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.

[applause]


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.

[applause]


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.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.