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  • On Being Responsible for Earth

    This is Chapter 5 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/.

    Jerry Mander thinks we should trash computers, along with much of the rest of modern technology. He is, I think, as close to being right as one can get while being crucially, tragically wrong.

    Mander's In The Absence Of The Sacred -- The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations is a profoundly important book, and I would give much to guarantee its broad dissemination throughout our society. One can scarcely participate responsibly in contemporary discussions of technology while willfully ignoring Mander's broad thesis.

    We need to see ourselves

    Technology, Mander tells us, is not neutral; it has a mind of its own. The same goes for businesses; the corporation, which Mander rightly likens to a machine, is driven by an unconsidered compulsion to grow, and is biased toward the profitable employment of new technology, regardless of the social consequences. Those consequences -- whether we're talking about the telephone, the television, or genetic engineering -- are rarely visible during the early stages of development. Nor is there any realistic public discussion about the effects and desirability of new technologies.
    By the time the body politic becomes aware of problems with technology, it is usually after they are well installed in the system and their effects are too late to reverse. Only now, four decades after the introduction of computers, are there any rumblings of discontent, any realizations of their full implications. By the time the alarm finally goes off, technologies have intertwined with one another to create yet another generation of machines, which makes unraveling them next to impossible, even if society had the will to do it.

    As the interlocking and interweaving and spawning of new technologies take place, the weave of technology becomes ever tighter and more difficult to separate .... Technological evolution leads inevitably to its own next stages, which can be altered only slightly. (pp. 188-89)

    When a society is trapped in a pattern it does not even think to escape, the important thing is to offer viewpoints outside the pattern, enabling people to see themselves from new and unexpected angles. Mander does this in two ways. First, he shows us modern society in a historical context. Considering that much of his sketch spans only a few decades, it is surprisingly effective in giving us fresh eyes. He mentions, for example, how, during the Fifties, his neighborhood would gather around the only available television set at certain times during the week:

    Viewing was a group event, with socializing before and after. Soon, however, each family had its own set, or sets