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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #11      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates         March 21, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    ####  Don't forget the $5000 SPIDER OR FLY? deadline: April 30, 1996  ####
    *** Editor's note
    *** Discussions here have been intellectually vacuous (Alain Henon)
          This leads to a danger of political extremism
    *** The Net does not limit our options (Peter Faller)
          Neither is the computer a threat
    *** What is the criterion for human contact? (Carl Wittnebert)
          Cyberspace is a place for mutual trust
    *** Only worthwhile products of technology survive (Mike Fischbein)
          Technology does not constrain our options, but increases them
    *** There is no natural world left (David Petraitis)
          The world is as we make it
    *** Net debates and true believers (Leslie DeGroff)
          Check out Eric Hoffer's books
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    I mentioned last time that there had been a spate of disgruntled comment, much of it directed toward your editor. Here you have it, along with one or two more neutral pieces. I offer no response in this issue, but rather will let it soak in for awhile.

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    *** Discussions here have been intellectually vacuous

    From Alain Henon (ah@usenix.org)

    Dear Steve,

    I have been reading NETFUTURE off and on for a few weeks now, often feeling the urge to scream in print, but, until now, succeeding in repressing it. What's the point, I tell myself: these are all religious matters, arguments between those who believe the world is going to hell (not in a handbasket, surely, but in a machine) and those who think Nirvana is just around the corner in the form of the latest greatest electronic box on their desk. Silly.

    However, this kind of silliness can be dangerous, in my opinion. Extreme statements of belief in one or another version of where the world is going and how tend to be all too easily translated into political statements that all who disagree should be somehow "corrected."

    However polite the statements in this forum are thus far (and I suspect you edit out the ruder correspondents) invectives are already flying. People who decide, for whatever reason, not to use some piece of technology are called "monks" (that this should be considered an insult speaks volumes, by the way), while the true believers in the silicon future are called naive.

    Your own statements are extreme. What can one make of a sentence such as "every tool is a threat," except that its author must be very cranky indeed! How about "the automobile, the television, the telephone, the modern house--all are serious challenges we must overcome" because they "disconnect us from the natural world." I have to assume you are being serious here, that this is not one long awful joke at the end of which you will tell us you were really kidding.

    Besides the extreme a-historical aspects of such statements (every tool? the hoe? the stirrup? the stone adze? what is a "modern" house? One that has a chimney as opposed to a hole in the roof?), the looseness with which such "verities" are put forward is awesome. Terms such as "the natural world" simply cannot be thrown about assuming that there is any consensus as to its meaning. Let alone what being connected or disconnected from it might entail. I dislike having to be rude, but the vacuity of this kind of speech challenges the best efforts of Washington political writers.

    In short, I am distressed at the general lack of intellectual discipline shown by most, if not all the writers in this forum. To discuss the consequences of the advent of new technologies is a fine purpose, but so far what I have read is just so much fluff. Unfortunately, it is just the kind of fluff that can be taken up as slogans for causes you might not endorse.


    Alain Henon

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    *** The Net does not limit our options
    Response to "In (partial) defense of Peter Quince" (NF-9)

    From Peter Faller (peter.faller@pixie.co.za)

    The 9 issues so far of Netfuture have produced some interesting and challenging statements which have begged a response, but none as much as these two [by Steve Talbott]:

    Yes, Quince's choice limits his options, as Kent Quirk points out so effectively. But then, limiting one's options is what taking hold of life is all about. Going online for a couple of hours a day also limits our options. We must limit our options if we would declare ourselves for anything worthwhile in life. And those who are quick to condemn Peter Quince for pronouncing a judgment that would limit other people's options should not frame that condemnation in a way that would limit Peter Quince's options. (I should add that Kent Quirk's excellently stated piece does not suffer this limitation to any large degree.)
    Limit our options? No thanks. 'Going online' is not limiting one's options; it is exercising one that may exclude other options at that point in time. Instead of limiting our options in order to be 'anything worthwhile in life', what is necessary is a greater awareness of what our options are, and choosing more carefully. The fact that the Internet is now so close and so accessible does not exclude a walk in the woods as an option - it is just another option and opportunity.
    What I fail to see in these responses is an adequate awareness of the fact that the computer is a threat. Every tool is a threat--and the most sophisticated, complex, and capable tools are the most extreme threats. Our failure to make this a matter of conventional wisdom in today's world is extremely worrisome. The automobile, the television, the telephone, the modern house--all these are serious challenges we must overcome. Nor have we done particularly well with the challenges. To take just a single concern: all the contrivances just listed have tended to disconnect us from the natural world, with destructive consequences.
    A threat? Whose finger is it that has the final say on the power switch? To call a tool a threat because its use may be harmful in some way or another is an abdication of responsibility, or a projection of the parts of our personalities we don't like that much onto inanimate objects around us. The tools we have created are challenges perhaps to our ability to choose wisely; but the responsibility for the uses that we put them to is ours and ours alone. The only way to 'overcome' the challenge that they present is to choose.

    Peter Faller (peter.faller@pixie.co.za)

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    *** What is the criterion for human contact?
    Response to "FAQ: Computerized technology and human responsibility" (NF-5)

    From Carl Wittnebert (cewit@wco.com)

    In NETFUTURE #5 Stephen L. Talbott writes, "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."

    Then what is the criterion of human contact? Why is "real" friendship limited to face-to-face interactions? I feel that I have genuine friends in cyberspace. I can post to them without fear of being flamed or taken advantage of; I know how easily I can hurt their feelings, and I go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

    Cyberspace relationships are not a proxy for everyday life--and there is admittedly some risk of escapism here--but they do have one hallmark of authenticity: mutual trust.

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    *** Only worthwhile products of technology survive
    Response to "In (partial) defense of Peter Quince" (NF-9)

    From Mike Fischbein (mfischbe@fir.fbc.com)

    In Netfuture #9, you wrote:

    On the other hand--and perfectly consistent with that first stance--one may conclude that society is on a path of disaster with its headlong, unconsidered embrace of whatever gadgets the commercial research and development organizations happen to devise.
    Such as quadraphonic sound? Such as AM stereo broadcasts? Such as 9-track tapes? Such as Smalltalk? Such as ... well, I'm sure that a minute's reflection or half an hour spent perusing five-year magazines (in almost any field) will provide a host of gadgets that have been introduced and failed commercially. It is the fact of those failures, and the continual refinement process that is part of the concept of "engineering," that show Mr. Quince's fears as nearly groundless. Many gadgets are proposed in the short term; but only a few even become passing fancies for society at large -- and even fewer survive longer than that.
    One of Peter Quince's main concerns had to do with education. What if, a few decades ago, we had succeeded in basing the child's classroom upon television or upon programmed learning
    If we had succeeded, that implies that the TV-based instruction system was successful. That is, that it provided adequate and proper instruction. Since it did not provide a comparable level of education, it was abandoned. At least, it was abandoned as a sole means of instruction. Programmed learning and video courses are valuable supplementary tools and are used as such, providing a better educational process at less cost. Cost is important, as it allows the improvements to be more widely distributed that would otherwise be the case.
    to the degree we are now succeeding in basing it upon the Net? Wouldn't we be grateful for any remaining islands of sanity where a few peculiar naysayers had managed to preserve something of the true meaning of a child-centered education?
    No more so than we would be grateful for those islands of sanity that offer the opportunity to be trampled by a runaway horse or scrape manure off our shoes instead of providing automobiles; or those islands of sanity that advocate a return to the dunce cap and regular school beatings. "Success" is not just providing a duplicate facility (for education in this case, but the argument is general), but providing a better facility. Typing replaced handwriting because it was more legible, much faster, and required much less effort. Word processing replaced typing because it was required even less effort and was even faster. TV and Net-based learning were and will be only as successful as they improve education. If they don't, they will be abandoned as pedagogical tools, or more likely, relegated to a supplemental role that they do fit.
    In an age of technological imperialism, the difficulty of maintaining social diversity grows acute, and we should welcome those who are willing to sacrifice their personal options in order to carry into the future certain social options that may otherwise vanish from view and be lost.
    Indeed. As the use of bronze forced those societies who clung to flint tools to change, and then iron drove out bronze, improved tools of today will drive out less efficient and more expensive tools of yesterday. But as "society" grows to incorporate today's technological tools, do not the categories of diversity grow? With every social option that is lost, three new ones appear. With flint, items other than axes, spears, knives, and perhaps arrowheads were difficult or impossible. With bronze, more sophisticated tools arrived. With steel, we can build bridges and buildings that are literally beyond the comprehension of Stone Age societies. But our social choices are vastly greater than those of our ancestors and our descendants will have vastly greater social choices than we have.

    Let me add a postscript. A few days past, I finished Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

    I recommend you read it, if you are at all acquainted with or comfortable reading science fiction. If we allow Mr. Stephenson's postulates of computer power and compactness (which do follow quite well with the hard-science theoretical calculations made by K. Eric Drexler at Stanford), than the education provided by his fictional net and computer is on a par with or superior to our current educational process.


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    *** There is no natural world left
    Response to "In (partial) defense of Peter Quince" (NF-9)

    From David Petraitis (davidp@mare.ch)


    You write:

    What I fail to see in these responses is an adequate awareness of the fact that the computer is a threat. Every tool is a threat--and the most sophisticated, complex, and capable tools are the most extreme threats. Our failure to make this a matter of conventional wisdom in today's world is extremely worrisome. The automobile, the television, the telephone, the modern house--all these are serious challenges we must overcome. Nor have we done particularly well with the challenges. To take just a single concern: all the contrivances just listed have tended to disconnect us from the natural world, with destructive consequences.
    I am sure that from some perspective everything can be labeled a threat. I don't understand how the technologies you list are challenges to be "overcome". When I think of challenges to be overcome I am more likely to think in terms of humanity's inhumanity. The challenges of war, racism, poverty (or imbalances in distribution of wealth), human rights. These are challenges that information can help alleviate. But it is not a guarantee. War is best avoided by dialog. No dialog will avert war if, however, one is interested in e.g. ethnic cleansing.

    You state that we are disconnected from the natural world. You take a utopian view of the natural, which rhymes well with Thoreau (and the communes that you sneer at earlier in NF-9), but little with a sense of reality about what has happened to the planet. There is not a natural world left, except in our dreams and myths. Homo sapiens as a species has altered the world ecosystem in a way not seen since the demise of the dinosaurs. The world is as we have made it, not otherwise. Don't forget that humans are biological creatures. The human mind is a development in the evolution of this planet which (to our knowledge) has not ever been seen before. To equate what we create with unnatural and something else as natural posits a dualism which just isn't all that helpful in creating solutions. You get dualistic thinking like natural=good and technology=bad. I don't think this helps.

    To take another example: the deforestation of the world was not carried out by telephone and cars... but largely by (slash and burn) agriculture, a paleolithic technological discovery. It is true that the forests of today are being harvested by machine power, but there is much to argue that this is only a late arrival in a 500 year historical decline.

    The real key is the creation of knowledge and wisdom fast enough and widespread enough to help to stop the destruction before it turns on us as a species and wipes us off the earth. I think again here information technology is perhaps key.

    There's something in here that resonates uncomfortably with Lowell Monke's contribution:

    What Postman wants us to recognize is that what is lacking in education, and society as a whole, is a cohesive narrative that holds our lives together. "Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention." Computers themselves provide no meaningful narrative to education, or, I might add, to our lives. But can they help us find it? Postman thinks not; that they are much more likely to get in the way of our search.

    I have a hunch Turkle would disagree. After all, what are all the college students doing cruising around their MOOs and MUDs with their altered identities but searching for some kind of meaning they can't find on terra firma. Turkle's question is What kinds of meanings are they finding, and for which lives? Postman's question is How can we help them find just one, which allows them to stand firmly balanced on solid ground?

    When we are critical we are able to tear down whatever narrative comes along. We do not hesitate to question received beliefs. Yet when we find that one narrative (which I suspect may be a wishful dream for the imagined glorious past) we become true believers. I am reminded in the pining for a narrative of young people who find it in religious sects. I don't think that this is what I would want my children to turn to for meaning.

    Is there a middle path? Can we look into the future with hope that improved information and communication with people around the world puts into us a critical faculty which will examine belief systems and behavior that are destructive AND a single (or multiple) narrative(s) that give meaning to life?

    Is there someone out there dealing with construction of the narratives of meaning for our children in the 21st century? I am not convinced that my sons and daughters will get this without face to face communication with me as a parent and enough travel, cross cultural experiences and on-line time to understand the world.


    David Petraitis
    Mar Conseil
    Marketing and Re-engineering
    ch. Sous les Roches
    1264 St-Cergue, Switzerland
    Telephone: +41-22-360-3181

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    *** Net debates and true believers

    From Leslie DeGroff (degroff@frame.com)

    Speaking of books; I would suggest that in the contexts currently being discussed on netfuture, everyone would be advised to check out the works of Eric Hoffer and specifically The True Believer (still in print) and The Ordeal of Change (not in print last time I checked)

    Eric Hoffer's works are extremely distilled pragmatic philosophy and sociology. The subtitle to The True Believer is something like, a study of the nature of mass movements. I think one could easily find the same types of people with "personal dissatisfactions" looking for outlet on both sides of the "net as perfection" and "net as a devilish snare" as Hoffer found in places as diverse as communism, fundamental religions and the business world.

    Something of an issue which "agents of change" often overlook is that the majority are almost never in the market for "CHANGE" even if they are miserable and facing dead ends. This is a very interesting issue when you look at the sometimes subtle nature of communications and media in creating political and business climates while presenting itself primarily as a minor entertainment medium.

    Les DeGroff

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    *** About this newsletter

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

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

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


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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #11 :: March 21, 1996

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