NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #9 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates March 11, 1996 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. ########################################################################## #### Don't forget the $5000 SPIDER OR FLY? deadline: April 30, 1996 #### ########################################################################## CONTENTS: *** Editor's note *** Communes, the Net, and self-governance A minor reflection upon the Virtual Magistrate Project *** Flying or falling through cyberspace? (Mark Jost) By what standard do we judge online realities? *** Peter Quince's contradiction (Sean Shapira) The dangers of absolutism *** When face-to-face is the only way (Kevin Tucker) But I feel better anyway *** Mr. Quince, change happens (Kent Quirk) The soul is in the machine *** In (partial) defense of Peter Quince (Stephen L. Talbott) Let's have both freedom and realism *** Can the `End of Education' Be `Life on the Screen'? (Lowell Monke) Review of books by Turkle and Postman *** About this newsletter
In this issue Lowell Monke reviews new books by Sherry Turkle and Neil Postman. Lowell is in charge of a resource center associated with NETFUTURE, called Confronting Technology. Still young and modest in scale, it is intended to help those struggling with questions posed by computerized technology. If you know of content that might be worthy of the center--or would like to contribute something of your own--contact Lowell as email@example.com.
Peter Quince's handwritten letters provoked some impassioned response. You'll find that response below, along with your editor's defense of Quince's vow of computer celibacy.
Our interview with Prof. Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute will resume next issue.
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A new "Virtual Magistrate Project" will provide conflict resolution services for disputes in cyberspace. There are some heavy-hitters involved: National Center for Automated Information Research, Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy, Coalition for Networked Information, American Arbitration Association, and Cyberspace Law Institute. For further information, see the Virtual Magistrate web page (http://vmag.law.vill.edu:8080/).
The increasing use of voluntary arbitration in the society at large is healthy. It allows people in a variety of roles to work out disputes actively, locally, and creatively; we have an alternative to being marched passively through a sclerotic System. The Virtual Magistrate Project promises to be a constructive step in bringing responsible order to the Net.
It is all the more welcome because entrenched, highly romanticized notions of utopian self-governance (see Declaration of mindlessness in cyberspace) combined with what Langdon Winner has called a "Don't tread on me," I'm-not-responsible-to-anyone-or-anything mindset, remind one very much of that same, impotent combination of attitudes in the communes of the 1970s. My own, glancing contacts with such communes always suggested to me a poignant lostness and paralysis in the pursuit of admirable ideals.
Ideals, needless to say, are important. I am convinced that those who worked hard and conscientiously in the communes were driven by a truly sensed historical necessity. Much the same can be said of the idealism of the Net. But in both cases it is almost as if some malevolent power were acting to blunt our highest impulses by mixing them with a vicious sort of unreality. In the communes, mind-altering chemicals were a primary source of the unreality. On the Net, the blurring veil we interpose between ourselves and the world is infinitely more refined, more convenient, more acceptable, and less unflattering to the unchecked engines of commerce and technology. The veil can certainly be seen through, but only with the greatest effort.
The idea of self-governance is a noble one, when grounded in reality. It is not grounded in reality so long as we are imagining that the Net is the magical place where we will "make it happen." If we want to see the real challenges, we should look at self-governance where there are selves fully present and most in need of governance--within the family, within the workplace, within the local community. These are the difficult places where our success or failure will be determined. Nor does the state of these institutions give much reason for optimism. And if that is so, surely the final source of the problem lies in a failure of self-governance within the individual citizen. Recognized for thousands of years, this truth sometimes seems to disappear within the hall of mirrors we call cyberspace.
In sum, the widespread hope vested in the Net as the place where our ideals will finally be redeemed in spite of ourselves can only be seen as a symptom of responsibility fled rather than embraced. We are not likely to strike the root of our problems in a venue where they are most vague and remote--that is, in a non-place where we can most easily escape each other and ourselves.
Nevertheless, given a more restrained and realistic hope, progress in true self-governance is indeed possible, even in cyberspace. As one small step in the right direction, we should wish the Virtual Magistrate Project well.
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Note to editor:
The more I read Scott Lopatin's comments, the more I wonder whether you've made him up. Aside from sharing a couple of your initials, he makes a perfect foil for this discussion group. Ah well, I'll rise to the bait anyway.
Flying or Falling through Cyberspace
The most striking thing, in my opinion, about Scott Lopatin's essay is that he anticipates with hope what I dread.
Let me quote a few excerpts:
"Artificial humanity is upon us. As more and more people from around the world gain access to the great Internet, less of themselves they become."
"'It is hard for me to interact in person nowadays. I feel more confident in virtual space. I like my virtual self more, I can't help it,' a veteran online chatter replies."
"We wire mother earth, forming the great creature Gaia, with man kind as its chosen single cells. We are the neurons."
Scott's enthusiasm notwithstanding, it's not my goal to become a neuron. I'd hoped for something better. The essay implies that this form of evolution is an improvement over the past. But words such as "better" and "higher" are meaningless without knowing what values go into those words.
The essay suggests that the communication of body language, looks, and smells constitute "faketalk" and that reality is only that which can be transmitted through a keyboard; the mind is all and the physical is merely distraction. There are some major philosophical assumptions being made here. Upon what basis?
In Scott's almost religious call to progress I see no criteria or standards by which this progress is to be measured. Without a standard to judge our efforts, how do we know our actions constitute progress at all?
The essay leaves me filled with questions and an uneasy dread. As we enter the "great online," are we falling or flying? Without a point of reference, it's hard to tell the difference.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
To allay your suspicions: no, I don't invent NETFUTURE correspondents. There would in any case be little need for invention, since Lopatin's views are common currency within certain environs of the Net. I would welcome anyone who could help us understand what it is in our culture that feeds these bizarre, often mystical hopes unleashed by the advent of the new media.
But don't be surprised if what we get instead is someone who's as willing to step forward and defend Scott Lopatin as I am to defend the unpopular Peter Quince! (See below.) SLT
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You report that Peter Quince wrote to you: "Face-to-face contact is the only worthy kind."
If so, then is his use of paper and ink to contact you unworthy?
Sean Shapira firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 443-2028
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I enjoy Netfuture. While I have never had a strong urge to reply I find I am regularly prodded into thinking about items and even to discussing them with friends. The correspondence with Mr Quince in Issue #8 however was different. Even before finishing reading Netfuture I just had to write. Unfortunately even after it got to be a couple of pages long I felt completely unsatisfied. What a dilemma, strong feelings and an inability to express them at all as a writer. While contemplating this I realized that while some things are better written this was one of those times that I really needed to be face to face to say what I really felt-- "what a load of crap."
Now I feel better.
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A letter to Mr. Quince, copied to the NetFuture forum.
Dear Mr. Quince:
I certainly agree with you that computers can be and often are (choose from among your favorite deprecatory adjectives:) dehumanizing, belittling, and so forth.
But I do believe that technology happens. Change happens. If you're familiar with James Burke's "The Day The Universe Changed", his argument is that periodically there are paradigm shifts (yes, the term is overused, but in this case appropriate) due to new technology and new discoveries. They don't always happen overnight, once they happen, they're inexorable.
The creation of the printing press (thanks, Steve) was one such event; so was the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the opposite. These changes provoked an eventually pervasive change in the world view of the general population.
I believe that those who perceive this shift early and adapt themselves to it have an advantage. Furthermore, having recognized this sea-change, it is my belief that I should help to bring it from "something rich and strange", to quote the Bard, into something rich and familiar!
My concern for you is that you perceive the shift, understand its implications, but have chosen instead to hide in your study and hope it will go away.
Around 1988 I gave a talk called "My Mother's Computer" in which I outlined the the development of software technology, explained why my mother had no need for or interest in a computer, and described the computer she would someday like to own. In brief, this is a handheld computer, with the ability to handle input by voice and handwriting, and a wireless network interface. It was far from achievable then, and it's not achievable at reasonable cost today. I believe that it will be not only achievable but available just about the time that we're teetering on your "abyss of the twenty-first" century.
This thought may well fill you with horror. But consider that the existence of my mother's computer implies that it will have integrated itself into her way of life.
Your choice to say "to hell with the machines" is, of course, up to you, as one might say "to hell with powered vehicles". In doing so, however, you have consciously limited your choices. If I abjure automobiles and planes, I could not expect to be able to take advantage of much that society offers me; I would be limited, like the Amish, to that portion of the world within walking or horse-riding distance.
"If I can do without a machine, then I will do without." This seems to me a particularly dangerous statement, unless you aspire to be a monk. Will you also apply it in other areas of your life? I can do without nature poems, home-baked bread, my bicycle, and bedtime stories beside a log-fire, to cite a few of the things you named as alternatives to computing. But I too happen to like all of these things, indulge in all of them, and do not see them as being in conflict with computers.
In fact, I would know far less about poetry without computers. I have several friends who first became acquaintances by means of online computer networks; two of them are poets, and one is an English professor at an American university. Between them, they have exposed me to and taught me a lot about poetry.
One more example and I'll close. Last year we made a difficult decision to move our family to France for a some time. I was concerned about spending two years away from my friends, family, and business contacts. But I finally decided that with the global reach of the internet, I would be able to stay in touch on all fronts.
I have, in fact, succeeded. Many members of my family, as well as most of our friends, now have access to the internet. I write a weekly diary entry about our lives in France and post it on my home page on the world wide web. Family, friends, and anyone else who happens to trip across it can read all about our experiences, and I have a couple of dozen (electronic) letters thanking me for writing it from people from all over the world who I would not have otherwise known.
You may well ask "what if you gain the whole world and lose your soul in the bargain?" I would submit to you that my soul is not lost in the translation to the machine -- it is in fact extended. The soul is in the machine, and the reason these people wrote to me is because they could see it, and were touched by it.
You see, Mr. Quince, I believe that writing and communication are not completely dependent on the medium by which they're communicated. While I know you would prefer me to have written this by hand, so that you can "get a sense of" me, the sense of me you'd get that way would not be an accurate one. Writing by hand for me is difficult, messy, and hard to edit, and I don't do it well. I do write well with the computer, and I believe that the "sense" is more in the words than in the script.
I love Shakespeare, though I've never read his plays in the original quarto. I love Theodore Roethke's poetry, though I've only seen his work on my computer screen and in a book. And I hope you find this work both sympathetic and evocative, despite not having been forced to read my chicken scratch handwriting.
I don't expect to have changed your mind by this, but I do hope to have opened your eyes to the possibility that machines are not inherently evil or dehumanizing. For me, the freedom is in being able to communicate in whatever way with whomever I wish. I choose to use the tools available to me rather than to artificially limit my possibilities.
If you are willing to share them, I would welcome your further thoughts...presumably by return mail.
(signed) Kent Quirk
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Peter Quince's absolutism about the unhealthiness of computers certainly leaves him vulnerable to attack, and the attacks have come. Unfortunately, the pendulum in this sort of discussion always tends to seek the extremes. It's fine to point out the contradiction necessarily displayed in the life of anyone who says "machines are intrinsically bad," but this shouldn't obscure the perfect reasonableness of a considered choice to stay away from computers. Given the one-sidedness of society's mostly unconscious embrace of computers, we need some forces of counterbalance.
Yes, Quince's choice limits his options, as Kent Quirk points out so effectively. But then, limiting one's options is what taking hold of life is all about. Going online for a couple of hours a day also limits our options. We must limit our options if we would declare ourselves for anything worthwhile in life. And those who are quick to condemn Peter Quince for pronouncing a judgment that would limit other people's options should not frame that condemnation in a way that would limit Peter Quince's options. (I should add that Kent Quirk's excellently stated piece does not suffer this limitation to any large degree.)
What I fail to see in these responses is an adequate awareness of the fact that the computer is a threat. Every tool is a threat--and the most sophisticated, complex, and capable tools are the most extreme threats. Our failure to make this a matter of conventional wisdom in today's world is extremely worrisome. The automobile, the television, the telephone, the modern house--all these are serious challenges we must overcome. Nor have we done particularly well with the challenges. To take just a single concern: all the contrivances just listed have tended to disconnect us from the natural world, with destructive consequences.
We desperately need to learn to separate two questions. On the one hand, every individual must decide for himself what use to make of any particular piece of technology. Here freedom is the decisive fact; both the person who throws out his television and the person who retains it may be pursuing sound choices within their own life contexts. On this point, one may ask for more tolerance from Peter Quince--and should return the same tolerance.
On the other hand--and perfectly consistent with that first stance--one may conclude that society is on a path of disaster with its headlong, unconsidered embrace of whatever gadgets the commercial research and development organizations happen to devise. This is a matter of assessing the ways in which, throughout society as a whole, we have in fact been exercising our freedom. Or, rather, our unfreedom, for the critical symptom here is the carefree unwillingness to be awake to the risks posed by the technology. In merely following along with whatever is handed to us, we casually throw away the very freedom that we are so quick to lay claim to when we run into a Peter Quince.
That, as a society, we are indeed pursuing an uncritical course is something I have argued before and will doubtless argue again. The point here, however, is merely that, whatever our outlook, surely we must leave a little space for the individual who says, "We are on the road to social disaster through an unwise embrace of technology, and I choose to dissociate myself from that embrace in this or that respect."
One of Peter Quince's main concerns had to do with education. What if, a few decades ago, we had succeeded in basing the child's classroom upon television or upon programmed learning to the degree we are now succeeding in basing it upon the Net? Wouldn't we be grateful for any remaining islands of sanity where a few peculiar naysayers had managed to preserve something of the true meaning of a child-centered education?
In an age of technological imperialism, the difficulty of maintaining social diversity grows acute, and we should welcome those who are willing to sacrifice their personal options in order to carry into the future certain social options that may otherwise vanish from view and be lost.
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Can the "End of Education" Be "Life on the Screen"?
Twenty-five years ago Theodore Roszak, in The Making Of A Counter Culture, argued that the ideology inherent in the Technological Society is so effective because it is so difficult to recognize. "The most effective ideologies," Roszak noted, "are always those that are congruent with the limits of consciousness, for then they work subliminally."
It's been a long time since I read those remarks. I have since read similar observations by Heidegger (in one of the few passages I understood), Mumford, Postman, and a number of others, including our moderator in The Future Does Not Compute. Each time an author points this out in a slightly different manner I recognize ways in which I have let my own awareness of technology's influence slip past me, and I renew my efforts to stay alert. This is one of the reasons I keep reading -- to help me defend myself against the dehumanizing, mechanistic part of my culture that assaults me from all sides, all the time.
I think it is essential that all of us, and especially those of us who use computer technology extensively, spend time with books that critically examine the assumptions under which we tend to work and live. Not only is the message important in developing insights about our relationship with our mental tools. The messenger itself, the book, helps us maintain our cognitive balance.
That's one reason that the web page I manage in conjunction with NETFUTURE, Confronting Technology, concentrates heavily on book resources. It is also why I will occasionally suggest to this readership some new, some old, and some timeless books that can help us think more deeply about some of the issues that appear in this journal (and all too easily disappear again into the ether).
This time I will concentrate on the new: two new books by authors who have tackled the issue of technology before in highly acclaimed books (and not just acclaimed by me). I won't attempt to give a full review of either book here. Rather I will just try to tantalize you into picking up either, or both. I think they are very much worth your time.
I just found Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, by Sherry Turkle, in the book store a couple weeks ago. If you have read The Second Self you know that Turkle is neither a technology basher nor giddy futurist. She is professor of the Sociology of Science at MIT. As a social scientist, she attempts to approach her subject objectively, letting the evidence lead her to unbiased insights. Life on the Screen uses case studies to examine the effects that our activities on-line have on our minds, on our perceptions of self and the way in which it reshapes our relationships with other people and with the machine that facilitates it.
Her findings are fascinating -- and disturbing. Essentially (this is certainly oversimplified) she finds that many Internet users, especially those who participate in the MOOs and MUDs, display a pronounced "diffusion of identity", a sense of multiple personalities, that don't just stay compartmentalized within the on-line groups, but tend to blend into the off-line personality as well. What is even more disturbing, to me anyway, is that Turkle doesn't seem disturbed by this. Indeed, she finds multiple ways of promoting this sort of decentralization of personality as a healthier future norm, if we will only accept it and nourish it in the right ways.
Turkle's wide-ranging knowledge is very impressive. I haven't found anyone as insightful in describing the purely psychological effects of Internet use. She identifies many of the issues that trouble those of us who are critical of the Technological Society. But her recognition of the dark side is coupled with an underlying acceptance of, and even muffled enthusiasm for, the Technological Society as the given, a seemingly autonomous entity we must understand and cope with, but can't, or shouldn't, control. For example, she relates the on-line sexual activities of a 12-year old girl and stresses that we have to be prepared to help children who have bad experiences there, just as we would in real life. But she never suggests, here or anywhere else, that for our children's sake we might have an interest in, a right or even an ability to prohibit that kind of activity. In other words, whatever the potential consequences may be for us, our response has to be framed in terms of discovering healthy ways to participate (and we and our children must participate), even if it means we have to redefine, or even degrade, what "healthy" means. I think this is the unarticulated ideology of technology working at "the limits of consciousness." I hope you will keep it in mind as you read (and please, do read) the book.
I confess to being an outright fan of Neil Postman. I cut my educational teeth on his first book (written with Charles Weingartner), "Teaching as a Subversive Activity". He is widely perceived today as a first rank Luddite, based on his more recent critical books "Amusing Ourselves To Death", "The Disappearance of Childhood" and "Technopoly" (I actually think "The Disappearance of Childhood" is his most important book). All of these works concern themselves in one way or another with how information and the media that conveys it are damaging the institutions and human qualities that Western civilization has promoted for centuries and to which we still pay lip-service today.
"The End of Education" brings Postman full circle, back to schools and the way we educate our children. The title is purposely ambiguous. Postman states in the introduction that unless we discover a legitimate end (purpose) for education, education will, in fact, end (at least as we know it). It's an easy read - perhaps a bit too easy. As always, Postman's arguments are cogent, but he doesn't dig very deeply into them in this book.
The purpose of education may seem far removed from the issue of our relationship with technology. According to Postman, and I certainly agree, it is not. Technology is one of the "New Gods That Fail" in helping us determine a viable purpose for education. Postman takes on the likes of Lewis Perelman and Diane Ravitch, who promote the idea that information technology has rendered schools irrelevant. He especially gouges Dr. Ravitch, who, in an article in the Economist, conjured up a mythical plugged-in child of the 21st century, Eva, who, upon not being able to sleep one night gets up and uses her home-learning station to study algebra. Postman, with his typical gentle wit asks, "Little Eva can't sleep, so she decides to learn a little algebra? Where did Eva come from, Mars? ...What Ravitch is talking about here is not a new technology but a new species of child, one that, in any case, hasn't been seen very much up to now."
It is here that Postman also states more eloquently than I can the kind of bias that underlies works like "Life on the Screen":
Of course, new technologies do make new kinds of people, which leads to a second objection to Ravitch's conception of the future. There is a kind of forthright determinism about the imagined world described in it. The technology is here or will be; we must use it because it is there; we will become the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology. All of this will happen because it is good for us, but in any case, we have no choice.(If this seems too strong a statement, I suggest you go back to issue #6 of NETFUTURE and reread "I Feel Fine.")
Postman goes on to discuss the problems with elevating "the getting of information to children" to the top of the educational agenda. Putting computers on students' desks doesn't solve the real problems of education, it just distracts us from them. He states, and again I agree with whatever credibility my 18 year teaching career gives me, "that the reason why students are demoralized, bored, and distracted is not that teachers lack interesting methods and machinery but that both students and teachers lack a narrative to provide profound meaning to their lessons." We are trying to replace meaning in our children's lives with information, believing that "in a culture which has 260,000 billboards, 17,000 newspapers, 12,000 periodicals, 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes, 400 million television sets, and well over 500 million radios, not including those in automobiles" what little Eva is lacking in her education is access to information.
What Postman wants us to recognize is that what is lacking in education, and society as a whole, is a cohesive narrative that holds our lives together. "Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention." Computers themselves provide no meaningful narrative to education, or, I might add, to our lives. But can they help us find it? Postman thinks not; that they are much more likely to get in the way of our search.
I have a hunch Turkle would disagree. After all, what are all the college students doing cruising around their MOOs and MUDs with their altered identities but searching for some kind of meaning they can't find on terra firma. Turkle's question is What kinds of meanings are they finding, and for which lives? Postman's question is How can we help them find just one, which allows them to stand firmly balanced on solid ground?
Des Moines Public Schools
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Copyright 1996 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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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #9 :: March 11, 1996
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