)
    *** Of LCD displays and HardRAM (Jeff Gulliford)
          They're easier on eyes and psyche
    *** On clearing up computer displays (David Beiter)
          Computer text can be easier reading than paper
    *** Another concurrence about LCD displays (Michel Bauwens)
    *** The joys of crossing out text (Michael Kerwan)
    *** The computer is just a tool (Michael Smith)
          It does not impoverish the activities it mediates
    *** Computer does not necessarily impoverish reality (Chung-Chieh Shan)
          Or else painting, too, alienates us from reality
    *** We need to exercise the body as well as the mind (Jiri Baum)
          Dancing may be the answer
    *** Dancing does not balance our thinking (Val Setzer)
          A live thinking is required
    *** Of dancing, painting, gardening (Jiri Baum)
    *** The computer as a fence (Frank Prince)
          Good fences make good neighbors
    *** Spirituality and the Net (Clyde Davidson)
          Information is not the basis of our fundamental inner choices
    *** Physical versus `intellectual' efficiency (Jeffrey Alexander)
          Bottlenecks can serve positive purposes
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    This issue is too long.

    The O'Reilly web site is undergoing a lot of construction, and this has had the effect of "disconnecting" NETFUTURE for a time. We're hoping for a quick resolution of the problems.

    It appears quite certain that NETFUTURE will continue, but time limits require me to define it more strictly as an "article service" only. That is, reader feedback issues such as this current one will no longer happen as part of NETFUTURE itself. Quite apart from the time involved, I don't feel comfortable (1) trying to "manage" a public discussion that unavoidably includes discussion of my own essays; (2) rejecting some pieces for reasons such as length or readability or (what strikes me as) irrelevance to the purposes of the newsletter; or (3) receiving large amounts of semi-personal mail to which I have no hope of responding. Yet these have been necessities.

    As I've mentioned before, I'm open to the possibility of setting up some sort of parallel forum for pure discussion, but someone else would have to manage it.

    My thanks to all those who have written with encouragement about continuing the newsletter in one form or another.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Prejudice and the Net
    Response to "Forgetting ourselves in an age of automatons" (NF-23)

    From John S. Morris (oth@tiac.net)

    Hi Steve,

    I enjoyed your speech on "Forgetting Ourselves" tremendously.

    The section on prejudice struck home for me quite directly. I always maintained that I held no prejudice against blacks -- until I worked closely with one. She helped me understand how deeply rooted and unconscious was my prejudice. Building a close relationship with a lesbian helped me to become aware of my homophobic prejudices. I can only imagine that these prejudices would have remained unconscious and unexplored had I not been faced with and interacted with these two people. I no doubt interact with homosexuals and blacks on the net -- and no doubt exhibit little in the way of prejudice towards them -- however I also grow no wiser nor reveal that side of myself through contact with diversity -- if it's not exposed.


    Goto table of contents

    *** CRTs, eye strain, and meditation states
    Response to "Are LCD displays kinder to the soul?" (NF-21)

    From Kevin Jones (jdesign@nas.com)

    Bill and Steve,

    It amazes me that nobody has previously brought up the physical effects of working with CRT monitors. I've noticed this for years; in fact go out of my way to avoid CRTs.

    I believe the explanation lies in the scanning process used with a CRT but not with an LCD. Years ago I read Gerry Mander's book, Four Reasons for the Elimination of TV (I THINK this was the source of what I'm about to write, but may be wrong.) Mander explains that the image from a CRT must be "integrated" by the brain. In other words, at any given instant, only a single dot is actually visible on the screen. The brain must sum all the information conveyed by the variation of the dot's brightness and color over the time of a complete scan of the screen and the resultant summation is what we "see" as an image. This integrating of the information requires an enormous amount of processing capacity to accomplish, i.e. it ties up quite a bit of the brain's "bandwidth" just to generate the image you perceive.

    The repeated scanning or "strobing" of the image also has the effect of putting the brain into a mode where it primarily generates alpha frequencies. Mander argues that this makes the TV not only addictive, but it also allows advertising to pour into into the mind without being critically processed. In other words, the strobing creates a hypnotic effect which bypasses the mind's usual censors and allows direct access to the unconscious.

    I have noticed that when I write while using a CRT that I tend to "zone out" easily, or just to stare at the screen without thinking. It takes a continuous force of will to pull myself back into focus. I suspect this is because the strobing of the screen is pulling me into alpha mode, and in order to focus my attention, I have to make the effort to get myself out of it.

    Certain types of formal meditation allow the mind to fall into alpha or slower brain states. I've noticed similarities between my feeling when I've practiced meditation, and the feeling of being zoned out by a CRT. I recommend using meditation to achieve the state rather than a CRT, however. There's less advertising.

    Another difficulty which may arise from visual processing from a strobed source is eyestrain connected with visual fixation. (This is my own theory.) When you read, the eye jumps from word to word, or even from line to line, fixating for an instant in one spot before going onto the next. I sometimes have occasion to read as I sit waiting at night in a ferry line, and have noticed that my reading speed suffers considerably if I try to do it using the mercury vapor street lights on the ferry dock as my light source. I find it necessary to turn on the car's dome light and put a shade between my page and the vapor light which strobes on and off at 120 times per second.

    I theorize that when I read under a vapor lamp, the strobing of the light falling on the reading material confuses my eye's ability to fixate on the print. (Most CRTs are strobed at slower rates than the 120 times per second of a mercury vapor lamp--some at 70, and older ones even at 30.) If the eye happens to fixate when the light source is instantaneously OFF, then it may overshoot and be forced to do additional searching for the point of its next fixation. This would create an additional taxing strain on the visual processing system.

    I've observed that old style monitors with long-persistence green or orange phosphors do not cause the kind of eyestrain I've noticed with color or fast monochrome phosphors. I believe this is because the persistance of the phosphor takes over the job of integrating the image. In this case, the whole image you see is actually present on the screen, rather than being an artifact of the eye's "persistence of vision." The phosphor also continues to glow from scan to scan, eliminating any strobing effect. (By the way, you can recognize a long-persistance phosphor by standing back ten feet or so and clicking your teeth together as you watch the screen. The image on a long long-persistence phosphor will not "jump" the way it will with a short-persistence phosphor. Try it.)

    These observations lead me to believe that the negative effects of CRTs probably stem from the scanning and strobing process, rather than with magnetic or electric fields. The fields may be deleterious as well, but I suspect that their effect would be more subtle and arise over extended periods of time.

    Kevin Jones

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

    Kevin --

    Most people can see the flickering of the CRT screen quite easily by looking a little ways to the side of the screen. Peripheral vision, which is good at detecting motion, picks up the flicker. As you suggest, it seems likely that the eye must do some compensating for this flicker even when our awareness of the flicker is dimmed by our central focus.

    (There are several additional contributions to the CRT vs. LCD discussion later in this newsletter.)


    Goto table of contents

    *** Noxious advertising
    Response to "Will advertising keep the Net free?" (NF-24)

    From Bill Meacham (73577.2175@CompuServe.COM)

    Thanks for Netfuture #24. "Death of a Gyppo" brought tears to my eyes and your piece on advertising was brilliant. Thanks for your lucid insistence on human values in a technology-mad world. (Incidentally, I find that I have to print it out and read the hardcopy to really get and appreciate your publication!)

    I do not watch TV for the reasons you list in your article, but someone told me about a Budweiser ad in which a young man says to an older man "Dad, I love you, man." Then the older man says "You can't have my Bud Lite." This absolutely outrages me. One of the deepest ways men are wounded is the lack of a real, meaningful relationship their fathers. This commercial plays on that wound, grabbing our attention, resonating deeply, only to sell a noxious product. This is fundamentally sick.

    The question is, how do we get people to wake up to the sickness? Pointing it out in no uncertain terms, as you are doing, is at least the beginning. Making personal relationships, outside the thin arena of TVs and computers and the net, is, I think, the next step. The important thing is not to succumb to loneliness and isolation. Your writing helps; thanks gain.

    Bill Meacham

    Goto table of contents

    *** Teachers must train students for available jobs
    Response to "Forgetting ourselves in an age of automatons" (NF-23)

    From Tom Zmudzinski (zmudzint@ncr.disa.mil)

    I have some trouble with the sentence: "The teacher's task is to help the student grow up to be the kind of person who can decide what sorts of jobs are worth creating and having in the 21st century, not train him to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out."

    I don't believe that one can find "help the student grow up to be the kind of person who can decide what sorts of jobs ..." in ANY teacher's position description. But I think one might find something very analogous to "train him to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out", that is, "train the student so that he/she will succeed in the [available] careers of tomorrow." Darn few recent graduates "decide what sorts of jobs are worth creating". Generally, one must work their way to the top of the tree before they have any opportunity to choose what crop their tree will produce, and even then, that selection may be more limited than the writer seems willing to admit.

    Tom Zmudzinski

    Goto table of contents

    *** The importance of context for emergent Net patterns
    Response to "Forgetting ourselves in an age of automatons" (NF-23)

    From Reg Harbeck (rharbeck@freenet.calgary.ab.ca)

    I've been reflecting on Net Futures #23, and especially the concern expressed about the idea that, left to itself, a new "emergent" order [on the Internet] will somehow just appear. It's not much of a start to say that I agree with the concern that this is naive, but I thought I'd offer some additional corollary thoughts on emergence and the Internet.

    The first and most important point that needs to be made is that all patterns and systems emerge in context. Whatever this original context is, it shapes the "archetypal" form of the pattern which emerges, such that all future adaptations of that pattern must take place with reference to it. Any future adaptations which do not mesh well with this original form will be less stable, if viable at all.

    Now, what I would call the "social Internet" -- i.e. the practical use which humanity makes of the tools that the technical Internet and WWW provide -- is an emerging pattern. The context in which it emerges includes the active attitude we take about the value of keeping it relevant to the needs of humanity. If that attitude is "laissez-faire", then making it relevant to concerns about decency, fairplay, and integrity will entail future adaptations which may be more "kludges" than natural progressions.

    Therefore, if we want the "social Internet" to emerge with a natural relevance to the true needs and concerns of humanity, a different course of action needs to be taken. I'm not suggesting some ill-conceived legislation, or a morality campaign, but a much more subtle and durable solution. The emergence of the "social Internet" must be nurtured with a context of conscientious, persistent vigilance about its relevance to the values which make us humanity, and not just a random collection of individuals.

    - Reg Harbeck (URL: http://www.freenet.calgary.ab.ca/~rharbeck)

    Goto table of contents

    *** How do we cultivate responsibility in cyberspace?
    Response to "Forgetting ourselves in an age of automatons" (NF-23)

    From Marnie Webb (Marnie_Webb@BOOKSTORE.ucsd.edu)

    Dear Steve,

    It is nice to read such a thought provoking article on the future of the internet and our responsibilities to that future. It also led me to want to share the thoughts it provoked.

    I agree that the hope that technology will take us to a good place, that progress moves us higher and better, that order will simply emerge is a way of abdicating responsibility. That is something, in American society, we do on a regular basis. I think we do it individually and in groups.

    As you pointed out, our corporations do not take responsibility for the products they deliver, the way they deliver them. They simply push. More is good; more money is best. On the internet, this means a web page that promotes brand identification and new ways to purchase. The strategy is positioning in a new technology. It seems there is little thought as to what is being positioned, how it is being positioned, or the ultimate ramifications.

    I think the rush to legislate is also a way of avoiding responsibility. We are asking the government to protect us from ourselves. It is saying, I think, that we as individuals are incapable of making decisions. We cannot be trusted to act in our own best interest, to distinguish good from bad and so their must be laws to prevent us from making a mistake.

    In both cases, we are avoiding responsibility.

    Technology, as you point out, will not work out these problems. It will not because people are working out technology. We are deciding the direction it will take us. We are building it. We are shaping it. Whether we acknowledge the responsibility or not, it is still ours.

    So, the question, I think becomes: How do we make these decisions important and viable for companies and individuals?

    It seems to me the concept of the bottom-line must change. It must include a future. It must include responsibility.

    This has been unsuccessful in the physical world. As consumers, we routinely purchase and use products that harm our physical world, that pose a threat to our survival. How then will we make this concept a part of our virtual world, especially, when the threat is less physical and more philosophical? When it is even easier to make a decision by not making a decision?

    Again, thanks for thought provoking article.

    Marnie Webb
    Marnie Webb voice: 619.534.4485
    UC San Diego Bookstore voice: 800.520.7323
    La Jolla, CA 92093-0008 fax: 619.534.5286
    email: mlwebb@ucsd.edu http://www-bookstore.ucsd.edu
    (standard disclaimers apply)

    Goto table of contents

    *** Forgetting ourselves has a long history
    Response to "Forgetting ourselves in an age of automatons" (NF-23)

    From Brad McCormick (bradmcc@cloud9.net)

    I found your text, "Forgetting ourselves in the age of automatons", highly impressive. I have a couple thoughts to add:

    (1) The self-forgetting about which you talk goes back at least to the roots of modern science, as, for example, in all the psychology which studies other people from behind real or logical one-way mirrors, rather than studying the phenomenon of the psychologist doing his one-way mirror experiment. Etc. Perhaps the problem is not self-forgetting so much as that, in past, people didn't have to attend to their own being, since they largely lived (or were lived by) the ethnic matrix in which they happened to have been born (naive culture as a kind of semiotic viral infection). In other words, perhaps people in past were not more self-aware, but just didn't suffer the consequences of non-self-awareness which obtain today. So maybe it would be better to speak of our need for unprecedented self-discovery than a need to remediate a self-forgetting which may never have happened.

    (2) There exist rich resources for helping in this endeavor to become self-responsible, e.g., in the works of the phenomenologists: Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, et al. I recently completed my doctoral dissertation in communication, and one of the proposals I made was for a new "genre" of scholarly studies: reports by the participants on their experiences attempting to build interpersonal relationships committed to continuous self-improvement through continuous self-reflection. Genuine science is not study of phenomena, but study of phenomena as objects of study (etc.).

    If there is any way I can contribute to the work your text urges us to undertake, please let me know.

    Bradford McCormick, Ed.D.
    bradmcc@cloud9.net / tel: (914)238-0788
    addr: 27 Poillon Rd. / Chappaqua, NY 10514-3403

    Goto table of contents

    *** Bank loan officer and software don't differ much
    Response to "High-tech and productivity" (NF-19)

    From Carl Wittnebert (cewit@wco.com)

    In the question concerning efficiency, there are two very different orientations. The first is a narrow one that questions whether computers are cost-effective in the style of analysis employed by almost all economists--whether capitalist or socialist. As I said previously, I think any answer in the negative is totally indefensible.

    The question you raise transcends computers, technology, and perhaps even capitalism. Yes, it is exceptionally slippery.

    Though banking is not my specialty, I doubt that there is any difference between obtaining a loan from software versus a loan officer. Outside the Bank of America's headquarters in San Francisco there is a huge black stone-cold sculpture, in the middle of a half-acre of rock pavement. It is often referred to as "the banker's heart." Likewise, I doubt that many loans are repaid because of a sense of gratitude and trust towards an individual or institution. They are repaid mostly because of the legal and economic consequences of not doing so, and partly as a matter of pride in one's self-reliance.

    Human interaction has no place in double-entry accounting. Neither does the environment, and there is a school of economics which questions the premium invariably placed on growth, on the grounds that traditional thought ignores the depletion of natural resources, especially in cases where these carry no cost, as is the case with air. . .

    And so your question, "Productivity to what end?" opens up a realm that borders on the spiritual. On the one hand, one sees the obvious shortcomings of economic life, including its tendency to become ever more ubiquitous. . .on the other, the impersonal logic behind industrial development has an undeniable vitality. . .


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

    Carl --

    I would have said -- and do usually say -- that the encounter with the bank loan officer today typically offers only the smallest vestige of hope for the kind of personal encounter and sizing up and gesture of trust that I mentioned. Our assessment of the computer's role never provides occasion to say, "computer bad; preceding technology good." Everywhere you look you see the computer offering us a prime opportunity to carry yet further -- sometimes to near perfection -- one-sided social trends that were already well-entrenched.

    The computer itself was preceded by the corporation-as-computer (of which the bank is one example). But the computer gives us an opportunity to perfect the corporation-as-computer. In fact, some businesses now -- for example, certain financial trading companies -- are nothing more than a computer sitting on a desk calculating the odds and making trades. There's really no need for a person at all, because the business has nothing to do with people; it's a matter of pristine calculation.

    But financial relations between people can be carried out on a different basis, and it was that basis I was trying to point to by mentioning what might (still) possibly occur between the loan officer and applicant.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Is your CRT or your environment the problem?
    Response to "Are LCD displays kinder to the soul?" (NF-21)

    From Nicholas Kushmerick (nick@cs.washington.edu)

    > I have found that there is a marked difference
    > between working with a CRT and working with a flat-panel LCD display
    > such as those found on laptop computers. After a day of working on a
    > computer equipped with a CRT, I am frazzled.
    > [....]
    > In contrast, working with a flat-panel display is not at all frazzling.
    > I am calm, in touch with myself, able to access deeper feelings, and not
    > glued to the screen. It is a much more mellow experience.

    While you may be on to something regarding electrons and magnetic fields, may I suggest a more mundane explanation: I'd guess that (much more so than desktop machines) laptops tend to be used in a cafe, at home, under a tree, while listening to music, while waiting for the dough to rise, etc. And these are all things that tend to make work experiences less frazzled, if not positively mellow.

    -- Nick
    - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - +
    +                         Nicholas Kushmerick                         -
    -  Dept of Computer Science & Engineering   University of Washington  +
    + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + -

    Goto table of contents

    *** CRT or noise?

    From Peter Marks (marks@halcyon.com)

    Bill Meacham (73577.2175@CompuServe.COM) writes:

    I have just subscribed to your newsletter and don't know whether you have covered this issue yet, but I have found that there is a marked difference between working with a CRT and working with a flat-panel LCD display such as those found on laptop computers. ...
    I feel the same direction of difference as does Bill, but I attribute it entirely to the utter silence of my (fanless) notebook computer compared with my very white-noisy desktop unit.

    Peter Marks (marks@halcyon.com)
    15307 NE 202nd Street
    Woodinville, WA 98072 (206)489-0501

    Goto table of contents

    *** Of LCD displays and HardRAM
    Response to "Are LCD displays kinder to the soul?" (NF-21)

    From Jeff Gulliford (71333.1375@CompuServe.COM)

    Hi Steve

    My first computer was a Compaq Portable III with a flat gas plasma screen. Every computer since has been a Toshiba notebook, with a flat LCD screen. I don't have much experience with CRT's, except to notice that they drive me up the wall if I have to use one for much more than a few minutes. I've always attributed that to the more or less curvature of the screen, but maybe not. I do wear trifocals...

    Another thing I don't have is noise from the computer; the mind numbing hum of the fan of the power supply or even the whine and click of the harddrive. That because of Toshiba's HardRAM; essentially a battery-backed RAM drive. After the harddrive powers down after initial startup I can work all day with only the click of the keys. Unfortunately this will be my last computer, as no one else ever supported anything like HardRAM, and Toshiba itself stopped with this and other machines in 1993.

    I hate CRT's and I hate noise. I love this machine

    Jeff - The Hague

    Goto table of contents

    *** On clearing up computer displays
    Response to "Are LCD displays kinder to the soul?" (NF-21)

    From David Beiter (byter@mcimail.com)

    You don't need any scientific tests, Newage psychobabble, or magic incantations. Or at least I did not. I have a '486 notebook computer with a VGA port. I can run the mono LCD, a VGA cathode raygun(s) monitor, or both at the same time. After a bit of comparison, the CRT monitor has a home in the corner under the bookshelves, gathering spiderwebs.

    Maybe it is the three cathode rayguns pointed at my head, maybe it is the oscillating electromagnetic fields. I ascribe it to the colors, which require different eye focus, and the fuzzy edges to the pixels. Whatever, it looks like a mob of dancing nematodes to me. The original mono monitors with the original PCs were easier for me to read than the new color monitors, but not as good as the LCD.

    I don't appreciate the gratuitous use of color and the doofy fonts in WinDoze, either.

    There is not enuff room on a standard paycheck to pay me enuff to look at a color monitor all day.

    I hear people complain about reading computer text. For me, it is easier than paper. Maybe it is not me, but the machine. 8^)

    David P Beiter
    CAVE, Inc
    1/2 Fast Road
    Monticello, KY 42633-8809

    Goto table of contents

    *** Another concurrence about LCD displays
    Response to "Are LCD displays kinder to the soul?" (NF-21)

    From Michel Bauwens (mbauwens@innet.be)


    May I concur with the previous LCD assessment. Since I changed from PC with CRT screen, which caused me eye-strain, to a macintosh with lcd screen, where I don't have that feeling at all, I have decided never to go back to using a CRT screen. I had bought one extra, have never needed to use it, and just gave it away.

    Michel Bauwens

    Goto table of contents

    *** The joys of crossing out text

    From Michael Kerwan (mkerwan@hpmpes6.cup.hp.com)

    > ...in case it's helpful, here's what I'm doing so far.
    > College-lined notepad. Write with pencil; the lead shouldn't be too
    > soft. Make the first draft double-spaced, one side only.


    Great discussion of writing!

    Give narrow ruled paper a try. It's available in binder paper, not sure about notepads.

    Also, I like using a good ink (not ballpoint) pen. I find striking through an inferior expression quite refreshing.


    Goto table of contents

    *** The computer is just a tool
    Response to "An antidote to computer-thinking" (NF-22)

    From Michael Smith (msmith@mpx.com.au)


    I enjoy reading Netfuture, but I am concerned by a general trend in the opinions expressed by the contributors. What follows is my dissenting opinion.

    Much has been made, recently, of the limitations of computers. The way that they de-humanize us, limit our creative abilities and generally reduce us to a lower level than we might otherwise have held.

    In Netfuture #22, Valdemar W. Setzer provided a perfect example:

    Here we see another characteristic of computers: they tend to impoverish the content of whatever they transform.
    Such attitudes assign to the computer considerably more capability than it actually possesses.

    A computer is capable of storing and manipulating groups of numbers represented in binary form. It can perform mathematical operations on these numbers and it can send/receive these numbers to/from various peripheral devices such as disk drives, monitors, keyboards and modems.

    Computers are extremely good at manipulating numbers, they do it very quickly and very reliably. They are unable to do anything else. When you want a computer to perform any other task you must first represent that task as a series of numeric manipulations. If the task is performed badly it is because our attempt to represent the task is inadequate.

    Unfortunately, many people see the computer as an all-powerful, all-capable machine which can solve all of our problems. That view is based largely on the propaganda distributed by computer manufacturers and vendors in order to promote sales. It has no foundation in reality.

    If you store a literary piece on a computer, it can be reliably kept and reproduced on demand. It will in no way be "impoverished" by the exercise. If you attempt to classify the literature according to the frequency and distribution of particular keywords, then it is hardly appropriate to blame the computer for the inadequacy of this classification. Rather blame the "Computational Linguist" who conceived this form of analysis.

    I regularly use a computer to analyse, model and interpret geophysical data. This data is used to search for mineral deposits suitable for mining. The computer is eminently suitable for this task. Computations which would take a team of mathematicians many years may be performed in a few minutes. The methods are very successful and have identified many mineral deposits which would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

    Many want to classify the computer as either "the answer to all of our problems" or "the end of civilisation as we know it". Neither is true. Computers are simply a tool. We can utilise this tool wisely or foolishly. That's up to us.

    Michael Smith msmith@mpx.com.au
    Emmenjay Consulting http://www.hutch.com.au/~emmenjay
    PO Box 909, Kensington, 2033, AUSTRALIA +61 2 667 1582

    Goto table of contents

    *** Computer does not necessarily impoverish reality
    Response to "An antidote to computer-thinking" (NF-22)

    From Chung-Chieh Shan (t-chungs@microsoft.com)

    From what I read, I think there would be no shortage of people inclined to reply to Mr. Setzer's piece titled "an antidote to computer-thinking", in thinking if not in writing. But if only as an opportunity to organize some of my own ideas on the pros and cons of what Mr. Setzer terms "dirty thoughts", I think I would respond.

    I myself is not terribly fond of the current surge of interest in computer technology, especially the fervency of media attention surrounding networking and other supposedly vital technologies of the future. Hopefully obviously to most readers of this list, computers (by themselves, at least) are not, and will never be, a solution to any of the more general problems facing our society today. The more a kind of technology claims to be able to solve human problems, the more essential it is to retain a healthy sense of skepticism.

    Mr. Setzer characterized computer programming and other forms of activity related to computers as "completely alienated from reality", which tend to "impoverish the content of whatever they transform". He argued that computers are unrelated to reality because "computers cannot be used as transportation devices, their result cannot be used as food or clothing, they do not produce anything real." Paradoxically, he suggested watercolor painting to be the ideal antidote to his stereotypical conception of the "programmers' syndrome". I am confused. If thinking about, writing about, or programming to simulate a bicycle cannot result in transportation, can painting a bicycle with watercolor result in transportation? If not, is not watercolor painting just like computer programming in being "completely alienated from reality"? Is it not so that, simply because painting on two-dimensional paper reduces the three-dimensional reality of objects, painting also tends to "impoverish the content of whatever they transform"?

    Mr. Setzer also argued that computers are limited by their mathematical formalism and determinism. Ignoring transient hardware failures and promises of future-generation computers for the moment, it is true that today's computers are based on mathematical formalism and determinism at the fundamental level. However, the practical complexity of computers is ever-rising, and so is the variety of tasks performed with their help. Unless one accepts the ultimate reductionist assumption, it does not follow at all that activities and creations performed using computers are "narrow" or "abstract" in any way. Drawing this conclusion is equivalent to concluding that Mr. Setzer's comments are impoverished, deterministic, formal, limiting and uncreative simply because they were sent and read via electronic mail.

    There are always multiple perspectives in which things can be characterized, and computer programming and watercolor painting are simply two of them. Each perspective, or each "method of projection", characterizes some aspects of reality well but not others. Some perspectives, such as what Mr. Setzer calls "computational linguistics", perform poorly when applied to certain realms of reality, such as literature. However, that does not produce a license for Mr. Setzer to dismiss any formal characterization of any object as impoverishing in the negative sense. It is important to balance multiple characterizations of reality, but it is also degrading to dismiss any particular characterization as "dirty thoughts" requiring an antidote, especially when the reason is simply that it is based on formal logic. I find this dismissal contrary to the usual sense of open-mindedness found in most people with a healthy skepticism toward computer technology.

    The bottom line is: There cannot and never should be any objective, universal definition of what is artistic and what is not, what is human and what is not, what is natural and what is not. To me, (certain forms of) computer programming is much more artistic than (certain other forms of) watercolor painting. I believe that, in the process of any kind of expression, the form is only the medium, not the essence. Certainly, not all of the productions of so-called "computer art" is artistically appealing to me. However, I do not see any reason that an object can be deprived of its artistic value simply by being created via a special medium. The same applies to other aspects of human values, health included.

    Chung-chieh Shan
    (permanent email address: ccshan@fas.harvard.edu)

    Goto table of contents

    *** We need to exercise the body as well as the mind
    Response to "An antidote to computer-thinking" (NF-22)

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

    Valdemar W. Setzer recommended practicing an art as an antidote to computer-like thinking.

    So here is my recommendation, based upon my own experience: I consider the ideal antidote to be watercolor painting wet-on-wet, that is, on wet paper.
    There is one problem with this particular recommendation: while it may be the best for the mind, for the body it is just more sitting in a chair at a table. The range of physical possibilities for watercolour painting is almost the same as for keyboarding. So, to maintain all-round health, some other activity will need to be done, this time to exercise the body. (Another problem is that, perhaps even more than computing, it is pretty much a solitary activity.)

    I don't know if it would be good, but it would certainly save time if the two could be combined.

    The activity I personally get around to is (social) ballroom dancing. It is movement (and plenty of it), it is physical (analogue) and much dancing is unforeseen and unplanned (depending on the lady, other couples on the floor, music etc).

    It is also a social activity, requiring quite a bit of communication between two people who may or may not have met before --- communication which is not only non-digital, but also non-lingual (ie, there are no mutually-agreed symbols standing for concepts).

    OTOH, one doesn't end up with pictures one can scan in for the Web.

    See you on the dance floor!


    Goto table of contents

    *** Dancing does not balance our thinking
    Response to "An antidote to computer-thinking" (NF-22)

    From Valdemar W. Setzer (vwsetzer@ime.usp.br)

    Dear Jiri and other subscribers,

    I would like to comment on Jiri's suggestion about social ballroom dancing. I know it very well, because I practice it. Anyone willing to learn Brazilian rhythms like Samba, Pagode, Lambada, Forro' and others?

    The problem with social dancing as an antidote to "computer thinking" is the aspect of thinking. Some people may have gotten shocked with my expression "dirty thinking" (I didn't want to offend anybody, just wanted to stress the fact that it is a un-humane, dead thinking). I think this (and other types thereof -- one could generalize to any abstract, intellectual mental activity, like interpreting history or biology under a certain theory) "dirty thinking" has to be balanced with "live thinking." (Please see my newest paper "The computer as an instrument of counter-art," available through my home page, for more details on this.) Now, when you are dancing, it is not possible to think; it is necessary to switch it off, and use feelings and willing, which are not so conscious. You have to abandon yourself to the rhythm. If a person thinks on the steps s/he is taking, s/he will do a very poor job dancing - like any beginner!

    BTW, let me take advantage of this occasion to call the attention to a mistake S.Papert makes in his book "Mindstorms." He says that he would like children to do mathematics with the same enthusiasm as people dance in Brazilian Samba schools (those you see in our Carnival parades). He is mixing two absolutely different activities: to dance, one has to switch off thinking, the movements have to be automatic. To do Math, it is necessary to be fully conscious, in an activity that has nothing to do with the body, only with the mind.

    And here we get to a very good point by Jiri: the need people that use computers intensively have of compensating with body movements and with socialization. Absolutely correct. I do aerobic exercises for 45 minutes each day (even if I go dancing), plus 15 minutes of stretching gymnastics. But if just limited to body movements, the compensation would lack something I find essential: the exercising of a non-formal thinking in a calm, introspective way. Body movements (sports, dancing) require the switching-off of conscious thinking and the use of automatic reaction.

    And how about social relations? I also consider direct person-to-person conversations as fulfilling what I consider non-formal thinking (as long as the conversation is not about computers or software or some theoretical, abstract stuff in any area). They have the definitive advantage over solo artistic activities of developing social sensitivity, which is also an opposite of what the computer does - now not in the realm of thinking, but of feeling, of interacting with a person who, contrary to the computer, is not deterministic and has a personality. So if the dancers talk a lot (as I like to do...) then dancing would also be a good antidote! Nevertheless, social interactions do not require the same degree of activity and creativity as artistic activities; they are somewhat "natural": everybody is used to do talking... Let us not forget an artistic activity which is also highly social: doing theater.

    My essay was entitled "An antidote to computer thinking." I didn't say art was the only antidote. As Jiri pointed out social dancing could be a very good antidote. Let me finish by suggesting another one: gardening. It has the advantage over art that one is dealing with the essence of life, when following the processes of birth, grow and decay (the opposite to the dead computer...). It could be quite artistic, if one consciously chooses how to distribute the various plants.

    But I still consider artistic activities as the best ones to compensate for "computer thinking," due to their nature of intensive use of feelings associated to non-formal, active thinking. The fact that there are almost no body movements mean that one concentrates on those inner activities that somehow represent the opposite to the "dirty" "computer thinking."

    All the best (artistic or other non-formal, actively thinking and feeling activities),


    Valdemar W.Setzer Dept. of Computer Science, University of S~ao Paulo, Brazil

    Goto table of contents

    *** Of dancing, painting, gardening
    Response to "An antidote to computer-thinking" (NF-22)

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


    To the extent of the details of the steps, yes, one cannot think of them at the time and still dance well. (Just as in painting one doesn't think of how to pick up the brush - one just paints.) However, people generally don't switch off thinking; they think of something else. The trick is finding something appropriate for thinking, something not abstract. It is possible to think about the selection of the next step - will it fit on the floor, can the lady do it, etc. Similarly with the artistic aspect of the dance.

    There's also this lovely person right in front of you with whom you can make conversation.

    Besides, I did say "I don't know if it would be good, but it would certainly save time" :-)

    And here we get to a very good point by Jiri: the need people that use computers intensively have of compensating with body movements and with socialization. Absolutely correct.

    I do aerobic exercises for 45 minutes each day (even if I go dancing), plus 15 minutes of stretching gymnastics.

    Well, if you don't find them boring... I'd rather dance.
    But if just limited to body movements, the compensation would lack something I find essential: the exercising of a non-formal thinking in a calm, introspective way.
    My essay was entitled "An antidote to computer thinking." I didn't say art was the only antidote. As Jiri pointed out social dancing could be a very good antidote.
    I think my main argument (apart from "it's fun") is that ballroom dancing is not only an antidote to computer thinking, but also to computer "physical activity" and computer "socialising".

    Ballroom dancing doesn't involve calm introspection and it's generally not done outside in the sun (like gardening). However, I can't think of any activity that would combine calm introspection with socialising.

    See you on the dance floor!


    Goto table of contents

    *** The computer as a fence
    Response to "Automation has undoubtedly boosted productivity" (NF-21)

    From Frank Prince (prince_f@ch.hp.com)


    You wrote:

    Incidentally, it's interesting to ask who is likely to act more responsibly toward the money obtained: the person approved by software, or the person who is the recipient of a gesture of personal trust?
    I was saddened to find my knee-jerk reaction to your question was "You can't tell." That led me to a whole series of musings surrounding the idea of computer as fence - in the sense of "Good fences make good neighbors."

    If a person is of a bent to be cautious in an interpersonal relationship, he may choose to formalize it as a means of protecting himself. Computerized exchanges are well matched with that objective. One person applying for a loan may be relieved he does not have to "beg" before an officious loan officer. Another may feel his special case can only be appreciated through personal contact. The banks will tell you the loan officer has the ability to take a person's case to a group of people who have the authority to override the guidelines - you get the best of automated productivity and personal evaluation. All this is to repeat the refrain that the tool is a reflection of the mind of the tool-maker. But what is it that started this ball rolling? What put in our minds that distance in interpersonal relationships was to be facilitated and personal involvement was to be the exception?

    The quest for productivity seems too ready an answer. I suspect a willingness to distrust others plays a role. But that opens the question of why we distrust others. Getting one's hands around that seems a very tough job. A response to cultural diversity might be another avenue to explore. It is a reflection of conventional wisdom to say a person you would not have as a friend can be very good at doing something you want done. "He's a great doctor but I wouldn't have him over for dinner."

    Thanks for providing a forum where we can tease out a few of the knots in these ideas.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Spirituality and the Net

    From Clyde Davidson (cdavidso@nmh.org)

    I have been reading with interest the thoughts on the use of the net and the spirituality on the net. It seems to me that people are imbuing the net with way too much humanity and spirituality. I seems to me that the Internet is just a tool just like my computer is a tool, a book is a tool, my phone is a tool, or my car is a tool. While these tools may enhance or facilitate things I want to do, they aren't a end in and of themselves.

    The Internet is a new medium for information distribution. The Web is a new publishing system that allows more people an easier way to publish what they want. It is also easier and faster to find information on the Web than most other forms of publishing. However, that doesn't make the information any better. I also doesn't make it any worse. I seem to find about the same ratio of quality to junk as I do in most other mediums. I just find it faster and easier.

    Internet e-mail gives me the added "benefit" of expanding my community. My community isn't restricted to my physical location as much as it was before. (I did have a phone.) My community also includes people who are restricted by the Internet wiring. This has broadened my community, but not necessarily made it better. Everywhere I expand my community my existing community naturally gets smaller. (I can only be spread so thin.) Also, since people are pretty much the same everywhere, the Internet community turns out to be as human as the rest of my community.

    While the Internet is a information distribution medium and a community expander, I don't believe that spirituality works that way. Too many people in too many religious systems seem to believe that the key to spirituality is knowledge and information. Spirituality starts on the inside and ends on the inside. You figure out what direction you are leaning or you want to go, then you go that way. At this point, the community, education, knowledge, and information become important. By that time your path is already set. You may change your path, but you always go back and start at the same point. Once you incorporate this information into your system, it is back on the inside. I start from inside me and end inside me; the middle step, that the Internet tool can help, doesn't change my direction. In fact, most of us can't even look at anything else.

    While the Internet may be a tool to help in spiritual information growth, it can not do many things. I can't see you, touch you, smell you, or hear the tone in your voice. That human interaction is educational spiritually in a way that remote interaction will never be. I can learn many things by holding your hand, kneeling beside you, listening to you passion, or watching how you live your spirituality that I can't from the Internet community.

    Then again, I could be wrong.

    Clyde Davidson

    Goto table of contents

    *** Physical versus `intellectual' efficiency
    Response to "The illusion of online efficiency" (NF-20)

    From Jeffrey Alexander (jazejef@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu)

    Steve --

    I've been lurking on your list for a while with great interest. Thanks for bringing up some thought-provoking ideas (and disseminating similar ideas of others).

    A word on your recent piece about efficiency -- I think that electronic communication is EXTREMELY efficient in the physical sense, whereas what you're addressing is the intellectual sense. That seems to be a source of confusion for people. The mass media are inefficient, since content has to pass through various bottlenecks to reach the intended recipients. This friction created by these bottlenecks means that a lot of content, both good and bad, is lost.

    The Internet is teaching us that a few bottlenecks are a good thing, a concept which I believe people like you have figured out months ago, while most of us who've been on the 'Net a couple of years are just now realizing. (As you say, the novelty is wearing off.) The Internet is "frictionless" communication, since you have few filters between participants. Thus, we once again see the manifestation of the old GIGO rule (garbage in, garbage out).

    I wonder if there's a parallel here to electronic commerce as well as communication. Business Week proclaims that electronic commerce is "frictionless" as well. Is this necessarily a good thing? Traditional paper-based business is definitely more costly, and electronic commerce eliminates a lot of needless waste. But all of this talk about information networks empowering workers seems overblown. Running a virtual company is in many ways more work than running an integrated one (cf. a recent Harvard Business Review article by Teece and Chesborough on the limits of innovating through alliances). People really need to sit back and realize that bottlenecks in our economy exist for a variety of reasons: a lot of them bad, but some good as well.


    |                       Jeffrey M. Alexander                     |
    |    Vice President and          |    Ph.D. Candidate            |
    |    Director of Research        |    Management of Science,     |
    |    Washington CORE             |     Technology, and           |
    |    4915 St. Elmo Ave. Ste 502  |     Innovation                |
    |    Bethesda, MD  20814         |    George Washington Univ.    |
    |    jeffalex@wcore.com          |    jazejef@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu |

    Goto table of contents

    *** 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 #25 :: August 6, 1996

    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NETFUTURE page