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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #6           Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates   February 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
    *** WWW or MMM?  The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity
          A Web pioneer asks:  Can the flood of cyber junk be halted?
    *** Flamers as guardians of the Net's purity
          An absurd view receives an absurd reinforcement
    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace (Richard Sclove)
          What are the cyberlibertarians missing?
    *** Laying Rubber, Flame Wars, and Responsibility (Carl Wittnebert)
          In defense of traditional virtues
    *** I feel fine (Scott Lopatin)
          The migration to a higher self has started
    *** The limits of adaptation and mastery (Christopher Frankonis)
          How much responsibility do we bear for the technological future?
    *** The Internet and the Soviet collapse (Michael Kudryashev)
          Soap operas would have been more effective
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    If you read nothing else in this issue, be sure to read Richard Sclove's "A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace." You don't have to sit where Sclove does on the political spectrum (I don't) to see that he's put his finger on a whole range of critical issues. Sclove is director of the Loka Institute, and this is the beginning of a multi-part interview -- the first of a number of interviews with key thinkers that we'll be publishing.

    Everyone involved in the debate over social policies governing cyberspace should read this interview. Please forward it as appropriate.

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    *** WWW or MMM? The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity

    According to T. Matthew Ciolek, "the unparalleled flowering and growth of the World Wide Web may ultimately prove to be a curse rather than a blessing." The problem, according to Ciolek, lies in the inherent, near-chaotic dynamics of the Web, combined with mismanagement. Examples of the latter include:

    "[The] abysmal and wasteful replication of effort by different parties claiming to be the Internet's main site for a given field of specialization; lust and carelessness bordering on promiscuity with which maintainers of Web pages establish links to other related (and frequently unrelated) sites and pages; and labyrinthine circularity of links, forcing readers to jump for minutes on end from site to site in search of a server that publishes its own data instead of pointing to other catalogs."

    Ciolek--who offers these observations in the IEEE's Computer, vol. 29, no. 1 (January, 1996)--speaks with some authority. He is the architect and administrator of the world's oldest and largest social science and humanities FTP site (ftp://coombs.anu.edu.au/coombspapers), and also runs a massive web site.

    It is no accident, Ciolek tells us, that a "self-referential" loop is formed in an environment that has paid little heed to questions of content, meaning, or value. "Good data is not readily forthcoming, hence the preoccupation with hypertext and multimedia techniques, and the `cool' appearance of pages. This motivates the WWW culture to revolve around the bigger and better `containers' for information and not around the information itself."

    As a result, the information revolution of 1995 "proved to be mainly a tide of colorful snippets, advertising leaflets, cybermalls, tele-cafes, personal home pages, tedious corporate mission statements, and sporadic pages of unattributed and unreferenced data culled from paper sources. Whether this flood of cyber junk will ever be halted remains to be seen."

    Click here for the full article.

    All this has bearing on the question of my own responsibility as editor of this newsletter, and on yours as contributors. Personally, I find the fragmentation of the Net extremely oppressive, and unhealthy for the discipline of my own thought processes. Everywhere you go you find almost nothing but those snippets Ciolek referred to--in "discussion" groups as much as in hypertext Web sites. The fragments come in a relentless stream, jarringly unrelated, with almost no context (except for those little

    > inserted clips
    > from other messages--yet more fragments, requiring a repeated shift
    > between half-known contexts).

    Even when full content is given in one place, the ubiquitous links present a constant temptation to abandon the current activity for whatever surprise lies on the far side of the click. And if there are no links, but just a mass of text--well, who among us will any longer have patience with it? To sink oneself deeply into a text, reflecting upon it and perhaps coming back to it over a series of days or weeks--that is an occupation few of us are likely to cultivate in the era of the Web.

    You will recall that NF-4 contained an addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines. The gist of it was that we should make our contributions to the newsletter self-contained, fully coherent, integral. What I had in mind was precisely the need for NETFUTURE to become an oasis of nonfragmentation. There are, of course, many other issues to keep in mind, and we certainly don't have the guidelines right yet, but I'm hoping we can take their continued evolution in hand as a matter of shared responsibility.

    The flood of careless, unconsidered, cheap words is the greatest enemy of the profound word.

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    *** Flamers as guardians of the Net's purity

    Speaking of careless words, "Project McLuhan on the Net" occasionally puts out some interesting notes, but they missed it badly with this item in Post #96-2 (Feb. 1, 1996):

    Say what you will about "flamers"...they have their function to perform. Flamers are in effect the "white blood cells" of the Net. In the absence (for now) of a centralized policing system, these happy-go-lucky lads and their excessively limited vocabularies swarm and cluster around enemy attackers, striving mightily to keep the Net pure, simple, and relatively uncluttered. We wish them well. Absurd to think that a community can do well on the basis of behavior that, on the individual level, is morally despicable. This is part of the loss of all sense of individual responsibility for what the net becomes.
    It is indeed absurd to vest communal hope in what is individually despicable. And such a view does indeed testify to the "loss of all sense of individual responsibility for what the Net becomes." I suppose the only worse thing is to recognize this loss and then cynically proceed to reinforce it by giving a wink and well-wishes to those who carry out the despicable behaviors.

    Contact for Project McLuhan: mcluhan-list@astral.magic.ca

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    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace

    This is the first installment of an interview with Richard E. Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass. Sclove is author of Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), and founded FASTnet (Federation of Activists on Science and Technology Network). In addition, he directs the Loka Institute's Technology & Democracy Project, which is working to make post-Cold War U.S. science and technology policies more responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns. In future installments we will mention more about Dr. Sclove's activities and publications.

    SLT: As you look at online culture today, do you find yourself optimistic or pessimistic?

    RES: The premise of the question is problematic, in two ways:

    [First], I don't think anyone knows, or can know (at least in the short run, in real time), a great deal about what "online culture" is. Cyberspace is enormous, and we each venture into a tiny portion of it that we find useful or congenial. In addition, we may read elsewhere about other domains of cyberspace that we haven't personally ventured into. But basically, that means we're each making inferences based on limited experience or knowledge.

    E.g., when I first became active in e-mail and online conferencing, I was excited to make great connections with folks faraway in New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. I learned a great deal from them, and have made some new friends this way. But this was not an example of how the Internet supposedly promotes cross-cultural understanding and diversity. Rather, I gradually figured out, it was an example of a more typical kind of self-sorting into like-minded enclaves that goes on in cyberspace. Before long I realized that most of the people I was dealing with were white, male, professional, 40-something, disaffected ex-60's people just like me. It was fun and useful, but it wasn't really stretching my cultural horizons.

    So, am I pessimistic or optimistic about "online culture"? I'm enthusiastic about the kind of interaction and learning that goes on in the domains of cyberspace that I choose to haunt (or that I've helped create). But "online culture" in general? I don't know what that is.

    Can we get past the hype?

    What I am profoundly unenthusiastic and pessimistic about is the persistent media hype about the Internet and cyberspace. Even the recent spate of critiques that have begun to come out are publicized by the mainstream media in hyped, self-serving ways. The hype is driven by the hope of profits and strategic positioning. One reporter from a mainstream intellectual publication told me furtively (we were in his office) that he was dismayed that his publication was running an endless stream of uncritical, fluff articles about the information superhighway. Really out of keeping with their other reporting and self-image. Why? Because advertizing money was pouring in from computer, telecommunications, and information service companies, and those companies want their ads to run adjacent to articles about information technology and services. Hence the need to generate articles that would serve as appropriate dressing for the ads. About this I am nothing but cynical and pessimistic.

    I'm also somewhat concerned about the effects of intense computer use by children. The allure of control and mastery (about which Sherry Turkle has written for years) makes cyberspace appealing to kids (and for many others). But ultimately I fear for the declining respect for, and experience of, diverse forms of face-to-face social engagement. Both with people we like (e.g., friends) and with people we don't (e.g., with many fellow citizens). Sure, as the technology advances we will presumably move beyond e-mail to real-time, "face-to-face" video links, or maybe to hyper-real virtual communities, in which we will kinaesthetically interact with others in new, virtual spaces. But I fear for what that means about failing to appreciate the type of experience that cannot be transmitted electronically, not even by the most advanced hypothetical electronic media. There are contextual nuances in face-to-face human interaction--smells, gestures, subtle allusions to off-screen contextual features or to shared history--that can gradually be denigrated or lost, but may be the tacit stuff of which real life is, most importantly, made.

    Or again, for me environmentalism has never been about cognitive understanding or complex computer models of ecosystems. It is about the taste and smell of a warm spring breeze as you walk along a stream, the remembered textures, smells and competencies of climbing in an old maple tree when I was growing up. The denigration of whole, multi-dimensional experience, and the corresponding celebration of electronically mediated experiences--in which your imagination may fly, but your body is seated before a keyboard and screen, or strapped into goggles and electroded gloves--saddens me.

    The Problems Posed by Cyberspace Can't Be Discovered in Cyberspace

    My other problem with your question is that most reporting, commenting, and even scholarly studies of cyberspace treat it naively as a domain apart from real life. This radically obscures the ways in which dynamic interactions between cyberspace and real life are (and will increasingly) affect one another's evolution. I've tried to dramatize this by asking people to imagine themselves in 1957 or so, trying to discuss the social consequences and significance of the nascent U.S. Interstate Highway System. If they got all enamored and enthusiastic about life on the highway itself, they'd completely, utterly miss the real story. Which was not about what it was like to drive on an Interstate Highway, but about the myriad ways in which Interstate Highways dramatically (and often detrimentally) altered American society off-road. E.g., the physical destruction of poor urban neighborhoods (as new highways bulldozed through and over them); the creation of bored isolated suburban housewives; the sapping of jobs from urban centers to new suburban margins (inaccessible to the urban poor and working class), etc.

    In the same way, it seems to me that the real story about cyberspace is not about life or culture within cyberspace itself, but how cyberspace--especially as it commercializes--is going to dramatically alter the economy and, via the economic transformations, society and politics...everywhere, for everyone, all the time (i.e., offline). Much of this change will be involuntary and coercive--e.g., affecting people who don't currently use computers, and who are utterly unrepresented in the evolution of new telecommunications systems or of telecommunications policies. E.g., Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, explained 50 years ago that truly unfettered competitive markets are unfailingly a human and social disaster. They trammel people, communities, and natural environments in devastating ways, and have always resulted eventually in compensatory regulation to try to clean up the mess, ameliorate some of the suffering.

    Naive Libertarianism

    So here we have a new technology--cyberspace--that Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates et al. are trumpeting as the emergence of "friction-free," unregulated competitive markets. Goddess help us! Just when we need sensible, morally and democratically informed regulation of these emerging systems, we are going through an historical period of intense ideological opposition to all regulation. And this ideological opposition seems singularly intense within cyberspace itself (which appears especially alluring to--and helps promote--naive libertarian views). (Naive because people are so infatuated with their own personal experience, that they fail utterly to contemplate the ways in which individual actions combine to produce unplanned, and often detrimental, social outcomes. Social scientists have explored this general phenomenon of "local" rationality producing collective misery through analyses of Prisoner's Dilemmas and "collective action problems," but these analyses have never penetrated mainstream media.)

    At one level, I find it amusing how intensely venomous the responses I sometimes get when I raise these concerns online. For espousing democratically guided regulation of cyberspace, I have found myself conveniently demonized as an "ignorant Stalinist" etc. (in the flame-language that is sanctioned and condoned in cyberspace). I persist, because I feel it's important to raise the concerns, especially when the folks who have ventured into cyberspace first imagine that we--the pioneers--are representative of people and citizens in general. We aren't. And as a wider range of people choose to join in (or find they have to, as a condition of employment or to be able to access social and commercial services that will increasingly be available only on line) it's important that their concerns and perspectives also play a role in influencing the evolution of information systems (and the dynamic transformations between cyberspace and life off-screen).

    Unfortunately, if we wait to involve everyone in decisions about these systems until most people are already online and have begun to experience economic and social consequences they don't like, it will be largely too late. By then many important decisions will already have been made by corporate conglomerates and glamorized netreprenures, and embodied in multi-billion dollar systems. Hence the challenge (about which I am politically pretty pessimistic) of how to develop new institutions now--not later--for involving everyday people, including affected non-users (i.e., everyone) in system design.

    I've written a lot elsewhere about how this is humanly feasible and why it is socially and politically vital. But I'm pessimistic about the political likelihood, because it goes against the grain of cyberlibertarianism and (momentarily ascendant) rightwing Republicanism, and against the financial interests of the corporations currently driving the game. And because the folks with the most to lose if systems are designed without their involvement or representation won't be aware of what is at stake until it is largely too late. (I.e., how do you mobilize political involvement to address problems that haven't yet been experienced?). And, finally, the bulk of the public-interest groups working on issues of telecommunications have been clamoring tirelessly and selflessly for a cyberspace that will be universally accessible, protect privacy, and support civic uses. That's great as far as it goes. But it's a tough battle. And even if that public-interest agenda manages against the odds to succeed, it will have addressed none of the kinds of concerns I've raised.

    Of all this I'm pessimistic--but not so much so that I won't keep squawking and trying.

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    *** Laying Rubber, Flame Wars, and Responsibility

    From Carl Wittnebert (cewit@wco.com)

    I live in a middle-class suburb in California. Ipso facto, we residents are treated to a continuous, high-pitched, and irritating squeal: adolescent male drivers laying rubber. Why do these guys go to so much trouble to wear out their tires prematurely? Because it makes noise. It draws attention. Technology is like that. It is empowering, for better or worse.

    I didn't fully understand cyberspace flame wars until I realized that the principle is the same. You draw attention to yourself by being crude and abrasive. It usually works. And the network allows one to capture the attention not of a handful of pedestrians, but of hundreds of thousands of people. It is a heady feeling.

    What ethical framework do we have that elucidates such behavior? What messages does it carry about other, more subtle forms of behavior, both in cyberspace and on the street? One source I find helpful is Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by the late Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan immigrant.

    Trungpa presents, among other things, an eloquent defense of traditional virtues such as cleanliness and politeness--the very things against which we often rebel, because they seem irrelevant, a sign of weakness, or just too much trouble. "The purpose of any protocol, or manners, or discipline that we are taught is to have concern for others...if we have bad table manners, they upset our neighbors, and in turn our neighbors develop bad table manners, and they in turn upset others...."

    "When someone enters a room, we should say hello, or stand up and greet them with a handshake...those disciplines are important in order to cultivate the absence of arrogance..."

    The stakes are higher than one might think, Trungpa suggests. "We tend to think that the threats to our society or to ourselves are outside of us...but a society is destroyed from the inside, not from an attack by outsiders. If we have too much arrogance, we will destroy our gentleness...we generate tremendous aggression..."

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

    Carl --

    Sounds like you're saying that the society of the Net tends, in considerable part, to be an adolescent arena--certainly a literal truth, if the demographic reports are to be believed. But I wonder whether the Net doesn't actually bring out the adolescent side in all of us, unless we are on guard against it. Certainly the fully present human being normally evokes a gravity of response (whether positive or negative) that we have to consciously strive after when we are flinging off text into the ether.

    In any case, it is a profound fact that more and more of society--and especially the trendy element that we all get so exercised about--is dominated by youth. The simplest, least disputable thing to say about this (often said, though with little effect) is that the depth of experience and accumulated wisdom that come with age count for less and less in today's society. If that is indeed the direction we have already been tending, the Internet promises to help us along by administering a few juvenile shoves in the same direction.

    I would protest more vigorously if I were not pursuing, in this forum, some of my own juvenility. (Of course, I call it a worthy experiment!) I sometimes suspect that I wouldn't be pursuing this unaccustomed effort if a good part of my need wasn't simply to screech my tires.


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    *** I feel fine

    [In submitting this piece, Scott Lopatin wrote that "I am a futurist, a visionary, and a pro-techno advocate. I experience living in a super connected world daily, and strongly believe that I am living in a time period ahead of my time." It is certainly not an essay that represents the dominant thrust of NETFUTURE, but I think it is significant that views such as this are held today--and if my mail is any guide, by quite a number of people. This fact is one essential piece of the mosaic that tells us what is going on between the human being and the Net today. [SLT]

    From Scott Lopatin (nitapol@vision.roc.servtech.com)

    Artificial humanity is upon us. As more and more people from around the world gain access to the great Internet, less of themselves they become. Diving into a world of information from a central spot puts the soul in a state of unlimitable knowledge. Less we take on the traits traditionally found in living beings containing a single set of biological parts. People will find themselves living as more than one, not only receiving the information, but creating it, becoming a part of the great interconnected structure.

    This structure is the new body we are becoming. The planet earth is our grid, the wires form our tissue. Just as the first single-celled animals evolved into greater, multi-celled animals, our single-being bodies will evolve into greater, multi-being giants.

    Technology and communications will initiate further evolutionary processes. Already several key changes in lifestyle reflect the evolutionary steps in front of us. Many cybernauts (the early adapters of this new life) report of times when they have not felt like themselves, or human for that matter, because of their interaction with the online universe. "When I step beyond my boundary filled room into the fields of never-ending information, I feel limitless to the ways I may choose to share my headspace," an early cybernaut reports.

    Several others become fearful of a time where they may realize they are living with multiple personalities. The "great online" opens up a never-ending source for multi-user chats requiring only your keyboard and mind. No body language, looks, smells, or raised eyebrows feed conversation here. These real world gestures are only used metaphorically as minor gags to point out how unlife-like the interaction is.

    Typing directly from the brain filters out all the faketalk, the meaningless flirts, the hopeless intimidation, the overconfident stud. Everyone is taken for what the mind puts into words, not for how the physical world has treated us. "It is hard for me to interact in person nowadays. I feel more confident in virtual space. I like my virtual self more, I can't help it," a veteran online chatter replies.

    It is no doubt that this migration to a higher self has started. The cross over period is beginning. A world of total submersive qualities will soon become the world as we know it. It is the end of the world. The online revolution is just the first step, as many others will follow. We wire mother earth, forming the great creature Gaia, with man kind as its chosen single cells. We are the neurons.

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    *** The limits of adaptation and mastery
    Response to "Don't try to control technology; adapt" (NF-4)

    [Christopher Frankonis wrote in NF-4 about the difficulty of controlling the general thrust of technology. He saw the main challenge as one of adapting rather than controlling. I have tried to draw him out further. The following is the tail end of the exchange that resulted. SLT]

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

    Christopher --

    Certainly we must adapt. In a smog-shrouded city, I may need to wear a mask. And certainly each of us is one individual among billions. But ideas have consequences; they can alter history. Which is why I find your emphasis upon our (relative) helplessness discouraging. My quart of oil dumped in the creek is one out of billions worldwide. Would you say, in the environmental arena, that it's been a waste of time to emphasize a broad, social awareness of individual responsibility? It has taken time, but those first, eccentric greens have made a difference.


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

    I don't mean to de-emphasize taking responsibility for one's own impact upon our (personal/cultural/social/political) environs. It's less a question of helplessness as one of realism. Yes, I agree that things would be better if we were all to take an--active--responsibility for the ways in which we move through the world, and this would certainly pertain to our relationship with our technology as well. I only mean to try and call attention to the inherent inevitability that certain developments arise through this process of emergence, and this is not something we have any real control over.

    In fact (and this too is something that comes out of Kevin Kelley's OUT OF CONTROL), it could effectively be argued that the pace and nature of technological progress at this point in time cannot help but be ripe with such uncontrollable emergent developments. This is not to say that a conscious movement through our environs cannot serve to temper the harsh possibilities that lurk inside such out-of-controlness. It's really just a matter of realizing that the lines of what we control and what we do not might not be where we'd like them to be.

    Christopher D. Frankonis Editor, Hands Off! the Net http://www.fly.net/~baby-x/HOtN/ in the resolute urgency of now

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    *** The Internet and the Soviet collapse
    Response to "Bigotry and openness on the Net" (NF-4)

    From Michael Kudryashev (kum@mdtech.is.ge.com)

    [Yoel Ben-Avraham wrote that "I can't help but feel that the Internet was one of the major contributing factors to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Certainly the hysterical attempts of the Chinese government to censor Internet access and the contents of Internet messages indicates what totalitarian governments fear most -- the free flow of ideas and the open exchange of opinions."]

    As I happened to be an observer of "Internet" activity in SU at the time of its collapse (i.e. August 91 coup), I can say that this estimate of Internet importance is highly exaggerated. While it has very high visibility, it had almost no actual impact upon the developments in the Soviet Union, that led to its collapse.

    From the point of view above, the most feared intrusion into the totalitarian society would be a soap opera - the most effective propaganda for masses ;)

    my opinions are my own, and I don't speak for anybody else Michael Kudryashev Internet: kum@is.ge.com Unix Platform Technologies/UTEC aka kum@cs.umd.edu GE Information Services, Inc. Quik*Comm: KUM

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #6 :: February 6, 1996

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