Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #165                                                October 25, 2005
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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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
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Editor's Note

Where We Have Come To (Part 1) (Stephen L. Talbott)
   On Kevin Kelly's "We Are the Web"


About this newsletter


                              EDITOR'S NOTE

A publisher considering the reprint of my 1995 book, The Future Does Not
Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, has suggested I write a
new introduction looking at developments of the past decade.  As it
happens, Kevin Kelly has already written an essay doing just that, and his
remarks provide a convenient foil for my own, very different assessment.
In the first half of my proposed introduction, below, I offer a counter to
Kelly's excessively utopian view.  In doing so, I draw upon various things
I have written in NetFuture over the course of this decade.

In Part 2, planned for the next issue, I will seek the ground for a more
hopeful and positive understanding of the Internet Age.


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                      WHERE WE HAVE COME TO (PART 1)
                    On Kevin Kelly's "We Are the Web"

                            Stephen L. Talbott

During 1994-1995 I wrote a book1 suggesting that the emerging culture of
the Internet was infected by a massive and potentially disastrous
confusion between our full human capacities and the technical capabilities
of the new digital machinery.  It's not that the technical capabilities
had nothing to do with us.  Quite the opposite.  The point was that
they lived first of all within us: we had to conceive the computer
and be capable of thinking like a computer before we could build one.
And that's exactly where the danger lay.  This thinking and the machine
it spawned were extremely one-sided expressions of ourselves.  If we
continued investing our energies in such one-sidedness, allowing the
rapid spread of digital machinery continually to reinforce our own
imbalance, then (so I argued) we would eventually descend to the level
of our machines without even realizing it.  And we would mistake our
own descent for a glorious ascent of the machine to a human and then a
superhuman level.

The ultimate threat, I claimed in The Future Does Not Compute, was not
the operation of the machine "out there" in the physical world, but rather
the ongoing amplification and imperial aggrandizement of the machine
within us.  This is what makes the externalized technology so extremely

Now Kevin Kelly -- who, as editor of Wired magazine, was as close as
anyone to the epicenter of the Internet cultural explosion -- has written
an article reviewing the fate of the Net over these past ten years.2 He
is impressed with what he sees.  Citing one great surprise after another,
he traces the Net's evolution into what he considers to be a vast
planetary intelligence -- a global computer comparable to the human brain,
except that, unlike the brain, this computer doubles in size every few
years and is always on.  He calls it, with reverential simplicity, "the

   In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began
   animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting
   them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single
   thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most
   surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio
   waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all
   facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net
   was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing,
   cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The
   Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall)
   and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

Our biggest surprise, Kelly avers, will be our dependence upon "what the
machine knows".  Paradoxically, "the more we teach this megacomputer, the
more it will assume responsibility for our knowing.  It will become our
memory.  Then it will become our identity.  In 2015 many people, when
divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves -- as if they'd had
a lobotomy".

Recalling the alarms raised by those of us who, in 1995, were skeptical of
the burgeoning Internet hype, Kelly marvels that the subsequent evolution
of the Net could, without evident exception, have proven our worries so
thoroughly groundless.  As for me, when I review Kelly's paean to the
Machine, I am tempted to wonder how I could have gotten things so
thoroughly right.

Spooky Godlikeness

It would be foolish to take Kelly's rather-too-Wired commentary as in all
respects broadly representative of our contemporary, Internet-influenced
culture.  But the tendencies and direction of his thought, and the
temptations not resisted, bear witness to powerful shaping currents within
today's global society.  And they are exactly the tendencies and
temptations I was concerned to highlight in 1995.

The fundamental confusion coloring nearly every word of Kelly's essay
stems from his implicit equation of technical achievement with positive
value.  The achievement itself, to be sure, is not in question:

   The scope of the Web today is hard to fathom. The total number of Web
   pages, including those that are dynamically created upon request and
   document files available through links, exceeds 600 billion. That's 100
   pages per person alive.

   How could we create so much, so fast, so well? In fewer than 4,000
   days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story
   and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's
   population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year

   The accretion of tiny marvels can numb us to the arrival of the
   stupendous. Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety
   of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help
   wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute
   news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with
   driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real
   estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about
   anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of
   political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live
   traffic reports, archives to major newspapers -- all wrapped up in an
   interactive index that really works....

   Why aren't we more amazed by this fullness? Kings of old would have
   gone to war to win such abilities. Only small children would have
   dreamed such a magic window could be real.

I share Kelly's goosebumps, just as I have long stood in awe of every 747
I see lumbering down the runway in pursuit of its unlikely dream of
flight.  We ought to marvel at these things.  They are, in their
way, expressions of the boundless human spirit.  But Kelly continues his
survey of the 300 or so square inches of real estate on his Internet
terminal this way:

   This view is spookily godlike.  You can switch your gaze of a spot in
   the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking.  Recall the
   past?  It's there.  Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of
   almost anyone who blogs (and doesn't everyone?).  I doubt angels have a
   better view of humanity.

Spooky godlikeness, for Kelly, appears to be a matter of technical
wizardry -- the kind of wizardry offering us whatever we want in the most
convenient and least disturbing way possible.  His god is content to
entertain us with signs and wonders in the form of an endless stream of
amazing devices with cool uses.  The one thing this deity doesn't seem
particularly concerned about is how all these wonders bear upon the inner
qualities of our lives or the development of our personal and social

If someone else were to recite Kelly's litany of marvels, referring to the
result as "spookily devil-like" (for the devil, too, can work technical
miracles), one wonders how Kelly would discriminate between the two
possibilities.  Nothing in his entire essay acknowledges the need for any
such discrimination.  He seems unaware that every novel possibility for
action gains its meaning only through the endlessly subtle modulations
lent to it by the human actor.  He also seems unaware that a technological
fixation distracting our attention from these human modulations is a
guarantor of social destruction.

This is not to dispute our thorough dependence upon the new technologies.
But dependence is no proof of positive value.  I wrote emphatically in
1995 that, given our drive to transfer almost all society's business to
the networked computer, we would soon find the computer essential to our
most routine business.  It certainly has become essential, and I as much
as the next person often remark to myself how much longer it would have
taken to obtain this or that text in the pre-Web era, or how much more
complicated this or that attempt at communication might have been.

But to leave the matter there is to remain in the most naïve position
imaginable.  It is to ignore, for example, the classic paradox arising
when we shift our attention from the particular services of the machines
we call "labor-saving" to the people whose labor is being saved.  Our jobs
now demand of us these "conveniences" of instant access.  Are our lives
less complicated, less hurried, less pressured?  Are they less laborious?

But perhaps more importantly, the focus on utility and convenience
distracts us from questions of greater significance.  If our ability to
cope with future crises depends upon our reflective depth, our powers of
self-recollection, our inner quiet, our ability to invest a few words with
profundity rather than many words with shallowness, our sensitivity to the
subtle qualities of things and not merely their superficial logic -- well,
then, we have to recognize that the ease with which we commandeer unrooted
and decontextualized "information" from all sides can be as much a
distractive threat as a ground for hope.

What amazed me when I wrote my book, and still amazes me now, is how
easily the purely outward changes -- for example, the accelerated tempo of
our transactions or the convenience and wider reach of certain sorts of
communication -- are mistaken for positive changes of character, as if
being able to move faster told us anything at all about the value of where
we were going.

Yet within the corporate research and engineering organizations
responsible for the ever more central role of technological development in
society today (I can testify to this from many years of experience in
these organizations) change itself -- its cleverness, its technical
virtuosity, its unexpectedness and novelty, its promise of still more
change -- produces a hypnotic fascination.  This fascination, rather than
any careful thought about the real and most pressing needs of the
surrounding society, drives the entire research, development, and
marketing effort.  When speaking with those who work in the daily grind of
the high-tech industry, I have never found it necessary to elaborate this
point.  It is immediately understood.

The Logic of Democracy

The prevailing dogma a decade ago, according to Kelly, held that most of
us had no need to upload; we were consumers, not producers.  Today, by
contrast, "the poster child of the new Internet regime is BitTorrent ....
it assumes participation, not mere consumption".  One symptom of the new
order is the "near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one
appearing every two seconds".  Another is the "vast and growing gift
economy" where everything one person posts to the Net is immediately
available to all the rest of us.  The resulting abundance of choices
"spurs the grateful to reciprocate".  The simple hypertext link, the "most
powerful invention" of the decade, "unleashes involvement and
interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible":

   This sudden tilt toward consumer involvement is a complete Lazarus
   move: "We thought that died long ago."  The deep enthusiasm for making
   things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the
   great force not reckoned ten years ago.  This impulse for participation
   has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social
   networking -- smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action -- into
   the main event.

All this might make you think that families, neighbors, and friends never
gave each other gifts before the Net came along.  Likewise, we didn't
actually do much of anything because we lacked machine-mediated
interactivity:  no one had yet given us the opportunity to send emails,
make our own videos, write our own book reviews on, or post our
favorite photographs to a website.  And before the rise of fifty million
blogs, there were not several billion humans who spent much of their time
speaking meaningfully with those around them; everyone was forced into
silence, shackled by the poverty of the technical infrastructure.

Certainly the Internet has made possible radical shifts in the
distribution and character of our communication.  But you might think this
would prompt Kelly to ask about the nature of these shifts.  After all,
the individual has only so much time in a 24-hour day to take in
meaningful words and gestures and respond in kind; nothing has given us
more time.  That my "input" can now come from fifty million bloggers
rather than the newspapers, journals, and friends I formerly attended to
does not enable me to assimilate more words than before.  It only alters
(and very possibly scatters) the distribution of my attention.  This
alteration, which I will touch on later, has its importance.  But there
remain numerous questions one could ask here, and the first one to occur
to me is this:  Have children and their parents managed to deepen the
qualities of their interaction over the past decade of the Net (and is
there any single question weighing more heavily on our future than this

Discussion of interactivity in general seems inevitably to touch sooner or
later upon democracy and its supposedly enabling technologies.  Kelly's
way of thinking about the matter becomes evident when he concludes that
because hyperlinks make it possible "for almost anyone to annotate, amend,
and improve any map embedded in the Web", "cartography has gone from
spectator art to participatory democracy".  So in one breath a particular
technical capability put at our disposal transmutes into an expression of
one of the most profound (and still relatively rare) achievements of
global history.

This kind of thinking reigns throughout much of our culture.  It required
years and many misspent billions of dollars before Western policymakers
realized that post-Soviet Russia was not going to transform itself
overnight by implementing a tidy set of democratic and capitalist
"mechanisms".  Much more than the well laid-out logic of a new
constitution and the availability of new voting machinery is needed before
you get a functioning democracy.  The mechanisms have no positive meaning
at all except insofar as they can be wrestled into productive dialogue
with the values, ideas, aesthetic judgments, qualities of selfhood and
individuality, habits of private initiative, and communal experiences that
are the substance of democracy and capitalism.

And once you realize this, you cannot help asking how the new mechanisms
are playing into and modifying all these historically conditioned
qualities.  Interactivity in the abstract means almost nothing; however,
mistaking it for the individual's inner achievement and society's cultural
achievement means disaster.

Town Meetings and Telephone Answering Systems

Kelly's emphasis upon Net-based interactivity compared to old-media
passivity suffers from a further misunderstanding.  Yes, the electronic
town hall meeting is more interactive, more participatory, than sitting
like a couch potato and absorbing whatever is beamed at you through the
television screen.  But this restriction of one's imagination to the
comparison of one technology with another -- leaving the whole depth of
the social human being out of the picture -- is a telling symptom of the
technological mindset.

Given the entire drift of our society, you have to recognize that what the
electronic town meeting most critically substitutes for is not the one-way
broadcast, but the original, vibrant community gathering with all its
sweaty human presence, intense personal challenges, full-bodied
engagement, and serendipitous community-building.  And so far as this is
the case, the new, interactional technologies do not counter the effects
of previous, more limited media, but rather extend them.  They embrace a
vastly larger field of human activity, enabling us to reduce even the most
multidimensional and deep-reaching human exchange to forms that are
relatively thinner, more distant, less focused, less communal, and not
always easily distinguishable from mere distraction.

Human society has never been anything less than a nearly unsurveyable
field of intense personal interaction.  When Kelly says that
"linking unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought
unfashionable or impossible", he is so beguiled by mediating technologies
that he has lost sight of the society he is supposedly talking about.
And in noting the transactions we have transferred to the Net, thereby
changing their scale and time frame, he has not asked himself why this
is good, nor has he asked how the character of the transactions has been
altered.  It does not seem to have occurred to him that the extension of
the world of online transactions might be accomplished through the
progressive impoverishment of a realm of fuller human exchange.

Press '1' for a Friendly Bot

There is a general principle here that I have referred to as the
"fundamental deceit of technology".  The deceit shows up in an almost
universal misconception -- namely, the belief that the worrisome effects
of any technology will very likely improve with future generations of the
technology.  Consider the telephone answering system.

Technology pundits these days like to say that more sophisticated voice
recognition software will lead to more user-friendly computers.  The
frustrations of the current telephone answering systems will yield to --
have already in some respects been yielding to -- kinder, gentler, more
solicitous capabilities.  When I call a business in the future, the
options will be more numerous, and I'll be able to negotiate those options
with voice commands more complex than single phrases.

True as this may be, it ignores an obvious fact about the new
capabilities:  their reach will be extended.  Where primitive software
eventually routed me to a human operator, the "friendlier" version will
replace the operator with a software agent who will attempt to conduct a
crude conversation with me.

So the earlier frustrations will simply be repeated -- but at a much more
critical level.  Where once I finally reached a live person, now I will
reach a machine.  And if you thought the number-punching phase was
irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business
to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of 400 words,
and the compassion of a granite monolith!

In other words, the technical opportunity to become friendlier is also an
opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level.  This is no
accident.  The technical improvements we apply within a restricted arena
entail exactly the sort of broader reach that carries them beyond this
arena.  Programs that do a better job recognizing spoken words like "one"
and "two" are almost certainly based upon technology that we can now
apply, if only clumsily, to a much wider range of speech.

Certainly the technology is getting more sophisticated -- no one would
deny that.  But my frustration on the telephone was not, in the first
instance, a frustration with the state of the technology.  What bothered
me was an artificial disruption of the normal potentials of human
exchange.  Yes, an ill-considered use of technology was the cause of my
discomfort, but what I wanted, in a direct sense, was relief from the
disruption, not technical advance.  And if the technical advance prepares
the way for a yet more critical barrier to human exchange -- well, forgive
me if I say this does not necessarily imply progress.

My own observation suggests that, since I first voiced this concern about
telephone answering systems, many of them have gotten much better.  Some
designers have paid attention to the needs of the actual users of these
systems and to the limited domain within which the software can operate
satisfactorily.  But, at the same time, many other answering systems have
gotten horribly worse.  And this dual potential was very much my point.

So long as we look to externalized technology for the improvement we seek,
we only participate in a vicious and endless cycle:  technical progress
comes between us and certain of our expressive powers, and we complain.
The complaint is met by an honest assurance that the responsible
technology is getting better -- which we all can see is true -- so that
the remaining, muted complaints are dismissed as Luddite.  Never mind that
the improvements at issue will move the spear point of the complaint yet a
little closer to the tremulous heart of the human condition.

Our Most Reliable Gadget?

Kelly's failure to reckon with this truth leads him to continue along the
same rutted path traveled by so many Net enthusiasts of 1995.  In effect:
"Everything is getting better, and the problems will soon disappear".

   Today the nascent Machine routes packets around disturbances in its
   lines; by 2015 it will anticipate disturbances and avoid them.  It will
   have a robust immune system, weeding spam from its trunk lines,
   eliminating viruses and denial-of-service attacks the moment they are
   launched, and dissuading malefactors from injuring it again .... The
   most obvious development birthed by this platform will be the
   absorption of routine.  The machine will take on anything we do more
   than twice.  It will be the Anticipation Machine.

How does Kelly miss the fact of an ever-accelerating technical arms race
between those with virtuous and and those with destructive intentions?
Or the fact that the very openness he celebrates opens the Net to
the influence of anyone and everyone -- but now in a largely anonymous
environment lacking the previous social constraints?  Are we finding
that we spend less time today than we did ten years ago dealing with
complications to our lives caused by malicious acts, whether casual
or calculated, by people with little direct connection to our lives?
Will the ever more sophisticated tools available to those implementing
"self-healing mechanisms" on the Net be unavailable to those with darker
motives?  And as for routine:  do any of us working with the tools of the
digital age find ourselves less preoccupied by routine than we used to be
-- unless, of course, we simply off-load our drudgery onto others?

Or again:

   The fetal Machine has been running continuously for at least ten years
   (thirty if you want to be picky).  I am aware of no other machine -- of
   any type -- that has run that long with zero downtime.  While portions
   may spin down due to power outages or cascading infections, the entire
   thing is unlikely to go quiet in the coming decade.  It will be the
   most reliable gadget we have.

This is like saying earth's weather is generated by nature's most reliable
machine -- it's always producing nice weather somewhere.  (Try telling
that to the people of New Orleans.)  Preoccupation with abstract features
of technology can lead all too naturally to the most extraordinary
disregard of reality.

When, however, we overcome our fixation upon the outward forms and
capabilities of life's machinery, centering our thoughts instead upon the
human being, then questions of benefit and danger begin to gain the
coloring and complexity they deserve.  We can then do the necessary work
to rise above the unavoidable limitations of our automata and coerce them
into the service of our own ends.

With this in mind, and given that my 1995 book (and especially the first
chapter) still seems to me just about the best response I could offer to
Kelly's 2005 essay, I would like to move on to consider the Net in the
more positive light of our human potentials.

(Part 2 of this essay will appear in the next issue of NetFuture.)


1. The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.
Sebastopol CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 1995.  Available at

2. "We Are the Web," in Wired 13.08. Available at Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2005 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 . Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web: To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: This issue of NetFuture: Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #165 :: October 25, 2005

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