NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #51 Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications June 18, 1997 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- 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 *** Quotes and Provocations Waiting for the Net to Grow up Toward the Great Singularity (Part 1) The Future of Libraries Postscript to `The Ultimate Worker' *** Financial Fictions: The View from a Bank (David Goldsteen) Are we losing sight of the reality behind our abstractions? Departments *** Letter from Des Moines (Lowell Monke) Multiculturalism without People *** Announcements and Resources Global Knowledge 97 Conference -- and an alternative conference Humane Village Congress *** About this newsletter
The don't-miss item in this issue is Lowell Monke's column. He again tackles the use of the Internet as a "multicultural" tool, but this time from a quite different perspective -- and pronounces himself guilty.
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DISENCHANTMENT WITH THE NETYes, I'm willing to wait for the Net to become a compelling and mature medium like, um, television. Meanwhile, has anyone bothered to tell the Secretary of Education that the Net isn't already a compelling and mature medium?
As universities jump onto the Internet 2 bandwagon, one professor who directs a university program to deliver technical courses via the Net sees disenchantment with the current Internet's flea-market-like atmosphere as a hidden motivation: "Saying that classes will be conducted on the Internet these days is like saying the classes are being offered on "The X-Files." Many universities, well aware of this distaste, would prefer to be associated with Internet 2. It's not merely a matter of bandwidth." Futurist Paul Saffo says it's just an unfortunate phase, however: "It takes time to take a raw, untamed technology and turn it into a compelling medium. All media go through adolescence; the Web happens to be going through a particularly rough one." (Scientific American Jun 97)
In the computer-science community, there's a perspective, which is difficult to communicate to the outside world, that things are going to continue to change in our field at such a rapid rate that at some point something very dramatic will change about the fundamental situation of people in the universe. I don't know if I share that belief, but it's a widespread belief. In the mythology of computer science, the limits for the speed and capacity of computers are so distant that they effectively don't exist. And it is believed that as we hurtle toward more and more powerful computers, eventually there'll be some sort of very dramatic Omega Point at which everything changes -- not just in terms of our technology but in terms of our basic nature. This is something you run across again and again in the fantasy writings of computer scientists: this notion that we're about to zoom into a transformative moment of progress that we cannot even comprehend.The first thing that jumps out at me in the attitudes Lanier describes is the ominous absence of self -- the abdication of humanity that seems to figure so centrally in every uncritical embrace of computer technology. The dramatic change in "our basic nature" is looked for, not as a result of some profound, inner work we are performing upon ourselves, but rather as a result of the inevitable development of technology. "The things we have made, make us."
Here's how Danny Hillis, co-founder of Thinking Machines, expresses his faith in the approaching, magical-mystical, threshold moment:
If I try to extrapolate the trends, to look at where technology's going sometime early in the next century, there comes a point where something incomprehensible will happen. Maybe it's the creation of intelligent machines. Maybe it's telecommunications merging us into a global organism. If you try to talk about it, it sounds mystical, but I'm making a very practical statement here. I think something's happening now -- and will continue to happen over the next few decades -- which is incomprehensible to us and I find that both frightening and exciting. ("Close to the Singularity," in The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman)The transformation, it appears, not only will be something that happens to us, rather than a matter of self-mastery; it is also incomprehensible to us -- which, I suppose, is reason enough for Hillis to be frightened. His positive excitement, on the other hand, is a little harder to understand.
But I think we can at least begin to understand it, first, by recognizing a convergence of New Age expectancy with certain strains of cyberculture, and, second, by making an assumption. The assumption, which could hardly be simpler, is this: the reigning expectancy has a basis in fact; it is a dim recognition of something that has already been happening.
And what has been happening? The materialist hegemony of the past few hundred years is breaking down. The materialism that, as a matter of scientific and cultural inheritance, we still feel so inescapably in our bones, is being met by a kind of disbelief or apostasy that, you might say, we "feel in our fluidity." We simply cannot any longer remain stolid materialists of the old sort, and in the confused, chaotic clash between the rising tide of mysticism and the deep-set formations of our bones, all manner of craziness takes shape. It is the craziness that, during the past several decades, has so exercised the likes of Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, the debunking folks at the Skeptical Inquirer, and whole hosts of their compatriots.
Goodness knows there is plenty of craziness to debunk. Yet the debunkers are fighting a losing battle insofar as they are trying to prop up a dying form of materialism. As so many of them lament, the long, brave, triumphant march of materialist orthodoxy into an ever brighter future is now being darkened and overwhelmed by every variety of religious, mystical, occult, pop-psychological, meditational, astrological, mediumistic, and just plain insane conviction -- and this at a time of unprecedented scientific and engineering achievement when we might have expected the materialist fortress to be impregnable. The Asimovs and Sagans will continue to die off, and the mystic heretics in such fields as complexity and chaos theory, quantum physics, emergent evolution studies, and cosmology -- not to mention various computational disciplines -- will continue to close in upon and "pollute" the inner sanctum of science.
I do not mean to suggest by my tone that none of today's deviations from scientific materialism has any value. Some of them, I believe, have great value. But we do need to recognize how confused the situation is. This is probably unavoidable at a time when the basic weave and texture of mankind's experience is changing so radically. Look back at the Renaissance and you'll see something similar: the palpable excitement people felt at finding the world set freshly before them for the first time, awaiting their devoted observation, was conjoined with every manner of wild speculation and anticipation as people tried to find their footing in a post-medieval era.
We also need to recognize that our brewing experiential escape -- if such it is -- from scientific materialism does not automatically spell the end of the passing regime. What we feel in our bones continues to structure our existence quite apart from our less orthodox inklings. Furthermore, science as a machine -- of research, funding, industry, and education -- continues on more powerfully than ever in the spirit of old -- much as the great technological machine now drives forward quite irrespective of conscious human direction.
The hold of the past is shown even in the new, electronic mysticism. A world in which the Great Transformation approaches us externally, via our machines, is a world of objects in which we, ourselves, are simply additional objects -- precisely the world bequeathed to us by scientific materialism. Combine the effective, technological power of this materialism with a kind of pseudo-mysticism that accepts the human being as an object of mighty transformational forces acting from without, and you have a truly frightening formula for oppression of the human spirit. The old materialism, at least, confronted us with a clearly recognizable denial of the spirit; this new denial often clothes itself in the language of highest self-realization.
I intend to explore the issues raised by these developments in a series of brief commentaries, of which this has been the introduction.
Go to part 2 of this series
Go to part 3 of this series
Yes, says Verba. Here are some of his points (from The World in 1997, published by the Economist Newspaper):
** Only a few selected parts of the great historical collections around the world will ever exist in digital form. Libraries are needed to store them, make them available, and, most importantly, preserve them. Without expensive and sophisticated new libraries, "the printed intellectual output of the past 150 years will all but cease to exist within the next 150 years. Few nineteenth-century books will be able to have their pages turned in 2100, unless preserved now."
** Despite the fact that publishers are putting out more and more digital products, paper "remains the medium of choice." The volume of printed material, by one estimate, doubles every eight years.
** Library budgets are already stressed by the swelling tide of printed material, and it is simply not true that electronic information comes cheap. The worthwhile resources cost money, and are getting more expensive all the time.
** Copyright issues have not proven easy to resolve.
If a library can give a patron access to a digital version of a book or article -- a version that is as good as the original, that does not diminish the library's copy, and that can easily be transmitted by the patron -- what is left of the publisher's property rights in the work? Not much. Yet if libraries cannot supply "fair use" copies of the materials they have, how can they serve their patrons?These thorny issues must be worked out before any vision of the digital library of the future can become realistic.
** The future of digital archives is uncertain. "no one knows how long electronic media will last -- not as long as good paper it seems." Access to the archives requires special technology, which changes with disconcerting rapidity. The appropriate mechanisms for migrating a collection from one medium or technology to another are not well understood. And who has archiving responsibility?
Why should one library take on a major archiving task when it can get what it needs from some other library as easily as if it were in its own building? New organizational structures for cooperation are going to be needed.** Finally, a good part of the service of libraries lies in guiding users through masses of irrelevant information to find what they are looking for. This need promises to become more acute with the growing flood of online information, not less.
My own greatest life-long pleasure in libraries has been that of browsing the stacks to see what I could find of interest on this or that topic. To my great dismay, this highly useful activity looks like becoming extinct.
About a year ago I walked into the state library of New South Wales in Sydney, shortly after the catalog was digitized. (The print catalog was no longer available, and the stacks were accessible only by passing requests to clerks and then waiting considerable periods for delivery.) After about an hour of struggling with the online catalog, I gave up, having managed (whether through my own klutziness or defects in the online catalog, I don't know) to obtain the titles of maybe a score of books on a broad topic for which this library must have carried hundreds of titles. I had no way of knowing whether the books I had managed to identify by title were worth the bother of retrieving -- and the retrieval would have taken more time than I had anyway. I walked out of the library stunned that this massive and valuable collection had been placed so effectively out of any convenient reach.
The major library to which I now have readiest access is the New York State Library in Albany. Its catalog, too, is online, and the stacks are off-limits. Patrons are allowed to request five books or periodicals at a time, which are then processed at the next half-hour mark, with delivery of the books promised by the following half-hour mark. Some browsing.
The use of such libraries has become so horribly inefficient (at least for my own purposes) that I rarely haunt the major institutions any more. They are only good when you know what you want in advance, and for that purpose I can request interlibrary loans through the local, hole-in-the-wall library. I have to wait a couple of weeks for delivery, but at least I don't have to spend time looking at brick walls and imagining all those books on the other side that I will never in this life be allowed to browse.
While my description was fanciful -- I was not characterizing an actual room and desk and computer of my acquaintance -- what I was driving at is nevertheless real enough. It's the kind of thing that was captured in this news item from Information Week (via Edupage):
"Quants" -- quantitative analysts -- are moving from theory to praxis, using lab tools such as neural networks, supercomputers and visualization to perform "real world" financial trading. "Business has become a gray-matter game," says the president of an investment technology firm. Quants search out trends, patterns, correlations and anomalies in market data that can be used to make a profit or minimize risk, using mathematical models that incorporate historical and high-frequency data -- numbers that move across financial trading screens. "By analyzing historical data you may find a pattern indicating that when IBM stock goes up, Unisys's price follows suit," says a Citibank VP. "If you're right 52% of the time, you can make a lot of money." [Information Week, Feb. 26, 1996]The resources devoted to this sort of thing are by no means slight. As the news item intimates, there is an entire software industry given over to "investment technology."
It is true, as a couple of readers pointed out, that my reference to "the occasional, purely technical upgrading of the algorithms themselves" was underplayed, at least in the sense that this upgrading is likely to involve a constant and difficult challenge. It's a challenge I pointed to in NF #22:
On Wall Street, for example, it is well known that every successful effort to gain a marginal leg up on chance by predicting the public's trading behavior quickly cancels itself when the formula becomes common knowledge. For the knowledge itself affects future behavior, and so destroys the formula.All those quants revising the algorithms don't come cheap, so the overhead of that corporation-on-the-desk is not necessarily so low after all, nor is its operation perfectly self-contained over any considerable period. But the whole point was really this: all the supporting effort is designed precisely to make this trading machine as self-contained as possible. That is the sought-after ideal, with which we need to come to terms. One consequence of it is that the entire "work" of the machine is essentially a numbers game, without reference to real values.
The computer itself was not cast as the villain. (I mention this because of the periodic notes I receive from disaffected readers who conclude that I have finally slipped into an unrelieved pessimism about technology as such.) I tried to emphasize that the real problem occurs "in the entire reconceptualization of work and business within which the machine so readily finds its place." If that machine can be seen as having done a legitimate day's work, it is only because we have already counted the exact same human activity as a legitimate day's work. The computer simply provides the most perfect embodiment of our "de-materializing" tendencies, reflecting back to us what we are becoming.
Finally, should the trading machine be viewed as just another in the long series of quite respectable labor-saving devices we have created? Yes. But then one needs to make a larger point about all those devices: to the extent they are able to substitute for the entirety of a vocation, to that extent the vocation has already been emptied; certainly it has been emptied of its primary human significance. The farmer may plow, disk, sow, fertilize, harvest, and store his crop using machines, but if his work comes to be experienced as nothing more than the sum of the various mechanical activities -- if he is not engaged in a profound, year-long conversation with nature through which he progressively discovers both himself and the world, and through which he consciously relates to the needs of others -- then I would say of those farm implements exactly what I said of the financial trading machine: they symbolize work that has lost its meaning as work.
My little picture definitely had its limitations, but I do not believe they related to the contentions of the essay. As to the limitations themselves, I thought the best line came in a good-natured message from George Kamenz, who wrote, among other things,
Gosh, sounds great. A real cash machine. I'll take 2 >:-)And Allan C. Mayberry Greenberg forwarded a few lines from Peter Weiss's play, "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." The lines present the Marquis ruminating over the place of the guillotine in revolutionary France:
the blade dropped and was winched up and dropped againSLT
all the meaning drained out of this revenge
It had become mechanical
It was inhuman it was dull
and curiously technocratic....
now I see where
this Revolution is leading
To the withering of the individual man
and a slow merging into uniformity
to the death of choice
to self denial
to deadly weakness
in a state
which has no contact with individuals
but which is impregnable....
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From David L. Goldsteen (email@example.com)
In "The Ultimate Worker" you present the computer as the ultimate employee of the corporation: entirely output-focused, a rigid and docile follower of mathematical rules to maximize corporate returns. It's worth noting that the corporation itself is an abstraction -- and a distraction -- just as is a computer program. The corporation, of course, is a legal fiction: a hypothetical person under the law, able to enter into contracts, be sued, own real property. It's a mask for the people behind it, and a necessary one in many ways. By creating this hypothetical person, we insulate investors from some risks of ownership: the shareholders of General Motors, for example, cannot lose their houses or be jailed if GM breaks the law; their losses are limited only to the money they invest. These laws provide an essential confidence that makes possible investment through the financial markets.
But the symbol often takes on a life of its own. Sometimes our abstractions insulate us from reality. For example, we often forget to consider morality as investors: the corporation we own sins but we are blameless. Or we ask corporations -- rather than the people who own them -- to be "socially responsible", good "corporate neighbors" as if they were flesh and blood individuals we could invite into our houses. When a venerable corporation is dissolved, the media mourns its passing as if it were a leading citizen, rather than a fictional character.
The rise of the "software society" continues this trend in abstraction towards its logical conclusions. My perspective at work is ideal for charting this: I work in the development of risk management software for derivatives transactions in a major US Bank. A financial derivative, of course, is about the most absurdly abstract a product one can design: the risk and reward of a financial (abstract) asset, without an asset underneath it. We speak of "notional principal" -- amounts used as reference points on loans never made, at rates never charged. If you think of money as one level of abstraction from reality -- the representation of a generic "basket of goods" by a printed bit of paper, or numbers on a ledger -- then the financial derivative is two or three orders more abstract than that: fiction piled on fiction, able, like characters in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," to step out of the world of imagination and affect the real world. Real people can lose jobs because companies lose money speculating derivative transactions.
So what do we do to understand the risks we undertake by entering into derivative transactions? We create complicated models of their behavior, models that exist only as software, and could not have been conceived, much less executed, without powerful computers. And for many people who work with these risks, the model is reality. Money -- abstract in itself -- moves on the basis of models. When I suggest that the model may be wrong, or more fundamentally that it's "just a model" I am looked at as a heretic. In this strange little corner of the working world, abstraction is the reality because it was from abstraction that we abstracted to begin with.
Abstraction is distracting. When we stare at our models too long, be they on paper or on a video screen, we become blind to the reality behind them. The rise of software, and its abstraction of so much of our lives, is not threatening because it is a new peril to our society, but because it gives us better tools with which to dazzle and confuse each other about what is real, and what is important. We have always deceived ourselves; the computer helps us do it more convincingly.
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From Lowell Monke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Letter from Des Moines June 15, 1997There is a flip side to the use of the 'Net for multicultural education, which I discussed in NF #49. It has to do with the the way the 'Net affects students' and teachers' attitudes toward other cultures that exist in their own communities.
For a variety of reasons, Des Moines has become a popular destination for refugees and immigrants from all over the world. The ESL (English as a Second Language) program has exploded in the district, and Central Campus is the first stop for most high schoolers trying to learn English. (Central Campus isn't a school in itself; we provide special services to all of the five district high schools.) Even though our program is a revolving door moving students to their high schools full-time as quickly as possible, there are constantly around 200 ESL students attending Central Campus.
One day a couple of years ago, I happened to be standing outside my room just down the hall from the doors opening into a Gifted and Talented Language Arts room and an adjacent ESL room, when the bell rang to end classes. I watched the two groups of students emerge from their rooms, walk side-by-side the twenty feet out the narrow corridor which spills into the hallway, turn the same direction and walk to their lockers, which were directly opposite each other in the hall. From the time the doors opened to the time the halls were cleared, I never saw anyone from one class talk to a person in the other class. Indeed, to the Language Arts students the ESL students seemed more like obstacles to navigate around than interesting people to engage.
I don't blame the students for this, and I don't want to paint them as callous snobs. They were merely doing what all students do in a large school: associating with their friends, letting the mass of humanity flow by. But what really caught my attention was that among the students emerging from the Language Arts class were most of the students from a global telecommunications project I was running at the time -- one that centered around a multicultural theme. Here we had been exchanging ideas about cultures with students on the other side of the planet for months, and it had never dawned on these students to merely turn their heads 90 degrees and talk to students from Bosnia, Somalia, the Sudan, Russia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and half a dozen other nations. The disassociation unnerved me. What does it mean when a group of students are eager (these were all volunteers) to relate to students all over the world via the 'Net, but show no interest at all in talking face-to-face with young people who grew up in some of those very same places?
As I said, the students have some excuse. It's difficult in the best of circumstances for young people to initiate new relationships. With ESL students, language is an additional hurdle. But that's where the teacher's responsibility comes in. Far more important than the students' oversight was my negligence. So the question can be reframed to ask what does it mean when teachers like myself don't even think about bringing these two groups of students together, but instead look to the 'Net to fling disembodied text all around the world at people whom our students will likely never meet, and then claim that we have increased our students' multicultural "awareness"?
I don't know whether it should make me feel better that I found only one teacher (who teaches world history) who has invited these new immigrants to talk with his students. In my own son's third grade class there are two Bosnian students, two students whose parents came from Southeast Asia, and one whose parents came from India. None of those students, nor their parents, ever got to share with the class their knowledge of their homelands, their customs, their reasons for coming here. Yet we are, as I have said, spending millions of dollars to get computers into the elementary classrooms right now, in part so that our sons and daughters can get involved with the neat multicultural activities on the Internet.
A minister once told me about the Missionary Syndrome. This is when members of a congregation are willing to empty their pockets to aid the unknown hapless people who live at least 1000 miles away, but won't lift a finger to help the down-and-outs in their own community (who they know all too well). There seems to be something of the Missionary Syndrome in our passion to connect our students with people on the other side of the world. For some reason we are willing to settle for, even get excited about, bits of writing from long distance, while turning our backs on the stories and insights of students who are literally within arm's reach.
It's hard to believe it is the human dimensions of communication that drive this kind of activity. I think for most of us it is our infatuation with the exotic opportunities afforded by the technology, its awesome ability to compress space and time, that drives multicultural (and most other educational) activities on the 'Net.
But we ought to recognize that it is also the school structure that contributes to this easy willingness to seek out abstract relationships rather than in-the-flesh ones. We teachers suffer from the same reluctance as our students: working with other teachers is often frustrating. After all, we have been trained to be loners or, at best, collaborators within our departments. The curriculum pigeon-holes all of us so that cutting across it takes enormous energy and creativity -- and not a little willingness to battle bureaucrats. We have all gotten used to relying on standardized texts and all the inert material resources that come with them. People just aren't convenient enough, reliable enough, controllable enough, or full of the objective information we have come to treasure. Add to this mix a machine that you can turn on and off at will and it's pretty easy for the teacher to turn a blind eye on the educational opportunities that exist right outside the classroom door.
All of the conditions I've just mentioned are regularly used as arguments for getting students on the 'Net. It allows for collaboration; cuts across the curriculum; and can be customized to suit the teacher and student. But as the little vignettes I've just related illustrate, the comfortable escape the 'Net provides from a regimented system may very well defeat the very purpose we try to use it for. The 'Net provides the form, but lacks the rich content -- the real human, flesh-and-blood relational content, with all the messy issues that we and our students are forced to deal with -- which is the true essence of multicultural education. Or of any education at all, for that matter.
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In conjunction with this conference, the United Nations Development Program is sponsoring an Internet discussion list, which you can join by sending an email message to email@example.com with the body text, "subscribe gkd97". For further information about the conference, contact Janice Brodman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Meanwhile, the Toronto Media Collective is organizing a counter-event, called "Local Knowledge -- Global Wisdom." According to the organizers' announcement, "For two days Local Knowledge will hold an open public forum in which a narrative will be created and action taken towards challenging the economic and technological determinism surrounding Global Knowledge, while creating an environment to discuss alternatives." The event is open to the public. For further information, see http://www.tao.ca/earth/lk97/.
"The Humane Village has been structured to challenge the roles, capabilities, obligations, and responsibilities of designers. The challenge will be described by eminent thinkers from the arenas of economics, politics, art, technology, philosophy, and ecology." For more information, contact email@example.com or check out http://www.designexchange.org/humanevillage.
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #51 :: June 18, 1997
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