Steve 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 happened".

  • 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 software....

Manasian, however, is more concerned about an overly intrusive private sector "hungry for more and more information" than about Big Brother governments:

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 email.

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 life.

© 2003 by The Nature Institute.

Steve Talbott ( stevet@oreilly.com) is the editor of NetFuture an electronic newsletter where this article originally appeared. .