Can Human Ideals Survive the Internet?

This is Chapter 1 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

Social healing, it seems, approaches us from the Internet. If the hopes clustered about this miraculous, Hydra-headed gift of the information age are fulfilled, it will bring us extended democracy, personal liberation, enhanced powers of organization and coordination, renewal of community, information transmuted into wisdom, education freed from the grip of pedagogical tyranny, a new and wondrous complexity arising from chaos -- and much more. Can any gift prove dangerous while acting as such an extraordinary magnet for every conceivable ideal?

It is at least curious, given the bright light of idealism focused upon the Internet, that its actual development should have proceeded largely according to a dim, scarcely conscious, technical logic. The “intrinsic necessities” of its growth seem to derive as much from the technical machinery's insistence upon its own, natural articulations as from any choosing on our part:

  • Often hailed as an unparalleled weapon against the establishment, the Internet actually grew out of a scheme for making military communications more secure.
  • The Internet's original purposes were centered on the exchange of technical data. Its functions were so thoroughly equated with calculation and computation in the narrowest sense that, until these last few years, any distinctively social activity (courting, political activism, the formation of communities) was considered sensationally newsworthy. Today, on the other hand, many observers routinely promote the Internet as a means for salvaging the primacy of personal relationship and community in a depersonalized society.
  • Now feared by some as a perfected instrument of commercialism and regimentation, the Internet was, until quite recently, a daytripping playground for hippies reincarnated as engineers -- a playground governed, for example, by the sort of anti-commercial spirit driving the Free Software Foundation.

“Again and again,” writes Howard Rheingold, “the most important parts of the Net piggybacked on technologies that were created for very different purposes,” yielding what he calls “the accidental history of the Net.” /1/ Huge corporations have fallen from grace because they did not foresee the twists and turns in this strange, unpredictable evolution. And, of course, foreseeing is all most of us can hope for. Marketing departments try to steal a glimpse of what may happen one or two years ahead, and find little reason to consider what ought to happen. The underlying technical trajectory is what it is. High-tech firms hire consultants as prognosticators, not as wise counselors assessing the human condition and its needs.

So the Internet (or, simply, “the Net”) grows like wildfire, and everything just seems to happen. Net surfers rejoice and give ritual thanks for the exhilarating monthly growth figures -- so many new sites, so many new users, so many new accesses to popular databases -- apparently taking all this “success” as evidence that the gods of cyberspace are with us.

But if there is indeed some sort of embodied wisdom at work in the machinery of growth, one wonders exactly whose wisdom it might be. Are our ideals being realized? It is hard to imagine any truly human aspiration whose fulfillment “just happens.” Surely every ideal worthy of the name can be realized only through some sort of conscious struggle and achievement. Ideals arise in thought -- our very highest, morally fervent thought -- and thereby become goals toward which we can strive creatively. Only a machine realizes its aims automatically, and therefore its aims are not ideals.

If, on the other hand, the Net develops by a mechanistic and distinctly nonidealistic logic of its own, one might expect its evolution to follow neatly predictable lines. Logic, after all, is supposed to yield predictability. But this is not true; the logic may, in the first place, prove too complex to grasp. And it may also be the case (I believe it is the case) that what we have been imparting to the Net -- or what the Net has been eliciting from us -- is a half-submerged, barely intended logic, contaminated by wishes and tendencies we prefer not to acknowledge.

This book is an attempt to bring those tendencies to the full light of consciousness, so that we can choose our future rather than compute it automatically and unawares. Not that freedom to choose brings predictability; it most certainly does not. It only makes us responsible. But out of that responsibility we can impose a worthy meaning upon the future. The alternative to our doing so -- the alternative to freely embraced meaning -- is the abstractly patterned, manipulable emptiness of the informational machine. This, too, derives from the human being -- but only from those places within us where we have long been adapting ourselves to the machine's relentless and increasingly subtle imperatives. No ideals can survive there.

Fatalism and hope

There is more than one way to poison the soil in which profound ideals might otherwise flourish. The most obvious blight, perhaps, results from the kind of cynicism or fatalism that prevents germination in the first place. This shows itself, for example, in the frequent assumption that powerful commercial interests -- corporate “big money” -- must unavoidably subvert the Net's liberating potentials in favor of the crass profiteering whose results are so vivid in the television wasteland. On such an assumption, how you and I manage our choices (whether as corporate employees or as consumers) counts for nothing at all.

But ideals can be destroyed by excessive hope as well. The plant oversupplied with artificial fertilizer may show rapid, impressive progress, but its growth is rank, weak, and unsustainable. The first good rain will lay it flat. Similarly, much of the enthusiasm for the Net as an agent of desirable social change betrays an artificially reinforced hope.

The following paragraphs, which circulated on the Net in 1994, illustrate this enthusiasm in an extreme form. They were part of a recruitment campaign for a movement calling itself DigitaLiberty.

DigitaLiberty believes that technology can set us free. The economies of the developed world are now making a major transition from an industrial base to an information base. As they do, the science of cryptology will finally and forever guarantee the unbreachable right of privacy, protecting individuals, groups, and corporations from the prying eyes and grasping hands of sovereigns. We will all be free to conduct our lives, and most importantly our economic relations, as we each see fit.

Cyberspace is also infinitely extensible. There will be no brutal competition for lebensraum. Multiple virtual communities can exist side by side and without destructive conflict, each organized according to the principles of their members. We seek only to build one such community, a community based on individual liberty. Others are free to build communities based on other principles, even diametrically opposed principles. But they must do so without our coerced assistance.

Effective communities will thrive and grow. Dysfunctional communities will wither and die. And for the first time in human history, rapacious societies will no longer have the power to make war on their neighbors nor can bankrupt communities take their neighbors down with them. /2/

Ideals in the abstract

Whatever one makes of the obvious naivete in this discarnate utopianism, it must be admitted that the notions strung together here have become Net commonplaces: we're entering an information age; cryptography for the masses will guarantee a universal right of privacy; community is moving online; the Net prevents social coercion and conflict; and somehow what is best in cyberspace always survives, while the inferior withers away.

There are two things to say about the DigitaLiberty appeal. First, it extrapolates the human future from purely technical considerations. “Technology can set us free.” Respect for the privacy and individuality of another person is, on such a view, captured in the idea of an uncrackable code given by the tools of communication. Likewise, the boundaries of community can neatly be traced in Network diagrams. And social evolution is patterned after technological development, wherein newer, better, more sophisticated products inevitably replace older, more primitive ones.

Second, such a recasting of social issues as technological ones points to a thoroughgoing habit of abstraction. What can be mapped from the human being to a machine is always and only an abstraction. One cannot embrace a device as the midwife of freedom without having lost sight of the living, ambiguous reality of freedom as an experience of alternative, inner stances. All that is left is an abstract shadow of these stances, in the form of external, machine-mediated “options.” Where freedom once required the fateful exercise of an enlightened, heart-warmed will, it is now enough to play with clickable choices on a screen.

This habit of abstraction shows up clearly in a thinking that reconceives privacy as something like a technically shielded anonymity. Such thinking notwithstanding, the fact remains that we must have to do with each other in the normal course of our lives -- we must know each other -- and therefore any genuine privacy can only be rooted in a deep and sensitive mutual respect. No technical gadgets can underwrite this sort of intimate respect; they can easily make it more difficult.

The alternative to intimate respect -- already suggested by all-too- visible tendencies -- is to isolate ourselves ever more from each other, taking refuge behind uncertain, shifting personas, remote forms of communication, and anonymous transactions, which we then call “human freedom.” This can only lead to an abstract “society” of automatons, inputs, and outputs. It may not matter whether you and I are really there, behind the machinery of interaction, but at least we will know ourselves to be free!

We yield to automatic side effects

I have spoken of both fatalism and breathy idealism, and I have pointed out that at least some of the idealism currently suffusing cyberspace is linked to (1) an anthropomorphism that confuses technical capabilities with human qualities; and (2) a habit of abstraction through which inner qualities such as personal respect disappear into mechanisms.

The interesting thing is that these two characteristics of Net- centered idealism apply just as well to the fatalistic view that big, self-interested corporations must necessarily co-opt the Net's promise of a better society. For this fatalism arises, however questionably, from an incontestable fact: the large corporation today, recognized in law as a kind of nonpersonal person, operates rather like a computer. That is, it mechanically calculates and maximizes the bottom line, without particular reference to anything other than mathematical (monetary) “values.” Here again we see both anthropomorphism (the corporation as person) and a highly abstract, mechanical reflection of a distinctly human activity -- in this case, the activity required for embodying the values of truth, goodness, and beauty through productive activity.

Optimists, of course, assume that higher values will somehow arise from purely commercial, computational activity as an automatic side effect, much as computation proper is supposed to deliver on the ideals of freedom, privacy, and the rest. The pessimists, on the other hand, simply read the automatic side effects differently: power and wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few; morality, esthetic concerns, the environment, and health will be sacrificed for profits; the alignment of big business and big government will squeeze out the “little guy”; and so on.

But the important thing for the moment is what both optimists and pessimists agree upon: the corporation is a mechanism operating with a life of its own, delivering its freight of good or ill independently of the inner qualities, the choices -- the ideals -- of its larger human constituency. And the decisive fact is this: such automatic side effects, whatever their nature, can only be destructive in the long run, since they testify to an abdication of consciousness.

This abdication is the characteristic temptation presented by the intelligent automaton -- whether the automaton is a computer, an unreflective business organization, or the intensifying computational bias within us that first made possible the computer's invention. We are, in matters large and small, increasingly given the option of “running on automatic.” This is true in our financial affairs (ATM transactions), our personal relationships (email supported by automatic document processing software), our vocations (which now, with ever greater subtlety, we can reduce to unconscious algorithm-following), and our purely stimulative, reflex-based entertainment (video games, shock-value movies).

To run on automatic is, for the human being, to sink toward instinct, unfreedom, and statistical predictability. It is to give up what sets us most vitally apart from our material environment and our tools. It is to remain asleep in our highest capacities.

Whether our ideals can survive depends -- beyond all pessimism and optimism vested in automatic processes -- on whether we can consciously take hold of the mechanisms around us and within us, and raise them into the service of what is most fully human because most fully awake. The first prerequisite is to recognize the severity of the challenge.

The scattered self

Anyone who has been in a position to observe the brief, intense history of the Internet will certainly have noticed the wild swings of online sentiment, from utopian fervor to crashing disillusionment and back again. When a few agitated email messages leaked out of Russia during an abortive coup, the Internet became, by most accounts, an irresistible weapon to save the world for democracy. (Presumably, the Chechens whose deaths graced this morning's newspaper were too late getting their Internet accounts). On the other hand, let the United States government pass a law to permit wiretapping in everyone's beloved cyberspace, and immediate visions of a worse-than-Big-Brother begin dancing through our heads.

This ping-ponging between extremes does not suggest that much work is being done at the realistic level where ideals can be furthered. Every ideal demands a persistent, long-term work upon my own nature, as I stand embedded in society. The difficulties of this social immersion-- for example, the personal frictions, antagonisms, and frustrations -- are the occasion for most of the work. Anyone who has understood and accepted this work cannot be moved very much by the technological and political shifts that alternately bring ecstasies of hope and paroxysms of fear.

The vacillating, ungrounded idealism of the Net points us toward an important fact: the correlate of the mechanism or automaton is the scattered self. To understand this, it may help to think of the psychoanalyst's couch. It is just when the patient abandons his conscious functioning in favor of the most automatic, reflexive responses, that his “output” becomes helter-skelter, scattered, irrational, yet predictable in the merely associational terms characteristic of a lowered consciousness

In other words, the level where we act most mechanistically and unconsciously is the level where coherent meaning is shattered into those suggestive shards that the analyst (from a higher and more conscious viewpoint) must painstakingly try to reassemble into a meaningful story. The effort is not always successful. And even if it is, it does the patient no good unless he, too, can eventually arrive at something like the analyst's higher understanding, begin to integrate his life around it, and then choose his future in full responsibility.

A failure to digest things

It is hardly novel to comment on the personal scattering so readily induced by modern culture. Daily newspapers present my sweeping glance with a collage of the most dissonant images and stories imaginable, each allocated a few inches of space, a few moments of my time. The suffering in some African war immediately yields to an overjoyed lottery winner, who in turn gives way to a dispute in the city council, followed by survey results on American sexual habits. The weather, comics, sports, book reviews -- scanning all this is how I prepare to meet the day ahead. My attention, rather than engaging problems at hand in a deepening meditation, is casually, almost unnoticeably dispersed.

In a similar way, the television sound bite has become notorious; so, too, the dizzying succession of images in movie and music video. Magazines and billboards, the chatter of boomboxes and the endless miles of retail aisleways heaped with a fiendishly beguiling array of merchandise-- all compete for a moment's subliminal notice from an otherwise absent subject, so that someone else's intentions can have their way with me. Everything is calculated to prevent my standing firmly within myself, choosing my own way in conscious self- possession. Left helpless to digest much of anything in particular, I have no choice but to let go and move with the flow, allowing it to carry me wherever it will.

The critical law at work here is that whatever I take in without having fully digested it -- whatever I receive in less than full consciousness-- does not therefore lose its ability to act upon me. It simply acts from beyond the margins of my awareness. Nothing is forgotten; it is only neglected. This is as true of Muzak as of the film image, as true of sound bites as of retail advertisements. To open myself inattentively to a chaotic world, superficially taking in “one damned thing after another,” is to guarantee a haphazard behavior controlled by that world rather than by my own, wide-awake choices.

The correlate of scattered “input,” then, is scattered “output.” Car, telephone, and television collaborate in this scattering by affording a “freedom” of action that tends to enslave me. It becomes so easy to go somewhere else -- whether via screen, phone lines, or gasoline-powered engine -- that the whirl of ceaseless goings substitutes for the hard work of inner attention to the fully dimensioned present. Encouraged to veer off wherever I wish with scarcely so much as a moment's forethought, I am never fully here -- or there, or anywhere.

All this is, as I have noted, a conventional criticism of modern culture. (Which isn't to say that we shouldn't occasionally remind ourselves of it so long as nothing changes.) But my current topic is the Net -- this at a time when the networked computer is widely assumed to counter the cultural trends just cited. By means of the Net, it is supposed, I can extend, concentrate, and enhance my mental powers. Where I am inattentive, ever-alert software running on my computer will be attentive for me. Where I am scattered, the computer will execute precise, almost maniacally focused behavior, deterred by no passing whims. Where my personal reach falls short, I can draw upon the nearly unlimited resources of a vast, electronic community.

Empty receptacles

It is not a happy task, in the face of such optimism, to have to argue that computers and the Net have become the most highly perfected means yet for the scattering of the self beyond recall. This is already hinted by the common experience of Net converts -- those many newcomers just now discovering the Internet, who find themselves enthralled by the Walmartlike aisles of cyberspace, stocked with a glorious surfeit of information. It reminds one of the stories a few years back about Russian immigrants making their first, overwrought excursions to American supermarkets. Some of them became frantic and unhinged by the incomprehensible abundance. But in the online world, it seems, being overwrought never has to end.

The relevant symptoms run far beyond the mall syndrome. They are visible, for example, in a remark by Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet's designers: “It will become critical for everyone to be connected. Anyone who doesn't will essentially be isolated from the world community.” /3/ One particular form of this false urgency shows up in a scarcely questioned conviction within online circles regarding scholarly journals. As one Net contributor writes:

Print journals are now valid as historical records rather than as the primary source of new information. If a particular field does not have ejournals [electronic journals], I believe that the researchers in that field are falling behind. The immediacy of the research in these fields could be questioned. Many fields are moving so quickly, that anyone not involved in electronic exchanges on their research would be out of it. /4/

This is arrogant nonsense, however often repeated. In what disciplines will the contribution of the next Galileo or Einstein or Darwin depend upon researchers having this month's data rather than last year's? That the “latest information” should have become such a shrill concern is itself evidence that efforts to grasp new and deeper meaning -- to see the world more profoundly and with new eyes -- are giving way to a mindless accumulation of data and opinion.

The frantic concern for recency illustrates, despite protestations to the contrary, the computer-aided triumph of the “empty-receptacle” view of the mind. Date-able knowledge is at the same time data-ble knowledge-- something we collect and store in our heads, like bits of information in a database. The computer database, in fact, has become the overwhelmingly dominant metaphor for the knowledgeable mind. It is also, I would suggest, an excellent metaphor for the scattered mind -- the mind that feverishly gathers glittering trinkets here and there, convinced that, somehow, a big enough pile of such notions will magically coalesce into one of those new paradigms said to be taking shape all around us.

The truth of the matter is that the mind contains nothing of enduring value. Its assets -- and the very substance of its achievement -- reside in its own, rigorously disciplined, revelatory shape, its flexibility, its strengthened vividness, its powers of attention and concentration, its self-awareness, its capacity for reverence and devotion.

But these qualities of the self-possessed knower, of the understanding consciousness, are exactly what, over the past five hundred years of scientific tradition, we have taught ourselves to ignore. As a result, the knowing self has disappeared into a vague sort of insupportable subjectivity -- a ghost in the machine -- now finally ready for its ultimate exorcism in favor of a denatured, mechanized reflection of intelligence. The scattered self is a disappearing self.

Additional symptoms of scattering

Needless to say, the scattered and disappearing self may have difficulty recognizing its own condition, for that would require moments of quiet contemplation and self-reflection. Consistent with the empty-receptacle view of mind, the “infonaut” finds great honor throughout cyberspace for his computer-mediated acquisition of data, but little encouragement for the mind's attention to its own activity. It is no wonder, then, that the age of the computer network should be greeted with the utterly false and unself-aware conviction that, having finally halted the attenuation of consciousness toward a vacuous and isolated subjectivity, we are now entering a new era of computationally supported Superconsciousness.

I have already mentioned a few reasons for seeing things otherwise. The reality of its scattering effects can, in fact, be traced in virtually every aspect of the computer's presence. Here are some examples:

  • Among those whose work gives them full and unrestricted access to the Internet, the daily flooding of mailboxes often assumes legendary proportions. Many of us take pride in the speed with which we can dispose of messages -- faster, perhaps, than we take in the three-inch story on the newspaper page. To contemplate the speaker behind the words -- who is he, what is my connection to him, and what do I owe him in the form of attention and concern? -- is hardly realistic. Persons fade from view, and words become more important than their human source. Increasingly, our “business” is found in the words alone.
  • Closely related to this is the almost universal habit of scanning induced by certain forms of Net access. USENET newsgroups and high- traffic email discussion lists particularly encourage this habit. Few computer users seem to realize the damaging effects of scanning, which forces a superficial, abstract, associational reading of disjointed texts (if their contents are consciously noted at all). Over the long term one understands far more by thoroughly absorbing and then reflecting upon a very few messages -- or a few paragraphs in long, sprawling messages -- than by racing through endless kilobytes at top reading speed. I suspect that many people sense this, but nevertheless find it nearly impossible to counter the insistent urge (seeming to come from without) toward a kind of hyper-browsing.
  • Again closely related is the difficulty many Net users have in resisting the continual intrusion of incoming messages. The moment a message arrives on their system, a bell sounds or an icon lights up, and they interrupt whatever they are doing to see what has come in. The workday -- already tending toward fragmentation in the modern office -- is finally reduced to electronically zapped smithereens.
  • The potential advantages of hypertext are, in actual practice, a powerful invitation to scattering. It requires a tremendous inner discipline to sink oneself deeply into the thoughts represented by any given text, rather than to set off in grand, superficial pursuit of all the imagined delights behind the “doors” showing up as hypertext links on the screen. Clearly, a generation raised on Adventure and video games -- where every door conceals a treasure or a monster worth pursuing in frenetic style -- has its own way of appreciating the hypertext interface. And society's experience with television -- where the “links” are buttons on a remote control device -- doesn't suggest positive things about our ability to use hypertext rather than be used by it.
  • Many features of electronic word processing software tend to promote automatic, reflexive activity in the composition of our own texts. /5/ This is evident enough in the texts themselves. The message dashed off “without a second thought” -- and often copied with equal thoughtfulness to a distribution list -- is the message that determines the tone of the Net. We find ourselves immersed in a sea of words produced much too easily, without depth or weight, and saying nothing in particular.
  • The programming task requires one to abstract from a problem just those elements that can be embedded in a mechanism. Apart from a conscious, countervailing effort, this means inattention to all the human dimensions of the problem that cannot be mechanically captured. For example, group support software is typically designed to assist in the transformation of a set of initial “inputs” into a set of eventual “outputs.” That this entire effort is merely a transient reflection of the real purpose of any productive group -- which is, or should be, for the individuals to work creatively together, and thereby to foster mutually the development of their human capacities -- hardly figures in the design of most software engineering projects. So the lives of both programmer and program user are filled with inherently unrelated tasks -- unrelated because lacking connection to enduring purposes. /6/
  • Even the much-discussed “hacker syndrome” is related to the scattered self. The obsessiveness of the socially cut off, out-of- control programmer can only arise as the complement of a lost center. While this obsessiveness represents a kind of concentration and attention, it is an attention that rules the self rather than being at the self's disposal. That is, having failed to gain an ability to direct himself in conscious purposefulness, the hacker becomes subject to compulsions acting from unhealthy places beneath consciousness.

Beyond these brief suggestions, the television may have a few things to tell us about the potentials of the computer.

A prison window

If the television has proven an ideal instrument for scattering and weakening my powers of attention and my ability to be fully present, the networked computer promises to challenge me more radically still. Where television leads me through an endless kaleidoscope of passive experiences without any possibility of my being “all there” in any of them (I cannot react in any normal way to the accident shown on the screen, so I learn to blunt my powers of presence and response), the computer invites me to carry out even the active business of my working and social life without being all there.

I may revel in the fact that all of cyberspace, offering all its manifold transactions, is available through this small window on my desk. It is well to remember, however, that until recently most windows mediating the world to us in such a restrictive fashion had steel bars in them. Not many welcomed the prison. Some prisoners, it's true, have reported sublime experiences when catching a rare moment's glimpse of a bird through a narrow slit open to the sky. But it seems enough today if the window is glazed over with phosphors, so that we can divert ourselves unremittingly with the wonders of 3-D graphics, imagining that we are free to go wherever we wish. /7/

No doubt we can structure our lives and society so as to conduct all important business upon the surface of this small window. In outward terms, Vinton Cerf's claim may then become true: anyone disconnected from the Net will be isolated from world community. But even then, we must hope there will remain someone for whom the world hidden behind the glossed-over window is not altogether forgotten. Someone for whom the bird-shaped collection of illuminated pixels invokes the faint memory of a living creature with seeing eyes and beating heart -- and for whom the difference between image and reality has not yet faded into mistiness. Someone for whom a routine financial transaction can still be an expression of trust. Someone for whom strong feeling has not finally been reduced to the vacuity of an email flame.

One reason the computer's invitation to scattering -- like television's -- is so strong, is that everything appearing on the surface of this small window remains an abstract representation of the unseen world beyond the window. When the world is presented to us at such a great remove, we require a heroic effort of imaginative reconstruction to avoid slipping by degrees into a habit of treating the representations on the window surface in the half-conscious, reflexive manner typical of the video game player. There is good reason for thinking that television has made this effort of imaginative reconstruction more difficult. The computer, by letting us enter a gamelike world even while conducting our business, may be making the effort nearly impossible.

False comparisons

Many people assume that computer technology is leading us out of the television wasteland, “because now everything is interactive.” But this overlooks almost the entire significance of interactivity, which enables us to put the video screen to extensive new uses. We couldn't do our banking or coordinate our engineering projects by television; with the computer, we can.

The important thing about interactivity is not that it redeems old forms of entertainment (it doesn't), but rather what it does to the new activities now being adapted to the video screen. Making sitcoms interactive will not lead to cultural transformation, but there's every reason to expect, for example, that moving local, face-to-face politics online will tend to change the character of those politics in the direction of what we've already seen happen to televised politics.

Interactivity, in other words, does not salvage the preexisting wasteland, but it may well reduce huge tracts of once-thriving adjacent territory to semiaridity. The argument based on interactivity would have us say, in effect, “Look how much greener than the desert this new, semiarid land is!” Meanwhile, by means of the computer, concrete human activity itself is invited toward passivity, automatism, and lowered consciousness. This is a momentous development.

The sleight of hand in the argument about interactivity is repeated on many fronts. To cite one other example: the informality of much computer-mediated communication is often seen as a recovery of the direct, the personal, the participatory, the emotionally expressive. Many observers, contrasting this “new orality” with formal or “literate” communication, see the computer carrying us back to earlier, more vivid and personalized forms of human exchange.

But the relevant comparison is not between oral and literate. It is between the genuinely oral communication that once took place face- to-face, and the “secondary orality” now electronically replacing that communication. Here we see the computer's influence running exactly counter to the usual thesis: informal communication is tending toward the abstract, disengaged, and remote, with feeling conveyed indirectly through the artifice of written expression, and participation unavoidably constrained by the narrower channel.

I should add that the ease with which this sleight of hand succeeds-- and anyone willing to spend time perusing a selection of Net discussion groups can quickly verify the success -- is itself testimony to an idealism loosed from reality.

Ideals cannot be engineered

The ideals sought by the scattered mind are empty ideals, abstract ideals, ideals without grip -- hovering uselessly in the air above earth rather than ennobling earth. Much of the appeal of cyberspace appears to be its clean, dematerialized, conceptual nature, born of the programmer's and engineer's schematizing, ungrounded and therefore uncontaminated. That many Net enthusiasts see this as a strength -- as an opportunity to realize our highest ideals -- testifies to the absence of the concrete human being from the idealist's aseptic calculations. He has forgotten that the improvement of the human being is a messy, lifelong undertaking, inseparable from suffering.

What, then? Can human ideals survive the Internet? Surely they can, but the main reason for thinking they are not in fact surviving lies in the much too easy, much too widespread conviction that they will naturally take root in the etherealized soil of cyberspace. The Net's idealistic (or, equally, its fatalistic) depiction evidences a loss of awareness about where ideals may find (or fail of) their fulfillment.

The fulfilled ideal is never anything other than an extended human capacity -- for generosity, for sympathetic understanding, for forgiving, for the imaginative projection of a better future .... Our having forgotten this fact suggests that the issue today is whether we can come to ourselves in the presence of our intelligent artifacts, and therefore whether there is any future for human ideals.

The computer, like so many tools, is a specialized and one-sided expression of what we have become, and therefore requires an effort of self-mastery. It requires the restoration of a disrupted internal balance. We benefit from this, for in mastering new tools we strengthen our own capacities. In this sense, every tool paradoxically offers us one gift above all others: it gives us something to work against. We turn it to our own use -- overcoming it in the process -- not primarily in order to gain some thing as a result, but in order to have accomplished the overcoming. It is always ourselves we work on, whether we realize it or not. There is no other work to be done in the world.

And today the needful work is to distinguish ourselves from our machines. It is to rediscover, for example, that all knowledge is knowledge of man, and that nothing worth calling an ideal can be found in the engineered world, but only in ourselves.

All this has a simple and inescapable implication. If the computer's gift is a landmark one in human history -- and I believe it is -- it can only be so because it poses a landmark danger. We can, after all, fail in the required self-mastery. If we are asked to come to ourselves over against our machines, we remain free to shun this extremely difficult work. So far, there has scarcely been an acknowledgment that the challenge even exists, let alone engagement with it.

A place for hope, and a place for doubt

I am not a fatalist, but my pessimism about our immediate prospects in the “age of information” could scarcely be greater. At the same time, some will find my underlying hope, rooted in the reality of human freedom, difficult to tolerate. Given these contrary tendencies of my thought, it may help to differentiate the two contexts in which my pessimism and hope come to expression:

  • When I am speaking to the individual as he sits at his computer, I cannot point and say either “good!” or “bad!” We're not in that universe of discourse. All I can say is, “Enliven the word! Work at enlivening the word! If you cannot do so, you will lose yourself! Like it or not, the computer is with us to stay. So far as you are required to use it, you must redeem it or you will become like it.” Where the individual's sovereign freedom rules, I speak of choices, and cannot prescribe.

    There is hope. The mere exchange of written words between two human beings can lead -- for persons with extraordinarily developed sensitivities -- to a more intimate knowledge of each other and a more substantial bearing of each other's burdens than most of us will ever achieve, say, in a lifetime of marriage. There have been some truly remarkable correspondences over the course of history.

    In some ways, the computer may be helping to call us toward exactly such deepened perceptions of each other. Wherever there is a word, there is a little frozen piece of the interior of a human being. It can, through painfully difficult effort, be thawed and enlivened. It can bring the other person alive for us. Moreover, the computer's inert manipulation of the word drives us to seek, by contrast, how we can speak out of our full humanity.

  • If, on the other hand, I am addressing policy issues or social prospects, then current responses to the imperative just described become the basis for my assessment. Here the facts are whatever they are, and there is no necessary balance between hope and despair. We can, at a particular point in history, be quite as evidently headed toward disaster as once we were headed, say, toward World War II. Our task is to read the evidences and draw whatever conclusions we must. /8/

My own conclusion, given voice in the following chapters, is stark: if we continue assimilating our lives to computers according to the tendencies already broadly active in society -- and those tendencies show every sign of retaining their grip upon us -- then we will finally lose ourselves.

It is in this second, policy context -- where, for example, we choose to inflict the computer upon millions of schoolchildren who have not asked for this reductive assault upon their higher capacities, and where we rush to assimilate every aspect of society to the computer's programmed necessities -- that a spirit of judgment reigns most uncompromisingly in me. I say this confessionally, for I would rather it were not so. I would prefer to state the computer's challenge from a wholly positive inner stance. Fear and judgment in an author do not encourage the reader's awakening to himself; yet a book is justified only insofar as it serves this awakening.

Some sort of “full disclosure statement” is therefore advisable. I conclude with two such statements: the first relates to the two preceding contexts, and the second to my own journey in writing this book.

We must see what is at risk

As I was finishing work on The Future Does Not Compute, a friendly critic referred to my “jeremiad” against computers and wondered whether a more balanced approach might increase my effectiveness. It was then that I first made the distinction between personal responsibility and social policy. And I went on to reply as follows:

“You claim that I grant no possibility for ‘real and important kinds of online community.’ That's not true. I accept both the reality and the importance.

“The online community is real because every medium that passes a ‘word’ -- by which I mean an expressive gesture, an act with an inside -- will bear some kind of human community. As I remark in Chapter 6, community will even take hold of the asphalt highway and the television talk show. The online community is also important because, given its inevitably deepening hold on society, everything rides on our learning to master it -- to make it as fully human a community as possible.

“Similarly, some readers seem convinced that, because in the policy context, I see little positive hope for certain computer uses, I must be telling them, ‘it's wrong for you to use these things,’ or at least ‘it's impossible to do anything worthwhile or genuine or personally authentic with these things.’ As a policy matter, this may be close to the current truth: those institutions being adapted to the computer will almost certainly continue to be drained of their remaining human dimensions. That's the way we are employing the computer. It has a lot to do with our abstracting and computational bent, under development now for several centuries. The computer requires a frightfully intense effort on our part if we're to overcome its downward pull.

“But as a way of addressing the individual facing his computer, this reading is almost the opposite of the truth. Not only can we do worthwhile things with computers, not only are worthwhile things being done every day, we must learn how to bring our computerized interactions fully alive, so that they represent more than just the hopeless loss of something. This is true regarding all the terms of human exchange, in whatever medium.

“So another way I could state the relation between the two contexts is this: so far as I must deal with the computer -- because it is ever less escapable in modern society -- or so far as I feel it my personal necessity to take up the challenge of the computer, to that degree I confront the urgent need to discover how to make the computer an instrument of human ends. But this is not the same as choosing to thrust the computer ever more deeply into a society that already looks like failing the challenge badly.

“This, then, brings me to the central matter. I said above that I haven't really learned yet how to speak about the computer's promise. I am hoping you will grant at least the possibility that there are some good reasons for this -- perhaps, in the first place, the ‘simple’ reason that computers present a vast and complex challenge that few of us are yet well positioned to take on. Considering that the real terms of the challenge still go almost completely unacknowledged in social debate, I think this explanation is reasonable.

“It is, moreover, related to a second point. Can anyone seriously accept the grave personal responsibility to enliven the word without first having an inkling of what is at risk -- that is, without first recognizing the perilous place to which we have come as homo computandus? I do not believe it is possible. We are not going to sweat the necessary blood over something that hasn't become desperately, threateningly important to us.

“Bear in mind where we are, as I have pictured it in PART THREE, ‘The Electronic Word.’ In the line that runs from orality to literacy to the printed book to the computer, we find the computer bringing to near completion the severing of the word from its live source in the individual. Not only that, but the programmed computer now sets the words in motion, mimicking (and, by common understanding, duplicating or replacing) the speaking human being in many and expanding circumstances.

“You and I will not adequately embark upon our individual labors without seeing the scale of the threat, and we cannot see the scale of the threat without ... seeing it. What I have basically attempted to do in this book is to sketch the threat. I have also tried to make clear that the only reasonable place the sketch can lead is to a kind of inner awakening whose content I'm in no position to prescribe for others.

“For the general undertaking of the book, I can only believe that what you call my jeremiad is a true and ‘balanced’ representation. Perhaps it is not the most effective approach. I am trying to discover others. But the difficulty of starting with the positive potential of the computer is, I am convinced, a Herculean one.

“Personally, I would indict the book on two counts: it does not lead over into a strongly positive vision (because the vision is as yet beyond my ken); and it does not adequately depict the desperation of our current circumstances.

“It's not inconceivable to me that the computer in our society will prove a kind of ‘necessary disaster,’ rather as one might think of World War II as having been a necessary prerequisite for some more distant good. At the point where World War II loomed large, a wise person might have accepted the prospects and given himself over to planting seeds for the future amidst the enveloping chaos. But no wise person will speak casually of the ‘good’ in such things as wars -- even though good does somehow emerge from the rubble. I myself have just recently been chastised -- with some justice, I fear -- for speaking too lightly of the good in illness.

“But isn't it even less wise to speak lightly of the good in something that promises to bring suffering on the level of a pestilence or a war, and yet is widely embraced as if it were a savior?”

If a question of balance can be asked of the book, it can also be asked of the author....

This book is a symptom

This book is not full of solutions. In fact, it is itself a symptom. When I write about the dangers of computerized technology, I find that I have sketched my own one-sidedness, much as the police artist sketches a criminal from a victim's description. An editor wrote alongside one of my more computer-phobic outbursts, “How can you say this when it's your own life you're describing?”

It is my own life; that's why I can say it. I work on a concrete basement floor at home, isolated in front of a large screen and surrounded by a high-powered computer, modem, laser printer, telephone, and fax machine. I'm an editor for a publisher of computer books. For the past thirteen years my job has included programming responsibilities in addition to technical writing. In order to produce this book, I have sat for much-too-long days -- and weekends -- in front of my terminal, eyes glassy, spinal nerves in my neck going bad, general health and fitness deteriorating, my family neglected, the equipment around me dictating the terms of my existence.

I do not now wish I had done differently. But I will never again live with technology in quite the same way. To be imbalanced is one thing; to fail to change and grow is another. I have changed. Or, at least, I have started to change. If nothing else, this book has forced it. It has required me to look technology in the eye, and begin deciding what to do about my own relation to it.

One thing was done even as I wrote: I moved with my family to a strongly rooted rural community -- a sort of unintentional intentional community -- where the attempt to find a human-centered stance toward technology is much less a matter of theorizing than a deeply committed way of life. There is irony in this, however: my telecommuting is what made the move possible.

I have also begun to manage my exposure to technology. But this does little good as a purely negative process. I have recognized, as Robert Sardello puts it, that I must discover the soul of technology, and work toward its redemption. /9/ Among other things, this requires that I find the counterbalance within my own life to the relentless pressures -- issuing from within as well as from without -- to compute the terms of my humanity. The computer, after all, symbolizes a society in which the head has been severed from heart and will. I have learned the hard way that when my head runs on by itself -- automatically, according to its precious, insulated logic -- it is controlled by subterranean impulses of heart and will that I can never be fully aware of.

Art and nature, I have begun to glimpse, can play a healing role here -- hardly a revelation to those less one-sided than I. So, too, can such simple acts as scheduling my time harmoniously and paying a more concerned attention to my immediate environment. There is also the need for a disciplined exercise of perception and thinking -- certainly as important as exercising the physical organism. And then, for me -- self-contradictory as the effort turned out to be -- there was the writing of this book. These pages, you might say, record the conversation I had with myself as I sought a way out. The self- contradiction is part of the story.

If I had wanted a book that was not a symptom, I would have had to wait until I possessed all the answers. There would never have been a book. No one will find a solution to the problems of technology -- or to any other human challenge -- except by first coming to terms with himself and moving personally toward wholeness. But to capture something of the move toward wholeness is to capture an unfinished -- and therefore still symptomatic -- enterprise.

You may read the symptoms as you wish. If you think that I have “intellectualized” too much, I will not quarrel with you. I may even reply under my breath, “Yes, that's part of what I mean -- that's the one-sidedness of our age, from which only now do I nurse any timid hopes of eventual escape.” If you find my view of technology overly negative, I can only acknowledge that I have not yet been able to recognize what a redeemed technology might look like. I am absolutely convinced that redemption -- sometime, somewhere -- is possible. But I also know that a society can choose to make a pact with the devil. Even such a pact may perhaps be redeemed; but I do not know the way.

I have striven in this book to understand, so far as I am able, the encounter between man and computer. If understanding is not itself a solution, it is at least an essential prerequisite for any solution. Anyone who demands from others something more than understanding -- for example, an “answer” or a “program” -- is himself driven by the computational paradigm. What he really wants is mechanically effective “information” and an escape from personal responsibility. It is, in fact, the great blindness imposed by the technological spirit to believe that we can safely ignore ourselves -- as if all we needed were a proper, technical plan of action.

Really, there never can be solutions in human affairs. There are only passages. By contrast, the computational paradigm is the final crystallization -- in “hard logic” -- of our efforts over the past few hundred years to recast the issues of human destiny as questions of technique. But your destiny and mine are not technical problems to be solved; they are meanings to be entered into, and possibilities for personal growth.

This book is written for those who seek escape from everything anti- human, and who would reclaim their own destinies. It's just that I cannot tell you exactly what the escape is, and I certainly cannot point you to your destiny. I can only try to contribute, within this broader, human context, to an understanding of the problems.

Perhaps, at least, the display of my own symptoms will aid the effort to understand. If I remain one-sided, it is precisely with the one- sidedness of the computer-in-the-head. I still struggle to apprehend -- or be apprehended by -- those soft-breathed, inner gestures that, like the patient caress of wind and water, can dismantle the frozen, logical perfection of the most adamantine crystal.


1. Rheingold, 1993: 67.

2. Net announcement posted by on December 6, 1994.

3. “US data highway gathers speed,” The Boston Globe, 26 December 1992.

4. From a contribution to the “ipct-l” list (, 16 November 1993.

5. See especially chapters 15, “Dancing with My Computer,” and 16, “The Tyranny of the Detached Word.”

6. See Chapter 10, “Thoughts on a Group Support System.”

7. For discussion of common issues presented by computers and television, see Chapter 14, “Children of the Machine,” and chapter 25, “What This Book Was About.”

8. For an overview of some of the social forces directing society's adaptation to the computer, see Iacono, Suzanne and Kling, Rob, “Computerization Movements and Tales of Technological Utopianism” in Kling, 1995. Numerous other papers in the same volume provide useful background.

9. Sardello, 1992.

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