• netfuture main page
  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #5       Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      January 25, 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
           You can help
    *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $5000 writing contest
           Are we masters of the Web or trapped in it?
    *** FAQ:  Computerized technology and human responsibility
           A non-canonical exercise
    *** About this newsletter
    *** Editor's note (23 lines)
    This special issue of NETFUTURE contains only two items:  the official
    announcement of the SPIDER OR FLY? contest; and an admitted oddity--a
    first, highly personalized attempt at an FAQ on "Computerized Technology
    and Human Responsibility."
    Regarding SPIDER OR FLY?, you can help.  This announcement is both 
    relevant and appropriate for posting to numerous forums, public and
    private, whose participants may have a shot at competing successfully in
    the contest--and at elevating the entire online community in the process.
    Please take a moment to consider where, within your own networks, you
    might post the announcement.
    Perhaps you yourself will not want to enter.  But we are inviting all of
    you to submit your own, mini-answers (300-words-or-less) to the question,
    "As the Web evolves, am I finding myself a spider or a fly?"  Or, better,
    "In which regards am I finding myself a spider, and in which regards a 
    fly?"  Submit these brief answers to netfuture@online.ora.com, not to the
    contest alias.  We will publish as many of your brief answers in
    NETFUTURE as possible--and without waiting for the contest deadline.
    Back to previously scheduled programming with the next issue.
    Return to table of contents
    *** SPIDER OR FLY? -- $5000 writing contest
    O'Reilly & Associates and the NETFUTURE newsletter announce a $5000
    writing contest:
                                 SPIDER OR FLY?
                   Are we masters of the Web or trapped in it?
       Catching the dew and sunlight, and serving as an efficient means of
       livelihood, a spider's web is one of the glories of creation.
       Depending on your perspective, a spider's web is also a prison -- the
       most delicate, flexible, and refined instrument imaginable for
       immobilizing life.
       As you and I settle into the World Wide Web, are we in the role of the
       spider or the fly?
       The SPIDER OR FLY? contest invites you to illuminate the deep nexus
       between computerized networking technologies and the human being.
       Where, amid all the dizzying technical advances, do we carry
       responsibility for their social consequences?  How can we exercise
       that responsibility?  Have we been embracing it or shirking it?  In
       other words:  does the Web own us, or do we own it?
       The contest does not aim at identifying what you like or don't like
       about the Net and the World Wide Web -- not, at least, unless you can
       relate these likes and dislikes to the most fundamental levels at which
       our personal choices in front of the computer screen are shaping the
       future for good or ill.
       Scholars now debate whether certain technologies determine us more
       than we determine them, and whether the determination in either case
       is healthy or unhealthy.  The SPIDER OR FLY? contest is not premised
       upon any particular answer to such questions.  While the questions
       signal our passage into new spheres of responsibility in relation
       to evolving technology, the terms of this responsibility haven't yet
       become clear.  The contest seeks to stimulate a highly personalized
       exploration of the issues.
       The best of the entries will be published by O'Reilly & Associates.
        Press contact
    Stephen L. Talbott
    First prize:  $2500.  Four second prizes:  $500 each.  Five third
    prizes:  $100 each.
    If any prize is not awarded due to lack of meritorious entries, the
    associated prize money will be donated to the Wilderness Awareness School,
    Redmond, Washington.
        Contest themes
    The contest's themes are those of the NETFUTURE newsletter.  Subscriptions
    to this newsletter are free.  The themes can be summarized as follows:
    * What, within you and me, drives the success and progress of the Net?
    * How does technology determine us and how do we determine technology?
      That is, where are we most free, where are we most unfree, and where is
      the greatest promise of extending our freedom?  As technology changes
      the face of society, are we masters of the change, or are we being
      taken for a ride by forces we can no longer control?
    * Does it matter how we form all those little habits that shape our
      interaction with computers -- from the way we scan the words of another
      human being, to the way we hammer out our own words, to the way we bow
      with our attention before the unfolding pattern of screen events, to the
      way we submit our senses and bodies to be trained by electronic
    * Does it matter when we support, through our purchases and use, new
      technological capabilities that exist solely because the massive
      machinery of research has made them possible -- that is, when we add
      our own share to the impetus of a largely self-driven technological
      evolution?  What are the human implications of such an evolution?
    * How are we being affected by computerized technology in our self-image,
      our personal relationships, our attitudes toward community?  Is the talk
      about the Net as an intimate or democratizing or prejudice-free medium
    * Is the computer affecting education as advertised, or is it redefining
      what it means to learn and teach--and in ways we have not yet fully
    Make your entry relevant to the themes, persuasive, original in thought,
    and effective in expression.
    Everyone is eligible for the contest except for employees of O'Reilly &
    Associates, the judges, and their immediate families.
        Length and form of entries
    We prefer entries to be submitted by email.  However, hard-copy entries
    submitted by regular mail will be accepted.  All entries must be written
    in English.
    Entries must be between 2000 and 5000 words.  You may submit up to three
    entries.  Do not include your name or clear identifying information in
    the main body of your entry.  (Your failure to observe this restriction
    will disqualify your entry.)  Supply your name, mail address and email
    address separately, at the head of your entry.  This information will be
    removed before the entry is submitted to the judges.
    Dale Dougherty, President, Songline Studios
    Leonard Muellner, Professor of Classics, Brandeis University, and
        Supervisor of Production Tools, O'Reilly & Associates
    Tim O'Reilly, President, O'Reilly & Associates
    Frank Willison, Editor-in-Chief, O'Reilly & Associates
        Submission and deadline
    Send email entries to contest@ora.com.  They must be received by midnight,
    Eastern Standard Time, April 30, 1996.  Or, send hard-copy entries to:
           SPIDER OR FLY?
           O'Reilly & Associates
           90 Sherman Street
           Cambridge MA 02140
    Hard-copy entries must be postmarked no later than April 30, 1996.
    No entry will be considered official until a signed, hard copy of the
    Permission Form (see below) is received at the above address.
        Announcement of awards
    Approximate date for announcing awards is May 31, 1996.
        Permission Form (must be submitted as hard copy, signed)
    Name of contestant:
    Mail address:
    Email address:
    Title of entry:
    I hereby grant O'Reilly & Associates nonexclusive rights to print,
    distribute, and sell copies of the above-named essay, and works derived
    from the essay, in printed form and in electronic media such as CD-ROM,
    and to license others to do so, for the duration of the copyright in the
    essay, in all languages, throughout the world.  I understand that my name
    will appear as author of the essay.
        -----------------------------                  --------------------
        (Your signature)                               (Date)
    Sign, date, and mail this form to:
       O'Reilly & Associates
       90 Sherman Street
       Cambridge MA 02140
    Return to table of contents
    *** FAQ:  Computerized technology and human responsibility (357 lines)

    This was done on a whim. The introduction makes clear what this cannot be--namely, something definitive for others. I hope, at least, that it will prove stimulating. Much more appropriate than a single FAQ on such a topic would be a personalized FAQ in every Net user's home directory or home page. Imagine that, when "fingering" someone, we could obtain that person's statement of personal responsibility regarding the use of computerized technology! Perhaps NETFUTURE could collect a group of such FAQs into a single place and make some worthwhile use of them.

    You will no doubt have some ideas.



    Frequently Asked Questions

    Written by Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
    Last Updated:  January 25, 1996

    It is not particularly odd to list common questions about technology and human responsibility. The odd thing would be to answer them!--or, rather, to propose a set of canonical answers.

    The answers put forth here most definitely are not canonical. Think of this FAQ instead as a template, for which you must substitute your own answers. This is not to suggest a rootless relativism, but only to acknowledge what holds true in all matters of moral responsibility: every individual must knit his own pattern into the overall, harmonious fabric of truth, beauty, and goodness.

    Portions of the following are adapted from the author's book, "The Future Does Not Compute -- Transcending the Machines in Our Midst," with kind permission of the publisher, O'Reilly & Associates. Other portions are adapted from a work in progress called "Daily Meditations for the Computer-entranced." Yet other portions are completely off-the-wall.


    1. Does computerized technology threaten our future?
    2. What is an example of this threat?
    3. Were the printing press and other earlier technologies risk-free?
    4. Is the computer just another tool?
    5. What gift does the computer bring us?
    6. Does more sophisticated, user-friendly software reduce the risks?
    7. Are there still risks when the computer's active intelligence recedes into the background, acting as a relatively passive conduit for human communication?
    8. Does the Net help us to overcome prejudice by putting race, religion, age, gender, and handicap out of sight?
    9. Haven't Net courtship and the infamous flame proven that computer-mediated communication allows intimate personal exchange?
    10. Is projection a problem on the Net?
    11. What is the antidote to projection?
    12. Does the Net make us scatter-brained?
    13. Must we get school children onto the Net in order to prepare them for 21st century jobs?
    14. Will the computer deliver us from the television wasteland?
    15. Isn't timidity in the face of today's technological revolution just a matter of humans feeling threatened by rapid change? And won't the successful survivors be those who vigorously adapt?
    16. Can you and I do anything to alter significantly the technological juggernaut that is transforming society?
    17. Under the influence of computers, will social institutions become more centralized, or less?


    1. Does computerized technology threaten our future?

      Yes--but not, as the old science fiction chestnut suggested, because the computer might turn traitor and rebel against its masters. The real danger is that the computer will seduce us--seduce us into becoming like it. It does this by mimicking human intelligence--but only those aspects of our intelligence that run mechanically and unthinkingly. By willingly meshing our lives with the technological surround, abandoning our own highest functioning, we learn to sleepwalk in synchrony with our machines.

      We don't have to sleepwalk, but as one social function after another is transferred to the computer, the invitation is a seductive one, calling for the conscious exercise of personal responsibility in resistance to it.

      Return to table of contents

    2. What is an example of this threat?

      If you fall into a financial crisis and apply for a loan, not even a personal interview is any longer necessary. It is a "transaction," captured by transaction processing software and based solely upon standard, online data. Everything that once followed from the qualities of a personal encounter--everything that could make for an exceptional case--has now disappeared from the picture. The applicant is wholly sketched when the data of his past have been subjected to automatic logic. Any hopeful glimmer, filtering toward the sympathetic eye of a supportive fellow human from a future only now struggling toward birth, is lost in the darkness between bits of data.

      In other words, the human being as a unique and incalculable individual begins to disappear between the cracks of automated logic.

      Return to table of contents

    3. Were the printing press and other earlier technologies risk-free?

      The common assumption is that those who worry about computer risks must uncritically embrace earlier technologies. This is false. The computer can be seen as extending the risks of the printing press further in the same direction: the word becomes still more detached from the human speaker and objectified as "information." Where once we could take unhealthy pride in the wealth of knowledge stored on our bookshelves, now we can take pride in what our databases and access tools give us, as if this afforded understanding. The word becomes an object to be massaged by word-processing software, automatically stored and forwarded, analyzed, and scanned, all without any depth of penetration by either an originating or receiving consciousness. But without such penetration, the word is dead.

      There is no way to escape the difficult challenge of using technology responsibly, regardless of which technologies we choose.

      Return to table of contents

    4. Is the computer, then, just another tool?

      Not really. The computer is a vastly more potent tool than, say, a hammer. It is true that, if I take everything for a nail and let the hammer run riot in my hands, I have forsaken responsibility. But I am not likely to mistake a hammer for a thinking device. Computers are highly adaptive, universal machines, and when we bring to them a willingness to sacrifice our own functioning to that of our tools, we risk sacrificing, not just one particular capacity, but the entire field of human responsibility.

      Return to table of contents

    5. What gift does the computer bring us?

      The primary--and in the deepest sense the only--gift of every tool is its resistance to the human good. In overcoming this resistance we advance as human beings. The painful results of my indiscipline with my hammer invite inner growth, which is the only enduring gift of the tool. After all, which is of more lasting value: the cabinet I build with nails and eventually leave behind, or the inner mastery I gain through struggling with myself, hammer in hand--a mastery I will carry as healing capacity wherever I go in an overwrought world?

      By claiming to be master of all tools, the computer challenges us to contend for our own mastery on all fronts. Failing the challenge, we lose ourselves; rising to the challenge, we gain ourselves. The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend, it will destroy us.

      Return to table of contents

    6. Does more sophisticated, user-friendly software reduce the risks?

      No, it increases the risks. Currently, phone answering systems ask us to punch numbers or pronounce single words, thereby routing us to a human operator who can deal with our substantive concerns. With better voice recognition software, that operator will become a software agent that attempts to hold a conversation with us. If you thought the number-punching phase was irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of 400 words, and the compassion of a granite monolith!

      In other words, as software advances, it is applied to more critical activities, where the risks are greater. The technical opportunity to become friendlier at one level is at the same time an opportunity to become unfriendly on a more decisive level. We must be more awake, more alert to our machine-transcending responsibilities, when dealing with the more advanced software, precisely because the advanced capabilities invite us to let go of yet higher human capacities.

      Return to table of contents

    7. Are there still risks when the computer's active intelligence recedes into the background, acting as a relatively passive conduit for human communication?

      There are many risks, some of which we'll touch on later. A primary concern is the pervasive habit of scanning induced in us by computers. One user boasted of being able to read, assess, and discard a screenful of text in about a second. How much attention can he direct toward the human speaker who uttered the words? Words that stand alone, separate from the person attempting to express himself, are words that have already been cut off from any depth of meaning. We assess screenfuls of text at breakneck speed only by skittering over the logical surface of the words, without any contemplative assimilation.

      The correlative act of responsibility is to bend our consciousness toward the speaker. Try to find a sympathetic connection with him, and to understand who is expressing himself in the words. Of course, it is a symptom of the information age that the speaker often cannot even be identified, and that most of the verbal flood inundating us hardly seems worth giving that sort of respect to. But it is far healthier to seek escape from the flood than to accept it with a habit of trivial regard. We end up trivializing each other, while worshiping dead words (called "information") that we pay no attention to.

      Return to table of contents

    8. Does the Net help us to overcome prejudice by putting race, religion, age, gender, and handicap out of sight?

      We do not conquer our prejudices by putting all foreignness out of sight. The things we prefer to keep out of sight are, in fact, the things that will subsequently rule us most effectively from our subconscious. The roots of prejudice lie in the human being, and cannot be eradicated with a trick of technology. Certainly we cannot be more fully human toward each other by being less human, less there, less in view.

      Moreover, we discriminate against each other quite as easily on the basis of belief and other intangibles as on the basis of appearance. As long as anything of the other person remains, there's something to discriminate against. If prejudice easily "disappears" across the Net, it is because the person himself easily disappears. But getting rid of the other person in this way begins to sound suspiciously like "termination with extreme prejudice."

      Return to table of contents

    9. Haven't Net courtship and the infamous flame proven that computer-mediated communication allows intimate personal exchange?

      Certainly, as more and more of our activities are carried out via the Net, that's going to be where we meet people, and some of those meetings will lead to real friendship and marriage. But this doesn't tell us much about the overall effects the electronic media are having upon relationships.

      The error most people make here is to assume that strong emotion is a sign that people are making deep, human contact. The usual reality is nearly the opposite of this. I may react with explosive feeling when my car won't start on a cold morning, but this isn't a sign that I've got a good relationship going with the engine. If anything, my reaction makes it even more difficult to hear what the engine may be "telling" me. Much the same goes for the so-called Net flame. The flamer generally isn't communicating with anyone at all. He's completely wrapped up in himself.

      Return to table of contents

    10. Is projection a problem on the Net?

      If a square foot or two of screen presents us, as is so often said, with the entire world, then that world is hugely reduced and abstract, leaving us to "fill in the picture" from our subconscious. The blankness of the Net, the distance between conversants, the shifting personas, the dizzying succession of far-flung connections, the pitifully narrow channel for shared activities--perhaps even the hypnotic qualities of the computer screen itself--all powerfully invite us to project ourselves into the electronic ether under the illusion that we are getting to know each other.

      One classic expression of psychological projection is head-over-heels infatuation. We need not be surprised, therefore, at the unsuppressed infatuational energy--the downright frenzy--amid which the Internet has burst upon the national scene over the past few years. It has not been a time of clear-sighted assessment.

      Return to table of contents

    11. What is the antidote to projection?

      Know thyself. This, of course, is exactly what the infinite, distracting capabilities of the Net tend to prevent us from doing.

      Return to table of contents

    12. Does the Net make us scatter-brained?

      It doesn't make us do anything, but the temptation toward scattering is powerful. Just consider the frantic concern for up-to-the-minute recency (as if any sort of profound wisdom is dependent upon having this week's data); the daily flooding of mailboxes; the habit of scanning newsgroups and messages at breakneck pace; the fragmentation of the workday by continual email intrusions; the empty chasing of linkage trails, increasingly prevalent in both the writing and reading of hypertext documents; the widespread encouragement of fear about "missing the party"; and the lottery-like hope of discovering "great finds" on the Net.

      A stance of responsibility can only resist these invitations to scatter ourselves in cyberspace. We must ask, "How can we recollect ourselves, find our own centers, and subordinate the online carnival--so far as we choose to deal with it at all--to our deeper, consciously pursued purposes."

      Return to table of contents

    13. Must we get school children onto the Net in order to prepare them for 21st century jobs?

      This is to forget the primary purpose of education: to help us achieve our fullest humanity. This achievement should, in the end, determine what sorts of jobs are created, rather than the existing jobs determining what sort of human beings we try to raise. Responsibility requires us, before we introduce the computer into the classroom, to have a clear picture of the child and a clear picture of what it means to educate the child, along with an understanding of how the computer relates to these pictures. The existence of such clarity is not evident today.

      Educators are now subjected to an intense fear of being left behind, but are offered no coherent notion of what is ahead and why. Don't forget the earlier mania for computer-aided instruction, which died away with scarcely a trace. So, too, did the fad for computer literacy through programming in BASIC. Now it's the Internet. Have we this time learned something profound and new about the true nature of education?

      Return to table of contents

    14. Will the computer deliver us from the television wasteland?

      Home page consultants are already telling us how we need "production values" in our home pages: action, surprises, eye-catching layout. The hypertext link, or button, is close cousin to the remote control button. Our videogame heritage has taught us well how to approach every hypertext link with quick reflexes and a hunger for whatever jolt or transient treasure lies behind it.

      While watching TV, we at least had to get up now and then and confront others, if only at the supermarket checkout stand. Increasingly, the computer enables us to reduce even this activity to a kind of passivity. The question of responsibility here: in what ways, and with what parts of myself, do I choose to engage the world and the rest of society?

      Return to table of contents

    15. Isn't timidity in the face of today's technological revolution just a matter of humans feeling threatened by rapid change? And won't the successful survivors be those who vigorously adapt?

      Certainly we must adapt. The question is whether we will exercise all the responsibility we possibly can for the shape of the changes we're adapting to. Apart from such a resolve, the advice to adapt is reprehensible and anti-human. The good citizens of Nazi Germany learned to adapt all too well.

      Return to table of contents

    16. Can you and I do anything to alter significantly the technological juggernaut that is transforming society?

      Perhaps you and I can only alter things in a minuscule way. But whatever that small arena of possibility, it is the only arena within which our distinctively human activity takes place. Precisely so far as we do not strive to affect things, we've abandoned our humanity; we are sleepwalking with our machines.

      Every argument urging our absolute helplessness is self-defeating. I cannot characterize my lack of freedom without gaining, by means of that very insight, new freedom. If I point out, for example, the way in which particular technologies have determined cultural values and habits, then--just so far as I have pointed truly--I have taken on a responsibility to transcend those values and habits in myself. In other words, the entire human enterprise revolves around gaining freedom to create our own future. The last person who can argue for passivity in the face of technology is the person who is trying to understand the world.

      Return to table of contents

    17. Under the influence of computers, will social institutions become more centralized, or less?

      As many have pointed out, computers can easily be made to support centralized, authoritarian structures. As many others have pointed out, computers can easily be made to support decentralized, democratic (or even anarchic) structures. This peculiar flexibility points toward unfamiliar and dangerous potentials we haven't yet reckoned with.

      The digital logic upon which networked technology is erected wants to be universal, ever more rigorous, more tightly woven. Logic, that is, wants to be articulated with logic, until there is perfect, overall consistency. Such logical consistency--with all its coercive possibilities with respect to the evolution of human social structures--is quite compatible with a kind of fragmentation and centrifugal movement. This suggests that there are anti-human potentials of technology we haven't yet learned to recognize--potentials that are neither centralizing nor decentralizing in the traditional sense--or are both at the same time.

      The beehive may give us a relevant picture. Its intricate (and subhuman) unity seems to arise from nowhere. "Even the queen bee cannot be regarded as the visible guardian and guarantor of the totality, for if she dies, the hive, instead of disintegrating, creates a new queen" (Herman Poppelbaum). There is no totalitarian center of the hive, and yet the logic of the whole remains coherent and uncompromising. It is an external logic in the sense that it is not wakeful, not self-aware, not consciously assenting; it moves the individual as if from without.

    Return to 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:


    Return to table of contents

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #5 :: January 25, 1996

  • netfuture main page