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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #30      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates       October 24, 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
          Death Software
          Interactive Couch Potatoes
    *** Privacy in an age of data (part 3) (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Conviction-driven versus data-driven transactions
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    Death Software

    A couple of items from the news:

    Reuters recently reported that "the computer software and instruction kit for the death machine used in the world's first legal mercy killing will soon be available on the Internet."

    Philip Nitschke, an Australian doctor, describes his machine as a "slicker" version of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's suicide device. After receiving an intravenous line, the patient must respond three times to the computer's question whether he wants to go ahead with the suicide. Then the lethal drugs begin flowing into his open vein.

    The first notch on the machine's keyboard was thanks to an Australian cancer sufferer, on September 22. If you're interested in the software and instructions, you should be able to download them from a web page shortly. Building the equipment will put you out about $160, not covered by most life insurance policies. (I hear rumors that some companies are preparing new death insurance policies to guarantee against failure of the machine, and to lighten the burden on those who unexpectedly find themselves having to endure loved ones.)

    As is typical in the industry, product cycles are short. A new, more user-friendly version is already in beta test. It employs a mask and carbon monoxide. "When people get too old and frail," Nitschke observes, "it can be very difficult to get access to veins, and gas is a much easier way to go."

    No word yet on the ergonomic ratings for the devices.

    [The story is for real. The human suffering it touches upon is immense. The bad taste, unfortunately, is intrinsic to the story.]

    Interactive Couch Potatoes

    For those more interested in a living stupor, the convergence of the Net and television continues apace. Microsoft has announced that its online service is being restructured to present six "channels" and twenty "shows." These will save save you the work of surfing for pages of interest. A pre-selected mix of content and fun activities will be beamed at you. The next year should see $100 million in promotion.

    Meanwhile, a consortion of almost every high-tech company that counts (excluding Microsoft) is working on a "Real Time Streaming Protocol" that will allow television-like graphics to show up on your screen. And, of course, on yet another front networking technology is being brought to the television itself. Most people seem to agree that the line between television and the computer will continue to blur.

    Presumably, those who loudly advertised the Net as society's Deliverer from the couch-potato syndrome are now having second thoughts. As for me, I'd like to offer the decisive insight that....Hold on a minute. There's something coming through on channel 5 that I don't want to miss.


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    *** Privacy in an age of data (part 3)

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

    A mile down the road from my home there is an organic farm, along with a dairy, bakery, and farm store. The store and the Waldorf school across the street are the social center of the community. Because the cow pastures extend along the road as far as our house, my wife and I often go to sleep on summer evenings to the sound of a bell around the neck of one of the heifers.

    The farm sells part of its produce through an organization known as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). At the beginning of the season families sign up for "shares" in the farm, based on which they pick up weekly baskets of produce between June and February. The share purchases give the farm a more stable cash flow and are also a kind of insurance against the sort of natural calamity that farms are always subject to. It is understood that if some of the crops fail, the shareholders will receive less -- perhaps to be compensated by other crops. That is, they share in the risks as well as the benefits of the farm.

    About 55 local families held shares this past year. In addition, there are two groups of shareholders in New York City (about two and a half hours south) and one in a city between -- altogether 175 families or so. There are a few other CSAs in the area, and despite their naturally competitive situation, they have taken to cooperating with each other. For example, they help to make up each other's shortages. During the winter the farmers participate in a study group together, partly in order to assess the values and economic principles underlying their activity.

    CSAs, as they have developed in this country, were conceived at a village for the mentally handicapped about twenty miles away from here. The first actual CSA was formed a half hour away in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1985. By 1990 there were 37 of them in North America. Today there are about 600. There is a toll-free hotline (800-516-7797) for people who want to locate a nearby CSA.

    About a mile further on -- through a cow pasture and up a hill -- there is a modest financial institution called the Rudolf Steiner Foundation (named after the originator of Waldorf education). It brings lenders together with borrowers. What distinguishes it from other lending institutions is the fact that the connection between lender and borrower is a principled one, and is not completely depersonalized. Lenders choose what sort of enterprise their funds will support. The lender and borrower are put directly in touch with each other, while the Foundation provides the necessary financial expertise and mediation. The money becomes an expression of conscious human intentions at both ends of the deal.

    The Foundation typically looks for a group of responsible individuals who can help to "carry" the organization receiving a loan. These individuals may also be asked to guarantee the loan. Of the more than $8 million loaned from the beginning of lending in 1985 through 1995, only $4,400 has had to be written off -- this despite the virtual absence of legal action.

    Loan recipients range from Waldorf schools to organic farms to publishing ventures to health care facilities to scientific research organizations -- all broadly sharing certain values and understandings. They all seek to fill some urgent need in society.

    I have selected these particular organizations for description only because they are close at hand and I can speak about them with some knowledge. While they share certain convictions that have taken root in the community where I live, the relevant point here is not so much the particular convictions as the fact that the two organizations are conviction-driven. More than that, they fly straight in the face of the larger trend toward anonymous, data-driven social transactions.

    The farm's shareholders buy their food this way because it makes a difference to them how the food is grown, what is done to the land in order to grow it, how the animals are treated, and what principles are followed in dealings with farmhands, store clerks, and distributors. This is not to inject "foreign" values into economic activities. Rather, it is to alter the essential economics. It's a simple matter of understanding: if you see that your health is related to the quality of the food you eat, and if the health of the land and social organization around you counts for something, then you will be willing to pay for what you get.

    Prices in the farm store -- which carries many non-local goods -- tend to be 50 - 100% higher than the "same" goods in a supermarket. But, then, the goods are not really the same. This qualitative difference is exactly what so easily falls out of the picture in the "information-rich, frictionless marketplace" so many Net enthusiasts now envision. Yes, it is easy enough to compare prices between amazon.com and books.com. But the willingness to conduct a transaction on this basis alone is a willingness to say that none of the qualities of the society in which you participate makes any difference.

    It is easy to manipulate clean numbers without friction, but not so easy to build a livable society.

    Gary Lamb, a neighbor of mine, has done a lot of work on the economics of CSAs. He comments that the first CSAs "introduced a primitive form of economy within the complex, modern economy." One has to start somewhere. But as the CSA movement grows, "it becomes ever more complex and substantial." Relationships and interactions multiply. But through it all there remains the opportunity -- it is being fiercely grasped -- to preserve a balance between local community involvement on the one hand, and all the sophisticated mechanisms of a global economy on the other.

    This balance is critical for the functioning of the entire system. When I managed an organic farm in the late seventies, I once spoke to the dispatcher for a group of independent semi-trailer owners. Not knowing I was an organic farmer, he casually remarked that "when we have a load of produce go bad on us, we take it to the health food market and sell it as organic."

    There is, of course, a somewhat more disciplined certification system today. But official, bureaucratic certification programs are not something you will ever want to entrust your life to. How, then, can confidence arise? Only when the entire, global system is rooted in myriad local communities, each visibly driven by conviction and each establishing its own context of trust. If the local consumers, farmers, and store staff know each other, if they also know the local distributors, if the local distributors know the long-distance haulers, and if the same, purposeful, conviction-based transactions are conducted throughout the system -- even if the nature of the convictions varies from place to place -- then it becomes very difficult for fraudulent operators to insinuate themselves into the network.

    The opposite is true as personal interactions throughout the system evaporate into data and information flows. Trust becomes an ever more uncertain thing. It is amazing how many people today are capable of believing that technical mechanisms can fill the void left when the complex and intricate contexts of community and trust have disappeared. Such a belief indicates how hard it is for the technologically entranced segments of society to distinguish between technical and human exchange.

    So, what does all this have to do with privacy? In the first two parts of this article I tried to show that a healthy public life is essential to a healthy privacy. I also suggested that if we let ourselves become little more than bodies of data engaged in informational transactions, the public milieu within which privacy can be defined and protected will wither away, leaving only a paranoid and half-justified quest for anonymity. The two examples above illustrate the kind of personalized engagement that must take place in an untold variety of ways throughout all of society if we are to cultivate complementary public and private spaces.

    The farm store does not use barcode readers or credit cards, but even if it did, it could not sell information about its customers to other businesses. This is not because it is a cooperative or because it operates under bylaws preventing such behavior. Neither of those conditions happens to be true, and the store is structured as a profit-making corporation. The simple fact is that it would destroy itself by controverting the broad wishes of its clientele -- and its clientele would violently oppose any sale of personal information. (Recognizing its dependence upon the surrounding community, the store formed a consumer advisory board through which community concerns are channeled directly to store management.)

    The problem in society at large is that, for the most part, our notions of life and business have come to exclude any consideration of human qualities. We are increasingly an ATM society. Whenever I engage in a financial transaction about which the numbers are the only thing that counts for me -- whenever the numbers do not express my sense for a whole set of social values whose implications reach into every corner of society -- to that degree I choose to forsake society and act as an automaton. The sphere within which a public/private balance can be fashioned shrinks accordingly.

    I am unhappily aware that this will strike many readers as an intolerably radical proposition, and that a good number of you will conclude that I have lost my grip on the topic at hand. But my primary aim has been to point out how social questions require us to think organically and ecologically. Despite all the talk about holism and such, this is something we have a hard time doing. That is, we have a hard time seeing how the whole of society comes to expression in each individual, and just as hard a time seeing how your and my individual actions color the whole.

    This difficulty explains why the rhetoric of Net activists is rife with accusations about the privacy transgressions of powerful corporations, but silent about our nearly universal complicity in those transgressions. Who, after all, buys the tainted products and services? Who works for these corporations if not people like you and me? And what do they do, if not the things you and I do at our jobs: namely, pursue "objective" business opportunities simply because "they are there."

    The entire high-tech industry is driven by little more than the logic of technical feasibility, unleavened by any historical or humane inquiry on the part of engineers and marketers. We do not ask how this new device will play into the social organism, or whether it represents the best use of our resources. We just produce it and then begin looking for the yet-unknown "killer apps" that will sell it. Yet we turn around and point judgmental fingers at our compatriots in other companies who commercially employ all available data because "it is there," and we whine about their disregard for the health of the social organism -- or at least about their disregard for our rights.

    The fact is that for both groups of employees the social organism has been lost from view. It scarcely exists. We have adapted to our businesses as if they were machines and we were cogs. That is why we are content to check our social and ethical concerns at the door when we go to work. That is also why the work can be so easily distributed across the Net: it had already become little more than an aggregate of data transactions. Building a society of human beings -- a society marked by particular qualities -- simply doesn't figure in the business.

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

    My message, then, is that privacy is not a simple right that can be considered in a social vacuum. It lives in delicate balance with the public qualities of our dealings with each other. A private space can only be carved out within a public sphere and requires this surrounding sphere for its protection. The first line of defense for privacy is the kind of public, social interaction that incorporates a deeply felt respect for the sovereignty and needs of the other person.

    Finally, a word to those who find my two little examples hopelessly insignificant and quixotic. So they must seem -- rather as in the 1950s those few who began to worry about their personal contributions of candy wrappers and bottles to the city dump looked insignificant and quixotic. But the cultural context does change with time -- or can change -- and the dismissal of small efforts as quixotic is itself one of the symptoms that we have given up on a society of people, preferring a society of automatons. What distinguishes humans is that we can decide for a different future -- especially when the symptoms all around us suggest that something is wrong.

    Actually, the two examples I gave can be scaled up with wonderful ease. The only requirement is for ultimate grounding in local contexts where people have directly to do with each other and care about the shape of their life together. That grounding is why I don't have to worry about what the farm store folks -- who know more about me than I might want you to know -- will do with their knowledge. I've never lost a wink of sleep over it.

    That damned cowbell is another matter.

    Go to part 1 of privacy article
    Go to part 2 of privacy article

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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 #30 :: October 24, 1996

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