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    Technology Gains Its Powers from the Human Heart

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Utopian advocates and doomsaying critics of digital technology have one thing in common: a taste for simplistic, one-sided judgments. They both forget that the relation between the human being and the computer must be at least as complex as the human being himself.

    Our willingness to assume rigid, mechanical postures regarding the computerized future may itself be one sign of technology's influence. We want immediate, on-or-off, yes-or-no answers. And somehow it is comforting to believe that our salvation -- or our doom -- lies in external equipment rather than in the murky, ambiguous urgings of our own hearts.

    Imagine the arrival of the first few cars in turn-of-the-century American cities. John Doe, proud of his sleek new machine, can now decide on the spur of the moment to visit flu-stricken Aunt Jane, who lives on the other side of town. Wasn't it reasonable for John to think that such good deeds would now be easier, and that the automobile, by shrinking distances, would help bind cities together in true community?

    The ensuing century, however, told a different story -- a story of freeways and urban sprawl; devastated city centers; malls; neon-lit commercial strips; and the disappearance of an underclass beneath the freeway ramps. Society reorganized its business and pleasure around weekday commuting and weekend escape.

    Not much of this looks like a strengthening of community.

    There are two lessons here. First, we dare not say it's impossible to do good things with our modern machines. Visiting the sick is indeed admirable.

    Second, we dare not think that, just because we can do good things with technology, it therefore threatens no radical and unconsidered change. If John Doe was initially delighted with his new "freedom" to visit an ailing aunt, the time would come when visiting any friend or relative at all would require a lengthy car trip along painfully congested highways. What looks like freedom in the short term may constrain us in the long term.

    Much the same applies to computers. We have to look beyond the immediate activities we are inclined to praise or curse. We have to grasp the underlying forces -- human as well as technological -- through which society is being reshaped.

    Do not merely tell me, then, about your new email friends, or your online discovery of an enlightening piece of information, or how you downloaded the current draft of controversial legislation. Tell me also about the long-term prospects for community. Tell me about the effect of digitally manipulable information upon our habits of reflection and understanding. Tell me about the transformation of the political process as it comes online.

    When you and I tap out messages to each other in cyberspace, some see in our interaction a vision of renewed community, while others see further dilution of what it means to socialize with a fellow human being. But the key question is the one lying behind these possibilities: in a society that has long been fleeing nearly all forms of close-knit community, won't computer networks simply encourage us to accelerate the trend?

    There is no answer outside the human being. The machine's hidden agenda turns out to be our own agenda. Don't forget that we could have used the automobile to strengthen local community. But we were moving in the opposite direction, and the automobile readily cooperated.

    Similarly, online politics may look to some like a gain for participative democracy. That's how televised politics once looked also. More people were going to witness uplifting, informative debates, while an increasingly sophisticated polling industry offered nearly instant public feedback. The result? The end of debating and the perfection of cosmetic image-making.

    While a few political activists have employed the Internet to great advantage, this tells us little about the shape of things to come. When the great political and lobbying machines compete to fill your representative's email box with gigabytes of "voter opinion," will the meaning of your few bytes count even as much as an answer to a pollster?

    A kind of cyberspatial "town meeting" is somehow supposed to redeem the sterility of image politics. But those who performed in front of the camera -- and we who rewarded the performance -- remain perfectly free to pursue the same values in front of our computer screens. Where before only the "principals" in the political charade could re-make themselves with electronic cosmetics, now we all can.

    There is no capability of the computer that can't be made to look good in one light and bad in another. Which light should we choose? Only the light -- and the darkness -- emanating from the human heart. At the end of the twentieth century it scarcely seems possible to stand in this light and this darkness without worrying deeply about the terms of our inner pact with the computer.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Machine's Hidden Agenda :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/agenda.html

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