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The Future Does Not Compute by Stephen L. Talbott

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On Being Responsible for Earth

This is Chapter 5 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 http://www.netfuture.org/.

Jerry Mander thinks we should trash computers, along with much of the rest of modern technology. He is, I think, as close to being right as one can get while being crucially, tragically wrong.

Mander's In The Absence Of The Sacred -- The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations is a profoundly important book, and I would give much to guarantee its broad dissemination throughout our society. One can scarcely participate responsibly in contemporary discussions of technology while willfully ignoring Mander's broad thesis.

We need to see ourselves

Technology, Mander tells us, is not neutral; it has a mind of its own. The same goes for businesses; the corporation, which Mander rightly likens to a machine, is driven by an unconsidered compulsion to grow, and is biased toward the profitable employment of new technology, regardless of the social consequences. Those consequences -- whether we're talking about the telephone, the television, or genetic engineering -- are rarely visible during the early stages of development. Nor is there any realistic public discussion about the effects and desirability of new technologies.

By the time the body politic becomes aware of problems with technology, it is usually after they are well installed in the system and their effects are too late to reverse. Only now, four decades after the introduction of computers, are there any rumblings of discontent, any realizations of their full implications. By the time the alarm finally goes off, technologies have intertwined with one another to create yet another generation of machines, which makes unraveling them next to impossible, even if society had the will to do it.

As the interlocking and interweaving and spawning of new technologies take place, the weave of technology becomes ever tighter and more difficult to separate .... Technological evolution leads inevitably to its own next stages, which can be altered only slightly. (pp. 188-89)

When a society is trapped in a pattern it does not even think to escape, the important thing is to offer viewpoints outside the pattern, enabling people to see themselves from new and unexpected angles. Mander does this in two ways. First, he shows us modern society in a historical context. Considering that much of his sketch spans only a few decades, it is surprisingly effective in giving us fresh eyes. He mentions, for example, how, during the Fifties, his neighborhood would gather around the only available television set at certain times during the week:

Viewing was a group event, with socializing before and after. Soon, however, each family had its own set, or sets. Programming extended to all hours, day and night. A community event was transformed into an isolated experience: at first, families watched alone; then soon each individual was left alone in his or her own room, silently watching. (p. 16)

The entire neighborhood changed its character, yet no social assessment, no decision to embrace or modify such effects accompanied the change. It just happened -- it was “the nature of things” -- and so was accepted as part of life's inevitability.

Mander's second strategy for getting us to see ourselves is to confront us with wholly incompatible cultures -- the various American Indian nations, as well as native peoples on other continents. Nothing could be more dramatic than the collision between our own cultural steamroller and those indigenous races that might have opted out of our mad technological rush, but whose options were taken away from them. At its worst, this collision leads to the almost overnight destruction of family, tribe, and spiritual conviction under an inexcusable and continuing policy of cultural extinction. It is worth the price of the book just to learn something about what happens when private land ownership and the ballot, for example, are forced upon a people whose connection to the land is much more profound than the laws of economic ownership can ever recognize, and whose tradition of consensus building, rooted in the unhurried contemplation of an enduring tribal wisdom, may have much to teach us about social governance.

Computerized technology is not a fixed quantity

Mander's critique seems to me unassailable in broad outline: technology now runs out of control, and prominent among the consequences of this fact is the unprecedented destruction of human cultures. However, a penchant for reckless commentary mars his exposition. A few examples:

  • Mander repeats uncritically the wholly uncertain claim that we face crises of ozone depletion and global warming. It would have been better merely to point out that we are playing Russian roulette with our environment.
  • He asserts -- probably wrongly -- that computers give large companies competitive advantages over smaller ones.
  • He swallows the absurd, if oft-repeated, opinion that the Judeo- Christian religion desanctifies the world and places mankind in oppressive domination over it. To fail to distinguish between the sources of Judeo-Christian belief and their perversion within certain strands of Western culture is like seeing a propensity toward alcoholism in the religion of American Indians.
  • In his ill-advised singling out of Ronald Reagan (“the television president”), Mander notes various “Orwellian” pronouncements of the former chief executive, such as when he “unabashedly claimed that massive rearming was the way to disarm.” But to leave it at that is to push the ejection button, fleeing the dilemmas and necessities of the human condition. There is, after all, a case to be made that Reagan was right, and that he succeeded. There has long been too much silliness and conformity in the political orthodoxies of the various cultural reform movements; one hates to see so effective a contrarian thinker as Mander following along blindly.

These peccadillos do not vitiate the main argument. But Mander does neglect one critical fact: what we have embodied in technology are our own habits of thought. Yes, our artifacts gain a life of their own, but it is, in a very real sense, our life. We too easily ignore the ways in which we infuse these artifacts with the finespun web of our own, largely subconscious habits of thought. The need is to raise these habits to full consciousness, and then take responsibility for them.

This is most clearly true for the computer. Everything we might complain about in the computer -- its insistence upon dealing with abstractions, its reduction of the qualitative to a set of quantities, its insertion of a nonspatial but effective distance between users, its preference for unambiguous and efficiently manipulative relationships in all undertakings -- these computational traits have long been tendencies of our own thinking and behavior, especially as influenced by science. Trashing the current technology therefore gains us nothing if we ourselves do not change -- we will, out of habit, simply invent a new prison for ourselves using whatever materials are at hand. But if we can change our habits of mind, then Mander's argument that many technological products have a fixed, irremediable bias and should therefore be shunned loses its validity.

To destroy or to create

In his crusade against technology and its enabling mindset, Mander dismisses all human exploration as a quest for “economic gain, military advantage, the satisfaction of the ego, and satisfaction of technological society's intrinsic drive to expand” (p. 139). Similarly, he can see in the human hope to fulfill “nature's evolutionary design” only a covert extension of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny (pp. 140-41). He is right this far: there is no denying our wholesale abuse of our trust as stewards of earth. But we have already been given, by Mander's own testimony, the godlike authority to destroy the earth. To refuse to accept the equally godlike task of redirecting that authority toward healing and the fulfillment of earth's potentials is to guarantee ultimate ruin.

It may be nearly unthinkable that, in our present state of sleepwalking subservience to technology, we could begin to tame the monster, to make it the obedient servant of truly human ends. But (as Mander acknowledges) it is equally unthinkable that we should simply turn our back upon technology in the manner he advises. The one course does not seem to me more difficult or less likely than the other.

What is tragic about Mander's admirable book is that, by flatly rejecting the computer and other forms of technology, it invites us away from exactly that sense of deep, positive responsibility for technology without which we can have little hope for the future. There is no true responsibility that is not a creative responsibility, requiring human art and artifice.

To put it differently: another word for responsibility is “dominion” --not the dominion of raw power, but of effective wisdom. The human task, however much we have botched it to date, will remain decisive for our planet. The earth is in our hands.

Much in the Western tradition -- in which Mander seems to find few redeeming qualities -- is requisite to our inescapable responsibilities. This includes all that is best in the uniquely Western development of scientific discipline: the habit of rigorous, detached observation, the finely tuned mental machinery of analysis, the requirement that theories work. But Mander is right when he claims that, in the name of this discipline, we have lost our bearings and spawned technologies that now run amok through the countryside. The glimmers of hope here and there -- increasing acceptance of biological pest management and other techniques of the organic farmer; sensitive ecological studies of the environment; the nascent effort to understand the principles by which indigenous peoples have cared for the earth; the slowly growing awareness that technology threatens to make us as much as we make it -- none of these can come to fruition within a science still stubbornly determined to exclude the human spirit.

We are indeed caretakers of our planet. But even the most reverent gardener must invent, contrive, fashion clever devices, and discover how to foster rebirth amid the most extensive decay and failure. This exercise of a devout, wise, spirit-connected authority over the earth is surely what the earth craves -- today more than at any other time in our history.

True, current technologies express our disastrous abdication of this authority. Our machines begin to run by themselves, and to serve their own ends, and we ourselves are carried along. Mander is right in this. But that is exactly why human responsibility must be taken seriously -- even to the point of “redeeming” technology. For I think it is fair to say that we can no longer stop or even redirect the engine of technological change by brute, external force. Such force is the principle of the engine itself, and only strengthens it. We must tame technology by rising above it and reclaiming what is not mechanical in ourselves. And if we can manage somehow to do that -- I do not say that we will do it -- who knows what the technology of the future may become?

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