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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #20      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates           June 4, 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
    *** Technology's recoil
          A note from Thoreau
    *** Changes
          Seeking a heart beyond technology
    *** The illusion of online efficiency (Stephen L. Talbott)
          There is only one exit from the technological arms race
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    As you may have noticed, NETFUTURE postings have become erratic. Unfortunately, my available time has been cut drastically. I'll be continuing to operate on a kind of hit-and-miss schedule until early in July, at which time the SPIDER OR FLY? results will be announced. The item entitled "Changes" below has some further information relevant to NETFUTURE's future.

    One thing I've decided to do in the meantime is to put out rather rapidly, as a sort of stopgap measure, the remaining pieces in my series, "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced." Contrary to my original plans, I now intend to publish the entire series on the Web, holding none of it back for other use. This issue contains two of those meditations -- actually, parts 1 and 2 of a single, extended reflection about the mostly nonsensical claim that the Net is a highly efficient communication medium.

    As time and circumstances allow, I will try to gather various pieces of reader feedback into at least one of the June issues.


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    *** Technology's recoil

    Following is taken from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, January 21, 1853. Thanks to Stuart Weeks for bringing it to my attention.

    A few good anecdotes is our science, with a few imposing statements respecting distance and size, and little or nothing about the stars as they concern man; teaching how he may survey a country or sail a ship, and not how he may steer his life.

    Astrology contained the germ of a higher truth than this. It may happen that the stars are more significant and truly celestial to the teamster than to the astronomer. Nobody sees the stars now. They study astronomy at the district school, and learn that the sun is ninety-five millions [of miles] distant, and the like, -- a statement which never made any impression on me, because I never walked it, and which I cannot be said to believe. But the sun shines nevertheless.

    Though observatories are multiplied, the heavens receive very little attention. The naked eye may easily see farther than the armed. It depends on who looks through it. No superior telescope to this has been invented. In those big ones the recoil is equal to the force of the discharge.

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    *** Changes

    NETFUTURE reader Kirk McElhearn recently asked why my book did not discuss "physical problems related to computers: carpal tunnel syndrome, radiation, eye problems, etc." My answer led to the following exchange, which I reprint here because of its bearing on the fate of NETFUTURE.


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

    Kirk --

    Such problems are, in fact, a considerable part of the reason for my finally getting out of the "computer business" as of the end of June. I'm leaving my full-time position with O'Reilly to pursue interests of my own, although during a transition period I'll work for about a day per week on selected O'Reilly projects.

    My main physical problems have been severe back and neck pain, disabling at times. While my eyes often feel painfully bleary by the end of the day, I haven't had any medical problems with them. (I just worry about them.) No carpal tunnel problems. Who knows about radiation?

    I didn't write about that stuff because it wasn't my real interest, I had nothing I could say with any general authority, and others were already talking about it anyway. In The Future Does Not Compute, I tried to say a great deal that nobody else was talking about--particularly all the stuff in Part 4, which you can pretty well guarantee no one will be talking about even for the next several years.

    I should add that the single biggest reason for my job change has to do with the effect of my work upon my cognitive faculties and upon the overall balance of my life. I suspect that young people typically bring huge reserves of life energy to their engagement with the computer, so that they can go on for years without showing much effect. But with age (I am now 50--and didn't have a lot of reserves to start with!), the situation may well change.

    In any case, I now find myself suffering from my work in a frightening and worsening manner. By the end of a day sitting in front of the screen and wrestling with logically intricate but essentially meaningless text about computer behavior, I find that my head has turned to mush. I can scarcely even hold a conversation with my wife, and it takes the entire weekend to gather the resources for a few more days of work. All the things I would like to do--for example, gaining a better understanding of the natural world just outside my rural back door, are impossible because I lack the mental focus to get into it. I really feel that if I continued this work for another year, I'd be a mental vegetable.

    Don't ask me to say that the computer causes that. All I know is that it's the result of the overall, complex job situation I'm in, and that I'm much healthier when I work away from the computer. I'm now doing a good deal of my writing the old-fashioned way, by hand--something I never dreamed I would do--and have been amazed to discover how enjoyable and efficient it can be. And how much better I feel when I'm done. In fact, I'm almost beginning to think that, despite my being an unusually heavy reviser, it's more efficient this way. It's all a matter of developing the right tricks, and also (for me, at least) of thinking things through in a more disciplined manner. That discipline, of course, is a personal gain, whereas "time saved"--if, indeed, it is saved--is not an automatic personal gain; it is simply the substitution of one activity (often, when you analyze it, a meaningless activity) for another one.

    Again, though, health issues are not what I feel most qualified to talk about. It's just that I've come to a point where I have to act on some immediate, personal health concerns, as well as on my convictions about what sort of work is worth doing. I do not believe any longer that editing manuals about pieces of software whose names no one will remember in five years, and whose reason for existence no one feels any need to justify, is worth what I now find I've been doing to myself.

    Incidentally, this is not at all to quarrel with what others find worth doing.


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

    Dear Steve,

    What a surprising answer! I guess I am not alone in feeling some of those things. Would it be out of place to ask what you will be doing?

    As for back and neck pain, allow me to make a suggestion: Have you ever heard of the Alexander Technique? It is a postural technique that was developed in the beginning of the century, and has amazing results.

    Check here:


    to find if there is an Alexander teacher near you.

    From what I can glean about you from reading your book, I think this might be for you. Alexander discovered a way to help people be more aware of and in tune wth their bodies. I had serious back trouble about ten years ago, and took lessons for 6 months, and most of the problem disappeared. However, now they are coming back, because of too much computer use.

    > In The Future Does Not Compute, I tried to say
    > a great deal that nobody else was talking about--particularly all the
    > stuff in Part 4, which you can pretty well guarantee no one will be
    > talking about even for the next several years.

    While extremely interesting (especially to me; I have long been contemplating the question of linguistic meaning and absolute meaning), I found section 4 to be very surprising in your book. IMO the question of computers really does bring up the question of spirituality, if only by the way we relate to computers, which tells us a lot about ourselves.

    > All the >things I would like to do--for example, gaining a better
    > understanding of the natural world just outside my rural back door, are
    > impossible because I lack the mental focus to get into it. I really
    > feel that if I continued this work for another year, I'd be a mental
    > vegetable.

    It is interesting, because I am wrestling, myself, with a similar dilemma. I have come to the point where I feel prisoner of the computer (not concretely) and that I cannot work without it. This has a number of ramifications. The time spent in front of the screen, the brain-mush syndrome. I have curbed my reading of mailing lists and other net activities (I never really use the Web much; it is too slow.) I am also seeking more simplicity in life. I am a big reader, and have always been, but I am starting to look for a few books I can read many times. I will start with Thoreau's Journal.

    There is a question of dispersal that you brought up in your book, which seems inherent in computer use. I call it the "click-me" syndrome. We get so used to flitting from one thing to the next, that we cannot sit and focus on one thing. I have been a student of buddhism for years, but lately I find that I cannot concentrate on that, and I even end up using the computer instead of trying to meditate.

    I am younger than you, and perhaps that makes it easier, but in a different way. Growing up with computers gives a different perspective. But also, I have a 5 1/2 year old son, and it is much more fun to play with him when he comes home from school.

    [As to writing by hand:] That's funny, I use a pencil more and more often for the smell, the contact, and the feeling of the lead on the paper. Nevertheless, being a translator, I cannot spare the time to write by hand. It would slow me up too much.

    > I do not believe any longer that editing manuals about pieces of
    > software whose names no one will remember in five years, and whose
    > reason for existence no one feels any need to justify, is worth what I
    > now find I've been doing to myself.

    Hear, Hear!

    Does this mean you will be giving up NetFuture, and that you will not use email any more? Will you be able to just use the computer to communicate, and not to live? Please don't silence your voice; the naysayers are needed to make the others think.

    Your message would be very fitting in NetFuture; I do hope you will consider including it in the next issue.

    "...as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex..."

    Kirk -------------- Kirk McElhearn

    Translations from French to English, English to French
    Traductions francais-anglais, anglais-francais


    91 rue de la Mesangerie
    37540 St Cyr sur Loire

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

    Kirk --

    My primary project (I hope) will be a book about the human heart. Yes, it probably sounds strange for someone with my background, but, actually, it's very much of a piece with my computer work. Computers always interested me as the nearly perfected embodiment of a certain one-sidedness that has increasingly taken hold of us since the dawn of the scientific revolution. I wanted to understand that one-sidedness as well as I could, and learn to appreciate it for whatever it was worth.

    But there's also the question of moving beyond the one-sidedness, and I can't think of any more likely place to catch a glimpse of science made whole than in the study of the heart. A key question for our day is whether our hearts can withstand much longer the burden of being treated as mere mechanisms. For all our sophisticated knowledge and replacement-part technology, our hearts are failing at unprecedented rates. I don't believe there's any chance for that to be reversed until we've begun to heal the breach between the heart of immediate experience -- the heart of wisdom, courage, love, and resolution -- and the heart-machine of science.

    As it happens, there is a huge body of conventional research that requires us to draw a picture of the heart that differs radically from the usual popularizations of science--and also from the usual way of thinking evident even in many medical people. Then, too, there's some unconventional research worth exploring. I'm working with a diverse group of physicians and other investigators to come up with a revisualization of the heart in terms of a revivified science. (My own role, of course, will be mostly that of reporter. I'm not a physician!)

    All of which isn't really to say anything. You'll have to wait to see the result!

    As to your being slowed too much by hand translation, I can certainly believe that. Nevertheless--if you haven't done it before--you might try an experiment with a small piece of work, just for comparison. That is, do everything by hand except for the key entry of the finished work. Split the work half and half between this approach and your usual approach, and see how they compare. It would be nice to know what the actual time ratio is. Then, too, you could factor in other things such as brain mush syndrome! (Kind of like requiring industrial economists to factor in environmental damage or the capital depletion of natural resources.)

    As to NETFUTURE, I probably won't be deciding until the middle of July. I may be able to keep doing something on a small scale. I may fold. Or, perhaps, some sponsoring organization will come along to enable me to put a little more effort into it. I'm not abandoning the computer altogether, but it is an absolute requirement in my own mind to cut back to the point where my use of computers is a very small percentage of my work time (say, less than 20%). I'll cut back much more, if that proves feasible.

    > Your message would be very fitting in NetFuture; I do hope you will > consider including it in the next issue.

    Well, that's a thought. It could save me some explaining. But only if you agree to the publication of your part of the exchange!


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    *** The illusion of online efficiency
    Response to "Stephen L. Talbott" (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The Internet is widely advertised as the most efficient communication medium ever devised. I am inclined to think it is the least efficient. A lot depends, of course, upon what one means by "efficient."

    Certainly anyone who has spent time surfing the Net -- riding the waves of irrelevant, accidental, mistyped, misdirected, vacant, shallow, naive, fad-induced, disorganized, self-promoting verbiage -- will have wondered occasionally about the renowned efficiency of it all. But this side of the Net has already drawn frequent comment. I am much more concerned here with what, at first glance, really does look efficient.

    The Net, for example, is often seen as an unlimited pool of expertise, to which anyone can submit a question and receive immediate answer from exactly the right, knowledgeable person. Newcomers who have hit it lucky with such inquiries can scarcely repress exclamations of wonder at such a remarkably efficient information resource.

    Eventually, however, this claim of efficiency will be recognized as one of the strangest illusions generated by the Net. It requires no sophisticated mathematical analysis to realize the terrible inefficiency of the arrangement: if experts on every imaginable topic spend their time reading broadcast inquiries in the expectation of finding an occasional one they can answer -- and perhaps also in the expectation of having their own inquiries heard -- then the "net" wasted time is stunning.

    What creates the illusion for new groups of Net users is the fact that they're all so entranced by this unfamiliar world of online communication that they're quite happy to be wasting their time. When the good fortune of an "efficiently" answered question is celebrated, the wasted time is forgotten. But as the group matures, its tolerance for inefficiency decreases dramatically, and newcomers wielding innocent questions start bumping their noses against unexpected rudeness.

    Narrowing a group's focus does not change this logic. In the sense that counts, every domain of interest turns out to be roughly as "wide" as every other; narrowly focused groups simply have more subspecialties. The practical reality remains the same: the group either spends its time answering simple, repeated questions, or else must cope with numerous specialized inquiries that are irrelevant to most participants.

    This is not to deny that we can share real benefits in effectively managed, electronic discussion groups -- especially during the early, "discovery" stage of affiliation. What is silly is only the assumption that these benefits result from a broad, new efficiency of the Net.

    The same silliness extends to the Net's "miracle of efficient connectivity." It's not at all clear that the Net is more efficient at putting people meaningfully in touch with each other than, say, the telephone or postal service. In some regards it is faster, but speed is not quite the same thing as efficiency. Give every citizen speedy automated calling equipment, and you have not necessarily increased society's efficiency -- as the recipients of junk calls can testify.

    The hope, of course, is that a new efficiency will be born of the computational intelligence embedded in our machines. We can already send software agents prowling the Net to collect preferred information on our behalf, and can defend ourselves against unwanted intrusions by applying logical filters.

    Yes. But where once any stranger could dial me, now no one at all can count on getting through. Moreover, I know less and less about the identity and purpose of the "agents" I do let through. Is this the new, miraculous connectivity?

    Behind all this lies the grandest illusion of all: the illusion that the next advance in information technology -- which up till now has put us ever more helplessly at the mercy of unspoken information we neither understand nor know what to do with -- will somehow finally reverse the trend and give us efficient mastery.

    What we forget is that the arms race between the powers of information proliferation and powers of information management is an endlessly escalating one. The logical finesse with which we manage information is the same logical finesse that generates yet more information and outflanks the tools of management. Software agents are quite as capable of mindlessly flinging off information as of mindlessly collecting it.

    Surely there is only one escape from the mindlessness: to realize that the essential contest is not between information management and information inflation, but between the obsession with information -- well managed or otherwise -- and the habit of quiet reflection.

    If the Net's efficiency in information management is doubtful, its role in promoting quiet reflection has, by all the evidences, been catastrophic. There would remain some small hope if the catastrophe were widely accepted as a challenge for both engineers and users of the Net. But it is not. So we can expect the empty, informational arms race to continue.

    When the unwelcome consequences of this arms race finally do force a little reflection upon us, may we be found still capable of reflecting.

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

    Reengineering society for efficiency

    The Internet is, in certain limited respects, a remarkably efficient instrument for business communication and coordination. That is a good reason to detach ourselves from it and take a second, more cautious look before dumping all our human affairs into cyberspace.

    Here is one question we might ask: Does the Net encourage us to substitute empty pursuits -- pursuits which happen to lend themselves to efficiency -- for meaningful ones?

    Efficiency, in its proper place, is a virtue. The violin player, the aspiring naturalist, the participant in a marriage, friendship, or workgroup, the backpacker, the sociologist, the student of meditation -- surely they all want to make effective progress.

    But a one-sided emphasis on speed and efficiency always indicates a loss of attention to the important matters at hand. The violin music begins to count less than the number of exercises we have raced through. "Getting there fast" becomes more important than the "there" we are getting to.

    It is as if, having taken up jogging for my health, I became so fixated upon my "numbers" that I pushed myself to a heart attack. In other words, an undue concern with efficiency turns out to be inefficient: I am distracted from the goals I originally wanted to serve.

    Where do we see the Net at its most efficient? In financial transactions wholly divorced from meaningful human transactions. In sophisticated word processing, where the words are manipulated in a vacuum, their connection to a human speaker having been severed. In quantitative scientific analysis of the sort that leaves no place for consideration of the experimenter, his values, and his conscious activity as knower.

    Most vividly, perhaps, we see efficiency where the Net has been used most successfully for the longest time: in distributed software engineering projects. Here the idea of "working together" gets reduced to strictly technical functions. The "community of workers" comes closest to functioning mechanically.

    This is possible because software has been narrowly conceived by engineering teams as the mere compaction of mechanized logic it essentially is. The social context this logic is meant to serve receives far less consideration than the software itself. We do not train our engineers in the social arts.

    Actually the distributed work group is by no means as efficient as the face-to-face group -- not if all the purposes for which people need to work together are considered. But the distributed work group is fiendishly efficient at encouraging us to reconceive our work -- which is also to say, reconceive society -- in purely technical terms.

    The software engineering team tends to remove from view everything but a certain "objective functioning." Lines of code produced per week, number of bug reports, the logical design of the software -- these are the terms in which the work proceeds. And once the task has been reduced to these terms, every attempt to introduce "a human dimension" to the undertaking inevitably rings artificial and false. The work simply has no intrinsic connection to social concerns.

    What is left out, then, is nothing less than the ultimate reasons for work. When work entails no self-discovery, no inner growth, no service of human rather than technical needs, no necessity of difficult, mutual accommodation in the pursuit of deep conviction, no evident connection to ennobling purposes -- then the work is in fact degrading. It leaves the worker burned out and empty.

    It requires extraordinary effort to recover these goals once the community of workers has been dispersed across the Net. For the Net gives yet greater impetus to social tendencies already pronounced. "A great many people," Langdon Winner has remarked, "seem to have lost the ability to link the specific, concrete conditions of their own work to any reasonable conception of human well-being. The question just never seems to come up."

    The more we distribute our work on the Net, and the more we assign our other social transactions to the Net, the more difficult it will be for the question to come up. For if the Net is rigorously efficient in its own domain, it is precisely because it effectively encourages us to strip "conceptions of human well-being" from our online activities -- so that what is left can be adapted to the Net's efficiency.

    This is not to say that the Net leaves us altogether without choice in the matter. But the choices are neither easily seen nor widely acknowledged. Exactly when does the jogger make that subtle transition from a healthy pursuit to a self-destructive one? It is hard to say.

    But one tell-tale sign occurs when the jogger's concern for his numbers begins to dominate his thoughts. Similarly, on the Net, we should beware whenever the glorification of "efficiency" begins to distract us from the painstaking inner work of our life together.

    (Stephen L. Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflections are part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced."

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    *** About this newsletter

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

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

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