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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #4       Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      January 15, 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
           We're making progress
    *** Homogenizing global society (J. David Stanton, Jr.)
           How long can that pen pal club offer a taste of different cultures?
    *** Don't try to control technology; adapt (Christopher D. Frankonis)
           Avoiding cultural chauvinism
    *** Bigotry and openness on the Net (Joel Ben-Avraham)
           The lines between "us" and "them" get blurred
    *** Prejudice on the Internet (Mark Grundy)
           Freedom and a whiff of danger
    *** Basement Wiring:  More Metaphors for the Infobahn (Robert Richardson)
           An unsettling vision from downstairs
    *** Editor's apology to Dick Carlson
           There are layers of meaning in every message
    *** Liberation and oppression on the Net (Stephen L. Talbott)
           Who is the big, bad wolf?
    *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $500 writing competition
           Are we masters of the Web, or trapped in it?
    *** An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines
           Keep your submission focused
    *** About this newsletter
    *** Editor's note (32 lines)
    The quality and variety of contributions to NETFUTURE continue their
    encouraging rise.  The one problem is that we cannot begin to acknowledge
    all contributions, let alone publish them.  We have, however, been
    convinced by readers to allow the length of each issue to remain on the
    longer side.
    One thing we're looking for is ways to serve our readership and promote
    the responsible use of technology.  Our first project is an annotated
    reading list.  This will contain everything from old classics (like Joseph
    Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason, which belongs near the top
    of any such list) to the latest relevant releases.
    Lowell Monke, who teaches computer technology to high school students,
    has volunteered to maintain the list.  You can see its bare beginnings
    here.  Lowell also has begun to list other resources as well--for example,
    academic programs relating to technology assessment.
    Send your suggestions directly to Lowell (email: lm7846s@ACAD.DRAKE.EDU).
    You will find below "An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines."  We are, I
    think, conducting a distinctive experiment in online discussion.  The
    original uncertainty about whether NETFUTURE would be a discussion group
    or a newsletter may have pinpointed a valuable challenge:  How can we
    carry on discussion at a much higher level (more coherent, more healthy
    for participants, more profitable for readers) than is evident in most
    news and discussion groups, while avoiding the formality and delays of
    newsletters and journals?
    *** Homogenizing global society (66 lines)
        Response to "The ultimate pen pal club" (NF-3)
    From J. David Stanton, Jr. (jstanton@coin.state.pa.us)
    Candi Brooks (cb@myrrh.net) describes "the ultimate pen pal club."
    This provoked some thought on my part, which she may find distressing:
    The very technology that enables her pen pal club will help destroy
    what she finds most attractive about it, glimpses of other societies.
    Even before the Internet, per se, became a significant factor, global
    society had begun a homogenization process. McDonalds in Moscow and
    Beijing, EuroDisney in France come to mind as examples. Efforts to
    preserve unique aspects of societies (eg, Quebec secession and "official"
    French) show that many view this as a "bad thing."
    Our use of the Internet contributes to this homogenization, particularly
    in the area of language. Even Ms. Brooks' attempts to have her pen pals
    spell "correctly," although obviously tongue-in-cheek, are subtle pushes
    toward fewer English dialects (now I'm doing it by using a US English
    Is this "good" or "bad?" In the long run, I think it is good, but at
    the same time I realize that the cost will be huge. I believe a global
    society will help people (or at least myself) feel that we are all "us,"
    and that there are few, if any "them." In other words, it will be
    easier to identify with other human beings because we will all be part
    of the same culture. (An in-depth discussion of why this may be good or
    bad will have to wait for future articles. I am sure many other readers
    have their own views, and I hope they will share them with the rest of us.)
    I don't believe this will occur quickly, or that all sub-cultures
    will disappear. My point is that a global society is emerging, and
    our use of the Internet to communicate internationally is a contributing
    Please do not construe this article as an attack on Ms. Brooks or her
    ideas. Her article helped me to consider these ideas and attempt to
    share my views with the rest of NETFUTURE's readership.
    BTW, this philosophy stuff takes a lot of thought and time ;-)
       J. David Stanton, Jr., Senior Analyst
       Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Office of the Budget, Bureau of MIS
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    David --
    Will a global society really help us feel that "we are all `us'"?
    The United States has been as intensively subject to homogenizing
    media as most any nation on earth.  Yet by many accounts we're now
    becoming more fragmented and walled off from each other than we
    used to be.  And by some accounts the media actually cooperate with
    us in helping to make this happen.
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    Steve, I've given this some thought, but I just can't find a convincing
    argument for the issues you raise. (Which isn't to say there aren't any,
    just that in the short time I can give this, I can't find them.)  The
    optimistic part of me believes that we (ie, U.S. society) will get over
    the current state of affairs by learning to accept responsibility for our
    own actions, and working to better our own lives without expecting some-
    one to do it for us, and stop blaming someone else for our problems
    (eg, don't you expect your coffee to be served hot?).
    J. David Stanton, Jr.
    *** Don't try to control technology; adapt (33 lines)
    From Christopher D. Frankonis (baby-x@c2.org)
    1) We have to be wary of a couple things when it comes to discussing
    technology and responsibility. For one thing (and perhaps this is just my
    utter fondness for Kevin Kelly's book OUT OF CONTROL), there is something
    about the nature and pace of technological advance at this point in
    history that makes next to impossible a certain degree of actual control. 
    The challenge is not in controlling the direction and force of technology,
    but in adapting to the new spheres of interaction and experience these
    advances create. This is of course nothing new; it's one of the
    fundamental activities of human beings and always has been. I think we
    sometimes like to believe that because technology is created by us, we
    therefore also have dominion over the avalanche of its effects. This is
    not, for better or worse, the case. Where our strengths and weaknesses
    will be discovered is in how we approach and how we handle the new worlds
    our technology makes for us to live in. 
    2) We also need to be careful when asserting that the net is corrosive of
    culture. There might be buried within this notion a sort of cultural
    chauvinism, wherein we fail to accept that perhaps what is occurring is
    the development of new sorts of cultures, based upon either new aspects of
    human interaction, or new combinations of old and extant aspects. I don't
    claim that this is what is occurring, only that it's something we ought
    to take into consideration. For a long time, the net was a rather insular
    little place. Only recently has the population of the net increased to the
    point where such new emergent definitions of culture might soon begin to
    become apparent. This is all very much a young thing, whatever it is. 
    Christopher D. Frankonis
    Editor, Hands Off! the Net
    in the resolute urgency of now
    *** Bigotry and openness on the Net (101 lines)
        Response to "The Internet As Terminator" (NF-3)
    From Yoel Ben-Avraham (yba@LearnSkills.com)
    [Much deleted - SLT]
    Finally, as a Jew and an Israeli, let me tell you one thing.  Individuals
    with whom I have a community of interests in professional spheres, but due
    to race and politics can't permit themselves to be seen in public with me,
    communicate with me regularly via the Internet.  On a similar vein, 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.  
    Will this "free flow of ideas and the open exchange of opinions" eliminate
    the bigots in our world?  I doubt it.  Bigotry is first and foremost a
    psychological crutch for people suffering from lack of self respect or
    negative self image.  What it hopefully will do is enable individuals with
    strong healthy personalities capable of exploring alternative ways of
    understanding our collective human reality to dominate the stage, relegating
    the dark corners to those unfortunate unable to do so.
    the premiere on-line training service
    for more information send email to mrktg@LearnSkills.com
    or visit us at http://www.LearnSkills.com
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    Yoel Ben-Avraham --
    Could you elaborate a little on the basis for your optimism?  In a world
    trying to cope with an epidemic of ethnic hatreds, and in a world that
    has long been moving away from community -- and given a medium that now
    makes it easier than ever for us to avoid coming fully to terms with each
    other if we prefer not to -- just where do you see the indications that,
    as a society, we're likely to move toward greater community and harmony?
    To do so, it seems as if we'll have to succeed at an even greater
    challenge than the one we've so far been failing.
    We certainly must urge the individual to rise to the challenge you
    propose.  (That's what NETFUTURE is all about.)  But doesn't the urgency
    of the challenge arise from the fact that the prevailing current is
    running very much in the opposite direction?
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    From Yoel Ben-Avraham
    My company @learnSkills.com uses this communication medium, the Internet,
    to train people.  To help them acquire new (primarily computer related)
    skills.  Through this very sterile medium, blacks, whites, Jews,
    executives, gas station attendants with aspirations and active
    professionals all work together to learn new concepts, acquire new
    skills.  The total "blindness" (they can't see each other), "deafness"
    (they can't hear each other) enables them to circumvent their
    preconceptions about "others" and communicate freely on the "focus" --
    the learning.
    But, the reality always seeps in eventually.  After the lines of
    communication have already opened up, after the mutual respect for
    problem solving and mutual assistance in understanding concepts has
    already developed . . . the little side comments show up.  The kind of
    thing that causes the recipient to ask, and slowly the partners to this
    dialog (often a group experience) begin to learn about the aspects of
    their partners lives that normally would have caused them to tag them as
    "stereotyped" in one way or another.  There almost always is a
    "revelation experience" for some of them.  The sharp clarity that hits
    like a pain in the gut when they realize these "fellow cyber-naughts"
    they've grown to admire and count upon for mutual support during the
    learning experience, these people belong to what was always referred to
    (in one form or another) as "them".  The lines between "us" and "them"
    get blurred.  True personal growth, mutual tolerance all benefit as a
    result of these experiences.
    >We certainly must urge the individual to rise to the challenge you
    >propose.  (That's what netfuture is all about.)  But doesn't the urgency
    >of the challenge arise from the fact that the prevailing current is
    >running very much in the opposite direction?
    I feel no urgent challenge.  Unlike the tidal waves my forefathers must
    have felt in Europe between the world wars, or other similar occurrences
    in our history, Jewish history doesn't lack tragedies, this tidal wave is
    neutral.  It isn't inherently negative or positive.  It is simply a
    unique opportunity for either.
    I sometimes feel like a surfer, the Internet swell is occurring as the
    result of endless little causes that all combine to create our currently
    reality.  No one person can influence it in any measurable way.  My task
    is to ride the wave, and try to exploit its existence to traverse it
    towards something constructive.  True, others will use the same phenomenon
    to disseminate hatred and bigotry.  The difference in the Internet medium
    is, it is a relatively level playing field.  For every falsehood that is
    broadcast, a reasoned detailed well supported by available documentation
    response will be made equally publicly available.  I sincerely believe
    that in an environment that in its essence is unemotional, reason will
    always prevail.  Hence my "optimism".
    *** Prejudice on the Internet:  freedom and a whiff of danger (75 lines)
        Response to "The Internet As Terminator" (NF-3)
    From Mark Grundy (Mark.Grundy@cisr.anu.edu.au)
    Give us inkblots on a page, and we'll read into them creatures of our
    fantasy.  In the shapes of clouds we see the images of our lives, our
    dreams, and our hopes and fears.  We've always made myths out of our
    jumbled and incomplete experiences.  We've done it with weather, we've
    learned to do it with newspapers and tv bites, and we're starting to do
    it with the internet.
    We judge our world before we experience it.  Our judgement is creative.
    It fills in the gaps where our knowledge fails.  It focuses our efforts,
    clarifying our visions, identifying our opportunities and threats.
    Prejudice -- to judge before experiencing -- is not limited to just one
    culture, and it's not a blight on humanity as a species.  Every mammal
    has prejudice as part of its survival training.  The trick to mastering
    our prejudice is not to purge it and cripple our efficacy, but to accept
    its value in the moment, and to rise to the need to change it as
    imagination yields to experience.
    The main difference between the internet and other social experiences is
    not its diversity or complexity, because we can find diversity and
    complexity in every community.  What distinguishes the internet most from
    other social experiences is how well we can control the experience itself.
    We can walk down a crowded city street and see plenty to challenge us, but
    we cannot control the bandwidth of that street.  We cannot choose to
    encounter people wearing only yellow shirts, or remove anyone from the
    street who wears a green shirt.  Yet these facilities come free on the
    internet.  Our right to censor our environment no longer wars with our
    desire for society and community.  We can have our cake and eat it too.
    This heady power -- to give ourselves just the world we want to see,
    appeals very strongly to our self-determination.  Ideally, it could help
    us make great leaps between who we think we are, and who we believe we
    could be.  It can surround us with saints, and screen us from sinners.
    But it brings with it some whiff of danger.  If all we see of the
    internet is the community we've created for ourselves, then will the
    internet make us more or less parochial in our views?  Will our society
    become more or less divisive?  Will we see more or less conflict in our
    Moreover, the internet is not just a passive world of data sops, as
    television has been.  Through the internet, we can not only dream our
    lotus dreams, but also act on them remotely, screening ourselves from
    direct consequence by distance and anonymity, taking action while
    preserving our little myths.
    It's not just that we can engage in infantile flamefests with people
    we've never met, cackling over our own supposed cleverness, and ignorant
    of whatever harm we might have done their feelings.  Sitting in our comfy
    chairs at home and armed with a mouse and credit card, we could contribute
    money and ideas to the liberation of political prisoners in Turkey, or to
    the bombing of a  bank in London -- all without changing our current,
    perhaps quite sedentary, lifestyles.  We can wreak change on the world
    without being changed by our acts ourselves.
    What I would like to ask this group is twofold:  Firstly as we're forced
    by the growing volume of internet traffic to make balder value judgements
    on what we expose ourselves to, how do we keep from becoming social
    ostriches?  How do we balance tolerance against efficiency and purpose?
    Secondly, how can we make ourselves accountable for the material
    consequences of our broadcasts?  What support, infrastructure and
    personal code is necessary before our global internet citizenship becomes
    at least as responsible as our national citizenships?  On a cheerier
    note, can anyone think of ways that internet citizenship is already more
    responsible than national citizenship?
    Dr Mark Grundy,                        | Phone:       +61-6-249 0159
    Education Co-ordinator,                | Fax:         +61-6-249 0747
    CRC for Advanced Computational Systems,| Web: http://cs.anu.edu.au/~Mark.Grundy
    The Australian National University,    | ACSys:
    0200 Australia
    *** Basement Wiring:  More Metaphors for the Infobahn (130 lines)
    From Robert Richardson (robert@fiction.com)
    Only after I had bought and sold the basement was I prepared to puzzle
    out what it meant.
    It served as foundation for a hundred-year-old Victorian in an upscale
    neighborhood overlooking downtown Providence.  I had toured through it
    for the first time just before closing on the purchase of a condominium
    one floor above, a tastefully rehabilitated urban apartment with wood
    floors, high ceilings, and a thoroughly modernized kitchen.  I will
    confess in a moment what all this has to do with the Information
    But first I should say I have a delicate relationship with basements,
    with all of the rooms, in fact, of any building where I take up
    residence.  I thrive on the protections of the home; nothing disturbs me
    in quite so pathological a way as the thought that something is wrong
    with a house where I'm living.  The wrongness of a house can be physical,
    a quiet onslaught of termites, or contractual, as in the sudden intrusion
    of a former renter threatening a lawsuit.
    This particular basement was fantastically stockpiled with unusual
    building supplies and all the accoutrements of a workshop for creating
    stained glass windows.  There was a whole wall lined by a doubtlessly
    valuable stack of bricks that must have been a nightmare to man-haul down
    the stairs.  There were old window casings and a vast array of equipment
    for marine lighting and wiring--stacks of the brass cages that fit around
    lightbulbs out on docks.  There were five-gallon buckets full of metal
    washers and three-foot spools of plastic tubing.  None of this was the
    sort of junk that renters usually leave behind, but then that sort of
    miscellany was there as well: a rickety wooden valet on casters, a framed
    photo of a cockateel, a weightlifting bench.
    Then there was the wiring and plumbing, the structural internals of a
    large old house, indeed all of the wiring and plumbing that had ever been
    installed in that house, left in various states of disuse and disarray.
    Where old electrical wiring had been partially dismantled, trailing ends
    of wire had been left dangling and exposed, making it an act of faith to
    swat one's way through them.  Over the course of a century, as many as a
    half-dozen telephone and doorbell systems had been installed; now it was
    impossible to say which ones currently supplied the various services.
    Wanting to clear out some of the junk, I learned that the developer who
    revamped the building had made the basement a condominium unit unto
    itself, an unusual step that was probably a violation of zoning laws.
    This is part of what kept me awake nights.  The Condo Association had no
    final control over its own basement.
    Then there were other, more immediate calamities the first year we lived
    there.  A pipe froze and burst over Christmas weekend while we were away;
    six inches of water flooded the entirety of the basement, whomever it
    might have belonged to.  Not once but twice the sewer main leading out of
    the basement clogged solid with roots, alerting us to the situation by
    flooding our bathroom with soapsuds from the third floor clothes washer
    that backed up through our toilet.  A third-rate plumber's assistant not
    only failed to clear the roots but left off the cleanout cover, resulting
    in a minor flood of raw sewage in the basement.
    It turned out the wiring had been handled with panache that made the
    plumbing seem robust and reliable.  We discovered it was pretty much
    random which sockets and light fixtures throughout the building were
    wired to which service points.  Nearly all the outside lights were wired
    to a single unit whose owner had rented it out for a couple of years.
    The renter threatened to sue for money she'd spent on the association's
    electrical bills.  The association whimpered and forked over a
    ridiculously high settlement to avoid going to court.  And paid again to
    have the wiring set right.
    Meanwhile, upstairs, I was working on a novel in which a basement from my
    childhood had a role to play.  It was the basement of the house my
    maternal grandfather built, or almost built.  He never quite brought
    himself around to finishing the place once it was comfortable to live
    in.  He was a drunk and he put his energies elsewhere.  I found a pint of
    whiskey he'd hidden in the basement once when I was five.  I was
    astonished to have turned up such a thing; in retrospect it makes perfect
    So, there, as I churned out basement prose, as the legal infrastructure
    of property ownership swayed in the currents of Rhode Island technical
    slop, as the plumbing infrastructure below me belched sewage and my own
    internal plumbing gave way to a peptic ulcer, because basements were the
    larger part of my universe just then, I began to consider that the most
    apt metaphor of the National Information Infrastructure might not be a
    neat ribbon of asphalt after all.  The Superhighway Metaphor was big on
    the presidential agenda just then.  I suddenly thought: no, it's not so
    much a superhighway as it is the basement of some old Victorian painted
    lady.  Because the Net is, first and foremost, gothic.  Files lie
    everywhere scattered and broken.  The facts one gathers cannot be
    authenticated.  The trend is to interconnect everything, but the ties are
    gopher burrowings and madly spun webs.  Yes, uncharted interconnection is
    serendipitous, as dreams may also be, but it is pre-cognitive,
    And the culture of the Net, at least that part you might describe as
    "pop" culture, has a subterranean hue.  The lights flicker; in fact it's
    the flicker of digital images onscreen; the work is done under cover of
    night.  You get the feeling that the corporations may be destroying the
    environment, but courtesy of the Net you can drink bootleg vodka while
    hiding in the belly of the monster.  Your friends are in the box with
    you, safe and sound.  So is it Internet as bomb shelter?  Well, yes,
    looking back, the Net is one answer to the questions that occupied the
    doomsday strategists.
    Those fellows are out of work these days, though, aren't they.  Now the
    only problem is that the society onto which we are fitting the National
    Information Infrastructure is not a sustainable one.  In at least one
    basement in America, the cracks and breakdowns are long since beginning
    to show.  Sometimes I worry; sometimes I just sell my worries and move to
    a rental in the suburbs.
    Even in quiet suburbs where the basements are a more recent,
    less-dilapidated vintage, I cannot help but think that this information
    age of ours could use a few doomsday theorists of a new sort. After all,
    we don't really know where we are headed, except for a few
    prognostications about video on demand. Maybe we should be prepared for
    the worst, in case that's what we end up manufacturing for ourselves.  So
    call it the highway if you must.  But, if we should trudge stupidly
    onward into a crime-ridden ecological disaster of a future society, let's
    be sure we're able to at least download advisory bulletins from
    (Robert Richardson is a freelance writer living in Swarthmore,
    Pennsylvania. His book _web.guide_ was published by Sybex this past fall.
    His feature articles and a monthly column on Information Superhighway
    technologies appear in computer industry  publications such as LAN
    *** Editor's apology to Dick Carlson (80 lines)
        Response to "Kill the droids.  Up with the machines." (NF-3)
    Readers of NF-3 will recall an item from Dick Carlson, in which he related
    his encounters with a droid-like human being and a helpful Web site,
    concluding with the line, "Kill the droids!  Up with the machines.
    Resistance is futile."  As editor, I appended this remark to the piece:
    > [Nice story.  Now spell out what bearing it has on the particular values
    > you consider worth striving toward, or even just how it relates to the
    > question whether the Net has been improving the overall efficiency of
    > our access to meaningful and relevant information. SLT]
    I was criticized for that by a fair-minded reader, and some correspondence
    resulted.  This correspondence seems relevant to the purposes of this
    list--as well as to the question of fairness to a contributor.  SLT
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    Dick --
    An irate reader (Sten Drescher) has drawn my attention to the fact that I
    may have communicated something regarding your piece very different from
    what I intended.  To judge from his reaction, my "Nice story" may have
    come across as sarcasm, whereas I was actually struck by the piece as a
    genuinely nice story.  I only wanted to go on to say in the remainder of
    my comment:  "Now add a certain additional element of analysis that would
    bring the story fully into the netfuture universe of concern."  It was
    part of my purpose in NF-3 to illustrate some possible paths from this or
    that line of thought to the particular issues we are trying to focus on.
    Anyway, I can now see that there might be an unfortunate parallel
    between my phrasing and a certain common usage that goes something like,
    "Nice try.  Now do something sane."  That definitely wasn't my intention!
    I'd be happy to set the record straight in print.  (And do consider
    following up on your first piece.)
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    From Sten Drescher
    I'm glad you cleared that up.  I guess I just hear too many radio talk
    show hosts (from all sides) who air callers with opposing views just to
    say 'You idiot!  How stupid can you be!' (; .  Which points out that
    flaming people isn't limited to on-line pseudo-anonymity.
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    Sten --
    Well, you know, I wish I could say that that was that, but I've been
    thinking about the matter since first responding to your complaint, and I
    have to admit that the "parallel usage" I referred to probably wasn't
    entirely accidental.  That's the kind of thing that happens when one gets
    a little too smug in one's stance, and the "one" in this case happens to
    be me.
    I will apologize in the next issue regardless of whether Dick Carlson
    found any offense in my comments.
    Thanks for shoving my face into it.  (No sarcasm intended!)
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    On a concluding, humorous note, Dick Carlson responded by saying:
    > I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not sure what piece you're talking
    > about.  This may mean I write too much, in too many places.  Could you
    > remind me?
    > Thanks!
    > Dick
    So I guess we all have reason to feel a little funny about the episode!
    On my part, the apology is sincere, and I invite readers to challenge me
    on any question of fairness that arises in connection with NETFUTURE.
    Sometimes a litte embarrassment is the best medicine for an editor.  (I'm
    tempted to add some remarks about the medium in which we're communicating,
    but converting an act of contrition into a sermon always puts one on
    dangerous ground.)
    *** Liberation and oppression on the Net (134 lines)
                          Who Is the Big, Bad Wolf?
                              Stephen L. Talbott
    Almost from its beginning the Internet's promoters have alternately
    embraced this communications Hydra as the People's victory over the
    System, and then fretted about it as the ultimate weapon of the System
    against the People.
    Awareness of technology's varying potentials is healthy, so far as it
    turns our attention toward the choices through which we realize one
    potential or the other.  Unfortunately, however, this shift of attention
    has not yet occurred.
    On the one hand, the source of liberation has largely been looked for in
    the technology itself, rather than in the deepened wisdom of its users.
    Microprocessors, distributed intelligence, packet switching, and publicly
    available encryption technology typically figure strongly in this view.
    On the other hand, the Net's oppressive powers are usually attributed to
    manipulations by "them" -- anonymous power brokers, whether in huge
    commercial enterprises, the shadowy military-industrial complex, or the
    regulatory agencies.
    On either view, you and I seem to be pawns in a game for which we share
    little responsibility.
    Of late, the rhetorical balance seems to be tilting in favor of the
    System's machinations and against the People's mechanisms.  The tilt is
    reflected, for example, in the remark with which a colleague passed to me
    a story about the threat of censorship on the Net:
    "The idea that the Net is intrinsically, by architecture, a haven for
    free speech that can't be `shut down' to silence people may be a truism
    that like many such will blow away under the breath of the big bad wolf."
    We can only hope that the truism is being blown away, since human
    values -- including those implicit in the "free speech" slogan -- can
    never be underwritten in any essential way by technology.  But that does
    not mean we should leap to the other end of the balance and become
    obsessed with the big, bad wolf.  Yes, there will always be organized
    attempts to curtail freedoms -- and these need attending to -- but that
    is not the direction from which the greatest dangers arise today.
    After all, the early features of the Net that made censorship difficult
    -- the scads of BBSs, the overall string-and-baling-wire architecture,
    and the infinitely flexible routing -- are all either still there more
    powerfully than ever, or more easily institutable (and on a larger scale)
    than before.  Moreover, the social resistance to censorship remains
    The threat of censorship as usually conceived is one that, perhaps more
    than any other nation in the world, we have consciously moved away from.
    We were moving away from it even during the sole reign of the three,
    government-regulated television networks, when as a society we indulged
    in a steadily more enervating diet of violence, sex, and outrageousness.
    During the big, bad network era, Joseph McCarthy metamorphosed into
    Archie Bunker.  That doesn't look like a rigidifying pattern of
    censorship, even if it does look like the triumph of mindlessness.
    The mindlessness may, in fact, be the essential point.  The real dangers
    arise at both ends of the balance, where you and I offload
    responsibility upon impersonal powers.  It hardly matters in this context
    whether we vest our hopes in the mechanisms of technology or vest our
    fears in the machinations of the System.  In either case it is the
    mindlessness itself -- the failure to be fully awake to our own choices
    and their consequences -- that threatens our undoing.
    So while it is perfectly fine to point a finger at, say, the commercial
    behemoths dominating the media, we need to recognize the critical degree
    to which the finger is self-referential.  As a society we've shown a
    strong proclivity toward the kind of features and production values that
    large, powerful, commercialized operations are best at providing.  The
    television model is rapidly showing up on the Net, through no one's fault
    but our own.  Number of hits (ratings), fast action, entertainment first,
    a "where it's happenin'" mentality -- these count more and more.  Hardly
    surprising, when you consider that we're the same people who established
    the earlier patterns of television usage.
    We yield up our freedom when we function on the half-conscious level that
    energizes the technological and economic structures feeding us
    mind-numbing production values.  There's a kind of self-imposed
    censorship here.  We can't be free while acting at the level of reflex,
    association, and instinct.
    In other words, you and I are the ones who huff and puff and inflate the
    big bad wolf to monstrous proportions.  I'm not aware that the hundreds
    of thousands of employees in the wolfish corporations are very much
    different in their work ethic, moral values, and general purposes from
    those of us in most other corporate settings.  We willingly merge
    ourselves into one seamless operation, from board member to janitor.  The
    Apple Computers and Microsofts of our society continually progress, or
    try to progress, from challenging Big Brother to being Big Brother --
    all as a result of a "natural" evolution to which most of us yield
    ourselves in our own corporate and consumer contexts every day.
    Where, then, does the bad of the big bad wolf arise?  Only from that same
    pattern of "innocent," half-awake behavior that is to be found in nearly
    every corporation.  A System can only sustain itself in the presence of a
    drowsy people willing to be Systematized.
    At the other end of the balance, much the same sort of mindlessness
    underwrites the faith in technology's redeeming potentials, and with the
    same consequences.  In this regard, it is important to realize that the
    logic of the Net itself is...*logic* -- digital logic.  And logic wants
    to be universal, ever more rigorous, more tightly woven.  Logic, that is,
    wants to be articulated with logic, until there is perfect, overall
    It is not hard to imagine that the increasing universalization and
    rationalization of computerized technology will lead to new forms of
    oppression, despite all hope placed in it -- no, because of the hope,
    which betrays an inattention to ourselves.  In the end, we will find that
    the technological juggernaut is identical in nature with the System.  The
    faceless machinations of sleepwalking corporations and the automatic
    mechanisms of technology were made for each other.
    But logical, self-sustaining mechanisms (whether manifested in thought,
    social institutions, or machinery) can become thus fixed, rigid, and
    coercive only when we sacrifice our freedom and our mindfulness to them
    -- when we cease to be fully awake.  A set of rigid structures is, in
    fact, the best evidence that we are not awake.  If the Net is indeed
    evolving in the direction of such structures -- if we are breathing new
    life into the big, bad wolf -- then the situation is indeed grave.  But
    the first step in any true remedy is for each of us to look within.
    (Steve Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the
    Machines in Our Midst."  The foregoing reflection is part of a developing
    collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced."
    *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $5000 writing competition
                                 SPIDER OR FLY?
                   Are we masters of the Web or trapped in it?
                     How can we take full responsibility for
                      computing and networking technologies?
    Full details in the next issue of NETFUTURE.  Also, contest information
    will be posted on the Web.
    *** An addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines (16 lines)
           Keep your submission focused
    Try to avoid the "quote and respond, quote and respond" approach typical
    of discussion groups gone amok.  Responding to someone else's piece is
    fine--and the more vigorously the better.  But do it in the context of
    your own, focused contribution.  The quote-and-respond method encourages
    you to let your own comments run all over the landscape, even if the
    original piece was an integral, coherent essay.
    It's alright to make it your whole intention to contradict the point of
    someone else.  Just be sure that your remarks have their own unity and
    coherence.  In other words:  don't write unless you have something
    worthwhile to say in your own right, and if you do, allow it to stand
    alone as a nice piece of writing.  It will then also be more effective in
    redressing the sins of your antagonist.
    Try to say one thing well; don't panic about leaving this or that point
    unrefuted.  All civilized discussion requires picking up a certain thread
    and consigning others to an uncertain fate.
    *** 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 #4 :: January 15, 1996

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