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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #65       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications     February 10, 1998
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          A Compulsion to Learn?
          How Do Justice Department Prosecutors Differ from Lara Croft?
          Finally:  Relief for Overworked Fingers
          Toward More User-friendly Refrigerators
          Disclaimer from Peter Cochrane
    *** How Technology Co-opted the Good (Part 2) (Stephen L. Talbott)
          The hope for reform of technological society
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    (This week's comment comes from the author of two of the classic texts in technology criticism. For the speaker's identity, see "Who Said That?" below.)

    "How far we've come!  Even publishing titan Henry Luce
    thought it crucial to preserve the boundary between `church'
    and `state', between the integrity of journalism and the
    profit-seeking wiles of advertising -- a line now routinely
    demolished by those who cover the wired world in today's
    print and electronic media.  That's why the independence
    and lucidity of NETFUTURE are so wonderfully refreshing.
    Steve Talbott's newsletter is one of the few places on the
    Net where wisdom finds a voice."

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    A Compulsion to Learn?

    With more and more universities establishing "Internet addiction" counseling programs, Alfred University administrators now tell us that intensive Internet users suffer academic dismissal at more than twice the normal rate. So today we witness a curious phenomenon: some schools are earnestly restraining students who look a little too eager as they embrace the "learning tool of the new millennium".

    Score one for the old-fashioned library, few of whose "addicts" were ever in danger of flunking.

    (Thanks to Suzanne Sluizer.)

    How Do Justice Department Prosecutors Differ from Lara Croft?

    For some perverse reason the free-associating side of my mind has insisted on filing these recent stories in the same mental compartment:

    ** Writing about Microsoft's difficulty in adjusting to the current political and litigious environment, the New York Times quoted a Seattle City Council member as saying, "They simply don't understand why people don't see things the way they see things." The article went on to report local sentiment to the effect that

    Microsoft's insularity, its focus on hiring stereotypical nerds without an outside life, is what has come back to haunt them. (Jan. 17, 1998, pp. A1, A7)
    ** Another Times story was headlined "Video World Is Smitten by a Gun-Toting, Tomb-Raiding Sex Symbol". It's about Lara Croft, the "Tomb Raider 2" video character produced by Eidos Interactive.
    Eidos executives are being flooded with gifts and presents for the silicon princess. There are flowers, Christmas gifts, even vows from young boys and men. "People all over the world have sent in their pictures," said Tricia Gray at the Eidos office in San Francisco. "She's had dozens of marriage proposals and all these cheesy letters." (Jan. 19, 1998, p. D3)
    Lara, we also learn, "is going to sign a modeling contract with a big agency. She'll become a supermodel, like Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista."

    ** You've undoubtedly also seen the stories about children stroking their digital "pets" and losing all sense of any distinction between Fido and fido (phoniness in, dog out).

    ** The Boston Globe reports on a Stockholm University study showing that "nearly a third of [Swedish] 12- to 18-year-olds are unconvinced that the holocaust took place" (Jan. 16, 1998, p. A2). Bear in mind that this is no UFO controversy. The available evidence is massive, widespread, and supplemented by the living memory of a substantial and diverse population. One wonders just what it is these young folks have set in the balance that so effectively counters the evidence.

    By the way, the mental compartment holding these stories showed up with its own label, in the form of a question: What is life in the technological cocoon doing to our "reality function"?

    Finally: Relief for Overworked Fingers

    Technology, writes Albert Borgmann, has had some genuinely liberating effects, but they were mostly achieved at least a generation ago. Today, technology only
    mimics the great breakthroughs of the past, assuring us that it is an imposition to have to open a garage door, walk behind a lawn mower, or wait twenty minutes for a frozen dinner to be ready. Being given riding lawn mowers, garage door openers, and microwave ovens, we feel for a moment the power of wielding the magic wand. The remembrance of strain and impatience, of relative powerlessness, yields to a sentiment of ease and competence. We seem to move with the effortlessness of youth, with the vigor of an athlete, with the quickness of the great chef. But it is an entirely parasitic feeling that feeds off the disappearance of toil; it is not animated by the full-bodied exercise of skill, gained through discipline and renewed through intimate commerce with the world. On the contrary, our contact with reality has been attenuated to the pushing of buttons and the turning of handles. The results are guaranteed by a machinery that is not of our design and often beyond our understanding. Hence the feelings of liberation and enrichment quickly fade; the new devices lose their glamor and meld into the inconspicuous periphery of normalcy; boredom replaces exhilaration. (Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, 1984, p. 140)
    All of which suggests that the world's greatest palaces of boredom may be those new homes we've been reading about, with embedded intelligence scattered everywhere. They celebrate the cutting edge of liberation: freedom from having to push all those pesky buttons.

    Toward More User-friendly Refrigerators

    Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and prophet of "ubiquitous computing", worries about our pain as we wander the grocery store aisles without a clue about what to buy. So our deeper need, he concludes, is for a lot of chips:
    "If your refrigerator watches you take the milk carton in and out every day and your refrigerator could talk to your wallet," Weiser said, "then when you went to the store, the wallet could tell the milk cartons that you need milk. And the milk cartons can then say to you, `Hey, buy me. You're out of milk.'" (Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Jan. 18, 1998)
    This, Weiser suggests -- along with such things as clocks that reset themselves when the power comes back on, microwave ovens that download recipes from the Net, and stuffed animals that sing -- is the third revolution in computing. Revolution, mind you -- a rather grand concept to illustrate with talking refrigerators.

    The real revolution, it seems to me, lies in our ability to speak so casually of such oddities as if they were the material of revolution and progress. One hardly finds a distinction today between purely technical virtuosities and social progress. And that failure is indeed a fateful development.

    "But these new devices -- and remember, we're talking ubiquity, not just refrigerators -- will radically re-shape our lives!" So they may. In which case it is the radical re-shaping -- the larger pattern with its shifting textures of meaning -- that we must attend to if we would assess the revolutionary impact of technical breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the pattern that appears most evident so far is the systematic disregard of pattern in favor of a gadget-by-gadget assessment of "coolness".

    It is a remarkable fact that well-funded, prestigious organizations such as Xerox PARC and MIT's Media Lab are devoting huge resources to the development of trivia -- wonderfully well reported trivia, but trivia nevertheless.

    Okay, I admit it: "trivia" is a blatant provocation. There's a vast range of work going on at institutions like these, not all of it frivolous by any definition of the word. And, in any case, it's always dangerous to object to research as "frivolous". There is necessarily an element of play in much research -- a willingness to toy with absurdity and utter impracticality. You never know what will eventually come out of it all. So there's plenty of room to dispute the "trivia" claim.

    But that's really my point. There's room to dispute it, but who's doing the disputing? Who's bothering to make a coherent case for just how the products emerging from the computer labs might prove humanly beneficial? We hear a lot about revolutions in the making -- presumably meaning that there are implications for society -- but precious little attempt to characterize the revolution in any but technical and, well, trivial terms.

    The unconsidered way research generally moves out of the laboratory and into the larger society (beginning with its appearance in the news media) is a prime illustration of Albert Borgmann's point that vigorous debate about the good society has given way to the endlessly mulled details of entertainment, distraction, consumption, and technical achievement. (See the review of Borgmann's book below.) On his part, Xerox's Weiser avoids one opportunity to look more deeply when he offers this dismissive observation: "People were once worried about having boxes in their homes that would go rrriiiiiinnnggg."

    Personally, I hope they are still worrying. Anyone who does not worry about the jarring, disrupting, and fragmenting potentials of the phone, and who does not find a way to take occasional "phone sabbaticals", and who does not think twice before placing a call, and in general who does not successfully compensate for the thousand and one little ways the phone can drive one from a reflective, serene, focused, and deep engagement with life -- such a person has little hope of withstanding the "revolutionary" onslaught of which the phone now occupies but one of many fronts.

    When we do find the necessary counterbalance, then our phones assume their rightful and dignified place in our lives. But look where the purely technical solutions have brought us. We escape interruption by using answering machines; we gain freedom from the place-bound phone by using wireless, cell, call-forwarding, and beeper technologies; and we widen the narrow communication channel by using conference call and video-conferencing technology. The result of all this technical bravura? In many people's experience the phone is a more intrusive, constraining, and distracting part of their lives than ever. (Many others are too distracted to notice.)

    Clearly, the immediate technical "solutions" do not by themselves come to grips with the underlying concern. They can, in fact, reinforce the problem. If the engineering labs bestowing these solutions upon us are generating a literature that acknowledges the underlying issues, I have unfortunately been missing it. Actually, my missing it is all too likely, so here's an open invitation: the pages of NF will be available to any senior staffers from PARC or Media Lab who will lay out for us their considered view of the relation between their current work and the enduring substance of human welfare.

    (Thanks to Robert Westcott.)

    Disclaimer from Peter Cochrane

    NF #63 cited the following answer by Peter Cochrane to the question, "What do you want to say to the elderly who cannot get to grips with all these newfangled contraptions?":
    Don't worry -- you're going to die soon.
    Cochrane, who is Head of Research at British Telecom Laboratories, now tells us,
    I NEVER SAID OR WROTE THIS!!!! This is either out of context or a distortion of my words.
    The editors of the British publication, .net, from which the quotation was taken, claim they got both the words and the context right. In any case, disputing the record of the past is less important than Cochrane's statement that he does not in fact hold such views, which we gladly accept -- with apologies for any actual misrepresentation.


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    *** How Technology Co-opted the Good (Part 2)
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Notes concerning the book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, by Albert Borgmann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Paperback, 302 pages.

    In the first part of this review, I summarized Albert Borgmann's characterization of the "device paradigm". The technological device separates means from end, producing a commodity for our convenient enjoyment while removing the machinery of production into the background. In yielding ourselves to this separation, we become disengaged from nature, community, and history. The music we enjoy while listening to a CD is music severed from the music-making -- that is, from the social interaction of musicians and audience, the long hours of practice, the care of highly crafted instruments, and the immediate setting of the performance. We take the music from the CD as a neatly packaged commodity and then go on to the next thing.

    It is this pervasive pattern of disengagement, according to Borgmann -- and not the choice between one end (commodity) and another -- that is the crucial issue today. And yet, this more fundamental choice between engagement and disengagement is rarely set before us -- or even recognized. Rather, disengaging technologies are promoted as the basis for the only choice we are said to have -- the choice between commodities.

    Technology has the tendency to disappear from the occasion by insinuating itself as the basis of the occasion. (p. 103)
    But we do make the more fundamental choices, whether in full awareness or not:
    A genuine choice is made when a family decides to eat out more often. The practice of preparing a traditional meal, of setting the table, of saying grace, of conversing and eating thoughtfully is partly surrendered to the machinery of a fast-food chain and partly lost. The meal has been impoverished to ordering and consuming standardized foods. When one moves from city to city in pursuit of professional advancement, the possibility of a rooted kind of life is cut off just as the means for the consumption of freely disposable commodities are increased. When parents decide to give their child a stereo set and receiver instead of a flute and instruction, they help to inundate the child with sounds and fail to encourage fully embodied and disciplined engagement with music. Whenever something is replaced rather than repaired, a piece of history, something that bespeaks and sustains the continuity of life, is then surrendered to the garbage heap; and an opportunity to mark and affirm the stages of life is lost.
    But don't take Borgmann as a mere sourpuss regarding the goods delivered by technology. "There are always occasions where a Big Mac, an exercycle, or a television program are unobjectionable and truly helpful answers to human needs" (p. 208). This, he says, is why criticizing technology on a case-by-case basis never gets you anywhere. It is only when "we attempt to take the measure of technological life in its normal totality that we are distressed by its shallowness."

    Focal Things and Practices

    Technology has effected a convenient marriage with the political tradition of freedom and liberal democracy. The role of government in this marriage is to ensure a reasonably just society in which individuals are free to make their own choices from among the abundant variety of goods technology provides.

    Because of this privatization of the good, public discourse about the good society (as opposed to the free society or the just society) has largely disappeared. But, as Borgmann demonstrates, this does not mean that government or society as a whole remains neutral regarding the question of the good society. When we offer citizens a choice only between decontextualized commodities while foreclosing the possibilities for taking up with the world in any more rooted fashion, then we have in fact imposed one particular vision of the "good" upon everyone. It is a vision of disengagement, consumption, superficiality, and distraction.

    A prerequisite for any escape from this predicament is the emergence of a national debate not just about freedom and the distribution of commodities ("standard of living"), but also about the good society. And such a debate in turn requires people who are willing to speak up for what matters. We must become capable of articulating and defending what Borgmann calls "focal things and practices".

    By the focal depth of a piece of work or a service I mean the extent to which they tangibly gather and embody the capacities of the worker, the aspirations of the recipient, the natural features and cultural tradition of the local setting. (p. 239)
    I have mentioned music, the experience of wilderness, and the culture of the table as potential focal practices. Any number of things can become focal, depending on how we take them up. For example, Borgmann cites the culture of running, "where one exults in the strength of one's body, in the ease and the length of the stride, where nature speaks powerfully in the hills, the wind, the heat, where one takes endurance to the breaking point, and where one is finally engulfed by the good will of the spectators and the fellow runners" (p. 202).

    To make room for such things in one's life is at the same time to find the appropriate counterbalance for technology. But making room requires more than sporadic, isolated efforts.

    When we sit in our easy chair and contemplate what to do, we are firmly enmeshed in the framework of technology with our labor behind us and the blessings of our labor about us, the diversions and enrichments of consumption. This arrangement has had our lifelong allegiance, and we know it to have the approval and support of our fellows. It would take superhuman strength to stand up to this order ever and again. If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can do so only through the practice of engagement. (p. 207)
    Technology, in other words, can only be countered by "an equally patterned and social commitment, that is, by a practice" (p. 208).

    The idea is not so much to dismantle the technological paradigm as to restrict it to its proper sphere. "Its proper sphere is the background or periphery of focal things and practices" (p. 220). The backpacker will have a deeper appreciation than most of the remarkable technology that enables him to live for a time relatively unencumbered in the wild. But precisely because of his commitment to the wilderness and the personal qualities he gains from exposure to it, he will also place limits upon the technological disruption of wilderness.

    So Borgmann rejects the grand pattern of technological society, while maintaining a wonderful balance in his stance toward technology itself. It is worth offering an extended quotation that captures something of this balance in a special way:

    If we inhabit a place faithfully and know its features and seasons from bodily appropriation, then to rise high above it and to leave it at an instant is to regain it in a larger and illuminating context. Doing bodily battle with the heat of the day and chill of night, with the steepness and hardness of the ground in hiking or running teaches one to marvel at the ease and assuredness of technological comforts. For one who practices a sport or plays an instrument, it is an inspiring and gratefully accepted experience to see the best perform on television. Given the counterweight of an engaging practice, televised performances need no brutality, carnal danger, promises of new records, or the spice of financial rewards for which the performers are made to fight.

    Generally, the local and bodily intensity of focal engagements preserves our sensitivity for the wide-ranging and effortless way in which technology provides a context of security, comfort, and enlightenment. It also sharpens our sensitivity; engagement provides resonance for those commodities that represent and support excellence, and, finding no echo in the trivial and frivolous, it ignores banal commodities and helps to reduce them. So counterbalanced, technology can fulfill the promise of a new kind of freedom and richness. If our lives are centered in a focal concern, technology uniquely opens up the depth and extent of the world and allows us to be genuine world citizens. It frees us from the accidental limits of shortness of time, lack of equipment, or weakness of health so that we can turn to the great things of the world in their own right. It frees us for the genuine limits of our endurance, fortitude, and fidelity; and if we fail, we fail where we ought to fail and where we can hope to grow. (p. 248)

    Political Change

    Those who would defend focal things and practices can best do so, Borgmann argues, at the intersection of economics and the legal system. One worthy rallying cry has already achieved considerable legitimacy: quality of life ought to take precedence over those various numerical measures we call "standard of living". But we must rest our defense of the quality of life upon a profound pluralism -- a diversity of focal practices -- without seeking to impose particular practices upon others. The need is to make room for such practices within an economy and technological system that has systematically squeezed them out.
    Some of the physical elements of that quality of life are natural such as mountains, lakes, clean air, and water. Others are human made such as transportation or school systems. Examples of the social elements are freedom from crime, [and civility]. What all the elements have in common is that they are not commercially producible and cannot be bought individually and privately Members of a community possess them all at once or not at all.
    The issues here are not the technical ones that economists rightly arrogate to themselves. Rather, the challenge is "philosophical and consists in the task of seeing the economic machinery in context, recognizing it as a mere machinery, and restricting it to its proper place" (p. 230). Nor do we as a society altogether lack inclinations in this direction. The movement toward simplicity, undercurrent though it be, runs directly counter to the flood tide of consumerism.

    In public policy "we can either favor that part of the economic machinery whose goal is rising affluence and whose performance is measured as the GNP; or we can favor the production and maintenance of the social and public goods that constitute the quality of life" (p. 235).

    But that still leaves the vast domain of work, which, within the device paradigm, is typically fragmented, mindless, and disengaged from any larger, fulfilling context. Borgmann urges public commitment to a two-sector economy, where one of the sectors would consist of local, labor-intensive industry. The goods and services produced within this sector "should lend themselves to engaging work and be capable of focal depth. We know from experience that these would include food, furniture, clothing, health care, education, and instruction in music, the arts, and sports" (p. 241). Such local, labor-intensive industries need not be "devised"; they already exist, even if at the margins of public awareness. What is needed is for this sector to be "favored through tax and credit measures to the point where its goods and services prevail in the market through relatively lower prices".

    The centralized and more automated sector of the economy would not disappear. Various infrastructures (transportation, utilities, communication), research and development, and the production of things like machine tools, cars, and appliances would remain substantially in that sector. "But technology should be taken here as the context, not the rule or center, of life" (p. 241).

    Borgmann seems fully aware that detailed, workable policies can emerge only with time and experience. And he emphasizes that policies have little meaning by themselves. Only the pursuit of focal practices can give strength and direction to our policy initiatives.

    (I should mention that Borgmann's book is not always easy reading.  A
    philosopher, he continually tries to relate his argument to the work of
    other thinkers, ranging from Richard Rorty to E. F. Schumacher to Martin
    Heidegger.  While this is extremely valuable, it also requires him to
    summarize and respond to many ambitious systems of thought in a very brief
    space -- too brief, at times, for maximum intelligibility.  Nevertheless,
    most readers will find much of value in the book.)

    Go to part 1 of "How Technology Co-opted the Good"

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    *** Who Said That?

    The author of this week's comment (see the beginning of the newsletter) is Langdon Winner, professor of political science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Professor Winner has authored two of the classic works of technology criticism: Autonomous Technology (MIT Press, 1977) and The Whale and the Reactor (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

    As it happens, I am only now reading the earlier of these works -- and realizing how much I have been missing. A couple of lines from today's reading:

    To be commanded, technology must first be obeyed. But the opportunity to command seems forever to escape modern man. Perhaps more than anything else, this is the distinctly modern frustration. (p. 262)
    The book as a whole can be seen as an unpacking of this statement, with a wonderful breadth of survey.


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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1998 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 #65 :: February 10, 1998

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