• Goto Meditations main page
  • 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 aspiration for liberty, equality, fraternity -- these ideas, through their imaginative content, impelled the heart and gave substance to reason fully as much as they stimulated the purely analytical intellect.

    The software that now yearly revolutionizes our world is not based upon any such content. The driving ideas today are technical ones -- above all, the ideas of connectivity, speed, and convenience (for what?). Of course, we still need to think we are driven by great visions. Surely all our miraculous technical capabilities must somehow be redemptive for society! Yet the technical means are what all the commotion is about. They are what draws the investment. In effect, the means have become our end.

    Once we lose the distinction between end and means, it is easy to delude ourselves. Mention connectivity, and immediately salvific images take hold, strengthened by real-life examples: so-and-so, in last-minute desperation, uses the Net to discover the correct diagnosis (overlooked by his doctors) to a potentially fatal disease. The phrase, "enabling technology," captures well the reigning faith sustained by testimonials such as this. In the presence of such a faith, there is no need to step back and consider the overall effects of "distance medicine" upon a medical practice that has already alienated the patient from his own body and cut him off from the technologically barricaded healer.

    In a balanced world, where enabling tools were sought because we had first grasped profound ideas that needed realization, we might reasonably welcome the enablement. But in an unbalanced world where billions of dollars frenetically change course monthly, chasing the latest result of logical tinkering, there is not much hope for the triumph of ruling vision.

    The tinkerers do not concern themselves with content. If they did, they would no longer be in the same business. Yet all that connectivity needs to connect something -- even if the something is viewed solely from the vantage point of the tools. So meaning and content are reduced to the terms of the tinkering; they become information.

    What programming logic sees when it confronts our meaningful texts and images is nothing but the quantifiable "content" given by information theory. And what we see, so far as we train ourselves to follow the logic of our programs and pattern our own activity after it, is nothing but that same, vacuous information.

    Neil Postman has been reminding us repeatedly that "if a nuclear holocaust should occur some place in the world, it will not happen because of insufficient information; if children are starving in Somalia, it's not because of insufficient information; if crime terrorizes our cities, marriages are breaking up, mental disorders are increasing, and children are being abused, none of this happens because of a lack of information."

    Nobody seems to be listening. Yet Postman is right, insofar as information is thought of as something given, something we can "access," store, and process -- so far, that is, as we view it in the manner of a program. Meaning, by contrast, cannot be accessed. It can only be entered into -- and then only through the exercise of those neglected faculties standing at the opposite pole from our activities as information processors.

    What the world needs today is the human ability to deepen the meaning of notions like ethnic identity, criminal punishment, personal destiny, and communal service. By celebrating beyond all reason the power-engendering and purely instrumental ability to shuffle information around -- this in a society whose least urgent need is for greater access to information -- we encourage the continued atrophy of those contemplative and imaginative capacities through which the deepening might have occurred.

    Nothing I have said here suggests that you and I cannot find ways to harness the Net's potentials to worthy ends. But in a society obsessively determined to celebrate and reward the tinkering itself -- this accelerating accretion of gizmos and gadgets and features upon a relentless juggernaut running out of control -- the most immediately worthy goal may well be to start looking for the brakes.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Machine's Hidden Agenda :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/agenda.html

  • Goto Meditations main page