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  • At the Fringe of Freedom

    This is Chapter 7 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/.

    It is strange that in a society founded so centrally on the creative initiative and freedom of the individual, we should today find this same individual so utterly helpless before the most urgent social problems.

    Or so it seems. If you are troubled, for example, by the drug problem in our cities, what can you actually do about it? The educational system, family structure, mass media, organized crime, international commerce, welfare system -- all affect, and in turn are affected by, the culture of drugs and violence. It is not easy to see where you and I might step into the picture and make a discernible difference. It is all too easy to see how we might throw our lives away.

    Similar perplexities arise if you think about the famines regularly scything millions of people, or the massive human assaults upon mother earth, or the stranglehold with which the indifferent imperatives of technological development now direct the evolution of social forms. The problems have gone so systemic, the causes become so tortured and inaccessible, the interrelationships grown so intricate, that we cannot imagine how to fix one thing without fixing everything. That, of course, seems impossible, so paralysis sets in. /1/

    "What can I do to change things?" has become as much a prelude to resignation as a declaration of hopeful intent. Which is to say that the forces at work seem ever more impersonal, more disconnected from individual human activity, more autonomous. Perhaps (although I do not believe it) this is the inevitable result of increasing social complexity. In any case, you and I will most likely continue to take our places within a scheme of things whose larger outlines are already given, and amidst processes of change that seem elemental, inescapable, overwhelming. When a "new world order" is proclaimed, the new realities are not what we saw and planned for -- not what we carefully ushered into place -- but more like something that happened to us. We can only react, and wait for the next set of realities. Oddly -- or perhaps not so oddly -- our sense of personal helplessness coincides with historically unsurpassed technical powers.

    Our apparent inability to mend things has a perverse flip side: the things we can't help doing seem unavoidably to worsen matters. Every action sets in motion endless, outward-flowing ripples, some of which are undeniably destructive. The smallest and most essential purchase, for example, may well entail unhealthy consequences for the environment. If I have the means to live in a community where my children will receive a first-class public education, I must ask what effect this choice has upon othe