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  • THE MACHINE'S HIDDEN AGENDA

    Technology Gains Its Powers from the Human Heart

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Utopian advocates and doomsaying critics of digital technology have one thing in common: a taste for simplistic, one-sided judgments. They both forget that the relation between the human being and the computer must be at least as complex as the human being himself.

    Our willingness to assume rigid, mechanical postures regarding the computerized future may itself be one sign of technology's influence. We want immediate, on-or-off, yes-or-no answers. And somehow it is comforting to believe that our salvation -- or our doom -- lies in external equipment rather than in the murky, ambiguous urgings of our own hearts.

    Imagine the arrival of the first few cars in turn-of-the-century American cities. John Doe, proud of his sleek new machine, can now decide on the spur of the moment to visit flu-stricken Aunt Jane, who lives on the other side of town. Wasn't it reasonable for John to think that such good deeds would now be easier, and that the automobile, by shrinking distances, would help bind cities together in true community?

    The ensuing century, however, told a different story -- a story of freeways and urban sprawl; devastated city centers; malls; neon-lit commercial strips; and the disappearance of an underclass beneath the freeway ramps. Society reorganized its business and pleasure around weekday commuting and weekend escape.

    Not much of this looks like a strengthening of community.

    There are two lessons here. First, we dare not say it's impossible to do good things with our modern machines. Visiting the sick is indeed admirable.

    Second, we dare not think that, just because we can do good things with technology, it therefore threatens no radical and unconsidered change. If John Doe was initially delighted with his new "freedom" to visit an ailing aunt, the time would come when visiting any friend or relative at all would require a lengthy car trip along painfully congested highways. What looks like freedom in the short term may constrain us in the long term.

    Much the same applies to computers. We have to look beyond the immediate activities we are inclined to praise or curse. We have to grasp the underlying forces -- human as well as technological -- through which society is being reshaped.

    Do not merely tell me, then, about your new email friends, or your online discovery of an enlightening piece of information, or how you downloaded the current draft of controversial legislation. Tell me also about the long-term prospects for community. Tell me about the effect of digitally manipulable information upon our habits of reflection and understanding. Tell me about the transformation of the political process as it comes online.

    When you and I tap out messages to each other in cyberspace, some see in our interaction a vision of renewed community, while others see further dilution of what it means to socialize with a fellow human being. But the key question is the one lying behind these possibilities: in a society that has long been fleeing nearly all forms of close-knit community, won't computer networks simply encourage us to accelerate the trend?

    There is no answer outsid