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  • Can Human Ideals Survive the Internet?

    This is Chapter 1 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Social healing, it seems, approaches us from the Internet. If the hopes clustered about this miraculous, Hydra-headed gift of the information age are fulfilled, it will bring us extended democracy, personal liberation, enhanced powers of organization and coordination, renewal of community, information transmuted into wisdom, education freed from the grip of pedagogical tyranny, a new and wondrous complexity arising from chaos -- and much more. Can any gift prove dangerous while acting as such an extraordinary magnet for every conceivable ideal?

    It is at least curious, given the bright light of idealism focused upon the Internet, that its actual development should have proceeded largely according to a dim, scarcely conscious, technical logic. The "intrinsic necessities" of its growth seem to derive as much from the technical machinery's insistence upon its own, natural articulations as from any choosing on our part:

    "Again and again," writes Howard Rheingold, "the most important parts of the Net piggybacked on technologies that were created for very different purposes," yielding what he calls "the accidental history of the Net." /1/ Huge corporations have fallen from grace because they did not foresee the twists and turns in this strange, unpredictable evolution. And, of course, foreseeing is all most of us can hope for. Marketing departments try to steal a glimpse of what may happen one or two years ahead, and find little reason to consider what ought to happen. The underlying technical trajectory is what it is. High-tech firms hire consultants as prognosticators, not as wise counselors ass