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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #122                                              September 18, 2001
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Terror on Film
       Still Disconnecting
       How to Prepare for a Frenetic World (Peter Denning)
       Quit Bashing the Media Lab (Amy Bruckman)
       Reply to Amy Bruckman (Langdon Winner)
       A Book on Tripartite Society (Frank Thomas Smith)
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Terror on Film
    Brief comments about the terrorist attacks:
    ** "It was like watching a movie" — this reaction has been widely
    noted.  Less often noted is the fact that the likeness may result from
    either of two opposite movements.  Movies, with the aid of sophisticated
    technology, may be becoming more life-like; but at the same time, life,
    under the influence of movies, may be becoming more movie-like.  Given the
    current need for us to re-imagine society in fundamentally creative ways,
    and given the movie industry's and movie consumer's penchant for formulaic
    presentations, overwhelming violence, and technically bolstered sensation-
    mongering, one hopes it is not life that is being sucked into the cinema,
    but rather the cinema that is merely reflecting life more vividly.  This,
    of course, is a vain hope, since the currents of influence undeniably flow
    in both directions.
    ** A friend of mine once remarked that he never felt so real and alive as
    when he was fighting as an infantryman in Vietnam, where he witnessed many
    life-and-death scenes.  We might have expected the eyewitnesses in lower
    Manhattan to have had a similar experience of intensified reality.  Yet
    these most compelling and painful moments were repeatedly compared to the
    relatively passive, second-hand experience of watching a movie.
    We spend a significant portion of our lives watching "action" on a screen.
    A question often raised before still needs answering:  As habitual
    spectators of a world largely hidden on the other side of a screen, are we
    losing the ability to experience ourselves in any meaningful way as
    genuine actors in a real world?
    ** Of course, for most of us the events last week seemed like watching a
    movie because we were watching a movie — moving images on a
    screen.  Why should they have seemed like anything else?  Learning to
    negotiate the various sorts of distance between such images and the
    practical realities of life may be one of the urgent tasks of our day.
    ** Actually, the "we" in the previous paragraph was rhetorical.  It
    happens that I personally have not yet seen any moving images from
    September 11.  Nor can I imagine what they would add to the newspaper
    pictures I have seen.  In fact, I wonder whether heavy indulgence
    in ongoing and repeated video images (with all the accompanying video
    drama and verbiage) doesn't tend to substitute a rather more passive and
    escapist experience ("watching a movie") for the more muscular,
    imaginative coming to terms with events that can take place only within
    oneself and in the immediate contexts of one's life.
    ** There's a lot of talk about Americans being likely to experience
    traumatic stress syndrome.  But the victim of traumatic stress is driven
    by his trauma to re-live the original event; most of us, on the other
    hand, keep re-living the original event — in its weakened, screen-
    mediated form — in hope of engendering within ourselves the
    appropriate sense of trauma, which never quite comes because events on the
    screen cannot produce it.  Have we been overwhelmed by events that were
    too intense and real, or are we feeling inadequately connected to events
    that were too vague and remote?
    ** Perhaps the most obvious reason why watching the attack on the World
    Trade Center was like watching a movie is that we have in fact watched
    countless cinematic scenes very much like those that recently broke
    through into history.  Isn't it the case that whatever we continually
    present to our collective imagination will eventually find some
    pathway into the outer world?
    ** Finally, and most fundamentally, life seems to be like watching a movie
    because a movie is exactly what we conceive the world of our normal
    experience to be.  The Cartesian split — which everyone claims to
    have overcome and none of us has in fact overcome — reduces us to
    isolated individuals viewing a kind of cinematic display of our own
    subjectivity projected against the blank screen of a reality (the "real"
    world of particles, waves, quanta, or whatever) we can never quite get to.
    Feeling cut off from reality — from whatever lies on the other side
    of the movie screen, or the other side of the veil of our own subjectivity
    — is the nearly inescapable condition of modern consciousness.
    This epistemological predicament may seem foreign to a newsletter on
    technology, but I am convinced there can be no progress against the
    technological challenges of today's world except by overcoming what you
    might call the subjective imprisonment of human consciousness
    characteristic of the past several hundred years of western civilization.
    Furthermore, technology is rapidly fortifying the prison, locking us ever
    more securely within our separate subjectivities.  As Max Frisch has
    remarked, technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't
    have to experience it.
    I will have more to say about this in future issues.
    Related articles:
    ** "The Reality of Appearances" in NF #119.
    Still Disconnecting
    Responding to "Why I Have Disconnected from Email" (NF #121), one reader
    wrote me to say (and this was his entire message),
       Your behavior strikes me as cowardly and hypocritical.
    Another submitted this message:
       Sorry to sound caustic, but this reminds me of a quote from Samuel
       Beckett — Man blames his shoes for the faults of his feet.
    The first writer offers a slap in the face without deigning to hint at its
    justification.  There is no way I can respond to an unstated argument.
    The second, rather more polite writer suggests that I have blamed the
    mechanisms of email when I should have looked inward for the source of my
    difficulties — this despite my saying that my problem was "a feature
    of the way I manage my own life", and despite my reference to "the
    perfectly acceptable medium of email", and despite my assertion that
    "balance is the decisive thing", and despite my mentioning an immediate
    physical ailment as a triggering cause of my decision, and despite my
    warning readers against "taking me to be suggesting what your
    appropriate means of self-recollection might be"....
    The only way I know for an otherwise well-intentioned reader to manage
    such a complete misrepresentation is by failing to read the message he was
    responding to.  This failure (on any reasonable sense of "to read") is
    probably more the norm with email than the exception, and it hardly argues
    for an obligation by the rest of us to submit ourselves without reserve to
    this particular medium.
    I said in my essay that, after a great deal of vacillation, I was feeling
    an unaccustomed combativeness on this issue.  Now I think I know why.  I
    cannot vouch for these two respondents, but their remarks bring to sharper
    awareness something I have really known for a long time:  many people in
    our society take any rejection of common technologies as a personal
    affront.  I have seen this time and again with television.  If someone
    finds out you have raised a family without television, he is likely to
    become angry and argumentative.  "So you're too good for your society?"
    "You don't want to know what's going on in the world around you?"  "How
    can you cut your children off from the culture of their peers?"  Behind
    this anger is the fact, which you can observe almost everywhere, that most
    people feel guilty about their habits of television viewing.
    Well, I'm in a mood to meet anger with anger.  What in hell's name are
    these people trying to convict me of?  Look at the culture of email.  It's
    alright to slap people around via email; it's alright to send careless,
    half-decipherable messages for no good reason; it's alright to contribute
    wholesale and without any thoughtful hesitation to the message overload of
    your fellows; it's alright to fire off responses without having read the
    message you are responding to.  Use email as vacuously and irresponsibly
    as you wish, and you are at least exercising one of the glorious
    privileges of the digital age.  But back away from the medium itself in an
    effort to find your own responsible balance, and you call down the scorn
    of the technically enlightened upon yourself.
    The past two months have given me wonderful confirmation that my decision
    was — for me and for the time being — the right one.  If I took great pains
    to warn against generalizing my purely personal decision, it was because
    it would be insane to suggest that there is a rightness or wrongness about
    email as such.  Yes, it's crucial to recognize the various ways email
    plays into the reigning pathologies of our society — and I did indeed talk
    about this — but almost everything will play into those pathologies simply
    because they are the reigning pathologies.  This says nothing about
    individual decisions to abandon, try to redeem, or otherwise relate to the
    problematic tools of our society.
    It troubles me that there is so little recognition (by both technology
    advocates and critics) of the necessarily personal and contextual nature
    of all human choices.  It is impossible to say, in an absolute way, "you
    should use this technology" or "you should not use it".  Our society would
    be in far deeper trouble than it is if some people did not opt to stay as
    far away from digital technologies as possible, cultivating those skills,
    habits, and capacities the larger culture is in danger of losing
    altogether.  And our society would be in far deeper trouble than it is if
    some people did not opt conscientiously to dive into the technological
    milieu in order to discover how it might be redeemed.  Our greatest threat
    comes from those who do neither, but simply drift with the technologies
    that are handed to them.
    So, good grief, let's cut people a little slack.  We need the
    diversity and ingenuity of their individual responses.  Net afficionados
    like to say that new, exciting realities "emerge" spontaneously from the
    "chaos" of the online society.  Well, are we really so narrow-minded that
    we cannot allow this creative ferment to include widely differing personal
    decisions about how to relate to the various technical capabilities on
    offer?  If we already knew how people should incorporate information
    technologies into their lives, there wouldn't be much room for anything
    new to emerge.
    (On a more positive note, Peter Denning's letter in this issue offers some
    nice suggestions relating to the pressures of email and modern life in
    Goto table of contents
    How to Prepare for a Frenetic World
    Response to:  "Why I Have Disconnected from Email" (NF-121)
    From:  Peter Denning (pjd@cs.gmu.edu)
    I am sorry to hear that your burden of email has grown so large and time
    consuming that you see disconnection as the only route to sanity.
    May I offer a modest suggestion?  Follow the lead of other overburdened
    netizens.  Create a second account for yourself that will be known only to
    you and people you select.  Activate the filter in your email program so
    that only emails from the people you designate will actually reach your
    mailbox.  All other mail, including spam, will not pass your filter.
    Anyone else who wants to talk to you by email sends to your old address,
    which is processed by someone else on your behalf.  The interesting pieces
    are forwarded to you for your consideration.
    I fully understand Langdon Winner's frustrations.  He didn't really offer
    a solution other than to attempt to resist the further de-coherence.  In
    the past few years I have encountered all those frustrations myself.  The
    sources are widespread and cutting myself off from email, or any other
    technology, would not be a solution for me.  So I changed myself.  I
    declared that the problem was not email overload, but total commitment
    overload.  I therefore started with a spreadsheet to inventory all my
    commitments in life.  Against each I entered the customer of that
    commitment and the number of hours per week required to honor that
    commitment to my own (and my customer's) satisfaction.  I also entered the
    number of hours I actually spent on that commitment.  I found that the
    number of hours actually spent on commitments was eating into sleep,
    relationship, and other biological time, and the number of hours required
    was well over 100.  I reduced my commitments to the ones that are truly
    important and to which I can devote the time required for my own and my
    customer's satisfaction.  All else gets a "no" from me.  The new practice
    of managing commitments to within my capacity has changed my mood.  I
    don't need to screen myself from people; I just say "no" when the
    requested commitment does not feel right (and, on email, "hell no delete"
    to spam).  Over time I have transformed my mood from one of overwhelm to
    one of general satisfaction.  I'm creating a program to help my students
    with the same problem; they have to confront a long life in the frenetic
    world I'm already used to.
    Quit Bashing the Media Lab
    Response to:  "Whatever Happened to the Electronic Cottage?" (NF-121)
    From:  Amy Bruckman (asb@cc.gatech.edu)
    To the editor:
    I share some of Langdon Winner's concerns about the growing trend for
    everyone to be connected all the time.  My own essay on this topic,
    "Christmas Unplugged," was written on Christmas day 1992 with a pencil,
    reflecting on the reasons why I chose not to bring my laptop on my trip to
    visit my family.  I sent a copy to a few publishers in 1993, but no one
    was interested in printing it.  A year later I sent it out again, and
    suddenly it got immediate interest.  The importance of the issue was
    becoming clearer.  (The article appeared in Technology Review in January
    1995, http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/papers/christmas-unplugged.html).
    While I share Winner's concerns, I would like to ask him to please stop
    indiscriminately bashing the MIT Media Lab, and also to reconsider his
    strategy for constructively influencing the direction of future
    technologies.  For example, I note that in his article "Whatever happened
    to the electronic cottage?", Winner criticizes the lab's electronic
    "thinking tags" calling them "an operational definition of self
    indulgence."  I wonder if Dr. Winner is aware that one of the applications
    of this technology is in teaching high-school students about the spread of
    communicable diseases like AIDs with a delayed-onset of symptoms.  Each
    student is given a tag, and a light shows whether they are symptomatic.
    The disease is spread by IR communication between badges.  Even if no
    student ever interacts with someone who is symptomatic, the simulated
    disease rapidly spreads among the population.  In conversations following
    this activity, students develop an understanding of the disease process
    which is not only scientifically correct but also powerfully felt.  (More
    information about work on this project by Vanessa Colella, Rick Borovoy,
    and Mitchel Resnick is at:
    http://www.media.mit.edu/~vanessa/colella.jls.htm) This is what you call
    "self indulgent"?
    Clearly the critique of that particular project was made in ignorance.
    But it's not just a matter of one simple mistake.  I believe that Dr.
    Winner's critiques of the role of technology in shaping our lives and our
    society are of paramount importance.  But bashing a particular lab (where
    by the way lots of socially constructive work is taking place) or a
    particular project (whether self indulgent or not in reality) will
    accomplish little.  A more effective strategy for change is to identify
    positive examples of technology design in the service of social values,
    and to encourage others to follow that constructive example.
    Technology design and innovation will not stop, nor should they.  There is
    a large and growing population of engineers, designers, scientists, and
    funders who do care about social values.  Our challenge is to nurture that
    growing group, and to help them with the details: if I care, what do I do?
    What does it mean to be a socially responsible technology designer?  The
    answers are quite complicated.  And we can't even start the conversation
    til we shift our focus from lambasting negative examples to lauding
    positive ones.
    Amy Bruckman
    Assistant Professor
    College of Computing
    Georgia Institute of Technology
    (PhD MIT Media Lab, 1997)
    Web:  http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/
    Reply to Amy Bruckman
    From:  Langdon Winner (winner@rpi.edu)
    My essay looks at the relationship between geographical space and
    infospace, noting present lack of success in attempts to find an agreeable
    blend of the two domains.  Twenty years after the introduction of the PC,
    it seems increasingly obvious that information technology merely adds
    another layer to the chaos wrought by the industrial cities and the
    automobile.  Responding to the congestion and suburban sprawl, people now
    use digital devices in their cars and homes in frantic attempts to restore
    coherence within patterns of living  that seem stressed and fragmented.  I
    compare this predicament to earlier dreams of the "electronic cottage"
    that imagined computers connecting people more strongly with families,
    friends, and local communities.
    Some who responded assured me that they had realized electronic cottages
    in practice, a point I readily concede and celebrate. But I chose to
    discuss the broader picture, including the kinds of disorder widely
    recognized and lamented in Silicon Valley, Atlanta, and other centers of
    the new economy.  Alas, the spread of digital technologies tends to
    exacerbate these urban deformities and their human costs.
    Amy Bruckman is right.  It was probably a mistake to consult the agendas
    of leading research centers looking for possible remedies.  For the most
    part, today's info laboratories (not just those in Cambridge) respond to
    market forces as defined by their corporate sponsors and ignore the
    pressing needs of society at large.  Nevertheless, their work does express
    a pungent vision of the future, one not unlike that peddled by Alvin
    Toffler two decades back.  Does this vision offer more than threadbare
    strategies of digital saturation?  Do the research programs seek a more
    reasonable balance between transit and communication?
    If asking  such questions is "indiscriminate bashing",  then I
    misunderstand the role of technology-focused social criticism.  Alas, one
    of the enduring features of  technological utopianism is its eagerness to
    ignore failures that stem from similar visions promoted in the past.  Here
    amnesia takes an aggressive form:  Don't remind us of what technology
    promised two, three or four decades ago; what we are doing is new,
    exciting, unprecedented!
    Amy points out that there are some good things that have come from
    "thinking tags", suggesting that I'm  unaware of these miracles.
    Actually, I've noted proposals of this kind since the early 1990s depicted
    in rough sketches in European research institutes, where the promise was
    that the tags could help people in bars and restaurants spot good
    prospective personal contacts without having to go through all the "Come
    here often?" chatter. I'm pleased to learn that these devices have now
    been applied to more urgent social needs.  Tools looking for uses
    sometimes find good uses.  But this says nothing about the kinds of urban
    stress and dislocation my essay ponders.
    I share Amy's desire to find "positive examples of technological design"
    and to encourage socially responsible designers in their work.  I just
    wish there were more examples of such work we could offer our students and
    readers of NetFuture.
    Langdon Winner
    A Book on Tripartite Society
    Response to:  "Beyond Elite Globalization" (NF-120)
    From:  Frank Thomas Smith (franksmith@traslasierra.com)
    Dear Steve,
    You article "Beyond Elite Globalization: The Case for a Tripartite
    Society" is reproduced in the current issue of SouthernCross Review.  Your
    readers may be interested in knowing that Rudolf Steiner's book, "Basic
    Issues of the Social Question", from which Nicanor Perlas drew his
    original inspiration concerning the Tripartite Society, is available as an
    e-book from SouthernCross Review.  Direct link to the page is:
    http://www.southerncrossreview.org/Ebooks/ebbasicissues.html.  Thanks for
    continuing to provide your own and our readers with much thoughtful
    Kind regards,
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #122 :: September 18, 2001
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