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                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #36      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      December 19, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Classroom Revolutions
          Net Politics
          The Net and Perdition
    *** Gildered Dreams (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Do too many corporate banquets kill off neurons?
    *** Indiscretions (Frank Willison)
          At least it meant something to Hester Prynne; all-knowing machines
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Classroom Revolutions

    1923--the promise of radio:
    The Hertzian waves will carry education as they do music to the backwoods, isolated farms and into the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. The limitations of "the little red schoolhouse" will pass away; the country schoolteacher will be reinforced by college professors and other specialists. Radio will be an institution of learning as well as a medium for entertainment and communication. [New York Times, February 24, 1923]

    1941--the promise of television:

    While children may be bored and restless when merely listening to a speaker [on radio] without seeing him, living talent or motion pictures broadcast at a certain time to all schools in a given area will capture and hold their interest. The fascination of television for children has already been demonstrated in the homes of those now possessing television receivers in the New York area. [David Sarnoff, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, January, 1941]

    1994--the promise of the Net:

    You can't expect a passive medium like television to contribute much to the education of viewers. But with the advent of interactive computer networks, education will be revolutionized. The child's imagination will finally be set free to roam the world, guided by his or her own interests. [Every discussion group on the Net]

    1999--the promise of virtual reality:

    Why should students be interested in flat-screen interaction with the world? But with full-immersion virtual reality we can present the child with infinitely rich learning environments. He or she lives in the world he or she is learning about, and even helps to create it. [MSNBC news item, coincidentally appearing on the release date for Microsoft's new, virtual reality software, "B U, B Me"]

    2010--at the dawn of a new era:

    The test scores of American students in math, science, reading, and writing continued their long-term decline last year. Some educators have taken consolation in the fact that certain indicators of hand-eye coordination are up. But all are calling for a renewed national commitment to the advanced educational technologies that will prepare our young people for the rest of this century. [From People magazine, the number one news magazine in the country]

    Net Politics

    Edward Tenner, in Why Things Bite Back (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), about the "democratic network" and the "malignant authoritarian network" as two sides of the same coin:
    Where some find inventiveness percolating up and correspondingly rewarded, others find discipline and punishment raining down and privacy trampled underfoot. If networks appear to open channels previously barred--and it's not clear how having to put ink on paper ever prevented sending a message to top management--they also make it possible to read files surreptitiously, monitor activities, and even trace message traffic to discover clusters of malcontents.

    Aside from such ethical lapses, a collegial style doesn't necessarily mean a flattening of power. The InfoWorld magazine columnist "Robert X. Cringely" suggested not so long ago that the casual culture of Microsoft masked a management style that was at heart not so different from the hard-driving ways of the robber barons. ("You can work any eighty hours a week you want.") Of course, an authoritarian organization can be extremely productive, whether or not the iron fist is in a faded denim glove, but there is no evidence that networks as such make managers different. Rather, people seem to build networks in their own image. (p. 207)

    I'll offer some extended notes concerning Tenner's book in the next issue.

    The Net and Perdition

    Thoughts provoked by a subject-specific search engine:

    Scholars are sick of having to filter through kilobytes of irrelevant "hits" before getting to the material they want to see. So they are devising search engines aimed only at known web sites containing archives relevant to their disciplines.

    This and related ideas for sharper focus will doubtless take hold, since the need is obvious. However, it does remind me of a question that has been there since the beginning: Is the Net, which brings together people from such different geographical locations, social settings, and intellectual disciplines, creating a global community of common interest and awareness? Or is the Net, which presents people to each other in the form of textual abstractions and offers a separate discussion group or conference room for every sub-sub-subcommunity of interest, fragmenting an already fragmented world yet further?

    I find it useful to imagine how a parallel question might have been approached early in this century by the first automobile owners. "I'm going to hop in my Model T and drive across town to visit my cousin George. Isn't it remarkable how this new machine will help bind us together and strengthen the forms of community in our cities and towns!"

    The fact is that driving across town to visit cousin George is -- or may well be -- a deeply communal gesture. Millions of such gestures were, and still are, undertaken daily. But there is also a second story about the direction we as a society were headed in our automobiles. It is a story involving urban sprawl; malls; decaying towns and ghettos cut off by freeways; the dissolution of families; commuting to work; and the strange "society" of drivers crammed together in congested traffic, each isolated within his own bubble of glass and metal.

    Similarly, two things need saying about computer networks, and we desperately need to keep them together in our minds: (1) As with the car, "acts of community" occur all the time over the Net; we certainly can learn what it means to make these acts ever more genuine -- to deepen and strengthen them. (2) We may, as a society, nevertheless be choosing to move in an entirely different direction with our online connections, continuing the long-term trend toward mere aggregation and mobility at the expense of meaningful structure and community.

    This is a point I've made before. My interest now is in asking how we might assess the societal balance between these positive and negative potentials of technology. And I would like to point, with minimal comment, to a single, evident truth: the surest sign that we are allowing technology to lead us toward perdition is the conviction that it is leading us toward paradise.

    To believe, for example, that the automobile's (or the computer network's) ability to shrink distances has anything whatever to do with the varying sorts of inner distance and connection that community weaves between people is to have lost sight of community. Any technology in the hands of a people that has lost sight of community will prove an instrument for the destruction of community, simply because the destruction hinges in the first place on the lost sight, not on the technology.

    In other words: technological pessimism is justified precisely to the degree we feel technological optimism.

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    *** Gildered Dreams

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

    George Gilder's technological optimism is boundless. Writing in the December 2 issue of Forbes ASAP, he tells us about the United States' global economic dominance since the mid-1980s. It has a "moral dimension":

    The United States prevails not merely because of some arbitrary lead in software tools and network equipment but because these software tools and networks enable a more exalted and morally superior culture--a better and more beneficial way of releasing human potentiality and managing international competition.
    But when I say "boundless," I do mean boundless:

    And on and on, far beyond this writer's note-taking powers, finally culminating in an ecstatic vision:

    All these futilities and fantasies, self-pitying poses and alibis, antibusiness and antitechnology pouts, will wither and die as tragicomic bathos in the face of the blazing light, majestic cumulative power, truth and transcendence of contemporary science and wealth, enterprise and adventure on the capitalist frontier, ushering in the twenty-first century as a new epoch of spirit and faith.
    It's a rather pitiful sight. Instinctively, I kept looking for signs of tongue in cheek, but there were none. How to account for such an extraordinary view?

    It is central to Gilder's argument that

    The purpose of culture is to lend meaning to life....Culture ultimately must serve the civilization that sustains it. Any culture of nihilism and triviality will destroy itself in the end by undermining the willingness of people to make sacrifices and endure privations in its perpetuation and defense.
    Yet for all his talk of "materialist superstition," and for all his embrace of morality, meaning, spirit, and faith, Gilder's own point of view turns out to be profoundly materialistic. In essence, his argument amounts to this: we will triumph over avarice and materialism simply by sustaining the conditions under which more people have a shot at creating and enjoying material wealth. Somehow the economic opportunity itself will ensure noble choices by producers and consumers.

    Gilder's moral ideals, like all notions born of a true materialism, are terribly abstract, tending to coalesce into the generalized features of an -ism rather than the individual gestures of a wise heart. So it is that he can write,

    The key to the moral superiority of capitalism is that people get rich by imaginatively serving the needs of others. The new information tools allow more people than ever to perform this morally valuable capitalist role.
    It is a strange sort of blind spot that allows him to leave unspoken the fact that people can also get rich by damaging the earth, scorning society, and harming others. The virtue of capitalism is that it can, within the right social context, give the individual a wider range of choices and materials for expressing himself. But after we have said that, there remains the moral crux of the matter: how does he choose to express himself?

    The question never seems to arise for Gilder. Moral issues are resolved, in his view, once a satisfactory array of options for creating material wealth is in place. That is why he can make his extraordinarily blind leap from condition ("the Internet will cultivate a vast diversity of intellectual choice and achievements...") to consequent ("...that redeems American culture"). It is a morality without any messy need for people; the virtue is already there--guaranteed--in the technology.

    Gilder's technological millennialism derives, via considerable naivete, from inordinate faith in Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. But the Invisible Hand was dependent for its achievements upon certain instinctively given, shared values within society. These are exactly what has been dissolving over the past few hundred years. Today, from sexual behavior to style of government, from our treatment of the natural environment to our judgment about "Who is my neighbor?" we are no longer wholly given our answers through social instinct and convention. The individual chooses.

    This, I believe, is as it must be. Moreover, Gilder is rightly repulsed by the effort to replace those passing instincts and conventions with any centralized, collectivist imposition of values. But, then, he more than anyone ought to attend to the void that invites the collectivist miscalculation. It is a void left by the individual who refuses to ask, "What kind of wealth am I helping to create? What meanings do my particular actions, as consumer or producer, have for the larger society?"

    Gilder rejects the effort by cognitive scientists to "distill mind from brain," likening the project to Baron von Munchausen's attempt to raise himself from a swamp by pulling on his own hair. Personally, I suspect the baron was really struggling to levitate morality from market mechanisms.

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    *** Indiscretions
    Response to "Sex on the Internet;" and "Imprisoning Criminals in Software" (NF-35)

    From Frank Willison (frank@ora.com)

    I too am tired of "sex on the Internet" stories that inevitably miss the point. Sex on the internet, seen as a method of increasing volume over sex distributed by other means, is uninteresting.

    What is interesting to me is a phenomenon not unlike the discussion in your book about how discussions on the Net are always made more bombastic because the participants are inherently disinterested. Sex in the modern age becomes more problematic and more exotic because we bring less to it as people. Using Hester Prynne as an extreme example: one act of plain vanilla sexual intercourse, containing as it did the entire meaning of her life to that point and her relationship to her society, informed the rest of her life. For a modern person, one act informs a few minutes, because it contains nothing but itself. Sex, when it moves outside the person, becomes abstract and, to us, looks like any other technical problem. You can trace all this back at least to the Fifties, when Playboy persuaded American Young Manhood that they could learn sexual techniques, the knowledge of which would make them popular and, well, masterful. The descriptions of people with electrodes hooked up to erogenous zones enjoying sexual experiences "interactively" over the Net are where we've come to. Like those people interacting with a software therapist, those cybersex folks have no idea whom they're interacting with, or even if it is human or animate. Because such sex is abstract, however, balanced by no context or emotional contact, the act has to be extreme; thus the descent into more dangerous and exotic sexual acts.

    Kierkegaard's "Either/Or" deals with a similar problem. A young man, an aesthete, who worships "first love", elaborately arranges seductions that end after the first consummation, with the deflowered woman certain that she was the cause of the dissolution. When this man describes this practice in elaborate detail to his older friend and mentor (in the book, a judge), that man says: In your quest to continually experience first love, you have avoided it entirely, because your self is not involved in it.

    I liked the Mosaic 20 article too. It reminds me of an experience my wife had. She was in line at a store. The woman in front of her, an Asian immigrant with limited language skills, was buying four bottles of shampoo at $4.00 each. The clerk scanned them in; the price was clearly wrong in the store's database, because the price of $12.00 came up for each one. "$48.00," the clerk intoned. The immigrant woman looked pained, but she couldn't argue, so she reached into her wallet.

    My wife couldn't stand it, so she intervened. "If each bottle costs $4.00, how can four of them cost $48.00?" she asked the clerk.

    The clerk, exasperated with the stupidity of my wife's question, glared at her and pointed to the cash register readout. The clerk said nothing, however, because she had nothing to add. She had done her job, submitting the bottles to the scanner. The cash register had done its job, delivering the results to the display. Now it was up to the customer to do her job. The clerk was obdurate; she would not change the result until Meg finally summoned the manager. The manager, apparently, had the right to challenge the cash register. He told the clerk to charge $16.00 and filled out the appropriate forms. The clerk felt, if anything, vindicated. She had done her job, and part of her job was calling the manager if the cash register was ever called into question.

    The problem was that the clerk didn't know how the cash register reached its determination; she didn't control it; and she therefore couldn't question its results. I fear the same will be true of those police. They have lots of experience with domestic abuse (more than that computer); they know what it looks like and they've developed strategies to deal with it. For every situation they diagnose mistakenly, they probably get 900 right. If another officer, or some psychologist, gave them bad advice or a stupid profile, they'd ignore it. But they don't understand Mosaic-20, and they won't know how to question its findings. (They can't duplicate its process, and they can't argue with it, either.) Furthermore, they know that their management will trust the computer over them (or the lawyer of a victim will), and that their best course will be to ignore what they know and follow the dictates of the database. They will be removed, effectively, from involvement with the situation and instead involve themselves with the machine. If there isn't an increase of stupid decisions (how can we measure those?) in domestic cases from the use of this machine, I'll be very surprised.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    Frank Willison
    Editor-in-Chief, Technical Publishing
    O'Reilly & Associates

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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 #36 :: December 19, 1996

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