• Goto NETFUTURE main page
  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #60       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications     November 18, 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
          NETFUTURE has a new home
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          First It Was Quality Time...
          These Are the Classrooms the State Has Made
          The Business of Pandering
          Model T's; Babies Spell the End of Your Life
    *** Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 2) (Stephen L. Talbott)
          I'm stiffing you for the good of society
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note

    I was dumbfounded and gratified by the number of offers -- more than a dozen -- I received from organizations interested in hosting the NETFUTURE mailing list. I had the unexpected pleasure of choosing from among some wonderful universities, non-profits, and businesses.

    Beginning with the next issue, NETFUTURE will be sent to you courtesy of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Headquartered in The Hague, IFLA runs its online operations out of Canada, using technical infrastructure maintained by the National Library of Canada / Bibliotheque Nationale du Canada.

    This affiliation was arranged through the kind mediation of NETFUTURE reader, Terry Kuny, who is part of the IFLANET Administration. Terry works within the Universal Dataflow and Telecommunications Core Programme of IFLA, whose mandate is to provide the library community with critical appraisals of emerging technologies.

    The Government of Canada will not be liable for anything that comes to you from NETFUTURE. (I had to say that.)


    Goto table of contents

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    First It Was Quality Time...

    You hear it incessantly these days:
    Today's world is one in which technology has compressed to nearly zero the time it takes to acquire and use information, learn, make decisions, initiate action, deploy resources, and innovate. It's a world that operates in real time. We experience real time when our credit card is verified in seconds, when we withdraw money at an ATM, or when we use our computers to track a package that we've sent by overnight mail. (Blurb for Regis McKenna's Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer)
    The current rage for "real time" leaves one wondering what kind of time we had before our business was mediated by computers. It's hard to imagine that the ancient hunter-gatherers, beset by predators and dependent upon their immediate environment for food, failed to respond in real time to the threats and opportunities all around them. Was there a gap of awareness or action in their lives that a computer might have "compressed to nearly zero"?

    It would be truer to say that the computer is what inserts a psychological distance and opens up a gap -- a qualitative gap -- within "user transactions." And now all the excitement is about pretending to narrow this gap simply by speeding things up.

    But the qualities of time are never anything other than the qualities of our meetings with people and the world. These meetings are what give texture, content, and depth to time. The computer's intermediation and commitment to its own, nanosecond rap beat are hardly the most promising aids for those who would regain real time.

    The return of a few large predators to our inhabited regions might do a better job.

    These Are the Classrooms the State Has Made

    We are forever asking, "What effect does this or that have on student achievement?" I myself have suggested that those who want to wire our schools should ask what effect computers have on student achievement. But, really, the question is rather senseless without prior agreement about what constitutes achievement. And the unfortunate truth is that we have no agreement whatever. We don't even have much in the way of serious proposals. One educator's achievement is the next educator's disaster.

    What's really needed is a sustained conversation about achievement -- which is to say, about the nature of the human being -- together with the freedom for educators, parents, and students to collaborate in the pursuit of their chosen ideals of achievement. But that brings up a related matter.

    No citizenry is more determined than Americans to prevent the larger society -- and, in particular, government -- from restricting the individual's freedom of religion. We also defend freedom of expression in the arts, in the sciences, and in personal ethics. More generally, we enshrine freedom of expression as such -- free speech -- as our preeminent right.

    Against this background, our tolerance of a state-imposed education is bizarre, at best. Surely our answer to the question, "What should children achieve in school?" will be inseparable from our deepest convictions about human nature and destiny -- the same convictions from which, in religious contexts, we expel the government with all possible force.

    Likewise, the powers of expression we cultivate in children are the very powers we prohibit government from interfering with in the arts and sciences. Will we, then, protect the particular expressions of the adult while at the same time allowing the political majority, through its control of educational bureaucracies, to determine (and limit) the development of the child's fundamental capacities for expression?

    Where we allow such a blatant contradiction of the freedoms we otherwise trumpet so loudly, something significant is afoot. I would like to know what it is.

    The Business of Pandering

    Regis McKenna knows that things are speeding up, and he wants to help companies adapt. The key, he believes, is instant service and instant gratification. As the web site for his book puts it,
    We insert our bank card into a London ATM and get money from our U.S. account. We watch the Gulf War or the Japanese earthquake live on TV. Such instant-gratification events change our frame of reference forever, because we begin to expect immediate satisfaction. We expect to judge our reality instantly in terms of truth or fiction, right or wrong, good or bad service, acceptable or unacceptable behavior.
    The book, of course, is Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer (Harvard Business School Press, 1977). In an online interview, McKenna elaborates:
    In a world where speed is paramount, the consumer's attention is fleeting. One event folds rapidly into the next and attention is lost. Entertainment [on the other hand] is engaging. Network news shows have adopted an entertaining format because the "talking head" can no longer sustain viewers' interest. When every email message or report is simply a long text message, interest wanes.
    McKenna is hardly alone in this. Cadence Design Systems CEO Joe Costello, arguing that high-tech has to become more like the fashion and entertainment industries, informs us that
    Consumers want instant gratification, and if it's not there for them, they'll go elsewhere. In the consumerized world of high-technology products, Christmas season replaces Comdex as the must-reach milestone, and if you're not on the shelves by early December, there's no "Spring Christmas" to offer you a reprieve. (Upside, November, 1997, pp. 143-148)
    Such arguments have been intensifying for a number of years now, and one can hardly quarrel with the advice that usually flows from them: get lean and mean, be flexible, engage the customer, respond quickly to his needs; otherwise, your competitor will run over you. What's missing is subtle, and often very hard for people to see -- namely, any evident sense of responsibility for all the exciting trends, and any willingness to distinguish between their healthy and unhealthy potentials. Yet, without such willingness, the explanation that "I did it because my competitors made me" begins to sound uncomfortably close in spirit to "I did it because I was ordered to."

    In fact, you can almost hear McKenna resorting to this explanation. He says that, with customers already inundated by data, companies have no choice but to up the ante: the competitive situation "demands that information be clothed as interactive entertainment." But he remains passive and yielding in response to this "demand":

    I do not wish to offer a value judgment on this phenomenon, but I do want to point out that the trend in this direction is already set. Increasing bandwidth and multimedia capability combined with increased competition for customers will heighten the entertainment aspect of business communications.
    So let the trend rip. Never mind that the consumer's appetite for entertainment and distraction is continually whetted by our corporate strategies. Never mind that we could choose to play our part in cultivating different habits that might lead to a healthier future. And never mind that McKenna's profession of value neutrality is in fact a willing support of the prevailing values.

    But in a world where attention is fleeting, we do not serve the customer's need by simply going with the flow and intensifying the edutainment/infomercial/multimedia assault upon whatever powers of attention the customer still retains. In fact, you will be hard put to think of any human needs -- as opposed to pathological wants -- that require the sort of driven, frenetic cultivation that McKenna and his hordes of fellow consultants are urging.

    But, yes, the consultants are right: the survival of many businesses is at stake. When you choose to serve slickly manufactured wants, you live and die by the extraordinarily fickle evolution of those wants, which do indeed show a hair-trigger volatility.

    Footnote: Needing instant gratification as I do, I didn't bother to read McKenna's book. And since his web-based PR gave me "intimate" contact with him -- contact "unprecedentedly subtle and nuanced" -- well, I figure I must already know everything worth knowing. No talking heads for me. But, seriously, if you check out his book, perhaps you'll find that I'm wrong -- that he rises above his professed value neutrality and actually asks which direction businesses ought to go in. Perhaps, in other words, when he says businesses should respond to customers' needs, he is more serious about it than his entertaining sound bites let on. I hope so.

    Model T's; Babies Spell the End of Your Life

    I thought I'd share a couple of reader responses to the last issue (NF #59. The first comes from Lowell Monke (lm7846s@acad.drake.edu), and was provoked by my commentary on John Tierney's remark about the freeing potential of today's more reliable automobiles.
    I recall my uncle being incensed at not being able to get out and fix his car when it broke down on the way to Sioux City a few years ago. Of course, as is the custom with old farmers, this led to many a story shared by him and my dad and my other relatives about their old cars. I remember most vividly that same uncle telling about actually owning a Model T and having to back up the steep hills leading into town because the gas wouldn't flow down to the car's carburetor if he drove it forward.

    But the point that mattered to him was that he never, ever got stranded with that old bucket of bolts -- because it was a bucket of bolts. And just about anything that went wrong with it could be fixed with the tools and materials he had in the tool box under his seat. Now that was what he considered freedom -- not simplicity or reliability or efficiency of operation, but capacity to control his tools was the distinguishing factor. Not that he would have ever gone back to that old jalopy -- he loved his comfort too much. But 8th grade dropout that he was, he didn't suffer under the illusion that it was freedom that he was gaining from these machines.

    You may also remember my quotation of a passage from Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. It had to do with the necessity of considering yourself dead to everything that once mattered to you when you enter the Gulag. NETFUTURE reader Michael Sofka (sofkam@rpi.edu), a father of several months' standing, responded with a minor paraphrase:
    From the moment you have a baby you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: "My former life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to babysit -- now, or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any independence whatsoever. For me those I love need me, and for them I would die. From today on, my hobbies are useless and alien to me. Only my baby and our joy remain precious and important to me."

    Besides, most movies come out on video within 6 months.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 2)
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)



    It's a strange and pernicious notion that has been foisted upon western society by economists: you and I, by giving free rein to greed, selfishness, competitive malice, and megalomania, perform a valuable public service. We can spend our days working to destroy the welfare and livelihood of others -- or at least paying no heed to them -- and then trust that "the market" will transform our venality into the public good.

    This, of course, is the doctrine of the Invisible Hand, the economist's name for the intelligent mechanism through which the self-interested pursuits of myriad individuals supposedly result in the greatest possible good for society as a whole. "Harnessing the `base' motive of material self-interest to promote the common good," according to economist Charles Schultze, "is perhaps the most important social invention mankind has yet achieved." /1/

    You may have noticed the way in which crass expressions of this doctrine are becoming more socially acceptable. I have cited some of them in the past -- for example, there's the advertising director defending ads that glorify selfishness:

    No one's really worrying about what it's teaching impressionable youth. Hey, I'm in the business of convincing people to buy things they don't need. /2/
    More recently, Business Week ran a story on the new "anti-ads" -- advertisements that pretend to respect young people and to share their skepticism about advertisements. As the magazine notes, "marketers admit that the `honesty' of these ads is a conceit" /3/ -- in fact, a conceit precisely designed to provoke unconscious consumer choices, which is the quintessential form of disrespect. (It's called "brainwashing" in other contexts.)

    The Unity of Self-interest and Social Interest

    How could this grotesque notion -- putting it bluntly, the notion that evil automatically becomes good -- gain such widespread acceptance? How can we blindly assume a kind of alchemical transformation going on all around us when we never actually see it at work in concrete situations?

    When I show disrespect to my wife, or compete with her in a manner that puts my interests above hers, or try to coerce her choices without her knowledge, the result is never an increased good for our "society" of two. It is more like hell. And the same thing holds for our larger family, and for our neighborhood. It also holds among co-workers at the office and when friends and neighbors sell things to each other. In fact, it holds wherever people have to do with people.

    This is the rock-bottom fact -- a fact overwhelming in its significance if we prefer to understand the real world. My challenge to every economist reading this is: show me where things work otherwise. Where, exactly, is the Great Divide past which the Invisible Hand's alchemy comes into play?

    Actually, I can tell you where. It comes into play at the point where the economist turns a blind eye to actual people engaging in the real business of life, and instead begins attending primarily to equilibria and equations and other abstractions from real life. Once these become the primary focus of his cogitations, complex human realities fade into the background and a tissue of illusions begins to shimmer like a veil before his eyes. And perhaps the chief illusion is that of the Invisible Hand.

    Don't get me wrong. I think the idea of an Invisible Hand can present us with profound truth. While Adam Smith, who originated the phrase, saw the Hand as an appendage of Providence, I would rather say that it is another name for the unity in multiplicity, the organic wholeness -- the essential oneness "in spirit and truth" -- of human society. One aspect of this wholeness is the natural tendency toward complex harmony as hundreds or thousands or millions of citizens freely pursue their own best interests in the context of a liberating consciousness of the larger community.

    So I am not suggesting that we should disregard our own interests. They are exactly what we should pursue. But the individual's true self-interest never entails working against another person's true interests. In fact, self-interest is only defined within community and can only exist within community. This is evident, for example, in every long-term, successful marriage. Individual and community, freedom and responsibility -- these are not opposites; each side can exist only by virtue of the other. Remove community, and you will no longer have freedom. Remove freedom, and you will no longer have community.

    Yes, this still sounds something like an Invisible Hand -- except that now we have acknowledged that such things as selfishness and lying are never in our true self-interest, and therefore are never in society's interest. A minor and obvious point, you may think. Yes, but far too subtle, it seems, to have penetrated mainstream economics.

    An Objection

    I can guarantee that at this moment some readers are readying their pens for a reply. "So. You want to outlaw selfishness. Who, then, will enforce this prohibition -- the government? And how will you eliminate selfishness, not to mention ineptitude, in the bureaucratic enforcers?"

    But who said anything about outlawing selfishness? I find this response -- one encounters it often -- extremely worrisome. Here is what it says, in effect: "There is the free individual running wild, and there is government coercion, that is all." What's missing -- odd in a society so obsessed with its freedoms -- is the awareness that if we're entering an era of unprecedented individual freedom, we're also entering an era of unprecedented individual responsibility for shaping society and holding it together.

    We seem eager to cultivate our freedoms, and equally eager to point out the very real limitations of government in the economic realm, but not eager at all to grant that, well, an awful lot must be up to us then. And the Invisible Hand provides the perfect excuse for disavowing responsibility: the mechanisms of the market will take care of everything despite our worst intentions.

    The fact is that the evolution of the free, wide-awake human being and of modern political forms have combined to require that we lay bare the elements of social health and commit ourselves to them out of our own free choice. To say that our society can only survive on this basis is the very opposite of assuming -- as my imaginary questioner assumed -- that we can be coerced toward social responsibility. It has not yet occurred to this questioner that between libertinism and straitjacket there stands the free and responsible human being -- free only because responsible, and responsible only because free.

    Selling Out

    In the next installment I will have more to say about these matters, and will begin to address more directly the economists' understanding of values and the Invisible Hand. Suffice it to say for now that the Invisible Hand is conceived as the most sophisticated of all computer programs running on the most sophisticated of all computers -- the "market mechanism."

    I have for a long time been trying to point out the various risks of our wholesale adaptation to computer programs. One way to summarize at least some of these risks is to say that, by operating at the level of software's various automatisms, we can easily forget the place of individual, human responsibility.

    Anyone who lightly dismisses this risk must deal with the following fact: we have for some time been relating to the market as to an automatic, computational mechanism, and now we find the conventional wisdom saying that this mechanism -- not the virtues and vices of the human heart on its journey toward freedom -- is the proper agent for delivering the social future. Who, then, can dismiss the companion temptation to yield first place to the wildly ramifying mesh of digital technologies now enveloping the world?

    Well, more later. But to avoid misunderstanding in the meantime, let me add that I'm not trying to trash the market. In a critical sense the market is never wrong -- no more than a valid equation or proposition of logic is ever wrong. It's just that, as a mathematical abstraction, the market does not give us a single certainty about human welfare -- and the assumption that it does inevitably leads us away from human welfare.


    1. Quoted in Robert Kuttner, Everything
    for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets (New York: Alfred A.
    Knopf, 1996), p. 36.
    2. Business Week, August 11, 1997.
    3. Joshua Wolf Shenk, "The New Anti-ad,"
    U.S. News & World Report, October 20, 1997, p. 80.

    Go to part 1 of "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"
    Go to part 3 of "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"

    Goto table of contents

    *** 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 #60 :: November 18, 1997

    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NETFUTURE main page