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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #63       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications       January 6, 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
          What Hope Does Technology Bring to the New Year?
          Toward a Global Super-consciousness
          Amusing Ourselves into a Fit
          The Bill for All Those Computer Donations Is Now Due
          Racing Toward a Brick Wall in Order to Stay Ahead
          How about a Moratorium on Internet Surveys?
          Saying Nothing As Fast As Possible
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    What Hope Does Technology Bring to the New Year?

    As we mark a new year, I am reminded of the following:

    Peter Cochrane, Head of Research at British Telecom Laboratories, was asked "What do you want to say to the elderly who cannot get to grips with all these newfangled contraptions?" He replied:

    Don't worry -- you're going to die soon.
    Happy New Year.

    (Thanks to Ladislaus Horatius, http://www.common.se/horatius/pot.htm. The Cochrane quotation is from the British hardcopy publication, .net, #23, Sept., 1996.)

    Toward a Global Super-consciousness

    Putting the Internet in Perspective Dept.: Gary Chapman notes that "the entire global Internet-using population is about four percent of the `Baywatch' audience." An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide tune into "Baywatch" every week.

    Okay, so there is a Noosphere after all. It's just hung up a bit on skimpy bathing suits.

    Amusing Ourselves into a Fit

    About 700 Japanese young people, mostly aged three to twenty, were hospitalized in mid-December with seizure-like symptoms. Their mistake: watching a television cartoon show, "Pokemon" (meaning "pocket monster"), based on a Nintendo video game. Some of the youths were victimized by the rebroadcast of part of the cartoon on news programs. (The news producers, I assume, felt obliged to replicate the experiment in the interest of scientific objectivity.)

    In what some doctors called the largest mass outbreak of seizures on record, the children went into a trance-like state, suffering convulsions, vomiting, shortness of breath, irritated eyes, and other symptoms. The problems seem to have occurred when a rat-like cartoon creature's eyes flashed dramatically in an explosion scene.

    According to Dr. Yukio Fukuyama, an expert on juvenile epilepsy, such bright flashes of light and color can trigger what is known as "television epilepsy." The syndrome has also been associated with video games. That's why Nintendo places a health warning on its video software.

    However, Dr. Sandra Helmers, a neurologist specializing in epilepsy at Children's Hospital in Boston, discounts the epilepsy connection. She thinks mass hysteria a more likely explanation. "It sounds like it was a pretty disturbing episode of the cartoon." She doubts that seizures could be triggered in several hundred people from such a brief stimulus.

    It is not known how many children suffered symptoms without being taken for medical treatment, although one estimate ran to 10,000. Over two hundred people remained hospitalized twenty-four hours later. At least one child could not remember watching the cartoon. Nevertheless, several news stories cited expert reassurances that such "seizures" would cause no long-term harm.

    That seems an extraordinarily sanguine conjecture, given what is known about the plasticity of young brains, and given what is not known about how that plasticity is shaped by various stimuli. (Judging children's electronic media by adult standards is one of the craziest habits our society has gotten into.) Further, what are the health implications of long-term, sub-acute exposure to thousands of hours of rapidly shifting video images?

    The New York Times contributed a bit of unintended irony in a separate story on December 22, several days after the Japanese epidemic. The headline on the front page of the business section read, "The Virtues of Addictive Games: Computer Pastimes No Longer Viewed as Brain Poison".

    The article, conveying a remarkably vacuous picture of a few bits of social research, describes Microsoft video-game guru Alexey Pajitnov watching a "human guinea pig" trying out a new game. From behind a one-way mirror Pajitnov "smiles with satisfaction and pumps a fist in the air. `She's hooked', he declared."

    This is the moment that game designers like Mr. Pajitnov ... labor endlessly to achieve -- the moment when curiosity turns to compulsion. It is an elusive goal that, according to Mr. Pajitnov, involves creating a game with an "emotional rhythm" that moves a player across a psychic border, alternating a sense of achievement and loss, pleasure and disappointment.

    "You must tease the nerves," he explained.

    Tease the nerves indeed. There is, in fact, a modest body of research about the long-term neurological effects of video images. (See, for example, Jane Healy's 1990 book, Endangered Minds.) But the always thorough Times chose not to mention this, citing instead various pieces of research whose gist is that video games do a great job of training young people to become adults who are good at video games.

    The Bill for All Those Computer Donations Is Now Due

    The California State University system, with twenty-three campuses and 330,000 students, is proposing to turn its networking, telecommunications, and computing needs over to a private consortium. Consisting of GTE, Fujitsu, Hughes Electronics, and Microsoft, the consortium will be given
    the exclusive right to install high-speed networks within the campuses, and the right to provide email and other network services, to maintain the computers used by the staff and administrators, to develop software and to provide training and support. (New York Times, Dec. 22, 1997)
    Under the proposal, the four companies will invest more than $300 million in the venture. But the entire plan is coming under strong opposition, especially from faculty and students. At Humboldt State University, students amended a school sign to read, "Microsoft State University."

    What's particularly interesting, though, is the response of the consortium officials, who, according to the Times, claim that

    a public-private partnership is the only feasible solution for the university system, which this year faces a budget gap of $70 million to $100 million in its technology program as it tries to upgrade its infrastructure.
    So the industry that originally donated much of that now outdated equipment has gotten the schools exactly where it wants them. And if you have any trouble seeing where this is, Patricia Cuocco, the university system's Senior Director for Information Technology Policy and Analysis, summarizes it nicely:
    People can say it's not right, but what is the alternative?
    Ah, yes. Necessity trumps good sense. But how is it that the technology enriching our lives with so many options nevertheless leaves us without choice when issues like "What is right for education?" come up?

    Racing Toward a Brick Wall in Order to Stay Ahead

    When asked why his company was developing new chips for low-cost computers instead of recycling older chips, Intel CEO Andrew Grove responded,
    Our whole belief is that technology is good, and more is better. How could we slow down technology? (Business Week, Dec. 22, 1997)
    In the same article, Intel President Craig Barrett acknowledges that
    it's a risk to go out and spend billions of dollars on these manufacturing plants. But if we didn't, we couldn't possibly reap the benefits. We're going down the road at 150 miles per hour, and we know there's a brick wall someplace, but the worst thing we can do is stop too soon and let somebody else pass us.
    The logic, of course, is impeccable, given the nature of the industry these folks and their customers have helped to build. It is, in fact, a self-perpetuating logic -- and, in the end, a crash-ensuring logic.

    The risk Barrett cites is by no means remote. Excess capacity among computer component suppliers was the subject of another article in the same magazine just a week later. "For the last few years we've all gotten drunk on technology spending," says a NEC executive. In a "euphoric mood," as the magazine puts it, companies have continued investing in new plants.

    After mentioning the possible effect of the Asian crisis upon companies like Compaq and Dell, Business Week goes on:

    What could bring down such highfliers? Beyond an overall economic downturn, analysts now worry about how upcoming technology will sell. The industry depends on a periodic injection of new features to get customers excited. (p. 39)
    Fretting that Windows 98 may not supply the same manic jolt to the marketplace as Windows 95, the author of the piece also notes the tilting of many computer budgets toward the Year 2000 problem.

    Whenever the downturn does come, look for it to be called a swing of the normal business cycle rather than a symptom of economic opportunism. Or else it will be blamed on Asian economic opportunism. And yet, what -- if not economic opportunism -- is the breakneck race to satisfy customer wants that must first be excited? Such wants are inevitably fickle, as prone to collapse as to arousal, while siphoning capital away from more rooted economic activity.

    Long-term economic stability requires both consumers and producers to engage each other in the context of a larger discourse about the social ends worth pursuing. These ends, when deeply grasped, prove much more enduring than the latest consumable fads. Some businesses and some consumers already act within the context of such a discourse, with the health of the environment, for example, providing one focus of concern.

    Meanwhile, the giants like Intel will rightly see their survival as depending on the rejection of such a stance. They will call the stance "utopian" -- beyond practical reach -- even as they devote billions of dollars, fierce determination, and a whole civilization's worth of ingenuity to the "practical" task of sustaining the consumer frenzy upon which their expanding bubble depends.

    How about a Moratorium on Internet Surveys?

    In NF #61 I reported on a misguided Wired story trumpeting the results of a new survey that "proves" the social virtues of the Net. Another survey on the same topic was unveiled in the December issue of Communications of the ACM. In "A Nation of Strangers?" James E. Katz and Philip Aspden avoid the breathless, millennial rhetoric of the Wired piece, but, unfortunately, not its conceptual miscarriages.

    When they compared participation rates in religious, leisure, and community organizations by Internet users and non-users, Katz and Aspden found no statistically significant differences after controlling for demographic variables. They read this result as providing "no support for the pessimistic theories of the effects of cyberspace on community involvement."

    But this data does not illuminate the "effects of cyberspace" one way or the other. For that you would need, at the very least, to track the same users and non-users over a period of time. Simply describing those who have gravitated toward the Net at one historical moment tells us nothing about how they will be affected by their Net involvement.

    But the authors do supply other data ostensibly supporting the claim that "the Internet appeared to augment existing traditional social connectivity." The evidence comes under two main heads:

    (1) "A significant minority of users ... reported participating in [online] Internet communities." This is hard to know what to do with. That the Net gives us new forms of "social connectivity" is a simple fact, but the debate has always been about the nature of the resultant online communities -- if indeed they can all be called that. But about this the authors have nothing to say -- although their tendency to equate mere connectivity with community says a lot in itself.

    (2) Just under half the Internet users "reported contacting family members at least once or twice" via the Net. Further, long-time users did so more often than recent users. This latter difference might, with the aid of various assumptions, be read as an "effect" of the Net. The more obvious likelihood, of course, is that long-time Net users have more family members online than do recent users. They are also more technically capable of using the Net's services. (See below.) And, in any case, the real question again has to do with the evolving quality of family interactions.

    The same question applies to the other topic of the survey. Internet users were asked "whether they knew people only through the Internet whom they considered their friends." Fourteen percent of the respondents said yes. Actually, I find it hard to believe that the figure could be so low. If it really is, the reason presumably has to do with the high percentage of novice users on the Net today.

    In any case, the authors apparently didn't stop to wonder what might be considered a friendship -- and how this might be changing under the Net's influence (although the question ought to have surfaced in their minds when one respondent reported having 500 Internet friends).

    When Katz and Aspden were handed clues about the qualitative issues, they managed to walk on by. "Somewhat surprisingly," they report,

    we found no statistical relationships between propensity to make friends and a wide range of measures of traditional forms of social connectedness and measures of personality attributes .... This perhaps points to the Internet de-emphasizing the importance of sociability and personality differences.
    Summarizing these results, they write that "Internet skills appear to be the most important determinant of friendship formation, eclipsing personality characteristics such as sociability, extroversion, and willingness to take risks."

    In other words, it sounds very likely that what counts as friendship on the Net has more to do with the brute fact of "connectivity" and its associated technical skills than with the socially embedded, risk-filled, concrete engagement of two people who bring their full selves to the meeting. The authors seem to see this positively as the opening of a new social frontier rather than as the attenuation of what it means to be a friend. Their overall, entirely unsupported conclusion:

    Far from creating a nation of strangers, the Internet is creating a nation richer in friendships and social relationships.
    It's amazing that the researchers can leap so casually -- without any pretense of conceptual analysis -- from their few and barren numbers to the qualitative claim, "richer".

    I don't think Katz and Aspden have carried out a particularly poor piece of research, as current standards go. The fact is that what passes for social research today is ghastly -- almost beyond comment. (But if you want some comment, try the chapter on "Scientism" in Neil Postman's Technopoly.)

    What every social researcher should be taught is this: "If you spend ten minutes gathering data, then spend at least ninety minutes trying to understand what the data are about." Only such a balance, sustained throughout one's life of thought, holds much hope for significant discovery.

    The harder our "hard numbers," the less they tell us. You can only count things with absolute reliability when the things you are counting no longer bear an interesting story. When they do bear a story, you have to understand what the story is before you can figure out what you are counting. The counting, of course, may actually help in the latter undertaking; but when the story is essentially ignored, gibberish is the inevitable result.

    Following Katz and Aspden's methods, I could execute a survey of automobile users that would tell me how many social contacts these users typically gain through their vehicles -- service station attendants, mall store clerks, meter maids, co-workers in large, distant office buildings, and so on. So what? Until I know what I am counting -- until I penetrate the qualities of these contacts -- I'm not saying much about the communal consequences of the automobile. And even then I will have left unmentioned all the other avenues by which automobiles might re-shape the institutions of community.

    (Thanks to Mitchell McLain and Thomas Hackett.)

    Saying Nothing As Fast As Possible

    In the last issue (NF #62) I asked you to imagine what would happen if our concern for all the things we talk about should give way to primary concern for the "efficiency" of the mechanisms of communication -- bits per second, signal-to-noise ratio, number of connections, and so on. That is, what would happen if we lost interest in the content of communication and instead focused on our numbers?

    Such a shift would, of course, reduce our communication to vacuity, and my point was that a closely analogous shift has already occurred in commerce and economic theory. Huge capital flows around the world are driven more by the imperative of mathematical increase than by any qualitative concern for how this capital is modifying the world. We assume that the empty notion of efficiency somehow subsumes any positive values we might cherish -- rather as if maximizing the bits per second in our conversations implied more harmonious human relations.

    It needs adding that the analogy is really more than that. Communication and commerce are not two separate domains. How we move our money around is one of the profound ways we communicate. And the one-sided drive toward connectivity, quantification, and programmatic control in the financial arena is the same drive we see at work in communications.

    Efficiencies of communication are already being urged upon us in a severe vacuum. (Read the high-tech ads in any magazine if you doubt this.) There is little effort to conceive, in a fundamental way, what efficiency might actually mean in a given sphere. Efficiency is imagined, nonsensically, as a goal in itself.

    But efficiency, say, in communication with my wife is one thing if the conversation is only about the price of a jar of honey, and a very different thing if it is also about mutual accommodation, respect, and our long-term ability to work together -- and a different thing again if my goal is to destroy the marriage. To talk about efficiency without specifying what you are aiming at is to talk about nothing at all. And yet, this kind of talk is now routine.

    You can, of course, measure the transmitted "bits" in each kind of conversation, but you cannot measure the vast differences in meaningful content from one kind to another. Installing a communication system without regard for such immeasurable differences invites disaster. And it is almost certainly inefficient when considered in relation to your goals -- unless your goal is the elimination of goals. The widespread disappearance of qualitative goals from American business is, in fact, the reason why purely quantitative efficiency talk seems to make so much sense.


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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #63 :: January 6, 1998

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