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  • Committing Ourselves to Tinkerers

    When Emptiness Rules

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    A remarkable truth, scarcely noticed, underlies all the ongoing drama of cyberspace. The jockeying for position by slickly named megacorporations, the unquenchable eructation of high-tech news and analysis from both trade and general presses, the struggle by millions of bemused citizens to figure out how their lives relate to the online world, and the endless billions of dollars in research monies that drive the entire, purposeful chaos -- these express a single, gray fact.

    The fact is a simple one, though devastating in its implications: what generates all this thundering activity is a mere tinkering with logic. Find the right college student, closet him in a room for six months with a supply of Jolt, a screen and keyboard, and a silicon box full of logical tinker toys, then sit back and wait for the cultural earthquake.

    It will come. We now experience such earthquakes with dizzying frequency: gopher clients and servers, which began reconstructing the Net as an information space rather than a machine space; World Wide Web servers supporting a matrix of hypertext links; the Mosaic web browser; and, lately, the mere rumor of Java.

    Anyone who takes in even a tiny part of this trillion-dollar commotion and then reflects upon the nature of the developments provoking it can hardly escape an occasional surreal moment. All this energy and money and attention is focused upon -- emptiness. Nothing. Or, rather, sheer, undirected, unconsidered potential. Infinite technical means running amok in a world without ends. But means disconnected from ends are worse than useless; they are a dangerous distraction. And an uncontrolled passion for them testifies to a society adrift.

    Exercises in logic and programming are exercises in the manipulation of empty forms. Concern about what human uses the logic may find is no part of the programmer's accepted task; it can arise only from a liberal, humane education largely excluded from both the technical curriculum and the corporation's R&D imperatives. The typical software engineering organization today is a kind of Manhattan Project where official censorship about the project's end results is unnecessary; each engineer happily engages in self-censorship.

    When the engineering of forms is thus divorced from adequate consideration of their concrete meaning and use, stunningly vacuous pronouncements about the profound social signficance of the latest tinkering begin to proliferate -- pronouncements about reinvigorated democracy and community, about the mind's unlimited expansion, about personal freedom and mystical breakthroughs -- as if the empty forms of the latest programming logic were somehow ensouled by mythic gods and goddesses. It would be truer to say that they are ensouled by the demons of our subconscious -- the normal result whenever we confront a void.

    History has often been shifted upon the fulcrum of "mere" ideas. But those ideas were not bloodless and abstract; they were not compactions of logic. It was their content, their meaning, that gave them power. The redemptive conceptions at the heart of the great religions, the ennobling Renaissance conviction that man is the measure of all things, the eighteenth century's aspir