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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #1       Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      December 14, 1995
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Call for participation, ideas, and links
          What does it mean to be responsible for technology?
    *** The Phenomenology of Computing:  Two Tales from the Net
          What the computer-human interface experts don't talk about
    *** The Fundamental Deceit of Technology (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Don't Expect Phone Answering Systems To Become Friendlier

    *** Call for participation, ideas, and links

    Yes, you are a responsible citizen of cyberspace. You don't send email bombs, engage in sexual harassment, dig through other people's private files, or willfully disrupt and destroy discussion groups. On the positive side, perhaps you even take seriously the advice (not heard as often as a few years ago!) to treat newcomers kindly, share your ideas freely for the common good, and cultivate some sort of global consciousness, whatever that means.

    But are there concerns and responsibilities, perhaps even more urgent than these, yet less present to mind?

    How interested in such issues is the larger Net community? It is difficult to know. Send us your thoughts, suggestions, and references. We look forward to your participation in this wide-open exploration of the boundaries of human responsibility in the presence of the ubiquitous machinery of our lives.

    Beginning with the next issue, we will post a monthly set of guidelines for contributors. For now, just consider that anything goes (maybe)! In any case, do not consider this first, "artificial" issue representative.

    The netfuture archives will be part of a larger "Technology and Human Responsibility" resource area served from the O'Reilly & Associates Web site. This resource area is in early planning stages, and we welcome your suggestions about candidate materials, links, and contributors.

    Send all such suggestions (not intended for posting to netfuture) to netfuture-owner@online.ora.com. Send submissions intended for netfuture itself to netfuture@online.ora.com.

    Lastly, there is one way you can particularly help during this early phase: please forward this issue of netfuture to any individuals and groups who you believe will be interested in it.

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    *** The Phenomenology of Computing -- Two Tales from the Net

    [These two stories may not match your experience any more than they do mine. Perhaps you do not even observe your own experience. But if you do, we'd like to hear from you. There are questions here about the "human-computer interface" that don't get much discussed in mainstream studies. -- mod]

    Escaping the Computer's Pull through Ironic Immersion

    From Dirk Brandts (brandts@alishaw.ucsb.edu)

    (This message was originally posted to the waldorf education discussion group: listserv@sjuvm.stjohns.edu; subscribe waldorf)

    I recently spent two months in pretty rustic conditions in Ireland, this after having spent a solid three years doing computer graphics in a high-stress environment. It took me a good week to lose the craving for network access, which manifested itself as an actual physical impulse. My conscious mind was quite content to lay on the grass and read or draw, but my body (!) felt a pull towards the machine. But I was relieved to learn that it was relatively easy, after all, to wean myself from the device. In a short time I had, as I called it, "liquified" myself. I wondered whether this might have been due to my background, having grown up in rural East Africa and learned in youth to savor all the rich stimulation that unmediated nature has to offer. Would a person raised solely on TV and computers find themselves in an empty world without those "tools"? Perhaps it depends on the individual.

    Upon my return from Ireland I sat down in front of my machine and was shocked at the sensation! It was as if something were reaching out and enveloping first my hand on the mouse, then my arm, then my shoulder. Soon my whole physique had been (for lack of a better word) subjugated to the machine form and process. The phenomenon extended to my mind, in fact, and I could feel my loose relaxed thinking start to square up and re-align with the programmatic avenues of choice that the machine presented. I gave in, with a little whimper to my wife about the strangeness of the feeling, and have been hard at work computing ever since.

    So I would say that there's definitely a quality associated with computer use that's different from any other tool. Consequently I practice (to use Arthur Kroker's term) "ironic immersion." Despite being fully involved with the machine, I reserve a strong sense of doubt and questioning. We live on a small ranch, and after work I go to some lengths to complement my digital days with farm chores, paddling around on the lake, gardening and so forth. I see it as preventive medicine, although I realize that even these measures may not be sufficient in the long run. I don't ever get as "liquid" as I did in Ireland, for example.

    ("I'm 40 years old, and I've been involved with computers and the visual arts for 10 years. I currently work as the staff illustrator/computer support person for the Anthropology Department at UC Santa Barbara. I've taken to labeling myself a "rational animist", citing people like William Irwin Thompson as my intellectual gurus, and am more interested in Batesonian `ecologies of mind' than fixed ideological viewpoints. Additionally, I've always prized my outdoorsy athleticism, and consider it a vital necessity for my happiness. On a good day I see my life as a work of art, judged by Aquinas' aesthetic criteria of `wholeness, harmony and radiance.'" -- Dirk Brandts)

    The Strong Pull of MUDs

    From Angela Beegle (beegle@oz.net)

    I have been mudding [roleplaying on MUDs and MUSHes] for 3 years, and I think I can safely say there are two reasons why I continue: One, because I revel in the unparalleled opportunity muds provide for creative storytelling, and two, because I like the people I meet, with whom I have developed relationships. It's not enough to have one or the other, I must have both.

    The nagging...want? Need? Hunger? To be connected, to not miss anything, to participate or just *be* with those people, exerts a powerful pressure on me. I don't know what that draw *is*, but it's real. I've taken vacations from mudding, by necessity, whenever I've taken trips to places where I had no net-access for a week or ten days. The first couple of days are *hell*, like a psychological nicotine fit -- it's that same kind of nagging craving -- but gradually, that something begins to wear off, and by the end of 10 days or so, when the 'nicotine fit' has passed, I don't feel the need to participate so much; it's a delight to have *time* on my hands again. Thus freed, my available creativity skyrockets, my interest in reading and writing increases exponentially, and my husband (a self-described MUD-widower) delights in the increased amount of actual focused attention he receives from me.

    I think if I left for 3 or 4 weeks I wouldn't bother to come back. But because I do come back every day, I *want* to come back every day.

    Sometimes when I've come back at the end of a vacation, I've boggled at what has become simply words on a screen, rather than something live and very real to me. But I persevere until that strangeness passes, because the stories aren't finished: like a soap opera, I want to know what'll happen next.

    But I'm talking mostly about storytelling mudding, like AmberMUSH and so on, where my characters *do* things. I can pop on and off of a social MUD any time, take a vacation of days or weeks, and come back -- and not feel like I've missed anything.

    When the storytelling on MUDs works (rather than sort of meandering around aimlessly) there's little else I find so satisfying, in an...obsessive and all-consuming way. When I'm inside, it takes most of my brain's CPU. Even when I'm at work (ostensibly focused on other things), I suspect my brain of running batch-files, processing, number-crunching, analyzing, and plotting. It's a frantic kind of thing, and it's satisfying in the way some people find carnival rides satisfying -- the brain's equivalent of an adrenaline rush, produced by the constant stimulation. When I'm inside of it, I want more and more, to keep the rush coming. When I step outside -- even a week's break -- and part of me (the sane and rational part, I think) says "Why on earth do you subject yourself to it? When, not doing it, you can read, and write, and clean, and do all those things that people call `Having a life'?"

    And yet, there are the stories. They're not perfect. They're really pretty poor stories, on the whole -- anecdotal and generally pointless, and certainly not high literature. But I still want to know, what's going to happen next to characters X, Y and Z? "For the answers to these and many more questions, tune in next time!"

    Beyond that, I don't really know what to say. Mudding is an evil thing, in a lot of ways, but that's only from the outside. From the inside, it's a good thing. But good or evil, I like it, and I do an awful lot of it.

    > I'm not at all sure what you mean by "evil on the outside, good on the > inside." One interpretation would be, "not *really* evil, but only > appearing so." In the same vein, your doubts might be things you just > don't give *real* credence to, so that you're not actually conflicted > about your use of MUDs to any great degree. In that case, my questions > evaporate. On the other hand, you sure *sound* conflicted! [-- mod]

    I am of two minds about it: It's tremendously appealing and a great deal of fun, and it draws me in, in spite of all else -- my husband, my writing, my local friends. But...it draws me in, in spite of all else! It's not like I'm not aware of that, and I don't think that's good. But I couldn't tell you if that's a fault of the beast or a fault in me.

    I love MUSHing. And I hate what it does to me. Certainly my husband is no fan of what it does to our time (what time?) together.

    Now, mind, this is hardly the first thing I've thrown myself into, bodily. I did it with religion (please, don't ask) and with everything else I've ever gotten interested in. Nevertheless, there it is: it's something a person can throw themselves into, bodily, and some of them don't seem to ever come *out* of it. Except when a vacation physically takes them away.

    Good? Bad? I don't know. Yes. But yes, you're right, I'm conflicted about it, and no, I don't think it's something I'm going to resolve any time soon.

    ("At 29, I have done everything from dog grooming to nannying; from cashiering at McDonald's to trying my hand at professional writing. I am a published poet and soon-to-be-published author of short fiction. I live in Bellevue, Washington, with my husband Ryan and my pet bird, Bird." -- Angela Beegle)

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    *** The Fundamental Deceit of Technology

    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    No law seems more certain than this one: the next generation of computers will be better than the last. Yet no law conceals a more socially devastating lie.

    I recently heard an industry pundit say, "As voice recognition technology gets more sophisticated, we can expect computers to become more user-friendly." Self-evidently true? Let's consider.

    Perhaps the most conspicuous application of voice recognition today is in telephone answering systems. The idea, of course, is that better listening skills will enable the software to deal more flexibly with your and my needs. The notorious klunkiness of the current answering systems will yield to friendlier capabilities.

    In a sense, this is true. When I call a business in the future, the options will be more numerous, and I'll be able to negotiate those options with voice commands more complex than "yes" and "no."

    But this is to ignore an obvious fact about the new capabilities: their reach will be extended. Where earlier software eventually routed you to a human operator, the "friendlier" version will replace the operator with a software agent who will attempt to conduct a crude conversation with you.

    So the earlier frustrations will simply be repeated -- but at a much more critical level. Where once you finally reached a live person, now you will reach a machine. And if you thought the number-punching phase was irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of 400 words, and the compassion of a granite monolith!

    The technical opportunity to become friendlier, in other words, is also an opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level. This is the prevailing law of technological development, underlying nearly every claim of progress.

    For example, the computer is supposed to lead us out of the television wasteland "because now everything is interactive." But interactivity will not redeem the television sitcom. What it will do is transform even those activities where formerly we interacted with each other directly. "Direct" will become less direct. Local, face-to-face politics, to cite just one consequence, will yield more and more to computer-mediated politics.

    You see the fallacy. Enthusiasts summon a vision of couch potatoes happily released from passivity to a new activity. Yet the essential development turns out to be not so much the greening of the former wasteland as the the reduction of rich, adjacent territory to a kind of semiaridity. And then we hear it said: "Look how much greener than the desert this new, semiarid land is!"

    "But surely," you may say, "all our technological advances do represent an accumulating gain. Nearly everyone agrees that technically mediated services are getting better!" But this confusion of technical advance with human benefit is the heart of the reigning lie.

    I work for a book publisher, O'Reilly & Associates. It is now possible for us to exchange our customer service people for an order- taking telephone system. I hope we don't. Much of the company's success has arisen from its unusually close contact with its readers. A bond of mutual trust and respect has developed, which influences the quality of our books.

    But if we do take the leap, everyone will doubtless adapt. Another remnant of personal meaning will disappear from the world of commerce with scarcely a sigh. Industry observers will remark the increased efficiency, the reduced manpower. Few will note that the human signature upon the products we produce has grown yet a little fainter.

    Do not blame the computer. If you and I are satisfied with products and services that bear no moral, artistic, or purposeful imprint of another human being, then the computer is the perfect instrument of delivery. We can continue altering our expectations and habits until even those software telephone operators begin to seem progressive.

    But keep in mind that this "progress" reflects not so much the machine's increasing friendliness and humanity as it does your and my willingness to become more machinelike,

    There is an alternative, however, and it does not require us to sacrifice efficiency. Anyone who suggests we give up efficiency for the sake of human values has missed the critical issue. Efficiency is never at war with value.

    The question, rather, is whether we might still recover a sense for the artistic human gesture, for the inner significance of every personal meeting, for the communal sharing out of which a society's future can be fashioned.

    If we learn to care about these things, we will happily pay for them in every product and service -- not because we have given up efficiency, but because we now seek ends that simply cannot be mechanically contrived. We will no longer lash out against our machines. Nor will we fail to recognize the anti-human consequences of a progress conceived in purely technical terms.

    Machines will then find their rightful place in our lives precisely because we are paying attention first of all to each other.

    (Stephen L. Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflection is part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced.")

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1995 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #1 :: December 14, 1995

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