NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #41 Copyright 1997 O'Reilly & Associates February 20, 1997 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's Note *** Quotes and Provocations The End of Civilization? The End of Programming? Privatizing Censorship *** Paul Edwards on the Meaning of the Computer (Stephen L. Talbott) Is the human skull the ultimate closed world? *** About this newsletter
The mail server through which I receive mail dropped everything on the floor this past weekend. If you sent me mail between Friday and Monday, I never saw it.
Also the web server hosting NETFUTURE is periodically (every couple of weeks or so) producing "access denied" messages for unknown reasons. The server folks are working on it.
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You've gotta hand it to Saddam. That just may prove to be the mother of all news scoops.
Programmers today, of course, will be amused to hear that they are not doing real programming but are only users of automatic program generators (compilers). This historical oddity, however, reminds one of the long series of leaps to higher programming levels, culminating more recently in graphical user interface generators and the various programmatic supports for Web presentation. At each stage we have suffered the illusion that we were leaving "real" programming behind--or the main bulk of it, anyway--thereby gaining freedom to concentrate more on content. Yet the year-by-year rise in the population of programmers continues.
True, the work has changed in some ways--the symbols programmers manipulate have changed--but few would argue that the advertised deliverance has come. The hopes held by Web enthusiasts on behalf of content-without-programming will go--are already going--the way of those earlier hopes. Java is not particularly easier to wield than C, Perl or FORTRAN.
What we have here, I think, is another instance of that "great technological deceit" I referred to in NF #38 and NF #40. (Perhaps it would have been better named the "great confusion between technical progress and human ends.") Technical progress does bring more powerful programming tools. But these tools in turn have dramatically upped the pressure to extend the reach of programs into human affairs. Reconceiving our affairs algorithmically becomes ever more challenging technically (not to mention ever riskier) the higher up the ladder of sophistication we climb.
So the technical progress simply doesn't address the perfectly human hope to be relieved of the algorithmic and reductive necessities of programming. It only exacerbates the problem. Yes, the progress will continue--and the hope will continually recede. Only when technical currency ceases to be the central motivator for us--only, that is, when society no longer hitches itself to the high-tech industry in search of ever more powerful "solutions" for which problems must be sought (or created) after the fact--will we see any change.
Well, no. It seems that Solid Oak software, the producer of Cybersitter, is stirring up a tempest of its own. According to its critics, the company is using the software to block sites it finds commercially or politically unacceptable. It's natural, of course, in the technical and commercial environment of the Net, that one company's product should become dominant. But if that happens, who is going to guard the guardians of our taste?
This, of course, is just a further playing out of that dead-end game to which I have pointed on various occasions. (See the Censorship entry in NETFUTURE's topical index at its web site.) The infinitely intricate balances and interactions through which a community can reach an accommodation--or, rather, innumerable, varying, coexistent accommodations--to the evolving, collective sense of what is decent and permissible, are scarcely possible in the context of the Net. The public spaces of the Net don't offer the necessary stability and longevity. They don't offer the opportunity for our mutual adaptations to "settle in" and take on institutional form. They don't offer the occasion for people to bump up against each other in the thousand different relatively predictable and physically situated ways that give reliable shape to community affairs.
Imagine (as I wrote in a previous post) a system where all schools were jammed into one vast, open, chaotic building, with teachers and students indiscriminately scattered around. Far from being free and uncensored, families forced into such a system would face an ugly and artificial homogenization. All the freedom and diversity necessary to education would be destroyed.
In such an environment, it clearly does no good for one party--or any number of parties--to stand up and say, "I'll sell you a filter to screen out all but a few selected elements of this commotion." That's not the way workable community standards arise; they cannot be embodied in a commercial product. To put it shortly, you cannot have community standards without community.
(It is, in fact, a prime contention of the defenders of liberty on the Net that whatever community standards we do have cannot be coherently applied to the Net. Their point is a grave one, although I have yet to see many of them worrying over it.)
The lesson in all this is clear--and completely unacceptable to the salesman-zealots of the Net: we should not integrate the Net into, or make it essential to, any institutions where diversity, cultural freedom, and human depth are important. Not, at least, for the time being. And the "time being" will last at least until we take this caution seriously and begin seeking a different, more restrained relation to technology.
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From Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Notes concerning The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, by Paul N. Edwards (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.) Hardcover, 440 pages plus preface. $40.
A good rule of thumb is never to read a book in which the word "discourse" occurs more than once on the same page. But if, relying on that rule, you have avoided reading The Closed World, you have made a grievous mistake. This is one of the few books that tries to place the history of the computer in a larger context of meaning--and succeeds.
[The Cold War's] politics became embedded in the machines--even, at times, in their technical design--while the machines helped make possible its politics. This book argues that we can make sense of the history of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their history as metaphors in Cold War science, politics, and culture.With this declaration, Edwards signals that he will be serving up neither a bare history of ideas and theories (about information, symbols, logic, computability) nor a bare history of technology (engineering triumphs, business transactions, social consequences). Rather, he struggles upward to a higher vantage point, from where he can survey "technological change as a technological choice, tying it to political choices and socially constituted values at every level..." (p. xiii).
Edwards' central theme is that of the closed world. This is the theme upon which I will try to draw him out for readers of NETFUTURE. Afterward, I will offer some comments of my own relative to the question, "Is the human skull the ultimate closed world?"
The sensors--shaped like twigs, jungle plants, and animal droppings--were designed to detect all kinds of human activity, such as the noises of truck engines, body heat, motion, even the scent of human urine. When they picked up a signal, it appeared on the ISC's display terminals hundreds of miles away as a moving white "worm" superimposed on a map grid. As soon as the ISC computers could calculate the worm's direction and rate of motion, coordinates were radioed to Phantom F-4 jets patrolling the night sky. The planes' navigation systems and computers automatically guided them to the "box," or map grid square, to be attacked. The ISC central computers were also able to control the release of bombs: the pilot might do no more than sit and watch as the invisible jungle below suddenly exploded into flames. In most cases no American ever actually saw the target at all. (p. 3)This was Operation Igloo White, carried out from Thailand between 1967 and 1972 at a cost of nearly $1 billion per year. It made, apparently, for an impressive demo:
Visiting reporters were dazzled by the high-tech, white-gloves-only scene inside the windowless center, where young soldiers sat at their displays in air-conditioned comfort, faces lit weirdly by the dim electric glow, directing the destruction of men and equipment as if playing a video game. As one technician put it: "We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine, and we plug it in every night." (pp. 3-4)The official claims for operational success stretched all credibility. Yet, "in the end, despite more than four years of intensive, computer-controlled bombardment of their heavy-equipment supply lines, the communists were able to field a major tank and artillery offensive inside South Vietnam in 1972." The technologically unsophisticated guerillas "had simply learned to confuse the American sensors with tape-recorded truck noises, bags of urine, and other decoys, provoking the release of countless tons of bombs onto empty jungle corridors which they then traversed at their leisure."
Furthermore, the antiseptic efficiency of the computerized command center "was belied by the 13,000 civilian refugees created by American operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail--as well as by the loss of an estimated 300-400 American aircraft." (p. 4)
But the closed world of the surveillance center scarcely knew of these costs. Enclosure within enclosure reduced everything to the terms of a war game. There were, first, the abstract representations of the world on the computer screen, then the sealed-off control building itself, then the regional "theater" of conflict, and finally, the global political architecture of the Cold War, a bounded world within which two superpowers struggled for winner-take-all hegemony. And between these nested enclosures, defining them and holding them in balance, were the metaphors and practices, the social institutions and subjective experience, the academic programs, governmental support structures, and business opportunities that all played their part in making a tenuous, coherent whole out of an extraordinarily constricted vision of the world.
A "closed world" is a radically bounded scene of conflict, an inescapably self-referential space where every thought, word, and action is ultimately directed back toward a central struggle. It is a world radically divided against itself. Turned inexorably inward, without frontiers or escape, a closed world threatens to annihilate itself, to implode. (p. 12)The prototypes for the southeast Asian command center were the "militarily worthless" SAGE air defense centers designed to protect the US from a Soviet attack. A 1957 Life magazine story tried to capture the feel of a SAGE control room: The "huge electronic computer" could
summarize [data] and present them so clearly that the Air Force men who monitor SAGE can sit quietly in their weirdly lighted rooms watching its consoles and keep their minds free to make only the necessary human judgments of battle--when and where to fight. (p. 106)Enclosed and insulated, rendering the world "manageable, coherent, and rational through digital calculation and control"--this, says Edwards, is the "archetypal closed-world space." He traces the complex social, technical, political, intellectual, and military interactions through which the metaphor shaped the technology and the technology helped to crystallize the metaphor.
Here are a few of Edwards' observations about the closed world:
** "The automatic control SAGE promised was then, and remains today, largely an illusion." The formal procedures we encode in manuals always falter "against the unruly complexities not yet enclosed within the system." That is, "the closed world was a leaky container, constantly patched and repatched, continually sprouting new holes" (pp. 108-9).
** Nuclear weaponry played a critical role in closing off the world. "There was nothing else to do but simulate, predict, and theorize--testing and practice, in any real sense, being out of the question." The zero-sum game within which the simulating and theorizing occurred was "yet another symbolic enclosure." The phrase, "think tank," referring to those organizations where the Alice-in-Wonderland terms of the game were worked out, evoked (in Jonathan Schell's words) "a hermetic world of thought" exactly reflecting "the circumstances of those thinkers whose job it is to deduce from pure theory, without the lessons of experience, what might happen if nuclear hostilities broke out" (pp. 118-20).
** "The appearance of `hard' answers achieved by extensive quantitative analysis and simulation lent an air of certainty to results even when based on uncertain assumptions" (p. 121).
** Over time, simulation and reality tended to merge. The computer operations and screen displays of the simulation were the same ones that would appear in war. "The closed world within the machine, and the closed world of real strategy it supported, blurred together" (p. 125).
Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was known for his heavy reliance on computer analysis. "Once, when informed by a White House aide that the Vietnam war was doomed to failure, McNamara reportedly shot back `Where is your data? Give me something I can put in the computer. Don't give me your poetry'" (pp. 127-28).
** Speaking of John F. Kennedy's "new frontier" and the NASA space program, Edwards writes:
A heavy irony lay behind the discursive decalage between the frontier imagery and the Cold War competition: most of the swarming satellites and spaceships were sent up only to look down. With every launch another orbiting object drew its circle around the planet, marking the enclosure of the world within the God's-eye view from the void. (p. 135)"The computer as a second self [Sherry Turkle's term] is the experience of the closed world of a rule-based game. The second self [that] computer users find within the machine is, in general, a `hard,' quasi-scientific, male self, an experience of reality in the terms of closed-world discourse" (p. 172). (A second theme of Edwards, set alongside that of the closed world, is cyborg discourse as the means of adapting the human being to the closed world.)
** "Disembodied AI, cyborg intelligence as formal model, thus constructed minds as miniature closed worlds, nested within and abstractly mirroring the larger world outside" (p. 256). And, further: "The closed world, with its mathematical models, tactical simulations, and electronic battlefields, represents the form of politics and war for brains seen as computers and minds conceived as information processors" (p. 273).
** During the Cold War, the American and Soviet forces became tightly coupled to each other. A move by one side was instantly detected by the "vast military sensory network" of the other side, producing a nearly instantaneous computer analysis and response. So "even a short series of mistakes could raise alert levels at a breakneck pace." (Edwards relates some hair-raising mistakes that could have triggered nuclear war had humans not intervened correctly.) "Perhaps no better illustration of the world-closing effect of computerized command and control could be found than the integration of the two opposing nuclear forces into a single, tightly coupled system" (p. 286).
I would add that the world-closing logic of such tight coupling is fully as evident today, in the realities of post-Cold War economics and technology, as it was during the period of dominant military influence. The logic and the coupling are already implied in the silicon foundations of the new world we are conceiving. We are driving maniacally toward One World without taking thought for the necessary play between unity and diversity in any healthy society.
All this is not even to touch upon many of Edwards' major topics. But rather than attempt a more comprehensive survey of his book, I wish to offer some comments of my own on his closed-world theme. If you are not philosophically and historically inclined, you may want to stop reading here!
It could hardly have been otherwise. Man, after all, is preeminently the maker of meaning. We "speak," not only in words, but in every gesture and activity, every institution we form, every tool we make. A tool essentially just is a set of embodied meanings and intentions; without the meanings it does not exist as a tool.
It is in the nature of meanings to play off each other, color each other, build upon each other, ramify according to their mutual influences--finally, to tell a story. Getting at this story is substantially a semantic exercise, and this is the project Edwards has so ably carried through. What is remarkable is not that he found the meanings he was looking for, but that he should have been such a lonely pathbreaker along his particular lines of inquiry.
But now I would like to express a hope for his next book.
A historical, semantic inquiry is neither more nor less than an inquiry into the history of human consciousness. What goes under the name of this discipline, however, is usually a history of ideas, and therefore tends toward abstraction. A true history of consciousness has less to do with the impact of idea upon idea or with the logical articulation of ideas--less to do with discourse proper--than with the available meanings, the raw materials of consciousness, the underlying activity of consciousness, through which discourses are constructed. As semantic historian Owen Barfield has put it, a history of consciousness
must attempt to penetrate into the very texture and activity of thought, rather than to collate conclusions. It is concerned, semantically, with the way in which words are used rather than with the product of discourse (1).At this deeper level of inquiry the story of the closed world will, I suspect, hold together even more clearly than in Edwards' first telling of it. Even if I were up to the task, however, this would not be the place to sketch such an alternative narration. But I can at least offer a few observations that may prove suggestive.
** The SAGE computers, as Edwards explains, gave their users a closed world represented abstractly on a screen. But before SAGE and before the Cold War politics in which it was embedded, we had already been coming to live within the enclosure defended by our inescapably abstract habits of thought. For example, those fundamental tools of modern thinking--mathematics and logic--had been formalized as self-contained, precise, quintessentially abstract worlds that map uncomfortably to the real world much as the SAGE screen abstractions mapped to the real world.
It is as hard for us in our everyday thinking as it was for the SAGE operators in their war gaming to pierce this veil of abstraction and actually see the world. We live within a mindscape where a science writer can routinely say, without fear of ridicule:
The baseball and the bat are mostly empty space. Their solidity is an illusion created by the electromagnetic force field that binds their atoms together...We credit the home run to the batter, but the fundamental force responsible is electromagnetism (2).It is a world where artists urge us to "draw on the right side of our brains" because we have lost the ability to see what is before our eyes. We plaster our abstractions over everything. (As I look at this corner in front of me, where two walls of my room meet the ceiling, all I can see are three "right angles," even though I am looking at three oblique angles.)
It is a world where the sound and color and feel of things is left to the poet, since we all know that the qualities of the natural world are illusory. Those trees really consist of imperceptible atoms. Or, as cognitive scientist Paul Churchland puts it, "The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is what it is (3)."
We may not all carry about with us the theoretical perspectives of a Paul Churchland, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which our minds have come to feed upon abstraction and to be perplexed by everything qualitative. Abstractions have effectively displaced the Nature we began by trying to explain. But without qualities there is no meaning, no flexible depth--in the end, not even consciousness. Qualities cannot be boxed up; they are not discrete and sharp-edged like numbers; their interiors can never finally be plumbed. There can be no closed world of qualities. Closure comes through abstraction.
The dominant science of the past few hundred years, rejecting everything qualitative, always seeks what it calls a "closed system" in order to begin its work. It freezes movement in order to analyze stasis, and even reduces the graceful curve to the starker abstraction of the infinitesimal straight line segment. But between the repetition of infinitesimals through which we would restore the curve; between the freeze-frames that we flip through in order to produce the appearance of movement and transformation; between the quantities that give us our abstract physical laws, the living world of our sensuous experience seems to leak forlornly away.
I do not say "we" rhetorically, for I suffer from this loss fully as much as the next person. The question is how firmly, how despotically, the habit of abstraction--and therefore also the penchant for constructing closed worlds--grips our modern consciousness. Can we can gain a (possibly freeing) glimpse of other styles of consciousness, past or potential?
** The beginnings of the scientific revolution go back to about the time of Descartes. Walter J. Ong mentions how Descartes' "logic of personal inquiry, silent cerebration," eventually ousted the traditional dialectic as the model for human intellectual activity." It is a live question to what degree, in earlier eras, discursive thinking was even possible outside the context of discourse, or conversation. In any case, for Descartes
the new logic was not the art of discourse...as earlier ages, following Cicero, had commonly taken dialectic and/or logic to be. Rather, it was the art of thinking--that is, of individualized, isolated intellectual activity, presumably uninvolved with communication (4).Could this retirement of the mind to its private, individualized precincts amount to the "archetypal" closing of the world? The relevance of this question will, I hope, emerge below.
** A number of authorities (for example, Bruno Snell, Eric Havelock, and above all Owen Barfield) have maintained that ancient Homeric man was less the subject of thinking than we are today, and more the relatively passive recipient of it. It was as if his mind were the stage upon which the world and the gods played their roles. An open world if ever there was one!
Moreover, it was a world without anything like the habits of abstraction that rule today. All the physical world was ensouled, and every spirit was embodied--a concrete unity of inner and outer, self and world, word and object, that has since broken apart (5).
In light of all this, then, one could say that there has been a kind of reversal in the structure of man's cognitive immersion in the world. Put simply, where meaning once flowed from the world into man, it now flows from man into the world. Where once man was moved by what was given, now he chooses his meanings--even if only arbitrarily--and imposes them upon the world. Another way to say it is that, whereas the "center of gravity" of human consciousness once lay "out there" in the world (in which we intimately participated), now it lies "in here" in our individualized, private subjectivities.
If you wanted to pick the mid-point of this transition, you could do no better than to choose Descartes, by whose time the growing interior subjectivity and the correlatively growing external objectivity of the world achieved a perplexing standoff. Descartes formulated this standoff philosophically as the dualism with which subsequent generations of philosophers have wrestled.
As it happens, this same historical moment is the pivotal point for a remarkable reversal in the meanings of "subject" and "object." Previously "subjective" referred to what was substantial and real, whereas the "objective" was derivative and less real. The one true Subject--more to be found, in earlier eras, "out there" than "in here"--was God. Subsequently, the subject (now splintered and isolated into individuals) faded into "mere subjectivity," while the real became whatever is solid, thinglike, and objective (6).
The semantic reversal is a fact of record--but only one of innumerable avenues along which Barfield has felt out those semantic textures that constitute the evolving fabric of human consciousness while also testifying to the shifting boundary between man and world.
** If it is true that such historical shifts have occurred in the relation between subject and object, self and world, do we now suffer disabilities owing to our current, historically "provincial" position? Yes--and here is where we come to the crux of the matter regarding closed worlds.
Pointing out that "the most fundamental assumptions of any age are those that are implicit in the meanings of its common words" (such as, for example, the meanings we have just seen in "subject" and "object"), Barfield goes on to mention the particular change in meaning and assumption whereby we find it, not just theoretically unsound, but almost cognitively impossible "to think of mind, or mental activity, or intelligence of any sort outside of some particular physical brain." It was, he reminds us, very different for our medieval forbears:
Contrariwise, this (which is so difficult for us) was something that caused them no difficulty at all. It was the sort of thing that the relevant words meant--whereas, for us, the very same words mean the opposite....Try thinking about "thought" or "thoughts" in the old way, if you want to experience how difficult it must have been, before the scientific revolution, to think about physics in the new way (7).The idea that consciousness precedes matter; that thought is not merely consequent upon the brain but productive of it; that meaning originally had to flow from the world into man before it could light up within him and radiate outward as the interior brightness of his own subjectivity; that man had to be thought or uttered before he could think or speak in his own right--this idea is so powerfully anathema within the various disciplines of cognitive science that one can only wonder what visceral taboo, what unspeakable fear, lies behind the prohibition. Having found a closed-world prison for ourselves, safe from all the surprises an ensouled world might spring upon us, have we come finally to love our prison? Is the human skull as we now experience it--that is, as the container within which we behold our private, pale, and abstract thoughts--the root paradigm of all closed worlds?
If, as Barfield says, our most fundamental assumptions are in the meanings of our words, it is also true that we can neither properly defend nor escape those assumptions until we recognize the level at which they are secured--and, further, until we at least become capable of thinking the alternatives to them. Barfield does not suggest that we should go back where have come from, but only that we should remember where we have come from. When we do so with full understanding, we will realize that
subjectivity is never something that was developed out of nothing at some point in space, but is a form of consciousness that has contracted from the periphery into individual centers (8).When we can truly re-think--re-experience--our former relation to the world, then, perhaps, we will be able to move ahead as the new-found selves we have become, no longer trapped within our isolated, vanishing subjectivities, but able to break out and connect with the larger, open world without fear of losing ourselves. We would lose ourselves if we simply returned to the past, for that was an open world in which the self's enclosure was not yet found. For us, on the other hand, the danger is that the self, barricaded and hermetically sealed within its enclosure, will finally wither away altogether. To become, I suppose, that "disembodied artificial intelligence" of which we heard Edwards speak: "minds as miniature closed worlds, nested within and abstractly mirroring the larger world outside (9)."
1. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965; originally published in 1957), p. 90.
2. Timothy Ferris, "The Creation of the Universe," PBS television special (undated).
3. Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988).
4. Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 63-4.
5. Barfield, Saving the Appearances.
6. Owen Barfield, Speaker's Meaning (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 114.
7. Barfield, Speaker's Meaning, pp. 45-6.
8. Barfield, Speaker's Meaning, p. 113.
9. Stephen L. Talbott, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst (Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly & Associates, 1995). Part 4 of this book, "Owen Barfield, Computers, and the Evolution of Consciousness," is an expansion upon some of these themes.
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