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The Future Does Not Compute by Stephen L. Talbott

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At the Fringe of Freedom

This is Chapter 7 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/.

It is strange that in a society founded so centrally on the creative initiative and freedom of the individual, we should today find this same individual so utterly helpless before the most urgent social problems.

Or so it seems. If you are troubled, for example, by the drug problem in our cities, what can you actually do about it? The educational system, family structure, mass media, organized crime, international commerce, welfare system -- all affect, and in turn are affected by, the culture of drugs and violence. It is not easy to see where you and I might step into the picture and make a discernible difference. It is all too easy to see how we might throw our lives away.

Similar perplexities arise if you think about the famines regularly scything millions of people, or the massive human assaults upon mother earth, or the stranglehold with which the indifferent imperatives of technological development now direct the evolution of social forms. The problems have gone so systemic, the causes become so tortured and inaccessible, the interrelationships grown so intricate, that we cannot imagine how to fix one thing without fixing everything. That, of course, seems impossible, so paralysis sets in./1/

“What can I do to change things?” has become as much a prelude to resignation as a declaration of hopeful intent. Which is to say that the forces at work seem ever more impersonal, more disconnected from individual human activity, more autonomous. Perhaps (although I do not believe it) this is the inevitable result of increasing social complexity. In any case, you and I will most likely continue to take our places within a scheme of things whose larger outlines are already given, and amidst processes of change that seem elemental, inescapable, overwhelming. When a “new world order” is proclaimed, the new realities are not what we saw and planned for -- not what we carefully ushered into place -- but more like something that happened to us. We can only react, and wait for the next set of realities. Oddly -- or perhaps not so oddly -- our sense of personal helplessness coincides with historically unsurpassed technical powers.

Our apparent inability to mend things has a perverse flip side: the things we can't help doing seem unavoidably to worsen matters. Every action sets in motion endless, outward-flowing ripples, some of which are undeniably destructive. The smallest and most essential purchase, for example, may well entail unhealthy consequences for the environment. If I have the means to live in a community where my children will receive a first-class public education, I must ask what effect this choice has upon other children in other districts. The politically naive hand that offers food to a starving Somali child may call down death and destruction on an entire village. Even in paying taxes or contributing to a charitable organization, I take on my own share of responsibility for certain things I find inexcusable. The moral conflicts so fiendishly calculated in the modern dictatorial state -- involving thousands of small complicities on the one hand, and, on the other, unbearable threats to self and loved ones (what would become of us if we strictly followed our consciences?) --remain a constant, if more muted, feature even of democratic societies.

“The System” -- a negatively tinged and historically recent phrase -- captures something of the impersonality and moral ambiguity I'm talking about. The System is something we try to beat, and fear becoming trapped in. Vaguely allied with the devil, it is a power we nevertheless must employ -- or at least outwit -- if we are to succeed in doing good.

There's no avoiding the System. Not even Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond could pretend to an immaculate escape from participation in, and responsibility for, the larger society. As a result of our “complicity,” either of two pathologies may be reinforced: neurotic self-condemnation, or a dulled conscience. Both are fully enough in evidence. But perhaps most pervasively, we find a vague, persistent sense of collective guilt, without which the more absurd, guilt-driven expressions of political correctness could never have surfaced.

Institutions take form within the human being

Some fifteen years ago Alexander Bos wrote a remarkable little booklet commenting on some of these matters. It's called Nothing To Do With Me? He describes, for example, the history of insurance in Europe. “Before 1600 it had almost exclusively the character of mutual help. In small communities there was an unwritten right to receive help. If someone had had a fire, for example, he could go round with an urgent letter, collecting money to restore his burned house. Of course people gave generously, knowing that in their own time of need they could count on the other for a contribution” (pp. 22-23).

Over time, however, the desire for individual freedom militated against this sort of mutual dependence, leading to the payment of premium and interest. “B, having obtained credit from A, pays interest, to buy off any obligation to help A when he needs it.” Banks and insurance companies eventually came to insulate the one who needs from the one who helps, so that the entire system was depersonalized. One bought security. Or tried to -- for Bos points out that the resulting independence was illusory. How many of us feel any profound security before the faceless bureaucracies that hold our welfare in their hands? Quite apart from the threat of inflation and the unforeseen revelations in the small print at the back of the insurance contract, I am still helpless “if, by the time I am pensioned off, there isn't anybody who is willing to do anything for me” (pp. 23-24). In the humblest terms: who will open the jar of food that an arthritic hand cannot manage? And the nursing home, with all its terrors for the elderly, stands as an apt image for the final stages of an institutionally nurtured helplessness.

This is not to say that the old system always worked, or that the new does not offer dramatic changes we have come to identify with progress. Bos is merely trying to make clear that there is a connection between what human beings choose to become in their own hearts, and the social structures that grow up around them. In this particular case, the issue is whether our historical abandonment of institutions based on personal trust has led to independence, or instead to a more thoroughgoing -- if also a more diffuse and unaccountable -- dependence upon a system over which one has almost no control at all.

Hungry dragons

The subtle threads linking the interior of the individual to prevailing social forms extend beyond economic matters. Bos mentions, for example, our obsessed fascination with sensational news -- sex scandals, grisly murders, embezzlements, the spectacular downfall of public figures. Here, too, he searches within the individual for the essential, enabling gestures leading to social problems:

Such news is food for a particular kind of feeling and emotion. By the time this morning's paper comes out, yesterday's food has long been used up. There is an emptiness left behind, and the soul is hungry for a new injection. It is like the dragon in the fairy tale, that must have a young maiden every year, otherwise it will break out and destroy the whole neighborhood .... Is it only actions that are real; and do feelings and thoughts actually have no effect? If millions of hungry little dragons are all clamoring for a young maiden, isn't there one who is really bound to be eaten up? When so many people are anxiously on the look-out for the next murder -- with “sincere” moral indignation -- does the desire not create a potentially magnetic field to attract just such a deed? Most of us will think we could resist an impulse of that sort, but the chain of humanity has weak links in it. There will be people who from whatever cause ... are predisposed to such action .... There has to be copy for tomorrow's edition. (pp. 13-14)

We know too much about mass hysteria and other aberrations of the collective psyche to dismiss these remarks out of hand. Only recall the Los Angeles freeway shootings, which came in a bizarre, well-publicized wave. Having witnessed such a pronounced form of the dragons' hunger, we cannot reasonably ignore the likelihood of more subtle and pervasive predations.

All these inner choices have their social costs, incalculable though they be: in the legal and penal systems we have erected to protect our contractual relations with each other, in the medical and psychiatric consequences of mutual alienation, in the dissipation of human resources by the industries of mindless and sensational entertainment.

Technology can distract us from ourselves

There may be, then, discernible connections between my individual behavior and the particular social forms and institutions that grow up around me. This is true even in the case of those strange outbreaks that seem, at first, wholly foreign to my own life. To recognize the uniting threads, however, requires me to look beyond the external and mechanical relationships; it requires me to look within myself, and to learn a most delicate skill: how to identify my own reflection in society and society's reflection within me. Upon such a basis I can perhaps begin approaching social problems as meaningful issues to work upon.

Not that it will ever be easy. There is no denying the almost personal “wish” of society to wrench itself free from the human individual, and to tear along as a self-driven mechanism determining its own future. We see this in the corporation, we see it in all those academic disciplines framing a purely mechanistic view of the world, and we see it above all else in the largely self-determined and insanely accelerating evolution of technology. Crowning it all is the computer. With computers we construct our models of society. All good models “run by themselves.” But if society runs by itself, I do not need to worry about my contribution.

It now almost seems to us as if all social forms are merely side effects of technical developments. When a problem arises, our first thought is, how can we bring technology to bear upon it? The furthest thing from our minds may well be: what does this problem tell us about ourselves and about how we should change?

Nor is this surprising. For in a society built to “run by itself” -- a society in which the idea of individual choice brings to mind, first of all, the “mechanisms of the market” -- technology truly does offer the only immediate, apparent change. And so we draw its weave ever tighter. Once the terms of human exchange have been reduced to the “transactions” of a transaction processing system (as a common type of software is called) will we know how to work on society other than by tinkering with the computational processes? And what, then, becomes of the human potential for inner development?

Ask yourself: in all the public discussion about the Net -- in all the debates about carriers and content; telephone, cable, and broadcast companies; technical standards and configurations; universal access and privilege; privacy; productivity and unemployment; telecommuting and corporate redesign -- how many people have discussed what you and I need to learn about dealing with the burden of technology that we carry inside us and project into our society? (For surely every newly invented machine and technical process is first imaged within its creators.) There is not much evidence that we are paying heed to the peculiar dragons of technology./2/

Between helplessness and freedom

For reasons that should appear at the end, I have intended for this chapter to be frustrating -- although I hope constructively frustrating. You may in any case be asking, “Are we free to change things or not? And if the individual does still make a difference, by what means?”

I would answer yes to the first question, even if it's a rather complicated yes:

  • Our society more and more runs along by itself like a machine.
  • This, however, does not mean we should abdicate our freedom, although nearly irresistible forces in society are asking that of us. Rather, it summons us to discover and exercise our freedom. The need is to recognize ourselves in our machines, and our machines in ourselves, and begin to raise ourselves above our machines. A society running on by itself, out of control, points to processes in ourselves running on without conscious control.

I began by citing the paradox of individual freedom in an era of individual helplessness. It is indeed a paradox, but not an insurmountable one. We could not seek freedom if we did not experience constraints. To recognize constraint is to assert a free capacity; a wholly unfree creature would know nothing of constraint, which can only be felt as a hindrance to some existing potential. Neither the wholly unfree nor the wholly free could experience what freedom means./3/ Freedom, you might say, is not a state, but a tension, a name for the process of becoming free.

So the paradox of apparent individual helplessness in an era of unprecedented social challenge is exactly the sign we would expect if the promise of freedom now stands brightly before us. Our dilemma is not really a paradox so much as it is an invitation. Our freedom remains nascent, sometimes perverted, often trivialized. But the prevailing spirit of helplessness is both a challenge to what freedom we have and the proffered means for its further development. Precisely there, where our experience of unfreedom is most painfully acute, we are being prodded, invited, to enter into freedoms not yet discovered.

This brings me to the crux of the chapter. Don't ask me for a program, an action plan, a list of things you should do. That is exactly what almost everyone else is trying to tell you, and what I cannot. To ask for a program is already perilously close to asking for a “machine” that will take care of the problem. It is already to be looking for a technical solution. If what I would do must be set out in a list -- an algorithm -- then I have yet to take hold of my freedom. And I will finally and fully have declined the invitation to freedom if the day comes when I can no longer even conceive my responsibility for society except in technical terms.

So the first thing is more a knowing and a being than a doing. If the thin threads connecting my freedom to social problems are becoming ever more tortuous and obscure, the first connection I must look for is precisely the one between myself and the increasingly detached, self-willed character of society.

But I do not wish to avoid the question. There is something you and I can do. It is to recognize that the logic of the problem “out there” is also a logic “in here.” The failure to see in this recognition a real doing -- a necessary lifetime of doing -- is itself the problem. The doing required of us is a refusal to continue seeing all problems as the result of a doing rather than a being, as technical rather than spiritual. Blindness at this point is exactly what allows the problems to detach themselves from us and run on according to their own logic. They run on because we do not confront them within ourselves. Where, on the other hand, we recognize ourselves in the world and then take responsibility for ourselves -- well, I cannot say what additional doing will result (for the doing will be in freedom), but it will be a real doing, issuing from deep within, and therefore the only doing that counts.

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