NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #18 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates April 30, 1996 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's note *** Tyranny of the 21st century How to get education backwards *** `Saving' time, money, and physical resources (Jeff Wright) From dishwashers to nuclear power plants *** Search engines bring our skeletons out of the closet (Matt Midboe) And it's a good thing: no more vain pretense *** Commercial databases and your phone number (P. Eads) The unapproachability of Yahoo *** Note about Tarthang Tulku, Tibetan lama (Carl Wittnebert) Do straitened minds compensate with mystical hopes? *** Luciferian revolt or Electric Gaia? (Michel Bauwens) How optimists and pessimists look at the Net *** Higher consciousness or abdication of responsibility? (Don Porter) Mystical hopes are without foundation *** The web and the hunger for higher consciousness (Randy Hinrichs) We don't clearly understand what the web is doing *** Erratum re: the creatures of Palador *** About this newsletter
A collection of comments from readers in this issue--mostly on "mysticism in cyberspace." Personally, I find myself deeply unsatisfied on the issue. I hope we can revisit it later.
A side note: you might want to consider an invitation from the editor of the Interpersonal Computing and Technology Journal (IPCT-J), Sue Barnes. She writes that good journal articles sometimes start out as electronic exchanges. "If any of the people on your list want to turn their debates on computers and education into articles, I would be interested in them for IPCT-J."
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By coincidence, I've been spending a good deal of time lately with teachers and students of education--most recently with the extraordinary class of Prof. Douglas Sloan's at Columbia Teachers College. Such bright spots aside, it is appalling to see how utterly impotent the educational establishment as a whole has been when it comes to raising even the slightest critical question about the wholesale importation of computerized technology into the educational process. (Sloan remarked that there's a lot of pressure to reduce Columbia to a kind of technical institute focused on the new technologies.) It's hard to imagine that any discipline could be as conformist, spineless, and lemming-like as this one seems to be. When you consider that these are the people who will educate the new generation--well, how do you salvage any optimism for the future?
The battle cry is "preparing students for the 21st century." This is backward. We should be concerned about preparing a 21st century worthy of our students. That is, we should, in the first place, help students become the kind of persons who can determine what sort of job is worth creating and having, rather than training them to fit whatever jobs the system happens to be cranking out.
I remember hearing Prof. Joseph Weizenbaum give a talk many years ago, where he pointed out that children no more need computer literacy than they need automobile literacy. They absorb it through their pores. In any case, the software they become familiar with today will not be the software they are required to use on the job several years from now. The courses on computers they really need are like the courses on automobiles they occasionally get: sober introductions to the nature and risks of the tools they will be using. This does not require adapting any part of the conventional primary or secondary curriculum to the computer (just as the "automobile literacy" course does not require adapting the rest of the curriculum to the automobile). In fact, it scarcely requires any use of the computer at all, since the essence of the subject has to do with algorithmic thinking, not hardware.
The joke of it all is that teachers are now running around frantically trying to figure out how to use the computer in the classroom, and more often than not it's the kids who show them how. Nevertheless, society continues to hemorrhage billions of dollars for infrastructure, equipment, and training, lest the kids somehow be left behind in the brave, technological march toward the future.
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I enjoyed your essay using the washing machine example. I have been contemplating along the same lines, but the machine in question is the dishwasher.
The same analysis makes sense for money (and physical resources) as well as time. I recently enjoyed reading "The Ecology of Commerce" by Paul Hawkin. The author examines the "hidden costs" associated with supposedly "inexpensive" products, which appear when you take larger systems into account.
A large-scale example is nuclear power plants, which are said to be negative producers (or shall we just say, losers) of both energy and money, when decommissioning, waste management, and other big picture effects are taken into account. Hawkin says the government-run British nuclear industry was not able to privatize, because no business would buy the plants, or even accept them for free, since they understood the real costs.
But the dishwasher's an open-and-shut case. I don't know why I keep using the thing, other than "because it's there". It seems questionable, even without considering the extra time I work to pay for the extra detergent and water and electricity it uses, or the indirect environmental costs. First you rinse the dishes by hand (or they don't clean right). Then you load them, in a careful, technically correct manner (or they don't clean right). Then you run the sucker, and put up with the noise and clanking and lose just a tiny bit of mental health wondering what's going wrong in there. Then you come back later. Then you unload the sucker (reverse of the above, as they say in shop manuals). You end up handling each dish multiple times, instead of the one organic, connected process of hand-washing. Add to this the subjective effects (e.g. I like the way hand-washing feels compared to the technoid loading/unloading process). The one experience is relaxing, the other is boring -to- irritating. I also suspect my manual dexterity gets a boost, compared to the slow atrophy of having everything mechanical done for me by various machines.
Of course, this is a partly personal accounting. If what you do is wash dishes for a living, or have a negative attitude about that sort of "work", or really "like" machine noise, the balance may tilt back towards the dishwasher's favor. Maybe.
-- Jeff Wright
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This is what Kirk McElhearn (email@example.com) had to say:
Many of us have ideas that we later renounce, but when the words are there in black and bits, it is hard to place the necessary distance between the us-then and the us-now. Okay, I am probably ashamed of some of the things I did when I was a teenager, but I would not like to have to defend them now.I think that you should look at this from a completely different angle. For the first time in our history we are going to finally be forced to drop all these foolish social pretensions. If you want to have sex with minerals there is no reason you should have to worry about it. This may be a lot more common than you think. Everyone on this planet has skeletons in their closet, some just have a lot more righteous indignation about it than others. This technology is finally going to break down all those barriers. Everyone is going to have some sort alt.sex.mineral moment preserved on some sort of alta vista somewhere. So finally we won't have to keep such things closeted. People will finally realize it is okay to be human and make mistakes. Why should you defend your actions as a teenager? If you made a mistake you learn from it and don't repeat it.
We could advance humanity by leaps and bounds if we didn't have to worry about our alt.sex.mineral moments from the past. The only way I see that happening is by capturing everyone's public indiscretions. Which is exactly some of the great potential that an alta vista has. Also there are enormous anthropological benefits to storing all the information. People will be able to look back on our society and really know what we were like. If someone had a public alt.sex.mineral moment then they live with it. Everyone has these, and it isn't going to hurt anything. We can only gain by having all those moments preserved for posterity. As long as everyone's embarrassing moment is preserved and their is no bias. For the first time, we won't be tyrannized by the more powerful individual who can have his past "cleaned."
I am not advocating the invasion of privacy. If you sent something out originally as private mail, you should be able to encrypt it in the most secure way possible. Also it should always remain private. However, we must learn to take responsibility for our public actions. Far far to often that responsibility just vanishes because it is to easy to deny the event ever happened. At that point it just becomes easier and easier to eschew responsibility. We become just a nation of castrati and sacrifice our individuality and rights to free expression because we don't want to have an opinion on something that might be preserved and thrown back at us later.
The second thing is to be aware that someone is listening. That whatever we say on the Net will be stored someplace. If Digital can do it, I am sure they would sell the necessary equipment to any government agency that asks for it (which they have probably already done). Alta Vista is more cost-effective than wiretaps.There again you should look at this from another angle. As private citizens we are going to have cost-effective wiretaps on the government. This technology isn't driven by deeper political motives. It's an unbiased engine of justice. :) Here again we just need to encrypt anything that we don't want thrown into a search engine. Our privacy is not being abridged by this technology. I think the comparison to wiretaps is invalid. I tend to think of wiretaps as something that is used to catalog private communications. The search technology is just here to index publically available material. Matt
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I would also like to comment about internet companies such as Yahoo who have become a public company yet ignore the requests of the users who try to contact them about content that they carry that is personal information that should be private.
For example, if you go to Yahoo, they have a section called People. You tap into that section and with a name, email address, or phone number, you can try to track down people. I don't disagree that the database can be useful, but I dislike the fact that you cannot get your information removed from that database owned by Database America, Inc. You can email the folks at Yahoo until Hades freezes over, and they will not answer you nor provide any information about how to contact this company so that you can get your information removed.
It is not a pleasant experience to find that your name, address and phone number are freely available to anyone who taps into this database. A person has no idea how the information got into the database and no idea of how to eradicate it.
I would like to see companies/people who maintain search engines to take the responsibility of providing a contact with the database companies so that you can get personal information removed from the database if so desired or get a person's permission before adding them to a database.
The final straw is that you don't find any of the owners of Yahoo in that database, but I bet that you'll find yourself -- I did.
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One of the prominent themes within the culture of the Net, showing up in varied forms, has to do with the expected emergence of some sort of mystical / collective / higher / global consciousness.An interesting writer on this general topic is Tarthang Tulku, an immigrant Tibetan lama now living in California. From what I understand of his Time, Space, and Knowledge books, I imagine he would find it quite ludicrous to think that some mechanical extension to human knowing could transform its nature.
As citizens of modern society, we follow a trend toward measuring success and achievement in materialistic terms, according to which this society's knowledge is the most advanced the world has ever known. [But] we have learned that knowledge of how to accomplish specific ends does not necessarily prevent conflict or confusion; instead it may actually promote certain kinds of dislocation and danger....We have begun to wonder whether the growth in technological knowledge may not conceal the absence of other kinds of knowing. [Love of Knowledge, 1987]Where that leads is the possibility that speculation on some glorious future for consciousness is a compensation for the increasingly stressful and constricted circumstances in which it finds itself today.
Personally, I could accept more modest claims for the consciousness- expanding benefits of cyberspace. If used in a disciplined way, it can be helpful...but the keyword is "effort."
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I have very much enjoyed the recent discussions in Netfuture, especially those touching on the 'spiritual' aspects. I'd like to add my own thoughts to this.
First of all, I believe humankind has 2 basic attitudes towards the universe around us, attitudes we can broadly define as 'Optimism' vs. 'Pessimism'. Both attitudes arise from our frustrations in living in an imperfect world. Optimists will tend to place their hopes on the future, and are convinced that there is an Utopia waiting for us, or that is at least worth striving for. Optimists will tend to see progress and stress the 'evolutionary' aspects of history. Pessimists are convinced that there was a past when things were better and place their Utopia in the past (the 'Golden Age' theme).
Pessimists will thus tend towards a 'devolutionary' point of view of history and see increasing degeneration. This split can be found in almost all areas of human culture. Look at politics and see how the Right wants to conserve 'how things were' and the Left wants to change things 'for the better'. Look at our technology discussion in Netfuture and see how Extropians place their hopes in a future 'Digital Utopia' and how neo-Luddites such as the ecofeminists and ecomasculinists place their Utopia in the horticultural or 'hunter-gatherer' societies. Finally look at the spiritual points of view and especially at the Wisdom Tradition (or 'Perennial Philosophy') which is also marred by a profound split between the spiritual Pessimists (Guenon, Evola, Schuon) and the spiritual Optimists (Hegel, de Chardin, Wilber).
These points of view are metaphysical pre-suppositions that cannot be proven but they are the glasses through which we see. For the latter [Optimists'] point of view I particular recommend the latest book by Ken Wilber (in my view the most important living author), i.e. 'A Brief History of Everything', for a cogent view of the evolutionary interpretation of social, spiritual and technological history.
I have written a quite substantial essay on this, which is stored at http://www.iocom.be/pilot/techspir.txt. In the essay I start from the split in the Wisdom Tradition (which I assume exists) and look at current technology from both vantage points. In short, the Pessimistic interpretation, called 'Deus Ex Machina' looks at the Technological Project as a Luciferian revolt against God and against all 'Nature-imposed' limits. It sees technology as a misguided externalisation of some our human powers that ends up handicapping our inner spiritual attributes. The end logic of this evolution is the creation of an all-powerful Machine-God (which some may perhaps one day want to interpret as the 'Anti-Christ').
The Optimistic Interpretation also sees technology as an extension of our senses but sees this as positive. The 'Electric Gaia' hypothesis sees the internet as the creation of the necessary technological base for a new phase in the growth of human consciousness, towards a 'worldcentric' point of view. While the 'naive' and determinist 'optimists' will see it as a sufficient condition, the more 'realistic' school will see it as a 'necessary but not sufficient' condition. This is for example the point of view of Ken Wilber who points out that if you give the powers of the internet to 'neo-Nazis', then more mayhem will result, and not progress. Nevertheless he maintains that technologies like the internet make it possible for the masses of people (characterized by what he calls 'the average level' of consciousness, in opposition to the more advanced modes of the spiritual elites) to move from 'national consciousness' to 'transnational' consciousness.
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I think the idea that some form of collective consciousness may emerge from the Net arises as a result of the realization by most of us that we have largely abdicated any attempt to influence its growth and development. We attempt to compensate for that abdication by adopting a belief that, somehow, the Net will still evolve on its own into some sort of a "higher" form of mass consciousness uniting us all. In part, I think the belief serves to offset some of our growing realization that the Net can actually drive us farther apart when it comes to personal interactions on a daily basis.
So, I don't think it represents some sort of a near-mystical vision. It's more of an attempt at wish-fulfillment. Like most wishes, its probability of coming true doesn't appear very great.
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To ask the question "are we masters of the Web or trapped in it" is pretty much the same as asking about our own destiny as human beings. Are we put on the Earth by our creator to shape our own destiny or are we victims of a tightly woven destiny, in which we simply play out the design?
This question has never been fully answered by anyone. Faith, ultimately, transects any rational explanation. We convince ourselves of an answer, a solution to this most perplexing human problem, and we build our world upon it. We have no other recourse.
The World Wide Web is another expression of our need to globally communicate with a higher consciousness. The attraction is to find answers to questions we have been asking for generation after generation. We are hoping that the answers will come from experts, from content genius, who have dedicated a lifetime to mulling over the answers we seek. We hope that through the glimmer of electronic communication, we will discover a moment of truth from them. The computer creates an atmosphere in which we are permitted to safely question ourselves about any topic, anonymously. Whatever the responses to our queries, the results are interpreted within our own realm of experience. We gain knowledge about our own knowledge, confirming what we know, and developing more questions about what we don't know.
Our experiences don't have to be so introverted and self-reflective, We can equally move out onto the web and chat with other individuals asking similar questions. We pursue group thinking, like we seek extraterrestrial contact, always hoping that we are not alone in the universe, and seeking information, confirmation, or validation. Why? Because we don't want to suffer alone. We don't want to be caught balancing the beauty of our experiences with the tragedy of our misfortunes without some knowledge that it all means something. So we ask others, "does it mean anything to you"? "Do you understand something that I don't, and if so, can you enlighten me, so I can get on with perfecting my life".
The web is enchanting, like dreams, where we are the architects of perfection. We can leave our bodies, and float aimlessly through virtual cyberworlds, like Alphaworld, http://www.worlds.net/alphaworld/ and build new worlds that have different rules, different objects, different dreams. In virtual worlds, we can escape for a moment from the web we weave, where we are both victim and predator. In cyberspace, we are the predators of knowledge, truth, and God (I wonder what His URL is?). We hope to satisfy our hunger within the collective unconscious, owning up to our need to love and be loved. The World Wide Web can provide us with all of these experiences, unhindered and unembarrassed. But like life itself, it can entrap us, leaving us unloved, unknowledgeable, unconcerned about the hopelessness of others. These are the dreams that turn into nightmares, fragmenting our souls. We question "how did I go wrong", and we believe our route of inquiry was misleading. We shut down communication.
All communication begins within. The Web provides a window to the external world, with people on the other end who choose to communicate with you. The choice to communicate is what determines the character of the individual. It seems that choice is what makes us free. We choose to hook up to the web, we choose to communicate on the web, we choose to believe in the web, we choose to become part of the total human experience. It is within combined and shared human experience that our united voice can be heard. Perhaps there is an answer to the meaning of life in this shared voice. Perhaps that answer will come when we speak in one voice. Perhaps the unity of one voice is the answer to our question, why are we here. If so, the web will bring us closer to knowing. But, only inside our hearts, souls and minds, will we really know if it's real or not. The web can only simulate our feelings.
We do not understand clearly what the web is doing. It has become its own entity. China may require every Internet connection to be registered by the police, but they'll never control the ability of the user to communicate with the rest of the world and ask "are you the master of your own destiny?" or "do you feel trapped by a world that is designed and managed by a higher authority?" There will be some very surprised Chinese authorities in the next couple of years. There will also be some very surprised believers when the collective unconscious of the world wide web responds "Yes, we're out here!"
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In Jiri Baum's little piece about Arthur C. Clarke's story, "Rescue Party," a line dropped out during production, leading to an unfortunate reversal of an intended meaning. Where the text read, (quoting Clarke),
"When a creature of Palador spoke, the pronoun it used was always singular in the language of Palador."It should have read,
"When a creature of Palador spoke, the pronoun it used was always 'We'. There was not, nor could there ever be, any first person singular in the language of Palador."(Old troff hackers will recognize what happened.)
Our apologies to Jiri Baum for the error.
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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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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #18 :: April 30, 1996