Jerry Mander: We all know there’s a computer revolution. But very few people are asking whether it’s a right-wing revolution or a left-wing revolution. In fact this revolution is unlike most earlier ones because all facets of the body politic are in general agreement. They all think it’s good. The corporations and the activists, the engineers and the artists, the Al Gores and the Newt Gingriches, the conservatives and the liberals are all dazzled by the glorious promise of technotopia.
Many of my own friends tend to agree. The writers among them wonder how it’s even possible for me to write books without a computer. No, I can think of a few writers from history that manage to do that. Shakespeare to Hemingway to Atwood to Illich, I suppose. And there is the point that somehow 400 thousand generations of humans got along without computers, somehow gathering information in other categories and in other ways. It can be done.
But my friends answer back that I’m missing the point. They tell me that computers are empowering and they help us organize against the juggernaut of otherwise corporate domination and mass culture. How decentralizing they are. And how they bring real power back to the individual. And better yet, through the cybernet help us all find and build new alliances with like-minded revolutionaries sitting at their computers, using email messages to beat back the forces of centralization and oppression.
They cite the nearly daily newspaper reports and TV stories—there was one today—about how the Internet is making a new revolution possible. The more esoteric among my friends invoke the likes of my friend Kevin Kelly the Wired magazine guru, who speaks of how computers have created an entirely new, revolutionary political structure. The symbol of our day is no longer the atom, he says, it’s the Net. The political center is wiped out. A new revolutionary structure has emerged. It’s leading us to a new, decentralized worldview that “elevates the power of the small player,” promotes heterogeneity and autonomy, and leads us to a new kind of pure democracy and “an incipient technospiritualism.”
Kelly’s right on that last point, I think, technospiritualism. But only on that one. Actually I tend to like the old kind of spiritualism that didn’t require mediation through machinery. But never mind.
As for the idea that the old political center has now been wiped out and that our new net politics, or web politics, have brought us a new revolution, computer-driven pure democracy that we all run through cyberspace, should we call that virtual democracy? I think so. The trouble is that somebody forgot to tell the transnational corporations in Brussels, Tokyo, Geneva, and New York. Or the international bankers that they’ve lost all their power. Because as far as I can see, centralized corporate and political power has never been accelerated more than it is now, and the computer has had an absolutely critical role in this, in making that happen. And with the great new trade agreements like the GATT and the WTO, they’re gathering the reins of global power to an extend unprecedented in history. Both economic power and political power is now so gathered together that’s it nearly beyond the abilities of even nation-states to control. So what kind of revolution have we got here?
To use terms like “empowerment” to encompass the political effects of computers is to badly misunderstand what power is actually about, at least in a real political and economic context. Computers may help us feel powerful or competent, and surely they aid us in very many ways, but they do next to nothing about altering or slowing down the centralization of power. It’s quite the opposite.
In my opinion, far from being an instrument of real empowerment, meaning to be able to express meaningful influence on the hemorrhaging of democracy, say, that’s now going on, computer technology may be the single most important instrument ever invented for the acceleration of centralized power. So while we may be sitting at our PCs editing our copy or sending out email to our colleagues, or expressing our various cyber freedoms, transnational corporations are using their global networks with far greater resources, far faster, with bigger machines spread out everywhere on the planet, and doing it for twenty-four hours per day non-stop, scanning for resources, instantaneously moving staggering financial resources instantly back and forth around the globe as needed, at a scale and at a speed that makes our level of empowerment pathetic by comparison, and empty.
In fact the gigantic financial institutions of today, the thousand-armed transnational corporation, are relatively new phenomena, functioning with a global reach that was never possible before computers. In fact these institutions simply could not exist in the form they do now without computers. Computers are their nervous system, the way they can keep track of their millions and billions of parts and keep them all moving in the same direction from a central purpose.
So you would have to say that the net result of this electronic communications revolution, in one area, is that we’ve gained an increased control of the economic and political center, greater domination of our economies by centralized institutions, greater centralized control of resources, jobs, and of course our images and our ways of thought. Now that’s what I call empowerment.
But the question remains this: can we blame computers for this? That’s to say if we think it’s a bad trend. There may be many people in this room who think it’s a good trend. But let’s try to get at the cause in any case. Can we say computers are the cause?
Well, I can, and why not? It’s clear that if we didn’t have computer technology, we wouldn’t have this problem. But I’m sure there are very few people here who agree with me on that exact point. Even so, let’s not fool ourselves into believing we have somehow achieved a net gain in power, when we’ve had a net loss.
Now, this is not to argue that any of you should not use your email or not use your computers for whatever good purposes you may have. It’s only to say that we shouldn’t fool ourselves by what the political tendency of this process might turn out to be. The kind of misinterpretation of the political effect of computers is important because it’s rooted in a far more basic problem, I think. We’ve been raised in a culture which has devoted maximum effort to telling us that technology is a panacea for all problems, with scarcely an opposition voice. A message that’s been trumpeted by government, by science, most importantly by corporations with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. It’s a society that tells us that economic survival for your children means learning to become compatible, early, with the machine. To understand it, to use it, to love it, to think like it.
What we’ve not had is any training for how to think about computers or to critique them. We basically do not really think it’s necessary. What is desperately needed is some practice in what Fritjof Capra calls “systemic technological thinking.” Up to now our relationship to technology is mainly personal, and this is especially true of computers. We tend to judge technologies by whether they’re helpful to us. Whether as a tool they really do work for us, or entertain us, make our life somehow easier. But that’s the wrong way of thinking about technology in the end, and it’s dangerous. What is necessary, for it brings forth a greater truth, is not to ask if you benefit from a technology but who benefits most? What is gained and what is lost? What are the consequences of that, because in the long run that will have far more importance.
Now, you at this event are doing something terribly important. Because you’re asking some questions about computers that are not normally asked, or not asked enough. You’re asking whether computers have important implications for privacy in a democratic society, and obviously they do. I don’t have to explain to everyone here that in the areas of police and government surveillance, we’ve entered a new age. Computers have made possible, and possibly probable, a level of watching over us that could reach to Big Brother status. We’re protected from that by only a few tired liberal civil libertarian lawyers. But these days people are elected for being against the ACLU.
More scary possibly, to me, is the level of corporate information gathering, or surveillance, depending how you choose to characterize it. When I let myself think about all the kinds of information the TRW Corporation has about me and you, our habits, our families, our salaries, our spending tastes, our credit numbers, our social security numbers and so on, we reach out for those same meager laws for protection.
Perhaps more tragic still is how corporations can use computer technology for internal surveillance on the job. To monitor and count keystrokes of office workers, what time—the length that the operator stays on each call. These days people get fired for too few keystrokes per hour. Fired by people they may never have met, who are in another part of the building looking at computer printouts. Maybe soon there won’t be people doing the firing. Too few keystrokes per day just calls up the pink slip right there on a new screen and it’s back to the unemployment line. The old days when secretaries and clerical workers had some degree of personal contact with their bosses, some personal nuance and friendship, some subjective judgments in play, may soon be digitized away.
So what are some of the other areas we should be looking at, aside from politics and surveillance, that might reveal systemic effects, that might reveal a downside of the utopian story? That might help tell us what is being lost in the bargain amidst all the celebration. The social, economic, environmental, cultural, health effects of computers. How they affect work. Only then can we decide if really the revolution is one we should’ve joined. I’ll only name a few very quickly.
Environment. Though computers have some[how] retained an image of a clean technology, cleaner than the old smokestack industries, you’ve only to survey the country’s toxic dump sites to find that microcomputer technology is causing some of the highest volume of dangerous waste, with serious long-term health effects. There are also a myriad of health affects for workers on the assembly line, long-term users of PCs, only now being fully understood.
What about jobs and employment? I’ve mentioned something about working conditions. Unfortunately those workers who are surveyed in this manner may be the lucky ones. Because it now ought to be getting clear that computer technology is making possible the permanent replacement of workers in all three major areas of employment: the industrial sector, the agriculture sector, even the service sector. When we read about corporations restructuring themselves to flatten their management structures or make their productivity more efficient, we must always remind ourselves that this really means that human workers are being replaced by machines, both on the assembly line and in the middle management. Machines don’t go on strike, ask for raises, or get sick. They’re efficient. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are, inexplicably, celebrating this trend, saying, “No problem. We’ve only to retrain these people for new jobs.” Where? I strongly recommend to you a book on this subject by Jeremy Rifkin, it’s called The End of Work.
I’m just gonna make one more point. It’s about what I call the ecology of technology. We all know that we don’t draw sufficient conclusions from it. That every new technology interacts with other technologies to create something new that didn’t exist before. I’ve mentioned corporations, global corporations, using an interface between computer technology, satellite communications, laser technology, and a host of other nifty new machines all working together as one. It’s also true that every technology begets other technologies. And this has never been more true of any technology than it has been of computers.
Computers sit at the base of what you might think of as a pyramid structure. A brand new generation of technologies that could never have existed without them, with more generations to come. Among the new technologies that computers have made possible are robotics, genetic engineering, biotechnology, space exploration and travel, nanotechnology, not to mention as I already have the global transnational corporation, instantaneous financial movement, and the new forms of military technology.
Now, you may think all these new generations of technology are absolutely fine, even good. You may support them. I don’t, but we don’t have to agree on that point. What we do have to understand and keep in the forefront of our minds is that if we accept this new age, we had better not do it unconsciously or interpret the consequences too narrowly, or think of only how it benefits us. Because once it’s totally upon us it becomes very difficult to unravel.
In the end, not the end of this panel but the end of some hopefully very large national process of studying and illumination about the negative side of technotopia, the question must ultimately become: given all of the implications, is it a good thing we’ve moved in this direction? Is life better this way? Are people happier? Are the environment and humans healthier? Do we know more? What is the quality of that knowing? What kinds of thought and cultural forms have been lost? Do we like the outcome we will be producing? Do we know why we’re doing this?
The evolution of technology influences our lives in the end more than any elected official does, and yet we don’t debate it in any public manner; we don’t ask questions except in the personal and business uses; we aren’t trained in what questions to ask. In a democratic society this is a preposterous situation. I hope you’ll all agree with me on that. And if so, I strongly recommend that you all send email letters to all the organizations, activists, and fora that you can think of, as well as politicos in power. And if your email is truly a revolutionary tool, we’ll utterly change the way we discuss technology in this country and gain the possibility of democratic choice. Thank you very much.
Jerry Mander: Thank you. Now to introduce Ted Roszak. Ted has been one of our country’s most brilliant and effective cultural and social critics. For the last thirty years, anyway.
Ted Roszak: A hundred years.
Mander: One hundred years. As well as a keen dissector of the elements of technology. He’s a professor of history at California State University and author of many very important bestsellers, including The Making of a Counter Culture, Where the Wasteland Ends, Person/Planet, The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. (I don’t know if that was a bestseller.) His most recent… His next to most recent work, I just discovered, is as the editor of a new anthology on the subject of ecopsychology (that’s the name) in which the questions of human satisfaction in life are hooked up where they have always belonged: to nature, and our problems to the loss of nature. And then he showed me that he’s got a brand new book. It’s called The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein that he’s been working on for thirty years, and it’s his magnum opus. So here’s Theodore Roszak.
Roszak: I’m going to ramble a bit and try to connect with Jerry’s remarks and… I’ll tell you personally how I got involved in being critical of computers. And it was several years back when I began to realize that the word “information” had begun to run away with us and meant so many different things that it seemed to be leveling all sorts of natural hierarchies of the mind. Students were beginning to lose track or were being encouraged to lose the distinction between levels of fact, interpretation, judgment, taste. Suddenly everything in the world was information.
And this leveling effect it seems to me has been one of the most detrimental effects of computers in our society, the fact that everybody uses the word information to cover everything the mind does. And I’m not at all sure that makes any sense. And it seems to me it’s almost an attack upon what culture is. And so I’ve tended to be, for that reason and others, some of which Jerry’s mentioned, highly critical of computers.
But whenever I find myself having doubts whether increasingly powerful machines like computers will ever be brought under the control of mature minds, I try to remind myself that once upon a time (I speak here as a historian), the printing press, the camera, the piano, the orchestra, motion pictures, were innovations with no cultural track record.
But one thing I know for certain. The minds that used these powers well, including the computer, have had to master the art of thinking first of all. And though these media may help in the art of thinking, they do not to replace it. Though the media may be zero-cost, infinite bandwidth network (whatever that is), media users will have to exercise the same mental muscles as the artists of Lascau and draw upon the same creative sources. If there is anything particularly pernicious in the lore of high tech, it seems to me it is the facile assumption that just maybe the machines will do all the thinking, and the feeling, and the judging, and the creating, for us. And do it better.
The irony behind this technology is the tendency it encourages in some of its most talented and enthusiastic developers and users to cheapen or even try to replace the mind that created the technology in the first place. Despite the problems I mention here and all the problems that Jerry has listed and others on this panel will, I frankly fully accept that information technology is here to stay, at least for as long as the world industrial economy survives. There are no guarantees about that, to be sure.
Information technology has the permanence of a mature technology. What do I mean by a mature technology? I mean a technology that generates as many problems as it solves. [audience laughter] As we have learned from every earlier wave of invention, machines are genies that get out of control. They reshape the world in unforeseen ways.
The railroad and the automobile solved the problem of rapid transportation, only to finish by depleting our store of nonrenewable fossil fuels, fouling the air, and destroying the integrity of cities.
Modern medicine solved the problem posed by numerous infectious diseases, only to finish by giving us the population explosion, ever more resistant strains of bacteria, and the ethical dilemma of protracted senility.
The computer solved the problem of fast, cheap, data processing in a culture drowning in red tape and paperwork, only to finish by destroying the right to privacy, concentrating the political and commercial control of information in ever fewer hands, mesmerizing our children with bad art and pernicious nonsense [applause], and menacing us with computer errors vast enough to paralyze whole societies.
A clever few find ways to work around these vices and maximize the advantages of each new technology. The computer-proficient can sound quite smug about their command of databases and online resources. Many earn well from new, more sophisticated media. But the sum total of good and bad gets visited on the rest of us. And especially on the generations to come, who are simply born into the technologies’ inevitable downsides.
The rest of us; that’s an interesting phrase. These days one comes across that plaintive phrase more and more often in computer literature. It refers, I suppose, to those of us who are not hackers or computer experts of any kind, and who have no wish to be. The rest of us are a lot of people. [audience laughter] People without the time, talent, inclination, or money to get into this—or any other technology. Like as I understand the 40% of Apple computer users who reportedly cannot find their system folder. Or the millions of PC users who have no interest in working out a half dozen different config.sys files to custom-boot their computer.
A widely-reported 1993 market survey by the Dell Computer Corporation concluded that there is a growing population of this kind, more than enough in the adult population to make best-sellers out of books with titles like DOS for Dummies, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows. I find those titles, incidentally, terribly revealing. In a footnote to a book I wrote I have a whole list of those. It’s simply remarkable how people are willing to humiliate themselves in the presence of this machine by referring to themselves as idiots and dummies.
I would say this is documentation that mercifully talks down to the real-life users of these complex, often bizarrely engineered machines. The survey called them technophobes, meaning people who would just as soon trade in their computer for an old-fangled typewriter. Seasoned hackers who delight in building a better Macintosh desktop or debating the virtues of the latest Windows graphics cards might do well to pay more attention to this population. Among them we find many of the true computer professionals in our society. And by that I mean the clerks, and secretaries, and self-employed home office technoclunkers who earn their living sitting at computers all day and who are more worried about the pains in their wrists than which conference and The WELL to log onto when they get home.
I suspect the future of the technology has a great deal more to do with the needs and values of this public than with the high-flying aficionados at the local Macintosh users’ group. I work with many of these people in my teaching job. The office workers who suffer with each new program they must learn. Who struggle with each new software upgrade that needs to be endlessly fine-tuned before they can get on with their jobs. Who groan with each baffling piece of hardware that gets visited upon them like a curse. Many still cannot handle basic DOS commands or decode the obscure little icons that their friendly Macintosh insists are so much better than words on the screen.
Oddly enough, at my institution I work at an awful lot of people come to me with questions about these machines and how to run them, and so over the years I’ve gotten fairly proficient at working out solutions of some kind to help out around the place.
Sometimes these people come to me in exasperation asking questions. Why can’t they run this new graphics program the department just purchased? Answer: you have to buy another monitor and a more expensive video card. “Video card, what’s that?”
Or they wonder when they try to install the new Mac something-or-other desktop publishing program why their monitor keeps flashing the message—or messages—like “disk full.” So the answer is, “Your disk is full.” You have to buy a bigger one.
I once dealt with a secretary who was absolutely amazed to discover that you ever had to delete anything that you put into a computer, said, “Where did all the room go?” You have to delete things. “How do I do that?”
Or they ask why the Windows program they just loaded runs at a snail’s pace and keeps locking up and losing the last few hours of work. And the answer is you have to buy a lot more memory and a faster chip. Or they ask a dozen other kinds of questions to which the answer is usually that they have to buy something that they don’t have that will be obsolete next year at this time when they notice the same problem coming back at them. [audience laugther]
The rest of us keep hearing about the spectacular benefits of desktop publishing, multimedia, interactivity… But whenever we thumb our way through the documentation we realize that we are way out of our technological depth. And whenever we look at the price tag, we are often way out of our financial league.
And there I suggest is the problem right before our eyes. The machines may not be smarter than we are. But we may not be proficient enough or moneyed enough to hold our own with those who own and exploit these machines. The cult of information as I have called it is theirs, not ours. They use it and they use it against us.
What the rest of us are offered as access to the information society is hardly enough to make us real citizens of an information age. It may be little more than a diversion. True, we can now use our modems to send email to the new online White House, but there is no law that says anybody has to read what we send. And if there were, would it matter?
We may soon have programs that make it possible to defeat the purpose of rapid personal communications. A teaching colleague of mine, swamped by the email he receives from the students in one college course—much of which he finds repetitious, garbled, or witless—has developed a program that scans what he receives for keywords and generate boilerplate responses.
The rest of us get games to play and programs that will balance our checkbooks and catalog our recipes; maybe eventually we will get 3D subscription virtual sex. We can rent CompuServe or log on to the local electronic bulletin board to check the running file of lightbulb jokes, or to flame away on an issue or two. But even if we can buy the technology, I suggest we don’t own it. Not in any substantial way that gives us power.
I for example am grateful that high-tech has provided me with a great substitute for my old Smith Corona on which to write my Neo-Luddite laments. [audience laughter] Perhaps one day I will become proficient enough to find a way through a multi-user dungeon game on the Internet. But all the while I keystroke away, I suspect that the data servers at the IRS, and the FBI, and TRW, are gliding through every secret I ever thought I had. And that the hot young quants at Morgan Stanley or Bearing are using their rather more powerful machines to vandalize the banking systems of six nations. While the rest of us cling to the margins, the power and the profits of the technology obviously gravitate elsewhere. The solution is once again becoming the problem.
But then the history of technology has always been a faltering search for Promethean power and utopian perfection. Every mature technology brings a minimal immediate gain, followed by enormous long-term liabilities. The computer is the latest entry in that history—still bright with promise for its enthusiasts, but surely destined to join the lengthening file of modern technological treachery that Aldous Huxley began compiling in his prophetic Brave New World. By now, we should know that the Luddites of old, what they learned before us. Every tool ever invented is a mixed blessing. How things will balance out is a matter of vigilance, moral courage, and the distribution of power.
Whenever I begin to despair over such matters, and I do frequently, I conjure up a few consoling images: Charlie Chaplin sliding woefully down the gullet of the assembly line; Laurel and Hardy fleeing for their lives before a runaway trolley car. There is a certain healthy amusement to be enjoyed in the irony of seeing our species victimized by the machines we invent to liberate ourselves. Provided, that is, we heed the great lesson that underlies our human comedy. Namely that there will never be a machine that leaves us wiser, or better, or freer than our own naked mind can make us; nor any that helps us work out our salvation with diligence. Thank you.
Jerry Mander: Okay, for more about the mixed side or the mixed blessing, we have Chet Bowers. He is a professor of education at Portland State College and has written brilliantly on education, modernity, and the relationship of technology to the ecological crisis.
His recent books include The Cultural Dimensions of Education Computing: Understanding the Non-Neutrality of Technology. Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education is another recent book. And my favorite article of his is called “Childhood and the Cultural Amplification Characteristics of Computers.” And he’s a bona fide deep ecologist, I might add. Chet Bowers.
Chet Bowers: One of the ways that we can understand how computers are part of a process of cultural experimentation is to look at their amplification and reduction characteristics. And in doing this, we’re overturning two fundamental myths which seem to underlie a good deal of activity in the area of computer-based technologies. These myths are that computer-based technologies are an expression of progress. I think it’s not clear, and the previous comments I think bear this out. We have no real understanding of the cultural roadkill that’s scattered along the information highway. We’re just not looking out at the cultural consequences carefully enough.
The other myth is that computer technology is culturally neutral. Now, I’d like to get into the discussion of how it is that computers can be understood as having a cultural orientation by using Don Ihde’s categories. And these categories lay out how it is that we encounter technology.
Very briefly he says that we experience technology as background. Secondly, we experience technology as something we interact with, like steering a car, moving the cursor, and using a pencil and so on. Thirdly, we experience technology in a way in which there’s a mediation process. And that is that we experience the world through the technology. And we can see this process very simply in the example of one of the earliest technologies, and that is the use of the stick to extend reach. It selects for amplification our ability to reach something. It reduces our ability to touch, smell, and taste. The telephone similarly amplifies voice over distance; it reduces all of the contextual forms of communication.
So we can see here in terms of this third way of relating to technology that there’s a gain and a loss. There’s an amplification and a reduction, and it has to do with the nature of the technology itself.
Now, I’d like to very quickly go over a number of amplification/reduction characteristics that are related directly to the process of cultural change, and to come back to that question of, what are the forms of cultural change that are moving us in the direction of living in a more ecologically sustainable world, okay? I’m going to go through seven or eight amplification/reduction characteristics. What I’m going to give you is a gross oversimplification; a chapter or even a book could be written on each one of these. But I think it’s very important to see just how broad and how culturally deep these changes are that we’re undergoing and which we’re seeing generally as an expression of progress.
The first amplification characteristic of computers is that it reinforces or amplifies forms of cultural knowledge that can be made explicit and digitally coded. It reduces forms of contextual knowledge, experience, that are tacit, part of memory, and come into play in terms of the interactions with other people. Gregory Bateson referred to this as “analogue knowledge.” It’s knowledge that we’re not really aware of. But it’s the knowledge that exists in terms of narratives. It’s learned in mentor relationships. It ranges from how we prepare food, to the ritual patterns we use to communicate about relationships. Most of our cultural traditions are this form of cultural tacit knowledge. And what what the computer does in terms of amplifying explicit forms of knowledge, it tends to marginalize the significance of our understanding of these forms of knowledge.
The computer amplifies a cultural orientation that represents thinking as based on data. This is…within the world of education it’s compatible, it reinforces what’s called a constructivist theory of learning. And there the argument is made now in terms of teacher education institutions as perpetuated now in public schools that people author their own ideas based on data. And the extension of that is that individuals create their own value judgments. That they are autonomous in the sense that it’s a process that goes on inside the mind, and what they need to be empowered further is more data.
Now, what it reduces or misrepresents is how thinking is framed by the cultural [epistemology] encoded in the language of the cultural group. Let me say that more directly. Language thinks us as we think within the language. Our thought processes and all of our languages—whether we’re talking about architecture or body language or whatever—is a reenactment and a reinterpretation of patterns that are encoded in the languages of a cultural group. Now, that’s misrepresented in terms of the cultural amplification characteristics of computers.
The third amplification is that the individual is the basic social unit. The individual is seen as autonomous, and thus as not influenced by culture. And what is lost in terms of this amplification process is the recognition and thus the possibility of transgenerational communication. Let me put it another way. If you view thought as based on data, and this technology as making available data on a massive scale, why do you need to have communication between generations? Why do you need to have elders? They’re largely seen as irrelevant.
A fourth amplification is what we can call the application of a conduit view of language. And this is essential to universalizing the modern form of consciousness. To viewing everybody as individuals, as connected through this technology and sharing in this data and making decisions in terms of a common way of thinking.
What is reduced is an awareness that the language thought process are inherently metaphorical in nature. That is, the process of understanding something new, the process the analogic thinking, is based on the root metaphors of a cultural group. And over time, the process of analogic thinking that prevails—and we’re talking here about political aspects of language—it’s encoded in what we can call iconic metaphors. Words like data, individualism, intelligence, creativity, and so on are iconic metaphors or image metaphors that encode earlier analogies that were framed by the root metaphors that were prevailing at the time that the analogues were worked out.
Let me give you an example of a root metaphor. Johannes Kepler made the following statement. He said, “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not as a divine organism but to a clockwork.” Minsky, three centuries later, says, “Our conscious thoughts use signal-signs to steer the engines in our minds controlling countless processes of which we’re never much aware.”
They’re both thinking, or being thought, by a cultural root metaphor which says “look, understand the world in mechanistic terms.” Well the point here is that computers amplify the notion that language is a sender/receiver process. And it reduces an understanding that language and thought are inherently metaphorical in nature.
Now, I think that we need to ask a question. I’ve written elsewhere that computers and code are based on a liberal ideology which take for granted progress, individualism, the efficacy of rational thought. It was a form of liberalism that was formed before there was any understanding that we had any kind of dependency on the environment. We were looking outward, continually trying to conquer new frontiers and so on.
If we look at ecologically sustainable cultures we find that they do not have liberal ideologies which are based on this myth that change is inherently progressive in nature. They have an ideological orientation which can be called cultural bioconservativism. What they are about is encoding, storing, renewing, forms of cultural knowledge about relationships and how to live in meaningful human communities, and human communities in sustainable relations with the natural world. The interesting thing about these ecologically-centered cultures is that they develop very elaborate language systems for communicating about these relationships and their technologies were kept as a minor part of the cultural development.
I think the question I want to leave you with is, to what extent are we developing a technology that can begin to address the forms of cultural knowledge that have to do with long-term sustainability? Or are we acting out a cultural mythology which says that technologically-based change is inherently progressive and that we can ignore the increasing evidence that the environment is going to take its revenge on us very shortly? Thank you.
Jerry Mander: Richard Sclove is the founder The Loka Institute. It’s one of the few organizations that’s both a think tank an activist-oriented organization in the area of technological assessment and advocacy. He’s a frequent presence on Capitol Hill arguing on behalf of a more decentralized and humane technology with a higher degree of access, and he’s had a fair degree of success at that, as most have not.
He’s no Luddite, and he may actually weaken during his talk, revealing that he has some hopes for computer technology; I hope not. He’s also written on technology in The Washington Post and many other magazines and publications. And his new book is called Democracy and Technology, by Guilford Publications and it’ll be out soon. Richard Sclove.
Richard Sclove: Alright look, there are some good things to be said about information technologies. And I know because I run several different effective political action-oriented Internet discussion lists. Still, the good that can be said is being said elsewhere ad nauseam and so our task here is to develop some contrary arguments.
First, while public discussion of information technology tends to dwell on the exotica of life in cyberspace, it seems clear to me that the greatest consequences will be on daily life offline. And here, taking the information superhighway metaphor seriously can be pretty illuminating, I think.
Imagine thirty-five years ago that we were interested in understanding the implications of the original interstate highway system. If we dwelled primarily on the pleasures or dangers of life on the interstate itself, we’d miss all the profound consequences for our society which mostly occurred elsewhere, including the suburbanization of America; the proliferation of malls; the development of plastic and neon strips; the decline of downtown centers and of neighborhood street life; the destruction or ghettoization of urban poor and minority communities; and as Ted mentioned the massive national dependence on non-renewable, polluting, planet-baking, insecure sources of imported oil.
Similarly, information technologies are going to affect everyone, all the time, online and off, including the vast majority who still do not routinely use computers, many who may never want to use a computer, and who are utterly unrepresented in developing the emerging systems and policies we’re talking about.
I want to briefly review ten examples of consequences that seem probable to me. Most of these cannot be uniquely attributed to information technologies. But they extend social trends that’re already underway and develop them further. And that extension is not entirely an accident because a technology is born into a society and it’s likely to bear the marks of its birth circumstances.
The first consequence, colonization of personal time. Information technologies are allowing work to overflow into family time, leisure time, time for reflection, time in nature. And they tend badly to speed up the pace of life and of work. And this colonization seems to me becoming complete— Wireless technologies allow the colonization of what I think were the only two remaining bastions of personal reflection space: the personal automobile and public bathroom stalls.
Two, telecommuting. There is promise that telecommuting could allow one to work from a neighborhood office complex or home, and that’s a nice option. Might mean more time with friends and families, less on the road, that kind of thing. Although I have to say I do telecommute from my home and it has had quite the opposite effect. I have a lot less time with my family and friends, and my family’s constantly berating my being glued to the screen all the time.
But it actually increasingly appears that this is not going to be an option for many people. Instead telecommuting is increasingly looking like an imposed condition of work as corporations try to reduce their overhead and say, “Hey, fella. I’m not gonna provide an office for you anymore. You’re gonna have to work at home and we’re gonna keep track of you anyway with remote microsurveillance of your performance.” And this can be done by executives who in principle can pleasantly relocate themselves to Swiss ski chalets or Hawaii. In other words the liberatory promise of being able to work anywhere and whenever you choose can easily degenerate into having to work all the time and wherever you are.
Third, the Walmart effect. The increasing conduct of commercial transactions tele-electronically is going to extract revenue from remaining downtown shops and businesses, just like Walmart stores have already done. And the consequences are not just economic, because it means hurting local cultural and community vibrancy.
And the thing about this is it’s substantially an involuntary social process. You can think to yourself you know, as a consumer, “Heck, I’m gonna go to Walmart,” or, “I’m gonna start shopping electronically a little bit of the time and the rest of the time I’ll still go downtown.” But you won’t be able to, because as you and everybody else starts to do 10%, 20% of their commercial transactions electronically that’s extracting 20% of the revenue from downtown businesses. They’ll start to shut down and there won’t be a downtown to go to. And that’ll happen even though no consumer wanted it to happen. Every consumer might have thought, “I’m going to just do a little of my time online and the rest of time downtown, but still, downtown will decline to a perverse market dynamic.
And this process isn’t only involuntary but it’s pretty coercive. Imagine that you think yourself, “Well I’m just not gonna do any of my shopping online.” It doesn’t matter. When other people do, the downtown’s still gonna decline. Eventually some of the services you need will not be available locally in face-to-face ways, increasing your need to go online whether you wanted to or not. And so the dynamic self-reinforces. And therefore I’d say one corollary of that is the public interest clamor for universal access should be qualified to be universal voluntary access to the information superhighway. Everyone should be able to get on when they want to, but they should also have the choice of not being on if they don’t want to and when they don’t want to.
And unlike the Walmart analogy, the cyber variant of it is going to affect not just retail stores but local independent professionals and services. I’d say that people like accountants, travel agents, lawyers, insurers, financial advisers, stockbrokers, etc. are all at risk.
Fourth, virtual communities. Virtual communities I think do offer some benefits for geographically-dispersed groups, for people who are uncomfortable in face-to-face settings, and for people with physical disabilities. But if they’re not socially guided, they’re likely to eviscerate remaining face-to-face communities.
Now, you could say, “Yo Dick, if you don’t like virtual communities, don’t join one.” But again it doesn’t work that way. Because of the commercialization process I just described, which means a loss of face-to-face gathering spaces because others in my local circle are going to be either forced or choose to spend more time online, that’s taking them away from their engagement in local face-to-face activities. That means this vibrant face-to-face community may atrophy out from under me, and the only viable alternative will then be…log on and go virtual. Result again is coercive and a self-reinforcing dynamic.
Fifth, the new homogeneity. There’s all this excitement about all the wonderful new kinds of people you can meet online. My experience and evidence is that people seem to be sorting themselves out in cyberspace into enclaves of like-minded people. I found it out myself—I got very excited a few years ago when I was communing with newfound tele-mates in New Zealand and Australia, the Netherlands and Denmark. Only I gradually figured out that almost all of these people are obviously white male middle-aged professional disaffected 60s people exactly like me. [audience laughter]
Sixth, the decline in local community, and the new homogeneity which I’ve already described, together present a potential moral hazard if while happily discoursing with far-flung tele-mates I’m utterly unaware that my next-door neighbor’s mother just died and needs solace, or he’s suffering a cardiac arrest and needs help.
Seventh is the governability problem. Our political jurisdictions are all territorially based. If bonds of social affiliation increasingly go non-territorial we’re going to see the further erosion of the necessary social and cultural basis for governance within existing political jurisdictions. And it’s not obvious how even if you wanted to, you’re going to alter the existing system of territorial representation when first of all our bodies are still going to coinhabit physical spaces and there’re going to be local material interdependencies that need management.
And second, changing the system would for example require massively altering the US Constitution, including getting all existing legislators— a supermajority of them—to sign off on voting their own offices out of existence, which is not a trivial transition problem. [audience laughter]
Eight, we already see affluent professionals independent of cyberspace. Now, there’s my major cultural contradiction. We already see affluent professionals retreating into privileged, secure privately-maintained social enclaves. The new homogeneity and delocalization of social bonds will likely exacerbate this corrosive social polarization, as increasingly this politically and economically potent group will withdraw its support for public schools, for elderly services, for public libraries, for playgrounds and so on, which will vastly exacerbate the ramifications of the polarization and indeed deepen it.
Ninth, the Walmart effect and the erosion of local community mean that local economic dependence on large corporations that are headquartered elsewhere and on global market forces is going to continue to increase, which means increasing local dependence on forces and institutions that absolutely cannot be influenced or controlled from the local level. Local ability to control local circumstances therefore declines and that means an impairment of democracy at the local level.
But you can’t compensate at the state, national, or international level because as you move up the scale of political aggregation, the resources necessary to play effectively grow so enormous that they give a structural advantage to large businesses and the ultrarich. And in any case, at those levels it’s vastly harder to craft sensible locally-adaptive solutions.
Finally, this issue of democratization in general. You know, Jerry said some things about it. Will information technologies tend to equalize power relations or not? Certainly they won’t if the public interest groups’ accessibility agenda fails. But it’s not obvious even if that agenda succeeds. On the one hand there is some real potential and evidence of small, geographically-dispersed groups communicating and coordinating for new political efficacy—that’s real.
On the other hand, as Jerry said, even if access—which is unlikely—nominally becomes universal and cheap, multinational corporations and national governments will retain a greatly enhanced capability to amass, analyze, and act on the basis of vast agglomerations collaborations of information. So it’s not obvious whether the power decentralizing move is going to outweigh the power concentrating developments.
There’s also of course the familiar demagogic potential for instant, ill-considered televoting, where the wealthiest advertisers are going to win every time.
But this whole style of analysis in any case exaggerates the role of formal political processes of voting and of influencing legislation. Because it neglects deeper structural trends of which the two most obvious are first, as Jerry mentioned, that multinational corporations are able to increasingly globalize their operations while intensifying their centralized control over them. Which means enhanced corporate power over citizens, workers, consumers, and both local and national governments.
Secondly, with the help of telecommunications the world financial system has now just about completely disengaged from the underlying material economy that makes and distributes goods and services. International flows of currency, speculative investment, bank credits, and so on is now at least several hundred times greater than the international flow of goods and services.
Well why does that matter? What are the implications? I don’t know. I don’t know exactly why that matters but one thought that has occurred to me is this: Look, in his first two years, think about President Clinton. This guy campaigned on a very ambitious domestic agenda. When push came to shove, there were only two issues that he went to the mat on. Two issues where Clinton said, “I don’t care. No one can say no, I gonna make this happen no matter what.” And it wasn’t healthcare or any piece of his domestic agenda. It was the GATT and NAFTA world free trade agreement.
Now why did he do that? It’s paradoxical. Seemingly. Well, I think it might have something to do with the fact that when massive financial disinvestment on a national scale can be instantaneous, even the leader of the United States cannot afford to run counter to the interests of the world financial community. And that possibility of massive instantaneous disinvestment was witnessed very recently in Mexico. In this respect, telecommunications is apparently helping in a kind of quiet way to frame our national political agenda, deciding which issues can be addressed and which cannot, what a president can say or do, and what he dare not say and dare not do. And this is happening regarding very fundamental and important issues, and in that sense it’s a profound negation of the democratic process.
I’m going to start to wind up. Those are my ten consequences for the day.
The utopian hype about computers and information technologies is not merely naïve, it’s pretty damaging and dangerous. Because it helps accelerate and expand entry into a brave new world of unforeseen, ambiguous, and negative results. And it blinds all of us to anticipatory stuff that while they could not prevent all these negative consequences could potentially ameliorate some of them.
I’ll just say this, the public interest coalitions that are now at work in Washington DC and elsewhere are campaigning heroically for a national information infrastructure that is accessible, affordable, supports civic uses, and protects individual civil liberties and privacy. I’m a member of some of these groups that are involved and I support that agenda. On the other hand that agenda is utterly inattentive to most of the consequences I and these other people have just discussed, which are going to occur even in the unlikely event that the public interest agenda prevails.
In short, I want to say that taking meaningful ameliorative steps of any kind is improbable for at least three reasons. One is that there are huge profits to be reaped in the neglecting or suppressing awareness of these potential problems. Two is that the bravely-struggling public interest groups working the issue are mostly inattentive to all the problems we’ve discussed today. And three, many of the problems we’re talking about are basically looming in the future, but the need to implement ameliorative steps would be now. Unfortunately it’s extremely hard to develop the necessary mass, organized base to address a problem that hasn’t manifested itself yet. Thank you.