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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #47       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications        April 30, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's Note
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Waiting for the Revolution
          What Price for Our Selves?
          The Rhetoric of the Electrical Sublime
          Choose Your Battlefield
    *** Getting Schools Wired -- or Hooked? (Lowell Monke)
          Addiction may be followed by rising costs
    *** How NETFUTURE Happens (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Basically, by the seat of my pants
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note

    Starting with the next issue I will run an occasional "Announcements" section in the newsletter. Submit any announcements to stevet@netfuture.org. Please understand, though, that the selection of announcements for publication will be arbitrary, without any effort being made for completeness with respect to any set of criteria. Nor is there any promise that submissions will be acknowledged.


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    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Waiting for the Revolution

    Noted computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart, who recently accepted this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, says that "in twenty or thirty years, you'll be able to hold in your hand as much computing knowledge as exists now in the whole city, or even the whole world."

    Actually, that already holds true for us today relative to twenty or thirty years ago. (How does it feel?) And, presumably, the same truth will continue to obtain each year between now and the date Engelbart is heralding.

    Supply your own punchline. Here are a few for starters:

    What Price for Our Selves?

    The April 24 Wall Street Journal ran a story about some of the newer, more aggressive advertising ploys on the Net. In one current test, a commercial "robot" will try its pick-up lines on you if you drop the right keywords in a chat room. (Mention "clean" or "dirty" and then be prepared to hear, "Hi. I'm Dusty. Would you like to learn more about Black & Decker's Dustbuster?")

    Some sites are making viewers download full-screen ads before getting to the site content. This is to guarantee that the ads are actually seen, since people quickly learn to recognize and ignore banner ads.

    Push technology offers further opportunities for advertisers:

    Ads are essentially beamed to the PC screens of viewers, instead of waiting for viewers to visit a Web site .... Ads can appear on your browser all day, whether you like it or not.
    My favorite of these new gambits is the "virtual slot machine," running in a small window whenever you're online.
    Every four minutes, the slot machine spins three new symbols: If they match and the viewer clicks on the "match" button in the window, he or she is registered to win prizes ranging from cash to T-shirts. Thus, the more attention a viewer pays to the ticker, the better the odds of winning.

    And the better the odds of seeing an ad. The small window also houses rotating pitches for products such as Duracell batteries and Tinactin foot power.

    What we see on the Net, as throughout much of society, is a developing, highly competitive market for your and my attention. We sell our precious and limited stores of attention (which is often to say that we accept distraction) in exchange for a bit of content.

    As I have remarked before, the power of attention is almost another name for the self. Only by directing my attention do I steer through life along my own particular path. In selling this attention, I am selling myself. It's worth an occasional pause to ask, "What am I selling myself for?"

    The Rhetoric of the Electrical Sublime

    The stage is being set for a communications revolution .... Audio, video, and facsimile ... will provide newspapers, mail service, banking and shopping facilities, data from libraries and other storage centers, school curricula and other forms of information too numerous to specify. In short, every home and office will contain a communications center of a breadth and flexibility to influence every aspect of private and community life. (The Nation, May 18, 1970)
    The communications revolution heralded in this passage was to be achieved by the spread of cable television. According to the text's author, Ralph Lee Smith, government should make a "commitment for an electronic highway system to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas."

    I have previously passed along (NF #36 and 37) some of the overheated rhetoric that attended the introduction of radio and television. Now, Thomas Streeter, in an essay available online, looks in considerable depth at the birth of cable television in the late sixties and early seventies.

    The quotation given above was, as Streeter points out, part of "an ever expanding chorus of expert opinion, a new hopeful view of cable television echoed throughout the policy arena" during the years leading up to the modern system of cable television. For example, "Prof. Don Le Duc suggested that cable television could satisfy the complaints about the lack of broadcast objectivity." Le Duc argued that in a cable society

    members of the audience would no longer be simply the passive recipients of mass communications messages but would participate actively in their selection and dissemination .... Thus, direct feedback could well result in the reversal of the traditional roles of mass communications, make the communicator little more than a common carrier in a communications process controlled by each individual subscriber.
    Employing the phrase of James Carey and John Quirk, Streeter calls this "the rhetoric of the electrical sublime," which resurfaces regularly in American history and "expresses a quasi-religious faith in the power of new technologies to overcome social and material constraints."

    It is one of Streeter's central contentions that the political triumph of cable television, which evolved from CATV (community antenna television), was greatly aided by its being conceived as an autonomous technology. In reality, neither the cable itself nor any other key part of the technology was altogether new; the coming shape of cable television would result from a complex reconfiguration of technologies within a social, legal, and cultural context. And yet, the emergence of the simple term "cable" along with the general sense that it represented some autonomous new technology was all that the American penchant for technological utopianism needed in order to kick in. The Sloan Commission on Cable Communications was able to write:

    Spreading quietly into every corner of the United States -- slowly and unevenly and yet with its own air of inevitability -- is a new communications technology.
    This "inevitability," Streeter argues, was in fact a complex, concerted set of social choices, greatly aided by just such non-neutral rhetoric as the Sloan Commission published.

    In his conclusion Streeter cites Mitchell Kapor on the coming "revolution" to be caused by desktop video. "We don't have to choose this," Kapor tells us. "It will happen." Streeter then remarks,

    Kapor is a thoughtful and interesting contributor to the contemporary debate with proposals that are worth considering seriously. The point is, however, technology doesn't "promise" anything, technological developments do not just "happen" without someone choosing them, and today's technologies are not revolutionary; they are simply part of the same gradual, evolutionary development of technologies that has marked the last several centuries. (Why is desktop video any more "revolutionary" than super eight cameras, videotape, the original reel-to-reel video portapaks, video cassettes, and the numerous other improvements in low-cost visual media of the last forty years?) Kapor, by lending his sincere and authoritative voice to the generally awestruck sense of inevitable technological revolution, may simply be helping to create the conditions for strategic government intervention and industry realignments on behalf of exactly those centralized, advertising-dominated, media systems he cautions us against.
    Streeter's essay is available at http://moose.uvm.edu/%7etstreete/newfable.htm.
    It is one chapter in a book entitled, The Revolution Wasn't Televised:
    Sixties Television and Social Conflicts, edited by Lynn Spigel and
    Michael Curtin (Routledge, 1996).

    Choose Your Battlefield

    It has been my repeated emphasis that we must take responsibility for the creation and use of technological devices. All of the struggles we face are, finally, struggles with ourselves. Helen Luke, in The Voice Within (New York: Crossroad, 1987), provides an interesting take on what happens when we fail to engage the enemy within:
    Any kind of pacificism that refuses all fighting and killing is not only doomed to failure, since it denies validity to one of the basic facts of the unconscious, but it actually breeds more and more violence, violence of an unconscious kind which kills in order to feed those hideous distortions of human nature -- the pride of the ego, its power and its greed. To be released from this kind of violence we have to accept the necessity of fighting with every ounce of our strength, but on an inner not an outer battlefield. It is even, I believe, true that, as long as men are unable to fight and to kill and expose themselves to be killed in their inner world, then it is a great deal better that they find the meaning of courage and self-sacrifice on some form of outer battlefield with all its horror than that they live out their lives in a simulation of peace under which they spread destruction through the unconscious into the lives of their neighbors.

    Man's urge to stir up war has increasingly through the centuries been generated by his boredom. He has an absolute need to fight obstacles, to "kill the dragon," to know in himself the heroic devotion which proves him a man -- and, the fewer the natural obstacles in life, the greater his need for either an outer or an inner battlefield. That is the choice. Until there are enough individuals who find and fight their inner battles, wars must continue, and the horrible thing is that war today is becoming more and more a thing of the head, and we are in danger of wars in which the ordinary man is not involved with heart and body at all except as a target. Rockets and bombs, aimed by scientific means from great distances, germ warfare and so on, are violence absolutely stripped of all its potential cathartic meaning -- the cold violence of pure barbarity from which all values of devotion and sacrifice have been eliminated.

    So it becomes more and more imperative that we dare to fight in our own personal lives; and it is a great deal better that we fight openly and outwardly the people around us when it is a matter of standing by our essential values, however immature these values may be, than that we hide behind a pacificistic pseudo-harmony, and then go about spreading hostility and bad feeling in an indirect manner.

    There is an interesting parallel between modern, high-tech warfare and personal hostilities carried out via email. In both cases the enemy is unseen and relatively abstract. The weapons launched against remote targets (missiles in the one case, words in the other) are increasingly automatic, detached from the sender, "uninhabited" -- that is, lacking any fullness of human gesture and expression -- and therefore most suited to purely technical engagement. The pains suffered are largely suffered out of sight of one's antagonist, without any richly textured, shared context of struggle. Much of what one might learn from meeting the other is lost. One turns inward upon oneself, gnawing one's own innards while contemplating the invisible (and therefore mostly projected) enemy.

    If, as Luke suggests, wars tend to be externalizations of battles more properly fought within, it remains true that encounters with others -- spouses, children, friends, co-workers, chance acquaintances -- are the essential occasions for these inner battles. The world, in the person of those we meet, must shape our lives or else we become unhealthy caricatures of ourselves. It is worrisome, therefore, when -- through technology or any other means -- our encounters with these others are attenuated.


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    *** Getting Schools Wired -- or Hooked?
    From Lowell Monke (lm7846s@acad.drake.edu)
                                                        Letter from Des Moines
                                                                April 22, 1997
    (Lowell Monke, a technology educator in the Des Moines public school system, continues his reporting from "the nation's heartland." In the interest of following a concrete case of what wiring our schools for the 21st century actually means, we will hear regularly from Lowell. SLT)

    Last week the Iowa legislature passed a law prohibiting teachers and students from accessing the Internet through their schools from home. (For us, this essentially means no dial-up access to school networks at all.) Seems providers are upset that there is a whole segment of the population they don't get to charge full rate for access, so they pushed this through the legislature. This includes college students and faculty, not just K-12. The bill is now on the governor's desk.

    Now, let's throw that bit of legal shenanigans on top of what else the state has been doing. First, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the ICN (Iowa Communication Network -- a supposedly state of the art fiber optic network that would link all schools, hospitals and other public agencies together and to the Internet). It was touted as the wave of the future in education but it required that each school spend tens of thousands of dollars from its general budget to connect to it. (There is now talk of privatizing ICN, and telecom companies are climbing all over each other to get their hands on it.) Then came the millions of dollars for purchasing technology equipment for schools, justified, in part, by the argument that Iowa's schools have to provide a global education.

    So we are pouring millions upon millions of tax dollars into technology, ostensibly so our education can be transformed into a global information access network. Then we turn around and tell the educators and students that they will have to pay private providers for using it outside the classroom and computer lab. Something about this doesn't quite fit with the idea of public education.

    OK, I know that teachers and students go home at night and use the Internet for non-educational purposes. But the more important issue, I think, is that for many the process of schooling has already been restructured to the point where they must use the Net for their work.

    An Op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register (April 22) by Steve Collins, professor at the University of Iowa, lays out the student part of the issue pretty well:

    Of the 290 [class] sections of rhetoric, it is rare to find one that does not require students to make frequent use of the Internet. More than 5,000 undergraduates take rhetoric every year.

    Half of the homework assigned to the 760 students in the freshman microeconomics course requires the use of campus computers. All 630 students in the companion macroeconomics course are required to subscribe to the course's electronic mailing list. About 24,000 of the U of I's 27,000 students have computer accounts. These students keep the 256 phone lines to campus computers busy day and night.

    An odd vision comes to my mind. One of the things that stunned me when I taught in Ecuador was finding out that U.S. cigarette companies hired people to go around the streets of Quito handing out free two-packs of cigarettes to all the kids on the streets for weeks at a time, just long enough to get them into a smoking habit. My cynical side senses something similar happening with the ICN and computer technology in the schools. The universities are hooked on it (with K-12 schools inhaling as fast as they can), the students are now dependent on it, the teachers all over the state have bought into using it -- just as our state department of education, our area education agencies, and all the consultants who sweep through here tell us we have to do if we are to be competitive in the global society. And now business is sweeping in to make a profit off the habit.

    Of course, in this case there was no conspiracy. It just happened that way. But it just happened that way because the real purpose of building the ICN, pushing the technology into the classroom, and encouraging everyone involved in education to get on-line had much less to do with a deeply felt obligation toward our children's education than a deeply seated desire to make money. And when profit clashed with education, all the rhetoric about providing for the educational needs of our youth went up in a puff of smoke.


    (Late note: The governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, has now vetoed the proposed law. The governor's intentions were not immediately clear, nor is it clear what the next steps will be. Stay tuned.)

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    *** How NETFUTURE Happens
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Some readers have wondered how NETFUTURE comes about. Here's how.

    First, The Technical Side

    Working in the basement of my home on a 1989-vintage Sun 3/60 running UNIX (SunOS), I type each issue of NETFUTURE as a single, nroff source file. This source file, in conjunction with two modest macro packages I've written, automatically yields a formatted, simple text version that goes out via email to all subscribers, and an html-encoded version that goes onto the web site.

    Overall, I'm not as highly organized and automated as I would have been in the old days. It's the difference between working in a computer engineering organization, where the software itself is the main thing, and working in the "real world," where other concerns are primary. But I do putter around in the rare moments available to me, trying to organize and automate the various tasks. For example, Perl scripts update the NETFUTURE indexes with each new issue. Currently I am the sole person who works on the production and publishing of the newsletter, the maintenance of the web pages, and the email distribution (including the list owner responsibilities).

    By the way, if you haven't checked the website in a long while, you should do so now. It's evolved a good deal in the past few months, and one of its more recent assets is a global, topical index. More and more, teachers, journalists, and others are using the site as a resource. I regularly receive the comment that "there's nothing else like it on the web."

    Once a new issue of the newsletter is ready to go, I upload it via 9600 baud modem and UUCP to the O'Reilly & Associates hub machine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then, logging onto the Cambridge hub (via tip, which does not give me graphical access), I install the website files. (Due to a mirroring arrangement within O'Reilly, these don't become publicly accessible until the next day.) Finally, I run a script that mails the newsletter to all current subscribers. While listproc maintains the subscriber list, I do not use listproc for the actual mailings because of overload-related breakdowns it has suffered in the O'Reilly environment.

    I do all web page checking and maintenance with lynx, a text-only browser. I've long been tempted to put a notice on the web pages saying "This site looks best when viewed with the lynx browser."

    I process all bounced mail myself (again because listproc simply doesn't do an adequate job). It takes about two hours per issue -- more time than I ought to spare for it. A three-strikes law is in effect: three bounces in a row and your name is deleted from the list. (That includes "mailbox full" bounces.) About twenty names get deleted this way per issue.

    Who Are You?

    The list has grown from 2900 to 3600 subscribers over the last few months in what seems to be an accelerating pattern of growth (although, given the sort of variables involved, I'd hate to predict the future). There are a number of redistribution points, so that I have no way of knowing what the actual circulation amounts to. Articles are regularly picked up by other publications, and people pass the newsletter on to their friends. Some people read the thing on the web site (which offers advantages for navigation between articles). I've never tried to register "hits" to the site, although I could probably get that information from the O'Reilly web server folks.

    What impresses me most is who reads the newsletter. Unusually thoughtful people, it turns out. And an impressive array of authors, academicians, government folks, policy wonks, engineers -- you name it.

    In general, I've been low-key about promoting the newsletter. Every time I start thinking of putting real energy into promotion, I find myself immediately pulling back with a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, I don't like to badger people. For another, it always seems to come down to one decisive fact: if I produce a newsletter of sufficient quality, it will eventually find its way to those who are interested. It's not my place to force that process or to say who ought to be interested. At least, that's the stance that leaves me most comfortable. I've never been comfortable in the role of salesman, and don't much care to be around other salesmen either.

    Are My Thoughts Proprietary?

    The newsletter normally goes out with full permission granted for noncommercial re-use of articles. Often the articles I write are spin-offs from short- or longer-term writing projects I have going, or from the increasing amount of public speaking I've been doing.

    Cliff Stoll has suggested that "good authors" will stick to real books. "Why would somebody publish terrific ideas online? Somebody else will swipe them and publish them." This has never been an issue for me -- for two reasons, I think:

    I suppose that if I worked in a different field -- say, chip design, where a key element of a revolutionary new design could be stolen -- I'd have to be careful. But I would still try to remember that whatever can be stolen bears no significance within itself. Only those things are deeply and lastingly valuable that are freely given away.

    Maintaining Balance

    NETFUTURE reader Benjamin Bokich has asked,
    How do you manage to stay in touch with, yet distant from, the technological/computer world and sub-culture which you analyze and comment on? ... I guess more specifically what I'm wondering is, how do you walk the fine line between not being consumed by that which you critique and write about, and at the same time being informed enough about it to be relevant and authentic?
    Well, I'm honestly not sure how relevant and authentic I manage to be, but am sure that I blow it on both counts at least sometimes. In any case, as the foregoing indicates, I have for several years now tried to stick with the minimal technology demanded by my purposes. I also spend almost no time browsing around the Web merely to see what I can find. I look at particular things that are brought to my attention, and sporadically follow a variety of news publications that cover technological developments.

    What saves me is the fact that so little changes. Once you begin focusing on underlying tendencies and causes, the glittering kaleidoscope of late-breaking developments dims into relative insignificance. The inner stances and habits of mind that determine our future still change only over the long term -- that is, over generations (of people, not machines). So I am spared the need to keep up with every latest wrinkle.

    I only rarely look at the computer section in bookstores (perhaps once every two or three years) and I've browsed a software store maybe once or twice in my life. Never have bought a piece of software or hardware. (That's the advantage of working for technology companies and using UNIX. The computer comes courtesy of the company, and you can grab from the public domain or make for yourself most of what you need.)

    The reading through which I gain an understanding of what's going on in the technical world around me mostly focuses on ancient Greece and the European renaissance. The computer engineers who are month-by-month "revolutionizing" our future by bringing us into the information age are, for the most part, hopelessly provincial and in the service of old, unexamined historical trends. You cannot escape the limitations of your age -- you cannot even see the limitations of your age -- without first learning to step outside the age. History should be a central discipline in any computer science program.

    All this is to emphasize my pull-back from unnecessary technology. You may conclude that I'm out of touch, and so in some respects I try to be, for the sake of both health and a detached, objective vision. But I can tell you this: when, as guest of Drs. Lance Strate, Ed Wachtel, and Sue Barnes at Fordham University a week ago, I was shown their media laboratory, and when this gave me for the first time an opportunity to get a bit of experience with the Netscape and Microsoft browsers, I was quite struck by them. And yet there was not one scintilla of surprise. What did hit me was (1) the overpoweringly bright colors; (2) the design kitsch at the sites we visited; (3) the slow page-loading times compared to what I'm used to with lynx; and (4) the objectionable, nearly homogeneous mix of content and advertising. (A text-only browser has the nice feature of omitting much advertising, since advertising tends to be graphics-heavy.) In general, the experience was less appealing than I had been willing to assume previously, but certainly no different in essence from what I had gathered based on my familiarity with the general technical and cultural environment.

    What Is the Newsletter's Future?

    I have no idea. I've been given a window of time to pursue this work, and it has felt like the right thing to do. That window looks like closing later this year, although nothing is certain. My current assumption is that either I'll find a way to gain financial support commensurate with the time I put into the newsletter, or else I'll have to discontinue it before the end of the year. But I've learned to expect the unexpected in such matters.

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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.

    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #47 :: April 30, 1997

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