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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #142                                               February 25, 2003
                     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.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Editor's Note
    Does the Future Compute? (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Where we have come to, and where we may be headed
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    Readers have occasionally asked me to tell a little more about myself --
    how I write the newsletter, what I read, things I like or dislike, and so
    on.  Somehow I've never quite gotten around to this (beyond what I did
    several years ago in NF #47), partly because it never seemed to me very
    interesting.  But now, with a couple of major NetFuture projects still a
    month or two off, I figured it was a good time to try to satisfy these
    Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, my original idea of
    writing down some personal recollections relating to NetFuture's history
    quickly became a rather more impersonal review of the "Internet society".
    The most I can claim, on the personal side, is to have ventured some
    judgments about the correctness of my published opinions dating back to
    when the Internet suddenly breeched the surface of the public's
    On another note:  the Fall, 2002 issue of The Nature Institute's In
    Context newsletter is now online at
    http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic8.  You'll find two articles of mine
    ** "Do Organisms Merely Survive?"  Here I ask whether the organism is
       adequately explained by random variation and the survival of the
    ** "Love and Detachment: How We Can Reconnect with Nature".  What does it
       mean to be part of nature, but also to stand over against it -- a dual
       stance we cannot avoid today?
    You'll also find in that issue an article by Craig Holdrege dealing with
    the rather shameful case of the peppered moth, an insect whose long-time
    reign as "Exhibit A" for conventional evolutionary theory has now come to
    an end.
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                             DOES THE FUTURE COMPUTE?
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    Being in a mood for retrospection, I've been looking back to the 1995
    publication of both The Future Does Not Compute and the inaugural issue of
    NetFuture, and considering subsequent developments.  Coincidentally, the
    January 25 Economist contained an extensive "Survey of the Internet
    Society", providing an excellent foil for my own thoughts.  The first
    thing to strike me upon reading the survey was how much easier it is
    today, even in a mainstream publication, to call Internet silliness by its
    proper name.  The Economist's writer, David Manasian, begins by quoting
    from John Perry Barlow's grumpily insular "Declaration of the Independence
    of Cyberspace":
       Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and
       steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind.  On behalf of the
       future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome
       among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.
    To which Manasian replies:
       It is hard to believe today, but Mr. Barlow's musings struck a chord at
       the time, spreading rapidly through the Internet.  The declaration
       encapsulated the exhilaration and wonder of millions of people as they
       logged on to the World Wide Web for the first time.  It really did seem
       possible that the Internet had launched a spontaneous revolution that
       might lead to a brave new borderless world.
       Seven years later, Mr. Barlow's claims sound absurd:  just another
       example of the 1990s hype that produced the dotcom boom and bust.
    Who Is the Agent of Change?
    One thing I was willing to do in The Future Does Not Compute was to
    call nonsense nonsense, and if memory serves me right, Clifford Stoll's
    (vastly more popular) Silicon Snake Oil and my book were just about
    the first to point out that the national obsession with the Internet was
    riddled with nonsense through and through.  Of course, as I noted much
    more emphatically, the Internet also bore grave significance for our
    future, even if it was not at all the significance hailed in Barlow's
    declaration.  Manasian, too, like nearly everyone else, is convinced of
    this.  Following his dismissal of Barlow's grab for Founding Fatherhood,
    he goes on to make statements like these:
       The changes about to be wrought by new communication technologies will
       stretch the adaptive abilities of western democracies to their limit.
       Far from being over, the computer and telecoms revolution that created
       the Internet has barely begun.
    And the entire survey runs under a rubric informing us that "the Internet
    and related technologies really will profoundly transform society".  I
    will not quarrel here with the general claim of importance.  But I do wish
    to point out a curiosity.  In each of these statements -- and in countless
    others put before us every day -- it is a technology that is said
    to be testing or revolutionizing or transforming society.
    But if this is so, why these particular technologies?  Why will the events
    of the next few years be a playing out of the computer and telecoms
    revolution rather than the printing-press or adding-machine revolution?
    Will the online scene we inhabit ten years from now be the result of the
    World Wide Web revolution instead of, say, the Gopher revolution (remember
    Gopher?) or, as will almost certainly be proclaimed, of a revolution yet
    to come?
    The questions may seem eccentric, but they serve to shift our attention
    away from the rather ridiculous and arbitrary focus upon particular
    technologies as the decisive agents for transforming society.  We can then
    attend to the much more profound fact:  there is a continuous process of
    technological development going on -- a process with a certain historical
    character -- and we are the ones driving it from one stage to the next and
    determining its character.  If there is an agent at work, revolutionary or
    otherwise, it is us.
    Revolution -- or Desire for Certainty?
    Isn't it odd how natural we find it today to speak as if a bit of
    technology, rather than we ourselves, were the effective historical actor?
    After all, even the technology as such remains an externalization of
    ourselves.  Or, rather, an externalization of part of ourselves.  The
    important question about digital technology is:  what side of ourselves do
    we crystallize into the ubiquitous machinery surrounding us, and how --
    given this machinery's powerful reinforcement of our one-sidedness -- do
    we find room for the other sides of ourselves?
    Part of the answer to the question about our investment in technology is
    that, unlike revolutionaries, we crave intellectual security and
    certainty.  We want unambiguous clarity, unclouded definition, absolutely
    effective rules of thought.  This is why formalisms of every sort -- the
    kind of formalism that began with Euclid's geometry, with its simple
    axioms and clean deductive steps -- have such a hold on us today.  The
    attempt by scholars to formalize universal rules of grammar (innate or
    otherwise); the development of computer languages -- formal systems from
    which all the disturbing, full-voiced harmonies and dissonances of natural
    languages have been removed; the complexity theorist's irrepressible urge
    to derive the entire world from a few simple rules; the reduction of the
    idea of capitalism to a few well-defined "market mechanisms" and of
    evolution to a few well-defined genetic algorithms; the disappearance of
    the phenomenal world into the mathematical formalisms of physics -- these
    and many similar symptoms have been complemented by the almost unthinkably
    sophisticated development of the theory of formal systems as such, one of
    the crowning intellectual achievements of our age.
    This craving for unproblematic clarity is the side of ourselves we have
    invested in "digital logic", which then reflects back to us the
    comfortingly well-defined relationships it so effectively embodies.  We
    thus find ourselves possessed of ideal mechanisms for rationalizing social
    networks, eliminating "friction" from our buying and selling, perfecting
    the storage and transmission of information, and pursuing ever greater
    efficiency from the manufacturing floor to the emergency room to the
    athletic field.  The available, cleanly specified mechanisms and programs
    encourage us to fit our problems to them so that these problems can be
    quantified, clearly analyzed, and solved.
    Some Solutions Are Too Easy
    All this is, to one degree or another, necessary and proper.  But by
    itself it is spirit-crushing.  What, then, of our second question?  What
    is the appropriate counterbalance to our neat logical formalisms and all
    the tools based on them?  Here, in the difficulty of articulating an
    answer to this question, is where I felt the greatest frustration while
    writing The Future Does Not Compute.  And the same frustration remains
    today.  But at least it is obvious why this is the right frustration.
    When a culture retreats into the satisfyingly clear-cut formulations of
    its formal and mechanical systems and will hear of nothing else, how do
    you gesture toward the human meaning that these systems leave out?  The
    unhappy fact is that there is no clear-cut way to convey the kind of
    meaning whose very depth and limitless resonance testify to its not being
    clear-cut or automatically conveyable.
    The rationalization of social and economic relationships, the refining of
    information-processing techniques, and the cultivation of efficiency are
    utterly hollow pursuits except insofar as we discover within ourselves the
    values, the unprogrammed substance, that makes all this rationalization
    and refinement and cultivation worth attempting.  Did you notice how many
    years and how many misspent billions were required before policymakers
    realized that post-Soviet Russia was not going to transform itself
    overnight by implementing a tidy set of democratic and capitalist
    "mechanisms"?  The mechanisms can't even exist in any meaningful
    sense except as the ever-unfinished attempt to structure most effectively
    the values, ideas, significances, aesthetic judgments, traditions, and
    communal experiences that are the substance of democracy and capitalism.
    The rationalization of any content whatever always tends to destroy that
    content, and we see this destruction well-advanced when people begin to
    feel that the rationalization, the mechanism, the system, the rules, are
    themselves the substance of the matter.
    In the same vein, many -- although not nearly so many as when I wrote my
    book -- are still trying to convince themselves that email contact between
    warring peoples will make violence impossible.  We are learning, however,
    that those bent on destruction are quite happy to employ the Internet and
    other communication media toward their own ends.  In this, by the way,
    they merely follow the lead of our advertisers and politicians, who long
    ago exchanged conversation for calculation and the attempt to manipulate.
    The Internet serves them all quite satisfactorily.
    Stalemate and Reversal
    My retrospective reading of the Economist's Internet survey brought
    gratifying, if less than heartwarming, vindication on the several major
    topics we addressed in common.  (I say "less than heartwarming" because I
    would rather have been proven wrong on all these counts.)  For example:
    ** Regarding privacy:  in 1995 the nearly universal consensus among online
    pundits was that the digital revolution would, once and for all, provide
    an absolute guarantee of privacy.  Today ... well, the Economist's catalog
    of technologically based invasions of privacy is enough to drive us all
    into hiding beneath our beds.  (But better not use that cell phone.)
    ** On the use of networking technologies to rejuvenate democracy: "Judging
    by the most obvious political effects of the Internet, so far this has not
    ** As for the Internet's vaunted power to bring down tyrants, Manasian
    notes that western countries "have fallen over each other in their
    eagerness to sell the latest surveillance gear and software to China and
    Saudi Arabia".  He continues:
       Worryingly, the same technological trends that are so rapidly eroding
       privacy in the West could put powerful tools in the hands of repressive
       regimes .... George Orwell's Big Brother of "1984" might yet become a
       reality, a few decades later than he expected.
    There are some interesting things I would like to note under each of these
    three heads, privacy, democracy, and tyranny.
    No Place to Hide
    In its section on privacy and security, the Economist's survey
    informs us that the advertising-network company, DoubleClick
       has agreements with over 11,000 websites and maintains cookies on 100
       million users.  These can be linked to hundreds of pieces of
       information about each user's browsing behavior.  In addition, users
       are being tracked through other methods by Internet service providers,
       website hosts and email services.
    Offline, there's the tracking of credit and debit card use, cellphones
    (even when turned on but not used), public transportation and toll road
    use, and transactions with the government.  Employers monitor telephone
    calls, voicemail, email, and computer use.  The average Briton appears on-
    camera three hundred times a day.  "And this is only the beginning".  You
    can look forward to cameras that "see" through clothing, walls, and
    automobiles, all sorts of difficult-to-detect bugging devices, tracking
    chips embedded in every conceivable object (including people), unblinking
    eyes peering down from satellites, widespread use of face-recognition
    Manasian, however, is more concerned about an overly intrusive private
    sector "hungry for more and more information" than about Big Brother
       An entrepreneurial private sector, driven by competition to seize on
       every new technological possibility, is likely to find ways round most
       obstacles placed in its way.  And whatever information the private
       sector collects will be accessible to the government too, through
       subpoenas and search warrants.  Emails have already become a staple of
       court cases.
    Remember when the Internet, by its very nature, was going to guarantee
    privacy?  Anonymous mail servers and all the rest.  But now we find
    ourselves caught between giving government prosecutors the means to track
    down malicious hackers, or else seeing our computers trashed by those same
    hackers.  Or, more likely, witnessing a continual, escalating warfare
    between the two sides.
    All of which merely confirms me in my longstanding conviction (see NF #28,
    #29, and #30) that neither privacy nor security is a gift of technology.
    The most we can gain from technology is an upward-spiraling arms race
    between the violators and defenders of virtue -- a race in which the
    defenders may worry us at least as much as the violators.
    Our overall situation, in other words, looks to be getting worse -- and
    for exactly the reason I have cited:  when we come to rely upon
    technologies that make it easy to communicate with more people at a
    greater distance, we naturally find more and more of our communication --
    more and more of our social transactions -- colored by this greater
    remoteness.  By "conquering distance" we become more distant and abstract
    to each other.  That is, we can more easily cultivate more extensive
    contacts, but for this very reason their texture and quality shift toward
    the impersonal and one-dimensional, whether the transaction is with an
    automated bank teller, a colleague in a distributed work group, or an
    email correspondent.  Those communal spaces where mutual concern and an
    appropriate reticence (the true sources of security and privacy) can most
    readily find a properly nuanced expression are replaced by an abstract
    geography of "soulless anonymity" -- the worst possible place to be if you
    want to see persons respected.
    Of course, none of this is absolutely dictated by the technology.  Just as
    an intimate, physically enclosed community can become a hellhole with no
    privacy at all, so we can conduct our global commerce in a profoundly
    humane way.  Everything depends on the values and inner resources we bring
    to our activities.  But the point is that our networking technologies,
    already embodying as they do our own drive toward a kind of externalized
    efficiency and instrumental effectiveness, require an intensified
    commitment on our part if we wish to rise above this instrumentalism and
    meet our fellows on the highest possible ground.
    Information Is Cheap, Conversation Is Dear
    As every reader of the Economist knows, its formulaic style requires its
    authors to whip us back and force upon oppositely contending surges of
    rhetoric.  The one place where Manasian can follow this procedure most
    dramatically is on the topic of democracy, where he is convinced that the
    future is more promising than the past might indicate.  Immediately after
    acknowledging that "on the whole, the Internet seems to have had
    remarkably little impact on mainstream politics", he tells us that this
       will not remain true for much longer.  Communication is the lifeblood
       of politics, and every big change in communication technology, from the
       printing press to television, has eventually produced big, and often
       unexpected, changes in politics.
    So it is that "the earliest claims of cyber-dreamers -- that the Internet
    will produce a shift of power away from political elites to ordinary
    citizens -- may well become a reality".
    But what Manasian does not remark is that the "unexpected changes"
    produced by new technologies are always changes in which we meet
    ourselves.  In particular, we meet the side of ourselves we invested
    in the technology when we created it, and the side we now exercise in
    using it.  As I stressed over and over in The Future Does Not Compute,
    and have repeated in NetFuture, this double expression of ourselves is
    where we must look if we want to assess the likely impact of a technology.
    Obvious as this may appear, it remains a truth that leavens precious
    little commentary today.
    For his part, Manasian vests his hope in direct democracy, founded on a
    nationalized and Net-enhanced referendum system.  The Internet will enable
    us to distribute information, conduct debates, and register votes on a
    continuing and nearly instantaneous basis.  This will make our current
    system of national elections every few years seem like "a remnant from the
    age of steam, when most representative institutions were invented".
    Perhaps the Internet will deliver the technical capabilities Manasian
    envisions.  But his assumptions about the meaning and use of these
    capabilities are strikingly naive.  He relies upon "an educated public for
    whom individual choice is an important value", and goes on to say:  "It is
    hard to bribe an entire electorate, or even to mislead it for very long,
    if there is a free flow of information and open discussion".
    But surely both our desire for choice and the mechanisms we use for
    exercising that choice are far less important than whether we base our
    choices on serious reflection or casual hearsay.  As for misleading the
    electorate, the question is not whether a few spin doctors can control our
    access to information.  Rather, it is whether we will find the spin
    doctors, with their slick production values, more entertaining than those
    who would require a little real intellectual work from us.  It does no
    good to have gigabits of information if the discussion of this information
    (and therefore the information itself) is cheapened beyond repair.
    And again:  the nearly instantaneous recording of "votes" is something
    whose meaning we can already glimpse, thanks to the polling industry.
    Nowhere are the limitations of our quest for yes-or-no certitude more
    evident than here.  It is notorious that the pollster's need for
    quantifiable and information-processable data requires us in our answers
    to falsify the complex truth of whatever insight we have.  At the same
    time, our interest in the "definitive answers" yielded by the poll (who
    won?) displaces the kind of probing conversation that might have deepened
    our insight.
    In general, we should ask ourselves:  Did television, which increased the
    flow of information so dramatically, raise the level of discussion -- or
    even preserve whatever quality had already been there?  Are we of the
    computer age becoming more capable of a sustained and coherent national
    debate?  Are we training our young people to do a better job than in the
    past of avoiding distraction and penetrating to the heart of an issue?
    I have no simple answer to these questions, but I am sure that no
    answers are to be found by talking about the mechanisms for mediating
    our exchange -- not unless we make this a way for talking about ourselves
    in that double-sided fashion I referred to above.  And if we do take
    this latter approach, then the first thing we notice is the widespread
    and unrealistic projection of human hopes upon digital mechanisms.  This
    suggests a rather pessimistic answer to our questions.  When technology,
    conceived apart from the human being, carries our hope for the future,
    we have lost sight of the only work that could possibly realize the hope,
    which is the work we accomplish within ourselves.  Yes, this work will
    be incarnated in technologies and institutions and the structures of
    community, but we are the agents of the work.  Our fading awareness of
    the distinction between agent and result, so that we increasingly see
    machine activity as equivalent to human activity, may prove to be the
    one decisive legacy of the high-tech age.
    The thought may sound crazy, but I assure you:  once software makes
    possible the kind of voting system Manasian describes, you will find
    people writing software to make their choices for them and cast their
    votes.  Eventually, the "referendum of the hour" will become a
    battleground for competing PR machines operating largely through automated
    computer programs.  Serious discussion will take place elsewhere.
    Ubiquitous Tyranny?
    Finally, there is the question whether networking technologies serve or
    oppose centralized authority.  "So far", writes Manasian, "the Internet
    has not proved as subversive to authoritarian regimes as expected".  In
    fact, "it is not impossible that instead of undermining repressive
    regimes, the Internet could become the most effective tool of social
    control that autocratic rulers have ever wielded".  Citing a recent study
    by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Manasian offers this
    eminently sensible judgment -- a judgment of the sort you rarely heard
    when I was writing my book:
       The political impact of the Internet varies from country to country,
       say the authors [of the Carnegie study], and depends more on social or
       economic circumstances and the government's own policies than on the
       catalytic effects of the Internet itself.
    Manasian notes in particular the self-censorship exercised by Internet
    service providers, content companies, and users:
       Although China has welcomed private investment into its telecoms
       infrastructure, it has carefully retained control over operating
       licenses and over the system's backbone.  This allows the authorities
       not only to use sophisticated monitoring techniques, but to punish any
       firms that step out of line.  Most, including many big western firms,
       have been eager to comply.  Likewise, by occasionally cracking down
       harshly on individuals, the authorities have intimidated most Chinese
       into staying within accepted boundaries on the Internet.  Chinese users
       never know who might be watching the way they use it, or when the axe
       might fall.
       So far, this approach has been highly successful.  The Falun Gong, the
       only direct challenger to the government's domination of public life in
       recent years, won a large following in the late 1990s by using email
       and websites, but today the group's dwindling membership inside the
       country communicates mostly by payphone, which is harder to trace than
    Personally, I remain as noncommittal about the issue (formulated in this
    way) as I was in my book.  I am convinced that in the long run the
    underlying evolution of human consciousness is making autocratic regimes
    less and less tolerable to the healthy human being.  But whether healthy
    or unhealthy impulses will prevail in this or that nation in the short run
    -- who can say?  In any case, insofar as the Internet does help to
    undermine tyranny in the long run, it will be because we refuse to
    participate in tyranny -- not because packet switching, redundancy and
    decentralized networks are inherently anti-tyrannical.
    The important thing to realize, I continue to believe, is that our
    unhealthy impulses need not prop up centralized authorities in order to
    get us into trouble.  The deeper threat today is found in the potentials
    for an unprecedented sort of distributed tyranny -- a tyranny with no one
    particular in charge.  Those we like to point at as "responsible" --
    politicians, corporate officers, bureaucratic functionaries -- tend more
    and more to be faceless instruments of "the System", with little choice
    but to carry out its dictates.  But all the rest of us, too, find
    ourselves implicated, by a thousand connections, in the workings of the
    System as a whole.
    Suppose I sat down and tallied all the implications of a trip to the store
    for milk -- from car and fuel use, to farming practices and genetic
    engineering, to the style of operation of retail, wholesale, and
    distribution businesses.  I would find that virtually nothing going on in
    the world is more than a "degree or two of separation" from my casual
    trip.  Altering any one of these connections hardly seems worthwhile --
    the disruption to my own life would be so great, and the difference to the
    System so vanishingly small -- yet changing everything at once is
    impossible.  So a kind of paralysis sets in, which is exactly what allows
    the ever more tightly woven web of automatisms embodied in machine and
    software to direct us according to its own, self-propelled logic.  The
    aggressively universal ambition of all such logic is the tyranny I fear.
    Finding Ourselves
    If I were to try to encapsulate everything I've been saying within the
    briefest compass possible, I would offer something like this:
    Our future depends upon our finding the proper balance and interplay of
    two "forces".  One of these propels us to globalize, to extend our reach
    ever outward.  As we move in this direction, the temptation is to ignore
    and dissolve local distinctions.  A homogenization occurs, tending to cut
    us off from the relationships and communities in which we were formerly
    embedded.  We gain universality, but it is increasingly the universality
    of atoms moving within a common void.
    Digital technologies lend themselves particularly well to this one-sided
    temptation.  The logic of universal connectivity, left to itself, says
    nothing about the individual character of what is connected; and the logic
    of programmed interactions says nothing about the meaning of our
    exchanges.  We can implement and employ all this logic with a gratifying
    sense of "nailing things down exactly".  (The rationally structured
    metropolis on a computer chip is wonderfully unambiguous.)  As more and
    more of our social and entrepreneurial energy goes into the endless
    elaboration and refinement of such logic, we find it all too natural to
    ignore the disorderly or "merely poetic" domains of meaning upon which
    social health ultimately depends.
    The second "force" moves us to intensify our individual lives, our
    communities, our rootedness in place, our experience of meaning, our
    commitment to the concrete and particular and distinctive.  And what I
    want to say is that the trend toward global extension is pathological
    except insofar as it is united with -- and actually grows out of -- this
    second movement focused on deepening and intensifying the local.
    The ultimate local focus is the individual, who is also the agent of both
    "forces".  The healthy individual reaches toward ever wider community
    only because he reaches ever more deeply into his own center and source,
    where he finds not so much a universal logic as a universal humanity
    uniting him with all others.  And, in the other direction, he strengthens
    his inner life because in embracing a wider community, he finds himself
    reflected in it and encounters there the challenge of his own destiny.
    For what it's worth, all this can be taken as commentary upon a statement
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers at the beginning of chapter 13 in his
    Biographia Literaria:
       Grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to
       expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find
       itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences
       with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.
    Every age is out of balance one way or another, and our primary challenge
    today is not to expand infinitely but to "find ourselves in this infinity"
    -- an infinity that science first stretched before us in the objectified
    heavens, and technology now implements as a social reality of abstract,
    remote distances, universal logic, and the blind, LaPlacean necessities of
    "the System".  There never was a fitter matrix for leveraging the System
    than the engraved procedures, the endless rows of microscopic cubicles,
    and the bland informational efficiencies of a silicon chip.
    Every logic is abstracted from our thinking or speaking; every mechanism
    is abstracted from our behaving.  I believe we have needed the comforting
    structure, the experience of clarity, that our externalized logics and
    mechanisms have afforded us -- but only as a confidence-building step
    leading to exploration of the deeper significance of our life together.
    This significance always lies "off-grid" in the sea of meaning from which
    all worthwhile logics and mechanisms crystallize and into which they must
    dissolve again in order to be revivified.  The risk is that in our
    fascination with the certainties of the grid we will forget everything
    except square-cornered obedience to a dead logic -- forget that only by
    plunging into the reality between the lines can we gain a fresh draft of
    Related articles:
    ** "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" in NF #100 (linked to
       two sequel articles):
    ** "Privacy in an Age of Data" in NF #28 (linked to two sequel articles):
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