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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #45      Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications          April 9, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Escape from Email Hell
          Still Looking for the Productive Computer
          Is There a Case for Intrusive User Interfaces?
    *** The Market for Human Suffering (Mark Grundy)
          Will virtual reality eliminate the profit in human misery?
    *** Technological Aimlessness (Stephen L. Talbott)
          The hollowing out of ourselves
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Escape from Email Hell

    Prominent computer scientist and developer of TeX, Donald Knuth, professes himself to be a "happy man" since dropping his use of an email address in 1990. "I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime." Knuth goes on (in his Stanford University web page):
    Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.
    Knuth also cites a remark by Umberto Eco in the New Yorker:
    I don't even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.
    Given the rate at which spam is increasing on the Net, the rest of us may soon be voicing the same sentiments.

    Still Looking for the Productive Computer

    Economist Paul Strassmann has just come out with a new book called The Squandered Computer. he includes the following points in his "executive summary" of the book:

    I've long wished I had the economic savvy (I still don't) to assess whether the drive toward computerization of the last few decades amounts to a massive economic "bubble" -- an artificial driving up of high-tech corporate values, sustained (for the time being) by everyone's willingness to keep buying and using the latest technology against all reason. And the follow-on question is: What sort of circumstances would cause such a bubble, if it exists, to burst?

    Bubble or no bubble, you will find book ordering information at Strassmann's web site: http://www.strassmann.com/iep/squandered.html.

    Is There a Case for Intrusive User Interfaces?

    It's a long way from the Net of just a few years ago to the Net of today. Where once we had a handful of simplistic aphorisms about the "social consequences" of the Net -- from the redistribution of authority to the protection of privacy to the reinforcement of democracy -- today who can keep track of the endless parade of academic conferences? Every aphorism of old has become a bursting agenda of issues, arguments, and counterarguments. Instead of talking about the consequences of a particular technology for society, we find ourselves talking about ... society.

    In other words, things have gotten a lot more complex! Of course, some observers have been advising us for a long while that the Net would gradually cease to be a distinct social institution, and would disappear into the larger social fabric. We would, they told us, be aware of collaborating on a work project or of reading a book that just happened to be located in a foreign library, but we would not be particularly aware of using the Net as such. The Net would become largely invisible, subordinated to the various purposes for which we employed it. In the process, it would take on all the complexity of the society it permeated.

    This was true. What was not true was the conclusion usually following: namely, that the alarms a few critics were sounding about the dangers of the Net could safely be dismissed, since they applied only to the rough edges of a raw, not-yet-assimilated technology. Don't forget that television, too, has been smoothly assimilated to all aspects of society; yet we are still justified in worrying, for example, about the various ways we are allowing it to color politics or the education of the child.

    Two brief observations about the Net's penetration of society:

    ** The penetration should make it easier for us to recognize what was true from the start: the problems of the Net are the problems of society. The Net, like all technologies, does not so much bear the solutions to social problems as it embodies the problems. Conversely, any hope associated with the Net must be a hope found in the larger society.

    It has been my own argument ever since researching The Future Does Not Compute that the critical problems of the computer age are not altogether new problems uniquely posed by computers. Rather, they are the problems of the printing press, telephone, radio, automobile, television -- the problems of the modern age and modern habits of thought -- but in many cases now raised by the computer to a higher pitch. If, as Max Frisch has said, "technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it," then the computer shows every sign of becoming the perfect technology.

    In any case, the steadily growing awareness of complexity is a hopeful sign. We are being asked to look more deeply at the computer's roots in society -- and therefore in ourselves.

    ** It is a commonplace of human-machine interface design that the machine should "get out of the way." We should be free to focus on the task at hand, not the tools assisting us.

    I don't think so. We should, rather, make sure the tool does not disappear. Or, putting the matter more subtly (since it obviously is not a design goal simply to make the tool as klutzy as possible): to the degree the tool falls out of sight, we must struggle to retain awareness of it. Not necessarily at every moment, but assiduously and repeatedly, always alert to new revelations about what transpires at the interface. Only in this way can we retain mastery of our machines.

    The more flexible and clever the tool, the more universally it can insinuate itself into human affairs -- and the more universally we must pursue our awareness of it. It is not an easy task. Are, for example, our multiplying interactions with computers slowly training us to reconceive all human exchange in terms of informational transactions?

    Who knows? Only those who are paying attention.


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    *** The Market for Human Suffering
    Response to "Consenting Adults" (NF-43)
    From Mark Grundy (markg@cs.anu.edu.au)

    Hey Steve,

    It's been a long time since I've written to you in a Netfuture context, (NF #4, I think), but the following burly cast into the cybernetic waters was too potent for my predatory reflexes to resist:

    Should we legalize dueling between consenting adults?

    Should we legalize mass-spectator, gladiatorial games in which volunteer participants fight to the death?

    And if not, why?

    I heard it said recently by the Australian Federal Police that nobody in their right mind would willingly produce "real-life snuff movies" nowadays, because movie technology is so sophisticated that you could easily create an indistinguishable semblance of the real thing, with far less risk and cost.

    Emerging now in a world of "virtual actors," phone and cyber sex, surely we denizens of virtual hyperrealities need not worry any more about the moral ramifications of abstract imagery? Surely we've outgrown the need to watch bulls die on sawdust, or witness the incremental brain damage of pugilists to gratify our confrontations with mortality? We can enjoy all of these things -- and more -- in the sure and certain knowledge that nothing real and organic was harmed in the making of our vicarious experiences. And that is enough, isn't it? We've supply enough for the market demand already, so why bother?

    If this is true, then the advent of virtual realities offers us a quantum leap in our social ethics. We may soon enjoy without restriction whatever private indulgences we may adhere to, without any attendant moral qualms. So, haven't we moved on from the time of the ancient Romans? Surely, the era of industries that exploit real death and injury is finally passing for us?

    Perhaps not.

    Recently I gave a lecture on Internet censorship which featured the image of a woman whose head had been run over by a bus... It was a perfectly acceptable image in a libertarian or even a clinical sense, because it had been drawn from a public domain collection of pathology pictures .... Although that's not where I first found it -- I found it on an "entertainment" page, complete with Beavis and Butthead-like captions. Naturally, this page had a huge hit-rate, and of course it took far less time to prepare than if the author had ray-traced such an image himself.

    Currently my country is balancing the question of legalising euthanasia. On the one hand, the final days in many terminal diseases are agonising, as is the suffering of the victim's loved ones. On the other hand, how do you manage the inevitable euthanasia industry that would arise in consequence?

    I understand that the USA is in yet another cycle of angst about abortion, and for similar reasons. Wherever you may stand on these issues, I would be very surprised to hear that you supported converting euthanasia or abortion films to public entertainment. Yet who would doubt that markets for such films exist?

    While ever we are obsessed with death and suffering, we must face the prospect that someone will want to exploit our attraction to these experiences. On the surface it seems horrendous that we should allow such a thing to occur, yet we know very well, each one of us, why it does.

    It's inherently deceitful in a democracy that the people who sit in judgement on one another should pretend at once to both innocence and also the wisdom to judge. Therefore, let me ask two questions that might raise a higher level of honesty in this discussion:

    Dr Mark Grundy, DCS,                    Phone: +61-6-249 3785
    Education Co-ordinator,                 Fax:   +61-6-249 0010
    CRC for Advanced Computational Systems,
    The Australian National University,     Web: http://cs.anu.edu.au/~Mark.Grundy
    0200 Australia                          Email: Mark.Grundy@anu.edu.au

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    *** Technological Aimlessness
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The evidence of our hollowing out as human beings
    is staring us in the face.

    Is anyone home?

    These days no article about technology and society seems complete without at least one reference to the accelerating pace of change. But, despite their ubiquity, a number of these references have particularly jumped out at me in recent weeks. Here are a few examples:

    Here closer to home, I find that my text-only Lynx browser is rapidly becoming a cripple on today's Web. Many sites now require frame support, which my browser does not have. Other sites, such as MSNBC, immediately hang the window in which I'm working; Lynx compatibility is simply not something Web site managers worry about. Apparently, as a sixteen-year veteran of the Net who would rather not spend his time downloading cutesy graphics, I've gotten myself a little behind the curve. I might as well be a dinosaur.

    The browser problem illustrates, I think, one striking fact about many Web sites: they are content providers for whom content scarcely matters. They do not begin with something important to say, and then seek the most effective vehicle for saying it. Rather, they are enamored of the vehicle (latest model only!) and are looking for something to say with it. Not surprisingly, the result is a lot of pandering. The message is there only to serve alien purposes.

    This is no eccentric reading of my own. It is the explicit acknowledgment of an entire industry that begins by producing and playing with whatever is technically feasible, and then hopes for a "killer app" to fasten the technical innovations upon the body social. Here, too, some recent news reports have leapt out at me:

    If you build the technology, a killer app will eventually come -- such is the reigning faith. Of course, as long as the rest of us are willing to go along with this backward game, chasing after the latest gadgetry regardless of need, it works quite well. Out of this willingness, the technological "necessity" that so many perceive in these matters is born.

    It's a strange infatuation that has a mature society hitching itself with uncritical enthusiasm to whatever happens to issue from the endless rows of cubicles where programmers -- often college students -- exercise their technically constrained and hopelessly uneducated imaginations. The cubicles themselves, I suppose, are a pretty good image of the inevitable result. We always mirror our inner worlds in the outer.

    The Loss of Purpose

    So, what is going on here?

    Technical innovation -- the devising of new tools -- is surely a desirable activity. But unless there is a balance between our fascination with tools and our concern for the ends they may help us achieve, the tool becomes tyrannical. What stares us in the face today is the startling fact that, not only has the balance been upset, but one of its terms has virtually disappeared. Technological innovation now proceeds for its own sake, driven by its own logic, without reference to human need. We are a society obsessed with new tools, but incapable of asking in any serious way, "what are we developing these tools for?"

    It's rather as if a musician became so enamored of new instruments capable of generating novel sounds that he lost all interest in seeking the kind of disciplined musical inspiration that makes his art finally worthwhile.

    What I'm talking about here -- and what the preceding quotations testify to -- is a reversal of ends and means. I previously (NF #39 and NF #40) tried to show what this reversal looks like within the individual company, where the pursuit of worthwhile ends under the discipline of economics eventually gets twisted around to a pursuit of profits as an end in themselves. Now, however, I'm talking about society as a whole, driven as it increasingly is by the high-tech industry.

    A society obsessed by tools and technology without a balancing focus upon ends is a society whose members are being hollowed out. It is, after all, in establishing and pursuing higher values -- something we can only do from within ourselves -- that we assert our humanity. Otherwise, we merely react, machine-like, without internal compass. That is, we become like the programmed machines to which we devote so much of our energy.

    I for one would not want to quarrel with those who recognize a certain necessity in the one-sided tool focus of the past few hundred years. Nor would I want to insist that the U.S. military cease pushing its technical capabilities to the practical limit. And surely there is in any case little likelihood that the foreseeable future will bring a significant slowing of the overall, furious extension of the technical reach of our tools.

    What this means is that everything hinges upon our ability to counterbalance the prevailing technical mania with a strengthened inner compass. We must, wherever possible, be all the more forceful in asking, What is this tool for -- how does it relate to the deepest needs and yearnings of the human being? The stronger the tendency of the high-tech/commercial matrix to drive itself forward in terms of its own inherent logic, the more we must appeal to needs, values, and human ends in order to reign in and guide this logic.

    In making this effort we can hardly be satisfied with the hollow platitudes of those who would sell us an endless array of new gadgets. Our pressing need is not for more information, or faster access to information, or more connectivity. Our decisive problems arise -- as many others have noted -- from the lack of meaningful, value-centered contexts to which new information can be assimilated, and from those connections to other people we already have, but do not know how to deepen and make healthy. Adding new information and additional connections where these fundamental problems have not been solved only carries us further from ourselves and each other.

    Yet within the high-tech industry itself the platitudes have a certain validity. Any company that does not develop new technology fast enough -- human needs and purposes be damned -- will not likely survive for long. This industry, in other words, has itself become machine-like, hollowed out, lacking all evidence of the guiding human interior. Its employees and owners and investors sleepwalk through their working lives, bringing full consciousness only to the technical dimensions of their jobs. And we who buy their products in a similar trance contribute our fair share to the undermining of society.

    Do not underestimate the potential evils of a society that worships every new tool in forgetfulness of its own inner purposes through which alone the tools can be justified. Hollow men and women, whether educated or not, whether technically competent or not, can never sustain a healthy society, and are capable of unimagined monstrosities.

    Eventually we will have to recognize the symptoms of our hollowness in unexpected places. For example, in the burgeoning commercialized sex industry, where external presentations (now greatly aide by technology) substitute for profound connection between human beings. Or in the deranged excesses at the fringes of the fast-growing New Age movements, where the meaning so conspicuously absent from the social mainstream is sought in borderline experiences -- and even, as with the Heaven's Gate community, in death. Or in the outrages committed against man and nature by commercially driven biotechnologists. Or in the politics of appearance without principle. Or in the fragmentation of society, with the economic disfranchisement of large groups.

    Our only escape from the tyranny of the tool as an end in itself lies in our becoming more than our tools. Only we ourselves can supply the ends, and we can do so only by waking up to our own inner resources. The prevailing notion that the logic of high-tech development will itself guide society into a better future amounts to an abdication of our humanity. After all, a society with abundant technical means and no governing values and purposes can only become a hellish and dangerous place. On the other hand, a society struggling toward its own governing values is a society on its way toward healing.

    Which is it? Personally, I see little basis for optimism. But it may well be that I've just been leafing through too many trade rags lately.

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1997 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 #45 :: April 9, 1997

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