NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #24 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates July 23, 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 *** Will advertising keep the Net free? (Stephen L. Talbott) Our continuing experiment in social destruction *** Death of a gyppo (Robert Leo Heilman) Logging as an art *** About this newsletter
Don't overlook "Death of a gyppo" in this issue. It's a beautiful evocation of an older style of logging by someone who was there. The piece, nicely free of rigid prescription, won't give you any final answers, but it will help you breathe some of the atmosphere within which technology-use issues take shape. Thanks to John Thienes for bringing this piece to my attention.
This is probably the next-to-last issue of NETFUTURE to be published under the "old regime." I terminate my regular employment at O'Reilly & Associates on July 31. Tim O'Reilly, however, has kindly offered to continue hosting the NETFUTURE listserver and web site. On my part, I hope to continue producing the newsletter as a purely personal endeavor. One way I may be able to support this effort is through speaking engagements. Please keep that in mind when planning your organization's future meetings.
Our next issue will be given over to reader feedback.
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The widespread hope for a "free Internet" has lately been taking refuge in the idea of advertising: banners across web pages, clickable icons, commercial messages in every possible form. This evidently strikes many observers as a wonderfully cost-free way to subsidize our access to Net content -- so much so that those who are not thrilled with the idea are dismissed out of hand. As Seidman's Online Insider recently put it (July 7, 1996):
Look for Mercury Mail to begin adding advertising to these services soon. They even care about the cranks who are dead-set against advertising! They can still pay the full subscription price and not get any advertising whatsoever.Well, as it happens, I am one of the cranks dead-set against advertising in the electronic media, not as a matter of social policy, but as a matter of personal choice. I prefer not to subject myself to the noisy, scattered, chaotic, distracting, trivializing, unesthetic, and disturbingly perverse content of much modern advertising. That such a choice should be stigmatized with the word "crank" by a well-known Internet commentator strikes me as profoundly symptomatic. Only someone who finds the quality of the conscious human interior irrelevant to the social future could make such a remark.
Try to hold your attention upon a routine object -- a button, a comb, a spoon -- for three minutes, thinking about its form and substance, its manufacture, its use, or whatever other aspects you like. I guarantee that you will fail, and if you are like most of the rest of us, you will fail miserably, with your thoughts moving by association to the far ends of the universe. The fact is that, in our inner life, we are largely governed by a kind of irrationality. No one is master of the house.
Do not imagine attention to be a mere abstraction. It is perhaps our single most immediate and vital possession. But not really "possession," for it is only through our attention that we are capable of possessing anything at all. In the entire psychological inventory of the human being, attention stands most intimately in the place of the self. Remove your powers of attention and you no longer have a self. Think about it.
Advertising may be the most potent force in the modern world aimed at sapping our attentive strength. It is not just that the intent of much advertising is to slip beneath our defenses and bring us to act in ways we do not consciously choose. Much more important is the style of consciousness that advertising cultivates in us. The clever sensations underwritten by individual advertisements, the leap from one unrelated advertisement to the next, the fast-paced, mutual interruption of advertising and content (the distinction between which, unsurprisingly, grows muddier and muddier)--all this accustoms us to crazed and senseless juxtapositions. Reason and meaning can find no foothold in the overall pattern, so we necessarily let go the search for meaning. We learn to assess all things in terms of a different, more visceral kind of impact.
In sum, we endure what is, by all historical standards, a nearly incomprehensible assault upon our awareness -- an assault by disconnected, arbitrary, disproportionate, often degrading images. In submitting our consciousness to these images and the accompanying sound and text, we train ourselves in the kind of mental functioning the advertisers require. Losing our powers of meaningful attention, we also lose our powers of conscious decision, and, finally, we lose ourselves.
The nature of advertising is no deep mystery, and is the subject of an endless stream of literature. The remarkable thing is how few people (including Internet commentators) pay any attention to the issues, as if all the services paid for by advertisers came to us without cost in psychological and social health.
Read your newspaper to see the costs. The world we build "out there" inevitably reflects and embodies the world "in here." A psyche that lends itself to being profitably ridden by commercials is a psyche that lends itself to those other appeals of blood, instinct, lust, vanity, and irrationality coming from every corner of society. A psyche too scattered to sustain quiet, centered reflection -- a psyche incapable of deliberately and carefully sounding depths of meaning -- cannot contribute to social healing.
However, to be driven this way and that by the unceasing distraction of the media is not necessarily to lose one's susceptibility to the kind of precise, externally supplied focus made possible through programmed logic. Such focus is actually encouraged by our loss of self-mastery. Programmed logic is, after all, another name for what can be followed unthinkingly. Indeed, its whole nature is to run automatically, whether in us or in our machines. Distracted minds, confronting the marvelously calculated, rigorous precision of the machine, readily yield to mechanical determination instead of asserting their own responsibility for the future.
This paradoxical mix of sleepwalking and sophisticated calculation is easy to spot everywhere in today's society, not just in the use of computers. The Madison Avenue executive can watch a television advertisement fully awake to every nuance of persuasion, gauging the quality of every technical maneuver, making precise notes for her next ad campaign, while completely oblivious to the frightful monstrosity of the entire production: this mobilization of technical and dramatic skill, human emotion and sincerity, combined, perhaps, with music that once sounded from the noblest reaches of the human spirit, all in service of a lie -- the lying proposition that it is important for me to experience this emotion, this crucial truth, and to be so swayed by them as to buy a particular brand of deodorant.
And if as an adult I were watching the advertisement for the first time, I probably would experience much of this human meaning quite deeply -- it might be a sublime, almost religious experience. (Beautiful music, after all, can have that effect.) But then I must face the puzzling incommensurability between the sales punchline and the vehicle of its delivery. I cannot help realizing, at some level, that what is most human within me has been prostituted.
But eventually, like a prostitute, I adapt. Indeed, we all learn the lesson well if we watch our televisions. We feel only the most muted inner responses to the dramatic appeals coming at us from all sides. Not that there is no response at all; we can still coldly assess a commercial much like the advertising executive. But the rest has gone subconscious, instinctual -- probabilistic and beyond our control -- so that the executive is fully justified in her confidence regarding the nearly exact statistical results of her next assault upon the public consciousness.
I am, then, no more inclined to submit myself to the visual and ideational clutter on my computer screen than I am to endure the noisy clutter of boomboxes in a city park, if I can possibly avoid it. Ten minutes' reflection upon a single line of text on my screen is infinitely more valuable than a megabyte rapidly scanned. When the scanning leads me from one interrupted thought to another without rhyme or reason, it progressively weakens my habits of attention and my sensitivity to delicate threads of meaning. One cannot dwell deeply upon what has no rhyme or reason.
In the end, those ten minutes of reflection may no longer be possible even if we should want them. But maybe you think I'm exaggerating. It's easy enough to put the matter to the test of a simple, contemplative exercise. Go ahead, I dare you -- and be sure to let me know the results.
(Stephen L. Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflection is part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced.")
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[The following article is reprinted by permission from Oregon Quarterly, Summer, 1996. The author is a writer from Myrtle Creek, Oregon. His first book, a collection of essays, is entitled Overstory Zero.
Copyright 1996 by Robert Leo Heilman and Oregon Quarterly.]
The look and feel of the wood got to me. Funny how that works, how a rough-sawn pecky cedar one-by-twelve in your hands can conjure up memories, put you for a moment right back where you were fifteen years and more ago. I paused for a moment, holding the board but awash in the ghost smells of sawdust, gasoline, motor oil, rusting iron, and damp cotton Lone Star work gloves. My sixteen-year-old son and my nephew, eighteen, stood looking at me.
"This here's some historical wood," I told them. The boys looked puzzled. It was just a pile of old wood to them--a mess they'd rather not be cleaning up. The pile of gray boards lay on the ground, my pickup truck backed up to it. Why this pause, this staring at an old board?
"This is Clason lumber," I tried to explain, "You know Jim Clason. Well, me and his grandpa, ol' Stewart, used to cut this stuff." Stewart Clason was the first logger in the South Umpquas to hire me when I arrived from Los Angeles without a clue as to what it meant to work in the woods.
We were in my friend Brian's back yard, over in Tortilla Flats, a Farm Home Administration low-income housing tract that didn't exist back when Brian and I first went to work for the Old Man. The fence posts had finally rotted and the fence had blown down, lain there all summer and now it was September, time to haul it off before the rains came and the wood got too wet for kindling and the ground too damp to drive across the lawn.
"Damn, that was a long time ago," I added, hoping they'd maybe understand a little of what it meant to be handling wood that had been logged and hauled and milled by a gyppo operator who'd died in the woods back before these two boys reached puberty. If they understood, it was only a very little and there wasn't much use in trying to explain it.
"Well, what the hell you guys waiting for? You stand around spacing-out, making me wait. Come on, let's get this show rolling--dime holding up a dollar boys." I tossed the board into the back of the truck, "Stack 'em neat now."
GYPPO ISN'T A WORD YOU'LL FIND in most dictionaries, nor one you hear often in cities. Like many colloquialisms, it started out as a bit of derisive slang, meaning a logging or mill boss who was likely to "gyp" his employees and creditors--someone who functioned on a shoestring budget, a fly-by-night operator, a gypsy. Over the years though, the connotation has shifted from the instability and unreliability of small-time operators to the virtues a gyppo needs in order to survive--courage, self-reliance, common sense, hard work, the ability to improvise, and an almost pathological optimism.
The woods were once filled with these wily independents, each as "various-minded" and "ready at need" as Odysseus in a hard hat. In the years immediately after World War II, gyppos were the rule in Southern Oregon rather than the exception. Demand for wood was high and the equipment wasn't expensive. Anyone with a 'dozer and a chainsaw or a portable mill and a little luck could set up and make a living--maybe even a fortune.
It was, by all accounts, a too-brief golden age, cut short by periodic housing slumps and a technological productivity "arms race." The big outfits drove their undercapitalized competitors out of business by harvesting ever larger amounts of timber increasingly faster and cheaper with increasingly sophisticated (and increasingly expensive) equipment.
The title has grown respectable in direct proportion to the increasing rarity of genuine gyppos. I've heard men with scores of employees and millions of dollars invested in yarders, bulldozers, and trucks proudly describe themselves as humble gyppos. Most of them are the sons or grandsons of gyppos, men who've inherited some of the traditional mindset though not the precarious existence. Certainly, none of them would trade their sweetheart corporate deals and well-financed shows for the old man's hardscrabble assets.
WORKING FOR STEWART WAS, I realize now, very much like working in a living history museum. Everything he had was obsolete and either built by his own hands out of old scraps and pieces of discarded equipment or modified almost beyond recognition. His bulldozer, a little gasoline-engined 1931 McCormick-Deering, had a hand-crank starter that required two men to turn it over on cold mornings and only one if the weather was warm. A 1940 Dodge deuce-and-a-half ton truck with a home-made "A" frame boom served as his yarder, skidder, and log loader. A relatively modern 1958 Ford flatbed truck with bunks cobbled from scrap steel hauled the necessarily short logs to the mill.
The heart of S. R. Clason Lumber Company was his mill, one of those old circular-saw-and-carriage contraptions of the sort that turn-of-the-century melodrama villains were fond of tying hapless maidens to. Driven by a quirky art-deco Case industrial engine and an improbable arrangement of belts, pulleys, and chains, it wasted an incredible amount of wood. With its too-wide saw kerf, he lost a one-inch board in sawdust for every three rough-cut boards it produced. The wonder was that we produced any lumber at all.
Breaking down was more than just likely--it was a way of life. An efficiency expert hired to analyze S. R. Clason Lumber Company would have tossed away his time/motion study clipboard by lunch on a typical day. In such a case, the Old Man would have offered him a cup of coffee from his thermos and said with a grin, "You know, I believe you're right, son. It can't be done. Why, if a man had any sense he'd give it all up and get him a real job. But then, I never had much sense."
Actually, there was a certain method to his madness. In theory, at least, what he lost in efficiency was made up by what's known in business circles as low overhead. The unreliable relics on which his livelihood depended required constant tinkering but no bank loan payments. The constant downtime cut into his profits, but then, the need for profit was smaller than usual. You can get by on very little as long as you don't need much and, more importantly, know how to tell the difference between your needs and your wants.
There is also something to be said for being responsible for your own livelihood, hardscrabble as that living may be. What he did every day wasn't really an economic enterprise, but rather, an art form. Any fool with no talent and a hundred million dollars can be efficient. But doing good work on a shoestring budget requires both of Thomas Edison's basic elements of genius--perspiration and inspiration--in spades. For forty years the Old Man did the impossible every day. It was complex, challenging, and thoroughly satisfying work. It was also utterly human and humane.
People, it has been demonstrated, just aren't efficient. At best, we can maintain about 60 percent efficiency at work--thirty-six of every sixty minutes per working hour earning our pay. (The other twenty-four minutes we spend maintaining our sanity.) This is why corporations (which are themselves beings as artificial and nonhuman as any robot) are so fond of machinery and so ready to "outplace" workers, replacing them with laser scanners, computers, and hydraulic cylinders. Ever increasing productivity looks great on a spreadsheet or tucked into a quarterly report, though it's hell for people, families, communities, and the land.
What people do best is the impossible, creatively balancing a wide range of conflicting concerns, desires, and obstacles to achieve a complex set of goals. When a machine encounters a paradox, it ceases to function; people just shrug, laugh, and carry on. Researchers in artificial intelligence (an obvious oxymoron) strive to teach a machine to play a decent game of chess. Personally, I'd be more impressed if they could teach one to handle something truly difficult like surviving puberty or divorce.
It is a rare thing in the timber industry of the 1990s for a man and an employee or two to fall, log, haul, mill, and sell a particular stick of wood. It would be foolhardy to compete with the specialized links that form an efficient chain to carry out that process. Rare now too are the celebrated virtues of the gyppo, though fifty years ago they were unremarkable, as unnoticed as, say, old growth forest, clean water, and healthy salmon runs.
Time, we say, is money, meaning that spending the least time earning the most money is a standard to measure success. Ultimately, by this logic, the highest success is to spend no time at all doing useful work and to receive more than we could possibly spend for doing so. Only on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
To the productivity expert, pursuing the corporate dream (if "an agreed upon legal fiction" can be said to dream) of 100 percent efficient workers, there is never enough time. Squeezing one more marketable unit out of a day only leads to efforts to increase that amount, however fractionally. The hallmark of artists is that they always have plenty of time.
Clason had time, time to fix whatever was broken at the moment, time to sit talking with an old friend who'd dropped by, time to wait for the weather to cooperate, time for a cat nap every day after lunch, and, always, plenty of time to do a job right.
Doing a good job cost him plenty over the years but he stubbornly insisted on it. I'd hate to characterize him as an idealist, but he did everything conscientiously and derived a lot of pride from that. He was, I think, wise enough to understand that pride was about all his show ran on. Taking a few extra minutes to ensure that he did as little damage as possible to the land came as naturally to him as ensuring his own safety. Time, he had to spare, and so losing a few hours in the course of a job was cheaper, in the long run, than losing his self-respect.
What, in the end, made a quaint anachronism out of Stewart Clason was that he kept doing the same supremely human thing, practicing an art, while all around him logging and milling steadily shifted away from being a unique art form to just another increasingly efficient industrial process.
"It's a trade-off," he told me one unexpectedly balmy January day. "Sure, I could make big money. Work as a millwright maybe, or a supervisor for some big outfit somewheres. But then, I wouldn't have time to sit here drinking coffee and listening to them frogs singing about spring. You've either got the time or the money, but you never have both."
HIS TIME IS GONE NOW. I GUESS that's what made me pause for a moment to consider the history of an old rough-cut cedar board that was now useless except to light a hearth fire in my home.
In his time the Old Man survived the Great Depression, combat in Europe, a half-dozen severe housing slumps, a hard-fought, violent (and futile) timber faller's strike, and the daily risk of death or crippling injury. Using his wits, his muscles, and his integrity, he supported a wife and four children, taught his two sons the trade he'd learned from his father and grandfather, and made himself useful to everyone around him in uncountable, often charitable, ways.
He survived long enough to play with his grandchildren and to become an anachronism. He lived to see his years of struggling against corporate perfidy ignored by a society in which the proud title of logger had become a term of disdain, while the very corporations that had made him obsolete used his and his fellow gyppos' lives as an example of what they hoped to preserve by cutting too much timber much too quickly. With old age, he found himself in a world that didn't have a place for him and his kind. And yet, this unkind cut, too, he accepted philosophically, fully aware of the injustice and ornery as ever. He'd never expected much, never wanted much, and never had a whole lot to show for his labors. But he kept working anyway.
WE TALKED OF DEATH ONE DAY, on a landing up on Tater Hill where we were salvaging cull logs left behind on a clearcut. He'd been down in the hole all morning, bucking logs and setting chokers while I ran the jury-rigged old Dodge that served as our yarder and skidder. A half-hour shy of noon, a heavier than usual log hung itself up against a stump, the engine slowed and then stalled. Stewart hand-signaled "slack line" and then "shut down" drawing a knife-finger across his throat and trudged up to the landing with his chainsaw. "Well, the mule quit on us," he said, "must be dinner time."
We sat in the shade on the edge of the cut, ate our lunch, and talked "of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings" as we did every day. I told a story about a clumsy roofer I'd worked with in New Mexico. The Old Man sat stretched out with his back against a tree trunk preparing for a nap. Years of familiarity with sudden violent death, in combat and at work, had reconciled him to the notion that one could be alive one moment and a lifeless mess the next. He confessed though, a deep fear of dying slowly, lingering on in a living death from cancer as many of his relatives and friends had done.
"When I go," he allowed, "I want it to be just like this, stretched out in the woods somewhere on a nice day with my eyes closed."
In the end, six years later, he died of a heart attack while fishing for trout at Crane Prairie Reservoir, alive and joking one moment and stretched out on the dock with his eyes closed the next.
Robert Leo Heilman
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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 #24 :: July 23, 1996
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