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                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #23      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates           July 5, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Forgetting ourselves in the age of automatons (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Does the Internet have a future?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Forgetting ourselves in the age of automatons

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

    (In June I had the good fortune to travel to extraordinarily beautiful Sydney, Australia, to deliver the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the Internet Industry Association of Australia. The conference title was "The Internet: Hype or Reality?" and I was charged with considering the question, "Does the Internet Have a Future?" Following is the text of the address. As with all NETFUTURE postings, you may freely redistribute this text for noncommercial use. [SLT])

                               FORGETTING OURSELVES
    There is something slightly odd about every attempt to predict the social future. It's one thing to project the positions of the planets eight months or ten years from now. But the Net and society have to do with us. In the end, when we ask about the future of the Internet, it's ourselves we must try to predict. We are the ones who will invest the money, carry out the research, make the purchases, and otherwise nurture this emerging future by lending it the shape of our lives.

    So you can see the oddity. Imagine that some of us convened ourselves in a conference room in order to ask each other: "When are we going to get up and leave the room?" Or, worse, imagine paying someone a hefty fee to come and tell you when you will probably leave the room.

    The oddity, then, has to do with the effort to predict our own choices as if they were things that happened to us. But we can't really stand back and view our choices that way, except by vacating them--that is, except by giving up our continuing freedom in the present moment to make new choices. Surely, however, our crucial interest as human beings is to widen our sphere of freedom, not to abandon it.

    So something is missing from the passive attempt to predict the future as if it were a given that comes to meet us from without. If we are to remain free and responsible, then every attempt at prediction ought really to be, at least in part, a conscientious effort to choose the future. The only alternative is that descent into absurdity where in all seriousness we sit down together to assess when we will leave the room, avoiding any reference to when we may decide to leave the room, or when we intend to leave the room, or when it might be healthy to leave the room--as if it were merely a matter of analyzing past trends objectively and then projecting them forward.

    This is to forget ourselves, and forgetting ourselves is the supreme danger of the era of automatons, otherwise known as the computer era.

    So the first thing I want to suggest is this: whenever you hear someone talking about the future, listen for the underlying choices of value being set before you. If you hear nothing about choices, then the speaker is declaring himself for the most dangerous choice of all: the abandonment of choice in favor of the gut logic that takes over whenever we refuse the conscious exercise of responsibility. This is the logic where we buy products for reasons we are never quite sure of. And it is the logic where we flame or lurk or surf due to compulsions that reach out through our screens and grab us unawares.

    As obvious as all this may be to quiet reflection, we don't have to look far to see how powerfully modern society works against our acceptance of responsibility for the future.

    Computing To Work

    If, for example, you work in a sizable corporation, you are most likely watching, day by day, a concerted effort to embrace the future profitably without taking responsibility for it. When you sit in a product planning meeting, listening to the market projections, feasibility studies, cost analyses, and all the rest, imagine the uncomfortable, discordant note that would be struck if someone were to say, "Yes, but what is the good of this product?" Management consultant James O'Toole writes,
    I once asked a PepsiCo vice president if anyone in that corporation had ever raised the issue of the morality of promoting junk food in ghetto areas where kids weren't getting enough basic foods. He answered, "If anyone would ever be so foolish as to raise the question, he'd find himself out on the street."
    It's downright perplexing: what in some contexts we honor as the highest human behavior--namely, working for the good of one's fellows--we systematically eliminate from the primary, commercial engines of social development. How is it that these organizations have gotten away from us? But this question is already symptomatic. It would be healthier to ask: why do we let them go?

    Somehow, as we go about our business in the corporation, we come to view the overall enterprise as if it were a kind of deterministic machine whose levers and gears move in response to causes that are too large or too objective for us to bother about. So there's nothing left but to pursue our own interests. And, as a sop to our consciences, we have available to us a more remarkable computational mechanism, a more impressive piece of vaporware, than was ever excreted from the overwrought brain of a marketing manager--namely, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. The advertising for this piece of software puts the Windows 95 campaign to shame. Do you want to serve the greater good? Fine, then pursue your selfish economic interests. The Invisible Hand will take care of the rest, magically transmuting your selfishness into balm for mankind.

    Well, we may doubt the cosmic, moral efficacy of the Invisible Hand's calculational prowess. But we cannot doubt the widespread willingness today to entrust society's future to a kind of economic computation. We are allowing our business corporations to become little more than computers programmed to calculate the bottom line.

    Don't get me wrong. Such calculation is healthy when it helps us keep our feet on the ground as we pursue goals independently judged to be worthy. But it is not at all healthy when it substitutes for those goals. As soon as economic considerations stand in the place of consciously chosen ends- -as soon as mathematical "values" displace qualitative values--then the whole thing begins to run by itself, automatically. Then we can no longer speak of our future, for we have given up choosing a future. We can only sit together in our room, wondering when the mechanisms that drive us will prompt us to get up and leave.

    At this point I'd like to make a quick scan of the online culture. What are some of its most visible issues and viewpoints, and what do they tell us about our willingness, as citizens of the electronic age, to accept responsibility for the future?


    Perhaps the most visible issue of all has been censorship in cyberspace, recently brought to a sharp focus in my country by the Communications Decency Act. What I find remarkable is the fact that, among all the online commentators, newsletter editors, issuers of special alerts, and circulators of electronic petitions, almost no one has gone beyond a more or less ritual denunciation of government intrusion upon the freewheeling rights of cyberspace. Almost no one, that is, has set this legislation beside the concerns prompting it, and then proceeded to illuminate, from whatever point of view, the complex weave of rights and responsibilities out of which livable public and semi-public spaces might be fashioned online. To all appearances, the stage of our imaginations is empty, except for individuals bearing rights, technicians bearing software capable of ever new tricks, and would-be government oppressors.

    But the concept of rights without responsibilities is an impossible one. To erect a crude analogy, it's rather as if the physicist were to ask for atomic particles free to move but unaffected in their movement by forces emanating from other particles. The reason this is impossible is that the one particle's power of movement comes nowhere else than from its susceptibility to influences impinging upon it from its neighbors.

    The analogy, as I say, is crude, but it can at least point us to the fact that all meaningful human activity emerges within a matrix of needs and constraints that none of us is fully able to control. Remove that matrix and you may think yourself free, but you are really just adrift.

    Much good has arisen, and will continue to arise, as governments increasingly respect human rights. But remember that something else has been going on as well: those various contexts in which a complementary weave of rights and responsibilities gave concrete form to our lives-- contexts, for example, provided by family and local community--have long been eroding. As a result, we are being thrown back upon ourselves as self-determining, rights-bearing individuals, rather like particles that are free to move while disconnected from any neighbors that might energize and shape their movement.

    These are difficult issues, requiring a lot of reflection. What is discouraging is to hear the gurus of cyberspace beating the drums for freedom and fulminating against the evils of repressed lawmakers, while scarcely whispering a word about any new wellsprings of responsibility we might draw upon to give form and substance to our inviolate freedoms. If government is of limited help in this sphere (it is), and if the ever more weakened family and community no longer mediate a powerful sense of responsibility to us, and if the workplace is intent upon computing the bottom line as an end in itself, what sources can we draw upon? The question does not seem to arise, and many are willing to go the obvious next step, enshrining the anarchic individual adrift in cyberspace as the new ideal.

    The one positive suggestion we do often hear is the most disturbing of all: out of all the complexity and ferment of the Net--if policymakers will keep their grubby hands off it--a new, "emergent" order will somehow just appear. So far as I have been able to make sense of this hope, it is breathtakingly naive: the new order will manifest itself automatically, conjured by the sheer magic of unplumbed complexity. This, no doubt, is a great relief, for no longer need we be overly concerned about our responsibility for the emergent realities. Evolution--that miracle worker of eternal Progress--is in charge.


    A second motif running through the electronic culture has to do with the escape from prejudice. You've all heard the story: since we cannot observe the race, gender, age, or handicap of our Net correspondents, we are finally freed from the demon of bigotry. We can each enjoy the abstract essence of the other, unhindered by grosser irrelevancies.

    But the fact is that we cannot triumph over prejudice merely by putting temptation out of sight. We do not transform ourselves by throwing up partial technological barriers between each other. No true friend wants to be protected from the full, earthly destiny of his comrade. Yes, I can hurt you when there is no artificial barrier there, and I open myself to hurt. But that's what human life is about; it's how we grow.

    It's true that the wounded soul may sometimes need shelter from the normal buffetings of life, and we sometimes hear that the Net provides such shelter. But we should at least realize that the shelter is a symptom of life not yet fully engaged rather than a testimonial to our grandest victories.

    We can, then recognize the widespread rejoicing over the end of prejudice as another indicator of a general reluctance to make ourselves responsible for the future. Moral responsibility in this case is sidestepped by placing faith in a purely technical arrangement, as if that arrangement could spare us the hard work of transforming ourselves.

    Television and the Computer

    A third example shows much the same thing. Until very recently, almost everyone agreed that, with the help of computers, we would all rise up as one and shake off the couch potato syndrome. "Unlike television, the computer is interactive, requiring us to get more creatively involved"--so the line went. Of course, the most mindless video games are also interactive. With hypertext buttons sprouting up everywhere and Java-based animation becoming the next big thing, the spirit of the video game looks alive and well in cyberspace. And with television and the computer due for a media merger sooner or later, it's pretty hard to argue that the one medium is going to spare us the abuses of the other. Never before did we have an excuse to keep a television running on our desks at the office!

    But the hope vested in the computer was nonsense from the beginning. It made the wrong comparison. Our interaction with the computer should not have been compared to watching television, but rather to those various, more active engagements we once could not avoid, but now can replace with a more passive activity while sitting in front of a screen. If you had wanted to extend the television paradigm so as to embrace a much larger segment of life, dimming this segment down to relative inactivity and disengagement from the world, you couldn't have chosen a more ideal instrument than the networked computer.

    What we forgot much too easily was that, to one degree or another, we chose the couch potato syndrome, and until that inner direction is reversed, the essentials will not change. Yes, as some have pointed out, the technology and institutions of the television age may have appealed to us at our weakest point. But this is not to say that a different technology will somehow spare us our weaknesses. We will mold every technology to conform to our weakness until we accept the necessity to wake up, to come to ourselves, and to take responsibility for the finger on the button, whether it is a remote control button or a mouse button.

    To believe that a new technology can substitute for this inner discipline, or that it can replace the hard work of personal transformation, is, again, to forget ourselves.

    Education; Mysticism

    A couple of other examples, which I'll keep brief.

    The politicians, high-tech executives, and public interest groups--at least in the United States--are all telling us we have to hook up every child's classroom to the Internet. Why? To prepare students for 21st- century jobs. Apart from the obvious absurdity of this argument--the software the child uses today will not be the software he uses in the workplace several years from now, and in any case it's more likely to be the child who shows the teacher how to use the computer than the other way around--apart from this absurdity, the supposed justification gets things backward. The teacher's task is to help the student grow up to be the kind of person who can decide what sorts of jobs are worth creating and having in the 21st century, not train him to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out. Here, again, the question is whether we accept responsibility to determine the future, or instead allow an automatically generated future to determine us.

    Lastly, consider the expectation, sustained by many, that the Net is ushering us toward a new age of enhanced, global, almost mystical awareness. We will all transcend our limited, individual consciousnesses by plugging ourselves into a globe-girdling mesh of intelligent technologies. The new potentials will somehow emerge automatically from the burgeoning complexity of the Net. As I heard one initiate-in-the- making exclaim: "it will just happen!"

    You must pass all this omega-point and global-mind rhetoric through an extraordinarily fine sieve if you want to glean any recognition of the choices we must make and the inner work we must perform in order to raise our consciousness to a higher level. You will also have to look long and hard to see any acknowledgment of the not-so-savory forms of collective consciousness we have already witnessed, whether in soccer stadiums or Hitler's Germany.

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

    So we can see on many fronts how the culture of cyberspace is being shaped by a forlorn hope. It is the hope that technology is inherently redemptive. And what the hope signifies is that we have forgotten ourselves. We sit in our little room trying to glimpse our future moment of departure, forgetting that we must choose that moment. We must choose whether to work at overcoming prejudice and the couch-potato syndrome. We must choose how to bring a context of responsibility to bear upon our legal rights, and we must choose whether to discipline our cognitive faculties in pursuit of a more penetrating, more universal wisdom.

    Remembering Ourselves

    It is tempting to go on about the many ways in which the online experience invites us to forget ourselves. But I have written a book about all that, and in any case I would like to finish by ticking off nine aphoristic observations about what it means to remember ourselves. These will be followed by a brief conclusion.

    #1: To remember ourselves requires a vivid presence of mind. Without that, we are subject only to habits, reflexes, instincts, and vague psychological associations, all operating out of our past.

    #2: The only time you and I can be free is in the present moment. The only way we can be free is by dwelling in this moment as intensely as possible.

    #3: To be free is to choose now, even if my choice is to reaffirm a past decision. When, on the other hand, a past decision is unthinkingly allowed to substitute for current choice--even if the original decision was my own--then I am now functioning as an automaton.

    #4: Openness in the present moment, unchained to the past, implies continual course corrections--not merely in the mechanistic sense of the cybernetic missile wending its way toward a preordained target, but in a much more radical fashion, whereby we reach back in the fullest freedom of the moment, and adjust even the choice of targets.

    (Let me insert a parenthetical remark here. I'm sure most of you have had the experience of planning a meeting in excruciating detail. You had a particular outcome in view, it was self-evidently the right one, and you were determined through careful planning to guarantee its success. But, inevitably, it did not turn out quite as you expected--not, at least, if you and your colleagues each retained at least a scrap of freedom, at least a minuscule ability to respond in the present moment to what was arising in the others. An accommodation was required after all, rich with possibilities for improving your original plan. Such is the nature of every true meeting between human beings. No program defined in the past can fully capture the human possibilities of the present.)

    #5: The programmed computer, by contrast, represents someone's best effort to plan an aspect of the future in advance. The planning, of course, is necessary. But if you and I, arriving at that future with laptop in hand, simply yield to the program, we have forgotten ourselves.

    #6: The software, previously set in motion, which now inundates me beneath endless cascades of text coming from all directions, invites me to abdicate that most crucial of choices: "What--or who--merits my attention at this moment?" Instead of making a principled choice, I can all too easily yield myself passively to whatever the screen throws at me.

    #7: I cannot remember myself without also remembering other selves. This requires me to listen for the speaker behind the words on my screen.

    #8: To detach the text from the speaker and treat words like objectified data, as if they, and not the person, expressed the meaning I was after, is to deny the person. (No marriage would last very long given such a disinterest in the one who lived behind the words.)

    #9: We are, quintessentially, agents of responsibility. To know that someone is there is to know that someone is exercising responsibility; otherwise, we amount to little more than objects littering the landscape.

    And that, finally, brings me to the point of my conclusion. One often hears comments about the technological future amounting to this: "It's all going to happen anyway; you and I can't make any difference."

    But consider:

    The soldier marching off to fight Hitler was caught up in a geopolitical contest and a war machine that rendered his own efforts mathematically trivial. Yet, in a huge number of cases he fought with a deep sense of purpose and significance. Similarly, as the environmental movement has taken hold over the past couple of decades, many have felt responsible for the place of their own candy wrappers among the millions of tons of garbage jettisoned annually. And today some citizens still exercise their vote in national elections with profound motivation despite the virtual mathematical certainty that the outcome will not turn on their individual ballots.

    No, it's not a question of how big the challenges are and how little we are. Rather, the question is whether we find ourselves bound to those challenges by a weave of meaningful connections. It's not whether we can materially or visibly alter events in the short term, but whether we can find a purposeful and morally infused relation to them. The soldier who was taking on Hitler's army--as also the pacifist--believed he was doing the right and necessary thing. That meaning was more than enough for him.

    The decisive problem today is the absence of meaning. And the computer is the very picture of our problem--it is, you might say, the very picture of us, or of what we may become. It sits there bound to its environment by a set of wonderfully effective material connections, but not intrinsically meaningful ones. It generates data without understanding. It does not accept responsibility for the future. It is an automaton.

    Moreover, its effective intelligence drives a global, technological advance that proceeds with little reference to human choice, much as the computationally driven machine called Pepsi Cola proceeds (like many other companies) without reference to employee judgments about what is worth doing.

    Yet the computer, this clever automaton, gives us, according to many cognitive scientists, the single most compelling model for understanding the human being. That fact speaks worlds about our situation. In a way, it is hardly surprising. We have produced the computer out of ourselves, so it certainly must reflect us. How much of us it will reflect in coming years--or, which amounts to the same thing, how much we will come to reflect it--is the fateful question.

    We should not ask, then, "Does the Internet have a future?" but rather, "Do we have a future?" Only those who possess a presence of mind out of which they consciously relate to the future can meaningfully be said to have a future. If we wake up, come to ourselves, and begin taking responsibility for our technological creations and our use of them, then the Internet will have a glorious future, because it will be a piece of our own, enlightened future.

    But if we do not remember ourselves, then the Internet will help to extinguish the very idea of a future, substituting for it the ideals of empty efficiency and objective necessity. Then we will have become permanent residents of that little room. I don't know about you, but I find I already spend far too much time in it.

    Thank you.

    (June 24, 1996)

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    *** About this newsletter

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

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #23 :: July 5, 1996

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