NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #8 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates February 26, 1996 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. ########################################################################## #### Don't forget the $5000 SPIDER OR FLY? deadline: April 30, 1996 #### ########################################################################## CONTENTS: *** A nineteenth-century man confronts the computer `I glorify silence in front of my low-tech coal fire' *** Communications technology and the magic of relationship (Mark Grundy) Grandmother can speak through any medium *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 3 (Richard Sclove) The Net and democracy *** They used to kill bison (Don Bell) 20th-century technology has not made us less sensitive *** The enemies of the profound word (Leslie DeGroff) But time will resolve much of the problem of quality *** Ballad of the spider and the fly (Gandalf Parker) Now what was I looking for? *** About this newsletter
Conversation with Peter Quince
You will not meet Peter Quince on the Net. He refuses to come near a computer. Sometimes, however, it is good for us to hear the voice of someone we would normally not encounter. With that in mind, I share the following extracts from my correspondence with Mr. Quince.
P. G. Quince
12 Stephens Close
Kent ME13 7SS
6 October 1995
Dear Mr. Talbott,
I have read some--not yet all--of your book `The Future Does Not Compute', and as a result I feel a strong compulsion to write to you. May I explain why?
I am [a] high school English teacher by profession and a writer by inclination, who is struggling in this world to make some sense of what I regard as madness and absurdity around me.
Part of that madness--an ominously growing part--resides in computers. I reject modern society; I see only bleak visions of the future--a future in which human beings finally sever themselves from their age-old realities, and certainties, by computerised machinery and global networks.
To me it is a nightmare scenario and one I hope to avoid by escaping, wherever I can, before I am drawn into the robot's claws. I glory in everything `old-fashioned' as my way of hitting back, of saying `No' to prevailing fashions.
Part of my problem (and I recognise yours)--as a citizen, as a father, as a teacher--lies in resisting the inexorable, one might say fascistic, pressures of modern high technology. What can I do?
One begins to feel marginalised, isolated, characterised as some kind of `Luddite'. I do not trust machines, or love them; I find them ultimately unsatisfying and dehumanising; I consider that the Internet's claim to "community" is an entirely spurious one. Face-to-face contact is the only worthy kind.
Your book--at least the early sections I have read--give me, and those who would protest at everything `anti-human' which is now developing apace, some hope. You express positive outcomes, the possibility of redeeming human values. Yes, good! I applaud the tone, the desire.--But I am also somewhat puzzled, and have a few questions. I cannot go along with you the whole way. At least I don't think so. The sections of your book I have yet to read may yield the answers, may reassure me that you are not another of those writers who, whilst savaging computer culture, nevertheless cannot do without the electronic drug. I can; I am doing without it, and surviving, except where the bank, the office, the school, the library, force-feed me on data that cannot now be manipulated in any other form.
For me it is an act of faith--something in the spirit, which also lives in your book, I feel--not to utilise anything high-tech. Why should I? To be `modern'? To conform? To take advantage of dehumanisation? To let my soul be taken?...
What do I do?--I write, I learn to paint with watercolours; I absorb art and nature (machine-antidotes); I perfect my own `escapes'; I glorify silence in front of my low-tech coal fire. What else? The screens are closing in; the Net's holes must be tiny, allowing little through. Yet I feel immensely sane in a mad, fragmenting world....
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3 November 1995
Dear Mr. Quince,
I read your letter with the greatest pleasure. Not often do I hear from someone who seems such a kindred spirit. Even your questioning of my own use of the computer I enjoyed--and I hasten to add that I do not "cling" to the computer (any longer) as a forbidden fruit I cannot give up (I would happily be done with the thing), but rather feel an obligation to penetrate it as far as possible with my understanding. That at least some people have done this will, I think, be desperately important in the not-so-distant future. Nor can I view the computer--or any other thing--as an intrinsic evil. Every tool is a challenge to be overcome. The [invention of the] book--which was such a huge step in the detachment of the word from its human source--was also a challenge, and many of us handled it badly, hoarding books as if their wisdom were somehow our own. The computer, in many ways, simply carries the challenge of the book further, now setting these detached words in motion--words conversing with words....
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dear Steve Talbott,
Thank you for your letter of 3rd November....
What disturbs me greatly is the awareness that most of those individuals (though thankfully not all) who strongly criticize computer use in general, nevertheless use them, seem likely to continue to use them, and assume (in many cases) that the rest of us are bound, sooner or later, to use them. This is not true. I may be the last `neo-Luddite' on earth (such a term has been used `against' me) but I stubbornly refuse contact with computers, considering that such contact will diminish me in some way....
It is difficult, though. I teach English in a high school where almost every member of staff, from the Headteacher down, thinks computers are essential, educative and `hip'. There is enormous investment in hardware and software, often at the expense of books, pens, art materials and other `basic' teaching tools. I find this appalling, but my criticisms of the system have to be, perforce, muted, otherwise my job would be on the line--and at present I need my teaching job! To express anti-computer views in a `mainline' British school these days is a heresy, punishable (one expects) by excommunication. I am hanging on, but only just. I keep computers out of my own classroom, but I expect the school's management to put pressure on in the years to come and explain to me, diplomatically no doubt, why it is essential for me and my room to be as `networked' and `state-of-the-art' as everyone and everywhere else. ('State-of-the-art' is a key phrase that all techno-enthusiasts must use at every appropriate moment, so I've discovered.)
Your Appendix C, "Education without Computers", struck a deep chord in me. I couldn't agree more. When I finished reading that section of the book (and thus completed it) I felt like bringing it to the attention of many of the teachers, and management, in my school. But then I thought, `What's the use? They are all fully indoctrinated now. They will politely read it, smile, say `Yes, very interesting' and then continue on the technological roundabout'. And then `Quince' would further deepen his reputation as a bit of an eccentric, a maverick, a Luddite in sheep's clothing, an enemy of progress.
My own orientation to the world is rooted deeply in Nature. I write pastoral verse, and fiction which generally sits against a natural landscape.
I am interested in the `concrete', the `reality' of nature, as man and woman (but especially children) have always been. I am trying to learn to paint with watercolours--landscapes, seascapes, villages: real things. And these real things also point to the transcendent, the divine, the nebulous, that which cannot really be put into words (and surely cannot be debased as "information")....
Computers draw us away from ourselves, rip out the centre, seek to replace the rhythms of nature (primordially learnt) with the synthetic rhythms of endless arid streams of electronic pulses. This seems to me nonsensical. And yet I am surrounded by people, many millions, who are worshippers at the shrine of Bill Gates.
Am I becoming a little hysterical? I sometimes wonder. But deep down, in heart and soul, I know that I am right to question the very existence of these machines: if I can do without a machine, then I will do without.
I think maybe we differ in that you seem to be saying that it's fine to use these machines (computers, primarily) if we can master them and understand them fully, and if they don't dominate us. I say `to hell with the machines'--and my proof of freedom is that I don't need them, except when I say that I do. To me, the freedom lies in being able to reject computers, etc., as superfluous to my own life.
To this end I am now seeking a simpler lifestyle, a new direction, yes, maybe a return to a more traditional style of living based on simple tools rather than complex machinery. (If the truth were known, I am a nineteenth-century man who finds himself uncomfortably wedged at the end of the twentieth and looking horrified into the abyss of the twenty-first). Hey-ho, I shall continue to write nature poems, paint watercolours, bake bread, till the ground, ride my bicycle, read bedtime stories beside a log-fire, and embark upon my next novel, written like this letter with a fountain-pen (more passion, more immediacy), all without the mediation of the computer screen....
(Added thanks for writing to me in longhand--I get a sense of you from that which I would never get if you typed.)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jan. 24, 1996
Dear Peter Quince --
After leaving your letter to lie within plain sight on my desk (a few inches from my computer!) as a kind of warm memory during these past several weeks, I have just now re-read it and repeated my original pleasure in "hearing" its author speak. You are indeed a man after my own heart, but with this difference: many of the things you are actually doing, I only wish I were doing. So there, already, is a point scored in your favor!
I am not among those who would urge upon you the inevitability of an eventual rapprochement with computers. Even in the face of the most determined social rush toward disaster, there are, I think two perfectly legitimate alternatives. One person may work within the system to the bitter end, seeking by whatever means to moderate the destructive forces. Another person, leaving the "System" to its own fate, may choose (perhaps in a community of like-minded people) to cultivate those enduring values the wise presence of which will be crucial for any effort at reconstruction after the fall.
I could not possibly find it within myself to condemn either choice. Both, I suspect, are essential to the best possible outcome. And both--if they are the heart's honest response to its highest calling--represent the true good.
But you yourself almost seem convinced that the dreaded rapprochement is inescapable--as when you envision your school's management requiring you to yield. Perhaps you have in mind that you would quit first. In any case, your pessimism may be overstated. The cycle for fads these days is exceedingly short. (Remember television as the savior of education? Remember computer-aided instruction? Remember computer literacy and the teaching of BASIC?) The current mania for Net-based education might just possibly go the way of the other fads. You may, of course, rightly point out the residual question: Will society be any more successful in extricating itself from the Net than it has been in moderating the social effects of the much-scorned television? To see the problems of a medium is not necessarily to escape its hold, once we have adapted society to it.
In sum, I will not quarrel with you when you say, "to hell with the machines." But even the devil plays his needful role in human development. I am enclosing a recent article I wrote ("Every Tool Is an Obstacle"), the conclusion of which was directly the result of reflection upon your concerns: The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend it will destroy us.
I trust you will keep me closely informed of your journey. I must get to know it, for I may one day have the satisfaction of walking it myself!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sunday, 4th February 1996
It was a real joy to receive your recent letter. Thank you also for `Every Tool Is an Obstacle': I read it with great interest. I do see your point about the books-computer continuum, and from the viewpoint of history/logic, I must agree; but as a lover of books--the feel of the pages, the mustiness of old books, the handmade beauty of some--my heart and my guts tell me that there is something very different. (Some people's idea of the "library of the future"--all disks and screens in a squeaky-clean, "efficient" environment, fills me with horror. Like Clifford Stoll in `Silicon Snake Oil', I would like to see 21st-century libraries full of books on shelves, old oak panelling, card-indexes! and the age-old smell of polish.)...
I pride myself on a study which is unreconstructedly `old-fashioned' and screen-free and full of the warm junk of my imagination and graced with bits of the natural world. I know that I would, even today, consider the conspicuous presence of a computer anywhere in sight in my medieval study an unacceptable intrusion, oppressive to the spirit, and not something I would wish to visit upon my two daughters when they come in and see me scratching away at letters or poems or watercolours. "Art and nature can play a healing role"....
My "journey" is made with considerable inner toughness and spiritual belief, despite the materialistic pressures and scientific mindset I experience every day. It is essential, I feel, to stick to one's path, however solitary that may at times seem. I think it is a major challenge of today to "be oneself".
There seems to me deep irony--I am amused and interested--in your request to quote my letters in `Netfuture'. I trust your integrity; I can sense in your words your goodness and honesty; and I do still enjoy the afterglow of your book. So, yes, go ahead; but I must add that I am naturally interested in all possible responses (if any) from your "surf-readers" and so would you consider adding my address in order that I might receive support/condemnation via old-fashioned `snail-mail'? (Can these keyboarders still wield a pen to good effect--as you can?). I'm sorry, my flippancy begins to master me. I should halt here and now, go light my fire and contemplate the coming of spring.
I have very much more to say to you and to ask you on the subject of computers; it feels like a whole bookful of questions and statements. But maybe these things best ferment over time, are eked out without the terrible gush of the word-processor.
My very best wishes to you, for the time being.
(Peter Quince's address was given at the beginning of these extracts. SLT)
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[In NF-4 Mark Grundy offered some interesting remarks about prejudice and the Net. This led to a brief, private exchange between Mark and me, and his submission of a follow-up article. Here are some excerpts from the exchange--beginning with a note from Mark. SLT]
The Internet is sure to change who we think we are. Once all my family and all my friends are connected, I cannot expect to hold the same relationships with them that I now have. Your example of the car last issue [NF-3] was a good one, because it showed how conveniently we can separate ourselves from bothersome family issues nowadays. If it gets too tough for you to handle, you just move states. But the Internet is different. It's quite likely that our workplace and family environments will converge, once our grandparents get connected and can fill their days sending us video mail. I can only guess at what this will do to our already bizarre social values.
Family dysfunctionality has been very convenient for us in the second half of this century. Keeping ourselves isolated from our families is a great way of closeting behaviour and motives that we'd rather not think about. As families are the first place we learn compassion and human understanding, putting our families aside is also a convenient way for us to selectively blinker these things in favour of financial benefit and lifestyle freedom. I cannot imagine that the Internet will warp us back into the days of Mom and apple pie, but I shouldn't be surprised if we don't get some very interesting personal chickens coming home to roost in our psyches.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Grandparents sending us video mail." But there always seems to be a double edge to this sort of thing. Does it mean that grandparents with whom we've had little contact will now seem part of the family? Or does it mean that those direct, face-to-face exchanges we still have with family, friends, and colleagues will increasingly be dropped in favor of the more convenient electronic exchange?
Which is more important: bringing our remote contacts a step closer by means of the network, or losing more of whatever face-to-face contact remains? I would say the latter. The image of grandmother on a screen will only carry a degree of magic for the child who still has a fresh memory of the magic of the real presence. Otherwise, there's not much to distinguish this face from all the others on the tube.
I'd guess that the chickens coming home to roost will not be the result of a reinforcement of the presence of family, but rather the result of our being given the near-perfect means to complete our escape from family. Where is the indication that, as a society, we intend a reversal of the historical movement? And if our intentions remain unchanged, the technology certainly gives us excellent means to carry them out.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
[Mark submitted the following article in response. SLT]
When I was a child, I used to believe that my grandmother had magic telephone powers. I was certain that she could see me as I talked to her, because this wise and charismatic mother of six was brilliant at guessing what I was doing as I spoke. In fact, her telephone could not only divine my present, but also cast auguries over my past and future. She could tell me what I'd done during the day, and what I planned to do tomorrow -- and this from hundreds of miles away, as I held the heavy handset close and let her scratchy voice trickle softly into my ear. While I was both intimidated and enchanted by her in person, my relationship with my grandmother over the phone was just unique.
It wasn't just the telephone. The first typewritten letter I got was from my grandmother. The neat, evenly-spaced text with its bold seriphs was portentous of great things, and laden with all the ponderous weight of her age and authority. Thanks in part, to her, I used to believe that the silver-haired newsreaders on television could see me, and would chide me if I misbehaved. When the news was on, my conversation would drop to a whisper, and I'd hide by the arm of the sofa, close to my parents, while the man spoke to them sonorously of grave, adult matters. I once met a television newsreader while getting my hair cut in a barber-shop, and couldn't understand why he didn't recognise me, and ask me why I didn't like the taste of cod. These things are all a legacy of my childhood family relationships.
In high school I avidly taught myself to touch-type because even as a teenager, I craved my grandmother's power, and dreamed of the letters I'd write her. I learned to listen carefully in conversations, and to hear meanings in silence because she inspired me to do so. I learned the art of projecting masks, and of reading the masks that people project because of the games she played with me as a kid. Reflecting on our recent conversations, I've only now come to see that my career in communications technology is woven inextricably with the childhood magic of my formative family relationships. It is not at all a convenient way to escape those relationships, but rather an evocation of those things. Nowadays, although I love to see my family in the flesh, I still want to write to them, or talk by phone. I would want to do that even if they all lived next door. The magic is still there. I can whip myself for this fact, or I can see it for what it is.
It's becoming something of a mantra for us to chant in our Netfuture reflections: it's not the technology, but our intentions that will decide our future. But this is only half the story. If intentions alone were enough, then we would at once be changing the lives of our readers with the sweep of a mouse, daily shattering our preconceptions on the heady onslaught of new challenges, at once asserting our right to relationship dysfunctionality when our social responsibilities and burgeoning lifestyle choices demand it, and still reinserting ourselves at will into tender and intimate relationships with all the convenience of our growing telecommunications arsenal. These are things we all want, after all.
Instead, our unguided intentions lead us to frantically scatter wisdom's gravel into an increasingly voracious maelstrom, and peer vainly for any ripple to show the passage of our efforts. Our unguided intentions raise walls of glass and phosphor in our relationships, but strap us with guilt for this convenience when we catch up in the flesh. Is this because we are somehow an inferior grade of human to our ancestors, or is it because our relationship skills were formed in an earlier era, and are barely keeping pace?
The message that my child-self has awoken to remind me is simply this: that the magic of any communications technology is the magic of relationship. There is no difference. As you discover the medium, so you discover the message. Just as my fingers can speak in massage, so they can speak in typography. The masks we wear in glowing text are no more intrinsically compelling nor enchanting than the masks we wear in daily life. It is not just my intentions that will shape my future, but also the means I choose to inspire and enact them.
If we want to reflect on relationship under the pretext of technological
discussion, then perhaps it's convenient in this era for us to do that.
In the past, we've done the same with astronomy, chemistry, biology,
zoology and mechanics. Each time, the questions are the same. Only the
language changes, couched in the terms of the times. I don't pretend to
know the answers for today, but I do know this: that the answers we gain,
if they are to endure, must be answers that our kids will believe in. It
is not ourselves, but our children for whom this communication will be a
formative way to learn relationships. It will be the skills they learn
thereby, that will mould the lasting shape of the internet.
Dr Mark Grundy | Phone: +61-6-249 0159
Education Co-ordinator | Fax: +61-6-249 0747
CRC for Advanced Computational Systems,
| Web: http://cs.anu.edu.au/~Mark.Grundy
The Australian National University | ACSys:
0200 Australia | Email: Mark.Grundy@anu.edu.au
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Copyright 1996 by Richard E. Sclove (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This is the third installment of our interview with Dr. Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute (Amherst, Mass.) and author of Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995). For more about his background and activities, see below.
SLT: The Net has often been proposed as the ideal instrument for the sort of democratic activism you are proposing. How are we doing with it so far, and what prospects do you see?
RES: Well, as before I think I want to challenge your question a bit.
Most discussion about cyberspace and democracy looks at how the Internet can potentially invigorate formal political processes--voting in elections, influencing legislation, etc. But formal politics doesn't exist in isolation from other domains of our society, including the economy and civil society (which includes families, local communities, voluntary organizations, churches and synagogues, etc.)
So to start getting a handle on the implications of cyberspace for democracy, you have to consider the implications for the economy and civil society as well. Otherwise you wind up in facile oversimplification--as though having everyone vote online is going to be an adequate antidote to the deepening disparities in wealth and power that differentiate, say, Fortune 500 corporations and Wall Street financiers from everyday folk.
Since many of my conclusions are pessimistic or, at best, ambiguous and uncertain, I'll begin with some of the bright side. For example, cyberspace hasP empowered me politically. I'm now able to reach thousands of activists, academics, journalists, government staff, and corporate execs who subscribe to one of the Loka Institute's Internet listservs. Only a few years ago this sort of thing wouldn't have been possible. Many other people and organizations have similar stories to tell. (For information about the Loka Institute's Internet lists concerned with democratizing science and technology, readers can send an e-mail query to email@example.com or visit our Web page at http://www.amherst.edu/~loka).
But you also have to be careful about extrapolating from that type of experience. Sure, I can now reach thousands of people. I've also been able to use e-mail to reach various leaders who otherwise are cordoned off by a protective ring of underlings. But I can do that partly because not that many other people are yet trying to the same thing. When/if everyone is online, and more and more people are using the Internet in such ways, can you imagine turning on your computer and finding it stuffed with 10,000 unread messages? On that day, the type of empowerment I've experienced is over.
But let's step back from personal anecdote and look at the broader political picture, beginning with some economic effects that will have political ramifications.
First, recall the danger of a "cybernetic Wal-Mart effect," in which online commerce saps revenue from remaining downtown and neighborhood shops and from local professional service providers (e.g., realtors, insurance agents, travel agents, banks, lawyers, stock brokers, etc.). That will drive some of them to go out of business or to consolidate with large corporations headquartered elsewhere.
Apart from that "Wal-Mart" effect, a commercialized cyberspace is also going to vastly deepen and accelerate economic globalization.
Both phenomena mean increased local dependence on distant corporations and on global economic forces...neither of which can be influenced very much from the local level. That means less local control over local circumstances, which fundamentally diminishes democracy (that is, peoples' ability to influence the basic circumstances of their lives).
This is especially troubling insofar as a well ordered local democracy is the arena in which everyday citizens can, ordinarily, most meaningfully participate in politics. If local democracy atrophies--or if most of the important issues get bumped up to higher levels of governance--everyday citizens are structurally disempowered. That's because corporations and rich folks have more of the resources required to play effectively in state- and national-level politics. (Even if you imagine wiring everyone in the U.S. into some type of electronic democracy, you'll know that your one-byte-vote among 250 million isn't going to count for a great deal--especially when it's stacked up against the usual corporate PAC-donations and Gucci-loafered lobbyists.)
Second, consider the question of corporate structure and operations, beginning with the notion of telecommuting to work. If telecommuting is a voluntary option, yes it can help reduce the pollution associated with driving and let people spend more time at home with their families. But increasingly, it may be presented not as an option, but as a mandatory condition of employment. Competitive pressures (which cyberspace itself is deepening) can force corporations to lower their office overhead, which translates into asking employees to find their own physical space in which to work.
Now, having to conjure up an office at home when you don't have space to spare, and working from there in enforced solitude while paced and monitored remotely from corporate headquarters (or maybe by supervisors who telecommute in from fashionably addressed vacation homes) is probably not going to be seem like an improved work arrangement--or as an advance in democratic control over your life. (Moreover, electronically enabled tele-export of jobs to low-wage countries can increasingly inhibit U.S. workers from vocally resisting work conditions they don't like.)
Of course, for a decade we've also been hearing hype about how information technologies will flatten corporate hierarchies, empower workers, and thus contribute to corporate democratization. But, at least for the time being, that seems to remain a hypothetical technical potential, not the overall emerging reality. The reality is that large corporations are using information tech to thin out the middle ranks of management; taking up the slack by imposing intensified work regimes on the employees who remain; and decentralizing their operations globally, in part by tele-exporting some blue collar, clerical and white collar jobs to low-wage countries. Meanwhile, these corporations are also intensifying upper management control over these far-flung operations, and especially over fundamental financial and strategic decisions.
None of this looks to me like "corporate democratization" in the ordinary sense of increasing worker, community or citizen control over important corporate decisions. (That is, the technical potential for decentralizing corporate accountability and control is there, but it's a fantasy to imagine that potential is going to realized without major political struggle.)
Third, electrification of the world financial system appears already to be producing severely adverse political consequences. For instance, think back to the first two years of the Clinton Administration. In 1993-94 the only issues on which the President went to the mat and absolutely would not back down had nothing to do with the bold domestic agenda on which he had campaigned for office. Rather, it was to secure Congress's approval of the NAFTA and GATT trade-liberalization accords, both of which were opposed vigorously by key elements of his party's core constituency--organized labor and environmentalists. What can account for the President's surprising behavior?
A good guess is that with global information technology now making possible massive and instantaneous nationwide disinvestment--witness the transnational capital flight and precipitous currency devaluation that Mexico suffered at the end of 1994--a president simply cannot afford to disregard the interests of the world financial community.
One needn't postulate any conspiracy at work here. The outcome can be explained by the simple combination of technological capability, market pressures experienced by financiers, and political leaders' basic survival instincts. In short, the electronically enabled global financial system appears to be shaping central elements of the United States' political agenda--including what elected leaders must (and must not) say and do--severely compromising the democratic process.
Let's turn next from the economy to civil society, and to the emergence of virtual communities. Virtual communities can certainly be a nice complement to face-to-face social relationships. But there is a danger. Our political jurisdictions are territorial. If our bonds of social affiliation increasingly become nonterritorial, we may further erode the common social basis required for governing the territories that we physically inhabit. I certainly haven't come across much evidence that cyberspace is enhancing peoples' ability to understand or reach agreement with others much different from themselves, which is one of the defining characteristics of any real democracy.
Telecommunications boosters sometimes respond that should a mismatch arise between bonds of social affiliation versus current political jurisdictions, "political systems can change." But that answer provides none of the necessary specifics. It also fails, for example, to grapple with the U.S. Constitution's requirement that amendments garner the support of a majority of elected federal or state legislators. How readily do legislators normally accede to voting away their own offices? In short, at a minimum one would confront a profound transition dilemma.
The problem becomes even more devilish when you notice that, at least to date, virtual communities are notoriously unstable. Exiting is trivial for individuals. Indeed, an entire virtual community can atrophy or perish in the wink of an eye. Thus while weakening peoples' rootedness in physical places, virtual communities do not obviously provide a stable alternative. (Apart from the problem of governance, this also poses social and psychological challenges.)
Moreover, there's a real danger that joining virtual communities is not going to be an entirely voluntary affair. As the cybernetic Wal-Mart effect eviscerates local economic and community vibrancy, and as more of peoples' local friends choose or are induced to spend more time online (sometimes because they are compelled to telecommute from home), people may find that they have to join virtual communities by default. That is, the face-to-face option many might prefer will have been eviscerated.
But their joining by default then reinforces the dynamic, further eroding face-to-face social life and thus inducing more people to go online. Thus while it could appear that people are opting for virtual community because they truly want it, for many this could be the result of an underlying coercive process.
I've also mentioned the self-sorting into like-minded enclaves that goes on in cyberspace. As this plays out, it is apt to reinforce the self-sorting that goes on already in the broader society--e.g., as affluent folks retreat into walled, privately policed residential compounds, in turn withdrawing their support for public amenities like libraries, public parks, public schools, public hospitals, etc. That deepens social inequality and polarization, which is anything but healthy for democratic politics.
So...atrophied local democracy and local community, economic globalization and corporate hyperempowerment, increased financial control over political agendas, exacerbated social polarization. This is certainly not an exhaustive survey of the political consequences that can result from cybernetic transformations in the economy and civil society. But it does provide some useful backdrop for considering the more usual questions about using the Internet to democratize formal political processes.
On the latter, the Internet can undoubtedly give small groups or dispersed populations some opportunities to organize and coordinate in new ways, or to access some useful sources of information, thereby empowering themselves to challenge inequitable concentrations of power. The question is whether that empowerment of the "small and weak" can outpace the continuing empowerment of the "large and potent." E.g., multinational corporations, government bureaucracies, affluent professionals and the super-rich will retain vastly greater capabilities to adopt powerful technology more quickly, to amass and analyze information, and, in many cases, to act on it.
The main countervailing resource that the small and weak may have on their side is a measure of agility--the absence of self-imposed bureaucratic constraints. Thus what remains to be seen is whether agility can out-do the brute force of powerful unaccountable institutions.
In that regard, it's not especially encouraging that the just-enacted U.S. Telecommunications Reform Act included a variant of the Exon Amendment, penalizing transmission of "indecency" over the Internet. This provision was vigorously opposed by much of the online community, including commercial service providers. So if we couldn't prevail on this issue that vitally concerned us--and on which industry generally was silent or sided with us--it's obvious that we don't yet have a great deal of power. (And remember that "we" are, for the most part, affluent professionals. The online community doesn't, at least for now, stretch far into the lower socioeconomic strata.)
In all of the above I have consciously overlooked the more obvious issues of ensuring universal and affordable access to the Internet, and the accelerating merger mania that is concentrating media ownership in fewer and fewer hands--which can only accentuate the types of concerns I've raised. We've already come a long way from the idealistic visions (ca. 1992-93) of a civic-oriented Information Superhighway--and about which I actually had many qualms--toward a simple corporate pipeline delivering 500+ channels of infotainment, pay-per-view videos, homeshopping, and Lucy reruns.
Not a particularly encouraging landscape. But the game is still in play, so this remains a time to organize and fight, not to lament. It's not hard to conjure up hypothetical public policy mitigations to most of the problems I've envisioned. The challenge is conjuring up the short-term political muscle needed to get these issues on the political agenda--not to mention the further muscle needed to address them effectively.
(Dr. Sclove has published recently in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Technology Review; and he prepared a report on emerging developments in U.S. technology policy for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has briefed U.S. government leaders on science and technology policy, and submitted invited written testimony to the House Science Committee of the U.S. Congress. Dr. Sclove earned a B.A. in environmental studies and, from MIT, an M.S. degree (nuclear engineering) and a Ph.D. (political science), and he has held the Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowship in Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley. He lectures and consults widely and has been extensively interviewed by the media. You can reach Dr. Sclove at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the Web at http://www.amherst.edu/~loka/.)
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In NETFUTURE #7, Dale Lehman (email@example.com) writes:
Fortunately, the Internet culture will not make simple pricing solutions palatable. I say fortunately, because I believe the real problem is more subtle and dangerous. I attribute the underlying cause to the continuing and growing loss of individual identity and corresponding growth of individual irresponsibility. Humans have increasingly become desensitized to our interdependence with each other and with our planet. Technology has been a tool in this process...Dale speaks of a "continuing and growing loss of individual identity and corresponding growth of individual irresponsibility." I concur to some extent with the "continuing" but I challenge that there is a "growing loss" and/or that the internet has much to do with this. Our ancestors, (you know, the folks that drove the great bison herds to the edge of extinction, clear-cut the great North American forests, created reservations for the few native peoples that survived what was essentially 200 years of genocide...) These pre-20th century technology peoples were more sensitive than us "to our interdependence with each other and with our planet"?
Technology has provided increasingly powerful tools to assist man in the destruction of his environment in pursuit of economic progress. But I suggest that there are more concerned voices crying in the wilderness today than there there ever has been before. I see the internet/web as having much more of a positive impact on our cultural evolution than communication technologies such as broadcast radio, television, fax machines, or personal computers with CD-ROM drives. There are at least roses among the weeds.
The best analogy is a bookstore with the Great Books, and their critics, side by side on the shelf with pulp fiction, comic books, the breadth of magazines found by a supermarket checkout counter, and a wide assortment of junk mail order catalogs. I find a world of ideas on the net much like a library... Knowledge is the bread we bake from the wheat we separate from the chaff. How is the rare inspirational or thought-provoking idea I encounter on the net different than the idea I discover in a book or lecture. It's still food for thought, just a different medium.
Don Bell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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The "profound word" has other enemies than the flood of careless, unconsidered, cheap words and IMO some of them are much greater.
The first is the snake of active carefully considered malice and abuse in news groups and via email.
The second is deadly sands of self proclaimed intellectual or moral superiority leading to various forms of censorship including editors. (I generally like working with editors for presentation level materials, but they can be a destructive force if brought into creative and technical processes at the wrong time)
I think I would suggest that time will resolve many of the issues in quality. If one looks at the historical commentary on written forms or movies or radio, one gets back to one of the cliches (Sturgeons law?): "99% of everything is garbage." Evolution over time will remove the "faddish components," settle the commericial issues and allow the growth of useful pages and data sources.
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"Not now dear. Oh I'm going online. Just for a minute. I want to look this one thing up while it's fresh in my mind."
let's see... go to WebWideWalker search page... hit stop before the advertisement comes up... Rats! half an image and it looked kind of interesting... oh well, in a hurry, it'll come up again... put in word... hmmmm should I add others to tighten the search? no, in a hurry... just see what this gives me.
Akk maxed out to the 150 matches... should have tightened search... some of these are interesting... huh? what does this page have to do with anything... just take a peek... oh very nice... barely mentions my subject though... wow I never knew that... I will have to come back sometime... save this site to my bookmark file... check it... blast that title doesn't tell me anything, edit it to something that will let me know why I added it... ok back to it... odd subject for a page... wonder about their link choices... NO! return to search results page... ok color change shows I already went there... moving on... wait that interesting page is flagged... 'more sites like this one' ... just take a peek... this one not nearly as good... wait, what does this link have to do with this page?... oh, I see... now THAT side of this I can understand... maybe if I search on this word I will find more pages on this that I can understand... save this link to my bookmarks... and... or... then... some... other... NO! get back to search results... ARGH rolled off the history... got to remember to set that higher... do it now... ok history higher... return to search results... oh yeah it's gone... what was I looking for? ... why am I so hungry? ... why is it so dark? ... wish my computer chair flushed...
"Dear? Do you remember what I was looking for? Dear? Hello? Are you in bed?"
I wonder if this is why they call it a web...
The WEB is a subtle sticky trap. It is misleading in its appearance of being simple and organized. You may seek to poke it with your finger in curiosity but it grabs your finger and won't let go. So you invest more fingers and attention to straightening out what you have gotten into. You soon discover that more fingers in the web simply gains you more web which requires more fingers which gains you more web.
I believe the World Wide Web to be quite aptly named. It is a trap of the most incredible proportions. It seeks to ensnare all, large and small. To include governments, corporations and individuals. All will be part of the web. Spiders and Flies at the same time. Sometimes feeling predator, at other times feeling prey. And both unable to escape the mesh that once appeared simple and inviting.
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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 #8 :: February 26, 1996