NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #10 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates March 19, 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 *** Cyberhate in Canada The end of prejudice? *** The Net, or Huckleberry Finn? Billions of dollars on one side; can we find 30 sec. on the other? *** Spider or fly? Wrong question (Marco de Vivo) I surf; therefore I am *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 4 (Richard Sclove) Of activism and individual responsibility *** The future does not belong to Walter Mitty (Christopher M. Stahnke) Technology and the need to feed our spirits *** The Internet is for adults (Bob Schmidt) Leave children out of it *** The Net does not cause psychic fragmentation (Christopher Frankonis) Although it may amplify it *** Do computers benefit education? (Stephen L. Talbott) A new paradigm needs more than glamor *** About this newsletter (Stephen L. Talbott)
There are some unhappy campers out there among our readers, and the spate of criticism directed at NETFUTURE and its editor would swell this issue beyond reason, so I have split it into two issues. That is, the issue following this one, which I will post in just a couple of days, will be given over to the literature of discontent.
Meanwhile, Dr. Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute continues his immensely sane exploration of the politics of cyberspace in this, the penultimate installment of our interview with him. And Lowell Monke's review of Neil Postman's most recent book has drawn some vigorous comment.
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This little item just came through on Edupage. On the face of it, it certainly relates to our earlier discussion of the Net as an instrument for overcoming prejudice.
B'Nai Brith says anti-Semitic harassment in Canada is on the rise because of an "exponential growth of cyberhate." The Canadian Solicitor-General says the problem is difficult to cope with because it crosses several public and government jurisdictions. (Toronto Globe & Mail 15 Mar 96 A6)If any of our readers can flesh out the picture from direct experience or research, it would be nice to hear from you.
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It doesn't make a lot of sense to employ computers in schools in order to "increase children's access to information." After all, it hardly matters by which power of ten the accessible information outstrips the amount children can digest.
In this regard, I find interesting a brief article attributed to Theodore Roszak (author of The Cult of Information) that has crossed my desk. It's entitled "Computers in the Schools: Some Neo-Luddite Rules." After mentioning that children "need ideas, values, taste, judgment, without which `information' is worthless," Roszak goes on to offer his Rule #16: "Ideas, values, taste, and judgment are found in other human minds, and most cheaply in the minds of authors of books and teachers in classrooms." He elaborates: "Kids need to learn about those other minds. Let them. A good teacher equipped with enough cheap copies of Huckleberry Finn to go around can teach more that kids need to know than the same teacher forced to revamp all she knows to fit the limited skills of a roomful of expensive computers."
When any use for the Net is proposed, we could easily take 30 seconds to ask ourselves--as Roszak asks himself here--"Are there any cheaper, more direct--and possibly more effective--ways to accomplish the same end?" But just about the only way to account for the mania surrounding computers in the classroom is to assume that, amid the billions of dollars of investment and the millions of people-hours devoted to change, those 30 seconds virtually never get spent. It's a compulsive, herd mentality out there. ("Do computers benefit education?" later in this issue offers some justification for this conclusion.)
Any business that launched its enterprises with such little inquiry about lower-cost alternatives would be bankrupt in no time.
By the way, if anyone knows where Roszak's "Neo-Luddite Rules" were published, I'd like to receive a pointer.
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What a nonsense question!. How come there is a difference between us and the Web ? We are the web, I am because the Web is. Should the web disappear some day, then I'll disappear. I surf; therefore I am.
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Copyright 1996 by Richard E. Sclove (email@example.com).
This is the fourth installment of our interview with Dr. Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute (Amherst, Mass.) and author of Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995). For more about his background and activities, see below.
SLT: I'm a little uncomfortable with the way you set the corporate big guys--the powerful and the wealthy--against regular employees and other small guys. The distinction certainly has its uses, but shouldn't be allowed to gobble up everything else. Within the corporation, for example, we all seem to buy into a comfortable accommodation. As I put it in NF-4: I'm not aware that the employees in the wolfish corporations are very much different in their work ethic, moral values, and general purposes from those of us in most other corporate settings. We willingly merge ourselves into one seamless operation from board member to janitor. Or, at least, we have done so in the past. Perhaps if jobs become scarce enough, or real wages low enough, a reaction will set in. But, having previously bought into the system and its essentially mindless values for the sake of a salary that gave us our favored diversions, we're not in a very good position now to begin objecting on high principle. All that's left is an empty battle over wealth and power, which has nothing to do with the ends of human life.
In other words, in the face of institutions gone impersonal and mechanistic--in fact, precisely because of the impersonality and mechanism--it becomes essential to cultivate a much more acute awareness of the ways in which we individually participate in the mechanism. As I put it in that other piece, "A System can only sustain itself in the presence of a drowsy people willing to be Systematized." The flip side of this is that these institutions will only be transformed to the extent that we alter the subtle forms of our participation in them. Any consideration of clashing institutions that does not couch its most fundamental concerns in terms of individual self-knowledge and choice seems to me to offer no effective path into the future.
RES: Nice long question. The reason I make some distinction between small businesses and huge multinationals is not because people within the mom-and-pop world are typically more moral. Rather, my objection to large corporations is that their phenomenal wealth and other resources translate--in fairly obvious ways--into undue political power, powerfully distorting democratic processes and institutions.
Now, generally I agree with you that it behooves all of us to try to examine the institutional settings in which we live and work, and to watch out for their potentially corrosive effects upon our thought and behavior. But if you succeed in doing that--and it sure ain't easy--I think you'll quickly discover strict limits to what you can do, so long as you are operating within the parameters set by the institutions within which you function.
That is, if you work within Corporation X, and you'd like to start behaving more responsibly towards the planet and people everywhere, you can only make so much headway by going to your superiors and asking them to pretty-please change their behavior, or at least to allow you to change yours. Because within Corporation X, the behavior of everyone (including the big bosses) is powerfully shaped and constrained by competitive market pressures. Improve the bottom line: fine. Hurt it to any appreciable degree: no way.
Sooooo, the solution can certainly include promoting as much constructive change as you can from within. But if you're serious, you have to be willing to consider working to change the rules within which corporations operate--that is, to politically challenge today's reigning dogmas of unfettered competitive markets. A reasonable alternative: democratically governed competitive markets. Which has to include democratically accountable and governed businesses and financial systems...and also, returning to our real theme, new democratic processes for generating democratic technologies (about which I've written extensively in my book, Democracy and Technology).
SLT: But, on the one hand, it seems at least as hopeless for me (as an individual) to change the rules within the larger political context as to do so within the corporation. On the other hand, I must recognize that the rules in both cases are, in the end, an expression of the kind of person I am (and you are, and the next person...). I can seek to impose curbs, say, on entertainment megacorporations, but if with my dollars and my remote control I opt for slickly packaged junk, the curbs are not going to be workable--no more than Prohibition was workable in a society determined to drink. Grasping corporations are the expression of grasping employees and grasping consumers.
I don't think we're clearly disagreeing. Surely we must try to achieve the noblest social and political structures we can. But it does seem to me that the decisive failure today is the failure of the individual to sense personal responsibility in the face of forces that appear too large and incomprehensible to fight. Feeling that helplessness, I may say "there oughtta be a law," but I can say this without experiencing myself as part of the situation needing to be addressed. (Certainly there's little evidence of such experience among those complaining the loudest about the current indecency legislation. They take responsibility to help change the law, but not for the problems that gave rise to the law. So long as such a stance holds, laws going either way will have little value.)
I'm wondering to what extent you've run up against--and been frustrated by--this sort of "involved noninvolvement" in your own efforts as an activist.
RES: I think we do disagree somewhat, although the areas in which we differ aren't terribly important to me compared with areas in which we are clearly in sympathy. (I also observe that your questioning keeps tugging me away from technology issues, per se, toward questions of social psychology and personal ethics. I'll do the best I can, but you're pushing me to discuss topics a bit afield from those I spend most of my time thinking about.)
Now, do I agree with you that the "decisive failure today is the that of the individual to sense personal responsibility..."? No, I don't think that's the paramount social problem of our day. For me, part of the trouble with your formulation is that it can too easily lend itself to blaming the victims. Powerful forces and institutions--for instance, the socially corrosive oversimplifications that are endemic to television (and some of which are probably intrinsic to that medium, independent of who controls it)--contribute to the difficulty of grasping the social forces at work in the world. At the same time, TV and related processes (including some of what goes on in cyberspace) also make it easy to succumb to the illusion that merely by watching, we are participating meaningfully. Thus politics easily degenerates into passive spectator sport (as exemplified by the inane and largely issue-free "horse-race" reporting that typifies coverage of U.S. presidential primaries and elections.)
My own work involves calling attention to the neglected social effects of technologies (all kinds of tech, not just computers and telecommunications), and advocating democratizing how decisions are made about science and technology. Although I try to reach the broadest and largest audiences I can (operating, I might add, with extraordinarily meager resources, given the magnitude of the issues we tackle at the Loka Institute), I spend a fair amount of effort preaching to the "predisposed-to-be-converted." That is, the political terrain I focus on is so badly underdeveloped organizationally, that it seems to me that a reasonable first step is to reach out to progressive activists and organizations already working on other science and technology issues (such as biotechnology, telecommunications, workplace safety, or disarmament and defense conversion to name a few). I also try to reach out to groups that are, by and large, not centrally concerned with technology, but whose core agendas are nonetheless strongly affected by science and technology (e.g., the environmental, civil rights, women's, and labor movements).
In both cases, I am reaching out to groups of activists--that is, to people who are decidedly not apathetic or, as you put it, "noninvolved involved." Thus with these groups, the burden of proof is on me and my colleagues to make the case that it is worth these other activists' while to devote a fraction of their time and resources to advancing our common interest in democratizing technology decisions (thus making them more socially responsive, etc.). Given that this target audience is already politically and socially engaged, the good news is that, no, I rarely suffer the discouragement of wishing that the people I dealt with would take more responsibility for their own actions. Among these folks, that is not the problem. Indeed, I find working with them energizing and inspirational.
Of course, as you say, the kinds of societal changes in "the rules of the game" that I would like to bring about may indeed prove politically intractable. On the other hand, the issues I engage haven't ever gotten a fair public hearing. So it's a bit premature to assume that the chance of winning a large number of adherents--and thus being able eventually to effect significant social and institutional change--is nil. (I sometimes console myself with the example of Rachel Carson back in the late 1950's. A skeptic might well have counseled her that the environmental problems she was about to document in Silent Spring were so deeply entrenched in the economy and social order that she might as well give up. But she didn't, and in fact contributed meaningfully to helping galvanize the modern environmental movement.)
As to the wider world of folks who are not activists: well, certainly I wish more people would become socially engaged. But I'd pause before holding them culpable if they don't. For instance, lots of people are profoundly stressed out or suffering in other ways: single parents, two- parent families working three jobs while their economic security erodes, etc. Even those who would like to get more politically involved have to judge whether it is worth their while--balancing off for themselves the costs and personal satisfactions in trying, the odds of making a difference, versus other things they could be doing with their time.
With regard to such people, I suppose it's part of the activist's job to help folks find ways they can become effectively engaged, given their real-world resources and constraints. Here, I take some heart from studies, like one published by the Kettering Institute in 1991 (Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America), which show that Americans, far from being apathetic, actually yearn to be more involved in public affairs but feel locked out of consequential decision-making arenas.
Now, of course there is a residual category of person about whom I feel differently: e.g., affluent, self-involved professionals who have the means to be socially engaged but are basically preoccupied with advancing their personal happiness in self-centered ways. Into this category fall the not-uncommon folks who fantasize that they've "made it" solely because they worked hard, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and by golly anybody who has not succeeded (in their terms) is just a no-good lazy slacker. That attitude, to me, bespeaks gross naivete...at best.
And then there are scientific, engineering and business professionals who take it for granted that merely by doing their work, they are necessarily contributing to the public good. The incentives to buy into that comforting myth are potent (it lets you earn a comfortable living, high social status, and feel morally satisfied to boot.) With such folks one can try to give lots of compelling examples (they aren't hard to find) of ways that science and technology affect people detrimentally, juxtaposed with examples (a bit harder to find, but they exist) of innovative democratic processes for evolving technologies that are, as a result of broader social involvement, socially more beneficial.
Technical and business professionals who take an open-minded, sober look at the social systems in which they are active sometimes become some of the strongest advocates of democratization (e.g., there are hundreds subscribed to the Loka Institute's several Internet listservs).
But frankly, I don't put much faith in moral exhortation. I figure you bring people along by example or by trying to make available experiences from which they can learn and grow. And, when you have to, you organize to try to deploy political power against determined opponents (who, it might one day turn out, were not as entirely wrongheaded as you always imagined--i.e, I don't claim any monopoly on truth or moral rectitude.)
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Examining our relationship to technology certainly pushes a lot of buttons. Mr. Monke, in his excellent review of Postman's most recent book, points out (as Postman does) that there has to be a purpose to our technology; and further, that we have no purpose because we have no narrative by which to live. I suggest that there is an obvious and inherent narrative discernible through the reading of history, and more importantly, through our own struggles to become more conscious. We are each "called" to play a part in the collective drama.
There is always a narrative drama that we live with and by, it is just that we (as many people in history who are used to comfort and having their whims fulfilled) have allowed our "organs" of perception (and action) to deteriorate. We are uneasy about technology because it is powerful and emphasizes our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
I remember the excitement surrounding the first Whole Earth Catalogue. "Access to tools" was its motto. Indeed it could be the motto of our times. We are a tool-using species. I agree with Mr. Quirk that "technology happens" and that the march of current technology-driven changes are inexorable. However, I disagree somewhat with his criticism of Mr. Quince who refuses to use more technology than he needs. While I don't agree with Quince, I sympathize with his gut feelings about technology.
The fundamental issue, in my view, is that contemporary technology has enabled the ruling-classes to more effectively assert their will, which is to weaken the rest of us (individually and collectively) by making us more dependent on a system, as well as the whole idea that one can systematize life, to not only feed ourselves but define who we are. Our needs, desires, hopes, attitudes are carefully scrutinized for the express purpose of manipulating us to part us from our money, or to give someone political power.
The real appeal of contemporary technology is that it makes it easier for us to give up connection to physical community and face-to-face comradeship which can limit us with all kinds of constraints. We are freed up to follow our whims if we have the money. If not we fulfill other people's whims. Ideally technology enables us to be alone, completely dominating our immediate surroundings with an increasing variety of products designed to create sensations. If things get difficult we can turn off the set, click a mouse, whatever. If I am tired of a newsgroup I can sign off, I don't have to live with contradiction unless I feel like it, I don't have to suffer the consequences of my opinions, for in reality we are all just playing. The fact we choose to do very little to feed our spirits is not the fault of technology. Technology has the capacity to do us in, not because it is evil but because we, at least potentially, are.
We need to ask questions connected with meaning. Is the meaning of life to play in a cyber-sandbox or could it be something else? I believe, for those drawn to this sort of discourse (as exemplified by Netfuture), that our purpose involves developing the underdeveloped side of us that most people sense is there but the official world discounts, and that is the spiritual life. Technology is powerful magic, so we need to become powerful magicians. The future does not belong to Walter Mitty, in whose image techno-culture wants us to create ourselves.
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Lowell Monke writes,
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?As a veteran of the alternative schools movement (I was a student who helped form and run an alternative high school in the 1970's), as a parent of two teenagers attending public school, and as an Internet marketer, I find myself in agreement with Neil Postman.
In fact, I believe that the Internet is for adults, not children. The last thing in the world children need right now is to surf the Internet. They should be at home doing their homework, of which they are assigned too little, too often. There is no shortage of children's electronic entertainment between stereo's, tv, vhs, cd's, computer games and nintendo. Children do not need the Internet until they are old enough to possess an Internet Driver's License.
Postman hits the nail on the head when he identifies the missing narrative, the missing purpose, behind education. It was absent when I attended school and it remains so today. To say that college students are finding meaning in multiple fantasy identities is one thing. Undergraduates have always found similar means of amusement, as have children. But the Internet will never be the be all and end all of education, commerce, modern society or the human condition. Adults can appreciate this and put it in its proper perspective (most of the time). Children do not stand a chance if they have nothing to compare it to. College students, are already of adult age. It makes no sense to equate the nature of their experience to that of a child.
In my opinion, the Internet should be adult only, regardless of the actual nature of the content one finds there. It makes for a lousy research medium, so the educational aspects are doubtful. Only as some sort of new "shared culture" does it have any relevance to education, and then only in the multi-cultural eye of humanities or social science, but this is a lesson plan which can easily be postponed to adulthood with no negative consequences whatsoever.
To turn the Internet into a G-rated entertainment zone doesn't make any more sense than it does to turn every Interstate highway and Autobahn into a low speed school zone. There are many places in modern societies where children are not allowed, or are allowed only under close adult supervision, and the Internet should be one of them.
To add the Internet to education only confuses the issues. Leaving it out gives at least a slim hope that they may be dealt with.
Bob in Orlando
Bob Schmidt - Provider Marketing Group
Visit our clients at: http://anetweb.com
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A few comments on parts of Lowell Monke's reviews of books by Neil Postman and Sherry Turkel.
Monke on Turkel:
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.If I remember correctly from a scan of the book and interviews with Turkel, underlying the thrust of this is the notion that our identities and selves are already fragmented and multiple (different people to differing degrees, of course). What's happening in cyberspace is simply that a medium exists where this fragmentation can be played out more thoroughly and more visibly--the increased visibility being perhaps what creates a "sight" some people are finding disturbing.
But I don't think that this apparent fragmentation is something that is happening because of the technology; it is certainly not caused by the technology. Rather, it is more that the technology is opening a larger window onto a facet of the human psyche that already exists.
We play out our own multiple facets of personality offline only (for the most part) on consensually-dedicated occasions. Halloween for one. Going out for an expensive dinner in suit and tie when we normally wear jeans and a tshirt. Suppressing our individual thoughts and ideas when at our jobs, if the jobs happen to require conformity. "Letting our hair down" if we're out for a night where we drink perhaps too much (whatever that means). This is all part of our already-fragmented psyches.
The technology of the net is not creating this circumstance of personality, although it might perhaps be amplifying it, or at least amplifying its visibility.
Becoming distressed over this fragmentation, and trying to place some measure of "blame" for it on technology is more, I think, a case of not wanting to acknowledge certain aspects of human nature.
Identity is not now, and never has been, a monolithic and singular creature.
Christopher D. Frankonis - Rootless Cosmopolitan
firstname.lastname@example.org - http://www.swarm.com/~baby-x/
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I don't doubt that computer networks are revolutionizing education. The question is whether education is benefiting from them.
Probably the most vigorously promoted classroom use of the computer today is typified by students collaborating on opposite sides of the globe to gather and compare local environmental data. Science combines with cross-cultural experience.
What is valuable in this is the opportunity for students to get out into their local settings and come to know those settings. One thinks here, for example, of the way native Americans once knew the land in its complex, nurturing, and instructive immediacy. Without a love for the environment just outside the window, the student will never help to heal the earth as a whole.
But, of course, computers promote neither the love nor the knowledge. Rather, they encourage students to enter data into a database as quickly as possible, so that it can be analyzed by software, visualized (the data, not nature!), and then compared, in this abstract form, with what comes from the collaborating class. It is the computer that dominates this scenario, not the natural world.
As to the cross-cultural collaboration, it is usually presented in images of sugar-coated fantasy. To train children as world citizens, there is little need to look beyond the immediately surrounding communities -- or even beyond the classroom. If you want to find the pressing opportunities for Johnny, just look for the kids Johnny dislikes. Such challenges, of course, aren't as glamorous or as easy as reading messages that magically show up -- without any discomfort of human proximity -- from Africa.
Moreover, no region of our country is without its remnant of native peoples. Fortunately, there's a lot of work being done these days to understand the ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures -- for example, their management of forests for long-term sustainability. This wisdom, based on a deep, reverential observation of the world at hand, compares most favorably to the policies pursued by laptop-burdened technicians gathering data about a landscape that remains alien to them.
The comparison is instructive for educators. After all, the shortcomings of the technician are the characteristic shortcomings of our day. If we don't overcome them during the child's primary schooling, it's probably too late.
In sum: everything good about these collaborative educational ventures is available locally, without huge expenditures for high-tech equipment. When purchased, the equipment will very likely vitiate the educational promise in the projects.
But what, you might ask, about the valuable exchange of email between American and French students learning each other's language? Valuable, perhaps; but this opportunity has long been available -- again, without massive capital outlay -- courtesy of the postal system. Students who send and receive one email message per day can just as easily send and receive one letter per day. That email has suddenly given new life to the idea is certainly owing to the computer's glamor. But if glamor is the substance of the new educational paradigm, then we're in trouble.
Computer networks are also applauded as ways to put students in touch with well-known scientists. Sometimes the students are allowed to interact with scientific equipment remotely -- the favorite gambit here is to invite students to program and direct a robot. One research organization, for example, lets students drive a robot called "Nero" around the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds, London.
The first thing that needs recognizing is that such programs do not make scientists into teachers. If one scientist can efficiently spread himself around a lot of classrooms, it is precisely because he doesn't really have to be there. It is no accident that robotics should be a common focus, because the real effect of these projects is to direct children increasingly toward instrument-mediated information. A thousand children cannot all interact with the scientist personally; what they can do is interact with software.
So the students come away with a few scattered, undigested facts about the operation of remote-controlled vehicles, and no knowledge at all about the more approachable engineering principles upon which modern society is based. Do they know how a house is constructed? An upper-grade student might better spend time apprenticed to a local carpenter or metalworker or auto mechanic. A lower-grade student would do better to visit a farm and tug a few times on a cow's udder.
You may reply, "Today's city children don't have access to dairy farms -- or at least not frequent access." But the question, then, is this: if we really want to do something radical about education, should we be investing our resources in expensive, high-tech "access" equipment, or reconceiving the failed relation between schools and the larger society as a result of which access has been lost?
As it happens, I live down the street from a school and farm that were started together over twenty years ago with a view to serving each other's needs. And the house I live in was visited during its construction by several classes at the school. This school -- which does not employ computers in its curriculum -- would be considered backward by many technology-intoxicated educators today.
Why is it that learning how a house is constructed is less educational, less beneficial to the student, and less future-oriented than downloading a program into a robot five hundred miles away?
If we ever find it within ourselves to face this question, we will provoke the real revolution in modern education.
(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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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 #10 :: March 19, 1996
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