NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #2 Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates December 21, 1995 ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Moderator's Note What have we wrought? *** The Great Crusade Against Censorship (Stephen L. Talbott) Really, folks, get serious *** High School Students and Technology Assessment (Lowell Monke) Is efficiency at war with value? *** Automatic Phone Answering Can Improve Customer Service (Ray Brownrigg) It's all in how the automatic answering systems are used *** Monthly posting of netfuture guidelines *** About this list -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Moderator's Note (27 lines) Having hoped for maybe 100 subscribers to begin with, we found ourselves flooded with over 1000 subscribers before the first issue was posted. Things have only gotten "worse" from there: this second issue is being mailed to more than 2000 subscribers. Apparently the list's topic, "Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future," touches an increasingly exposed nerve within the Net community. This convinces us more than ever not to follow the usual discussion group model. It's not reasonable to expect 2000 subscribers to engage in truly productive chit-chat. We will therefore move more toward the newsletter end of the spectrum -- but with members of the list encouraged to provide content. Extended conversations will be great to see, but they will have to be pursued at an unusually disciplined level. I will play a vigorous role in selecting and soliciting materials consistent with our announced themes, and in getting authors to "clean up" their presentation before posting. This will not be a "let's get to know each other list," but rather a place where you will reliably encounter interesting material not adequately discussed elsewhere. For more details, see the netfuture guidelines later in this issue. The large readership, however, hasn't translated yet into submissions of fresh material. If you've got something important to say that fits the list's purposes, please consider passing it along to us. Meanwhile, I'll not be shy about stoking the fire -- as this issue shows! [SLT] Next posting will be in early January. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** The Great Crusade Against Censorship (159 lines) From Stephen L. Talbott Someone deliver us from the Internet censorship wars. For the record: yes, I'm against silly attempts at censorship. But this supremely easy pose of conscience doesn't solve much of anything. "To censor or not to censor" leaves the discussion at a level where we lose either way. A serious effort at political imposition of censorship would reduce our society to chaos; on the other hand, if, in the name of opposing censorship, we simply let networking technologies run along in a self-driven manner, unaffected by our acceptance of responsibility for their development and use -- if we do not sweat drops of blood trying to understand where and how this responsibility can be exercised -- we guarantee the continued corrosion of everything that can be called culture. Telling parents that they should be responsible for their children's Net exposure says nothing at all about the urgent issues. After all, Parents should also be responsible for their children's exposure to mortar shells in a war zone; but most of us would take that to mean: get the children out of this zone if at all possible, and if not, at least do what you can to work toward an end of the war. What, then, does taking responsibility for the Net mean? Not many are offering answers. Resistance to censorship is healthy if it leads us to grant the right of existence to all sorts of value-centered communities and cultural groups, allowing each to develop and express its own character. But if such a free and diverse society is threatened by censorship, it is even more radically threatened by the wholesale transfer of social functions to the Net's culture-dissolving cauldron. This thought, in any case, is what lies behind the following open letter, which was sent to some of the principals in the censorship debate. The letter is an admittedly incendiary attempt to rile people up and get them to thinking on a different level. If the riling is not to your taste (as I'd like to think it usually is not to mine!), I hope you will forgive me. THE GREAT CRUSADE AGAINST CENSORSHIP Really, folks, get serious Stephen L. Talbott As Congress emits its final harrumphs about indecency on the Internet, the whining of our faithful cyberspace anti-cops is reaching its predictable, shrill crescendo. The sound of ripping paper is "what the United States Congress has been doing to the Constitution in the last few months, all in the name of protecting our children," pouts Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The religious right is only weeks away from final victory in its battle to shut American citizens out of the Internet as a medium for uncensored communication," worries Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community. "Congress' absurd actions last week made me finally take a look at sex on the Internet - just to prove that our legislators are fools as well as money-wasters," fumes David Hipschman in his "Cyberland" column. The object of this aroused indignation is a Congress now flirting with adoption of an "indecency standard" for the Internet as part of a telecommunication bill slated for final passage soon. Of course, it is intolerable to have congressional representatives (of all people!) setting cultural standards of decency. But please recognize the companion truth as well: it is intolerable to commit ourselves, our society, our children to a medium in which it is virtually impossible for cultural standards -- or anything recognizable as culture itself -- to arise at all. The Net is, in its fundamental manifestations to date, as corrosive of culture as anything yet conceived by man. Between these two truths, we are trapped, with no obvious exit. To rail against one jaw of the trap while ignoring the other is both unproductive and symptomatic of the blindness that landed us in this predicament to begin with. It also reminds one of how hard it would be to do without that most comforting of enemies -- the censor -- whose dastardly predilections so easily convince us that we are among the more broadminded, liberal, and cultured representatives of society. The fight against censorship is -- or ought to be -- the negative side of something more positive: a desire to protect freedom of expression. One critical place where we require such freedom is in the schooling of our children. Parents should be able to place their children in a school that reflects their deepest convictions about what is true and good and beautiful, about the developmental needs of their children, and about the sort of cultural heritage their children ought to enjoy. Imagine a school system where every parent supposedly had this right to choose a school, but where all schools were jammed into one vast, open, chaotic building, with teachers and students indiscriminately scattered around. If parents had little choice but to submit their children to such a system, then, far from being free and uncensored, it would actually force an ugly and artificial homogenization, removing all the freedom and diversity that should belong to education. The fact is that freedoms are meaningless apart from cultural traditions, reasonably stable institutions, boundaries that allow the flowering of different value systems, places that overflow with the intensity of enfleshed human presence -- in general, apart from a real cultural topography that offers some predictability and constancy, as well as healthy evolution. But all these requirements are exactly what the Net tends to destroy. Yes, political censorship is intolerable. But it is also intolerable that our children should be immersed ever more thoroughly -- and as a matter of concerted, society-wide effort -- in sickeningly unchildlike worlds, cut off from nature, cut off from thick-textured, supportive ethnic milieus against which the young can shape their own lives, and cut off from living, accessible role models. Personally, I consider censorship just about the last issue worth wasting my time on. There are more than enough other people to fill whatever breaches may be opened in the first amendment's defenses. Indeed, the greater danger is that the rush of the masses to fill the breach will cause the entire edifice being defended to topple. This nation will not, over any long term, err dramatically on the side of greater censorship. It remains as true as ever that the easiest way to create a bestseller is to provoke reactions that look censorious. Really, folks, get serious. You know as well as I that if an indecency standard ends up banning the word "breast" from .signature files, the next day there will be millions of such files with that word repeated as often as our ever burgeoning disk space permits. The law would become a joke, and you who have whined the loudest would all become cultural heros. You really ought to hope the law passes. If censorship ever takes hold in all seriousness, our society will dissolve in the ensuing conflict. This points us to the real danger. On what condition can we imagine censorship taking hold? Only if the foundations of society and culture become so deeply threatened that censorship arrives as a desperation measure. But at that point "to censor or not to censor" will not matter much; either way, society will be collapsing. Who knows how fast the wholesale networking of society will bring us to such a pass? If all the shining knights of cyberspace really want to do something worthwhile, let them spend a little while contemplating the dead end to which they have helped bring us by their ceaseless promotion of the Net purely for the exhilaration and the technology of it. Where were they when the demand arose to start putting a computer on every child's desk? Yes, the technology is exciting, after its fashion, but were these advocates asking any profound questions about the nature of the child and of education as they panted after the latest technical gadgetry? What I am looking for is the barest acknowledgment that, well, yes, there are some larger problems having to do with the Net's corrosive effects upon society, and, no, we do not get any closer to solving these merely by voting against censorship at every opportunity. We can only release the trap by pulling both jaws apart, and that means turning off the rose tint on our computer screens and reconsidering the most fundamental terms of our embrace with technology. (Stephen L. Talbott, an editor at O'Reilly & Associates, is author of "The Future Does Not Compute -- Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.") -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** High school students and technology assessment (103 lines) Response to "The Fundamental Deceit of Technology" (NF-1) From Lowell Monke Steve, Thanks for starting this discussion group, and starting it with some concerns that hit home to a lot of us, I'm sure. Your first offering came at just the right time for me. My computer technology class is discussing the role of technology in society and just this week we read excerpts from "Technopoly" in which Postman asserts that once a technology is introduced it plays out its hand and we are forced to adapt to it. In the midst of discussing this idea one of my students made the enthusiasts' claim that you cite - our civilization has been steadily advancing since we have begun making technological changes so what is the problem? I tried to get at this issue by asking the students to consider what has changed for the better in the last 50 years and what has changed for the worse (this required a brief course in ancient history). They had no trouble coming up with things to list on the plus side: Cars (transportation in general), TV (some debate whether this was a plus or minus), computers (no debate), information access, medical science, food production and a few more. Curiously, they had a very difficult time getting started on the minus side. Finally, I suggested families as an example and then they began coming up with things: government, schools, physical fitness, crime, drugs, environment and a few more. It became clear to most of the students that there appeared to be a pretty neat categorical split developing - areas that were _perceived_ as progressing were technological while those things _perceived_ to be declining were personal, social, educational and natural. (I stress the word "perceived" because there seem to be some social areas of progress, like human rights, that cloud the issue) So the next question was, Is there a connection? And if so, is it a cause and effect one? And if so, are the advances worth the declines? Unfortunately, just as I asked these questions the bell rang and, Pavlovian dogs as we have conditioned them to be, they immediately put their thoughts away and went to the next class. But those questions lead me to ask for some clarification in something you wrote in the essay: >There is an alternative, however, and it does not require us to >sacrifice efficiency. Anyone who suggests we give up efficiency for >the sake of human values has missed the critical issue. Efficiency >is never at war with value. I think I have a vague idea of what you are getting at here, but I would appreciate it if you - or someone else who is tuned into this - could expand on this or approach it from a different angle - especially the last sentence. It certainly doesn't fit the admittedly oversimplified dichotomy my students developed and it isn't the common thinking one gets from critics of technology (nor, I might add, do I think it is an argument that would ring true to family farmers in the midwest who are battling the corporate farms that are driving them out of business through the "efficiency" of size). All the best, Lowell Lowell Monke Advanced Computer Technology Des Moines Independent Schools Des Moines, Iowa LM7846s@acad.drake.edu Lowell -- Nice question. The large, agribusiness operations are only more efficient at producing what they produce. If that's what we want, then that's what we should buy. But if we want, say, pesticide-free produce grown in healthy soil, then we will happily pay what it costs today to produce that. The large farms you speak of simply aren't in that business, so they don't threaten the small, organic farm. Or, put it this way: if they do seem to threaten the small farm, it is only because not enough of us are interested in the particular values the small farm produces. So the small farm loses out, not to greater efficiency, but to a different set of values. If a large farm learns to do what the small farm does, but more efficiently -- then more power to it. Many of us will buy from it. But this is no conflict between efficiency and value; it's just efficiency. (Remember, however, that one of the things you and I may choose to value and pay for is a quality of community -- including the quality of the community of people producing the food. Nor is this absurd: we all pay one hell of a lot today for community lost. Just look at the prison and drug war budgets.) In general, it is only as we begin to grow alert to questions of value throughout the economy that we will be able to shape the economy according to human needs, rather than yield to subhuman, technological forces running amok. A reasonable awareness of human responsibility has already grown up in the environmental arena. But the technological surround, as a context for individual responsibility -- has so far escaped even the beginnings of such an awareness. We mostly take up an unconscious relation to the machines we buy, use, program, and make policy for. [SLT] -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Automatic Phone Answering Can Improve Customer Service (58 lines) Response to "The Fundamental Deceit of Technology" (NF-1) From Ray Brownrigg Steve: I would like to respond to part of your article in the first issue of netfuture. > I work for a book publisher, O'Reilly & Associates. It is now > possible for us to exchange our customer service people for an order- > taking telephone system. I hope we don't. Much of the company's > success has arisen from its unusually close contact with its readers. > A bond of mutual trust and respect has developed, which influences the > quality of our books. I think you CAN have it both ways. That is, you can introduce the technology, AND maintain the reputation for good customer service. The key is whether or not the customer "trusts and respects" the technology (or interface) provided. I have not encountered these voice recognition systems, but I have experienced the touch-tone activated type in both telephone answering and electronic banking situations. The overall problem I see is that there are too few opportunities (sometimes none) to "break out" of the sequence and speak to a real person (or even just to start over). I can envisage a book ordering system in which if you knew exactly what you wanted, and it was available, and all payment details had been pre-arranged, you the customer would prefer to use touch-tone or voice recognition to make the transaction, particularly if it meant that the transaction would be possible outside of 'normal working hours'. However, what is essential, and usually lacking, is a continuously operative 'escape to human' key, which would ideally use your current context to connect you to an appropriate person, and make available to that person the transaction history of your current call (so that you wouldn't have to re-state the catalog number if you were ordering a book, or the extension number of the person you were trying to call, e.g.). The requirement is, of course, that some real software needs to be developed to handle this interface to the customer. I suspect the requirements of this software are far in advance of what is currently provided. > > If we learn to care about these things, we will happily pay for them > in every product and service -- not because we have given up > efficiency, but because we now seek ends that simply cannot be > mechanically contrived. We will no longer lash out against our > machines. Nor will we fail to recognize the anti-human consequences > of a progress conceived in purely technical terms. I agree. The scenario I paint above may not be much more efficient, because you still need the staff to be available to handle the "escapes to human" requests. But I believe it will still maintain, or enhance, the reputation for good customer service. Regards Ray Brownrigg (email@example.com) http://www.isor.vuw.ac.nz/~ray -------------------------------------------------------------------------- *** Monthly posting of netfuture guidelines (67 lines) netfuture is a moderated forum -- the moderation is one of our responses to the problem of information quality on the Net. Initially, the concept of the list hovers indecisively between that of a moderated discussion presented in digest form, and that of an informal electronic journal. No one's worrying; we'll see how things evolve under the pressures of your participation. After all, what really works in this new medium may not have been discovered yet, so why not keep an open mind? All published materials will be reviewed for * readability (the sloppiness characteristic of so much electronic communication will be nudged toward a minimum, as a courtesy to readers, although informality is encouraged) * substantive, well thought-out content * relevance to the (not yet fully defined) themes of the list There is no preordained limit upon the length of contributions, although for obvious reasons a shorter piece may have better chances than an excessively long one. But if the long one contains the year's decisive insight regarding technology and the responsible human being, we'll still probably use it! Submissions may be edited for length and presentability, but your permission will be asked before any such revision is posted. The overarching theme of the list is "Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future." What this really means will doubtless become clear only as readers help to make it clear. But here is a first shot at exemplifying (and by no means exhausting) relevant topics: * What, within the human being, drives the success and progress of the Net? * How does technology determine us and how do we determine technology? That is, where are we most free, where are we most unfree, and where is the greatest promise of extending our freedom? As technology changes the face of society, are we masters of the change, or are we being taken for a ride by forces we can no longer control? * Does it matter how we form all those little habits that shape our interaction with computers -- from the way we scan the words of another human being, to the way we hammer out our own words, to the way we bow with our attention before the unfolding pattern of screen events, to the way we submit our senses and bodies to be trained by electronic technology? * Does it matter when we support, through our purchases and use, new technological capabilities that exist solely because the massive machinery of research has made them possible -- that is, when we add our own share to the impetus of a largely self-driven technological evolution? What are the human implications of such an evolution? * How are we being affected by computerized technology in our self-image, our personal relationships, our attitudes toward community? Is the talk about the Net as an intimate or democratizing or prejudice-free medium justified? * Is the computer affecting education as advertised, or is it redefining what it means to learn and teach--and in ways we have not yet fully recognized? If you are in doubt about a possible contribution, there is no loss of face in simply testing the waters. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- About this list Copyright 1995 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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To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #2 :: December 21, 1995