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The Real Millennium Bug

(Langdon Winner)

The approach of the new century offers an occasion to ponder the condition of humanity and of the planet that sustains us. How many of the world's nearly six billion people live well or in circumstances that are even marginally agreeable? How many still suffer poverty, war, disease, illiteracy, and the other scourges of our species? Will the policies of global civilization merely magnify well-known ecological, economic, and social ills? Or will the next century find ingenious remedies?

Alas, as the symbolic stroke of midnight speeds toward us, the opportunity to rethink the situation of humankind and renew our sense of purpose is rapidly being frittered away. When people hear about the year 2000 these days, the first thing that springs to mind is the computer glitch that threatens to disrupt computer systems and send our institutions careening toward chaos. Because programmers in earlier decades economized on space by cleverly dropping two digits, we are now obsessed with the problem and the costly challenge of minimizing its possible damage.

Yes, the Y2K troubles are real. But there's a pungent irony here. Our society has become so slavish in its dependence upon digital equipment that it seems unwilling to face squarely the health of the planet and humanity's future. To my way of thinking, this is the real millennium "bug," the urgent "Year 2000 Problem" that our systems planners, corporate elites, and political leaders have overlooked in recent years.

One indicator underscores how grave this deficiency has become. At a time in which most societies around the world have committed themselves to technology as the one true path to improvement, the common understanding of what "technology" means and what it includes is now rapidly shrinking. Not too long ago "technology" referred to the whole range of tools, techniques and systems people use to achieve practical ends. This definition arose during the nineteenth century, replacing earlier, more limited definitions. While the concept was overly broad, it was far richer than the one gaining prominence today, the notion that "technology" is just information technology, nothing else. Other kinds of instruments, methods, technical arrangements, and devices are grouped under more specialized rubrics. Social issues, both promising developments and gnawing problems, that involve the broader range of technical means, are fading as matters for public attention and debate.

This warped view of technical matters first gained prominence on Wall Street, where the category "technology stocks" has taken on a particular significance. The technology stocks are, of course, shares in computing, digital communications, Internet services, and the like. When one hears that "technology" is soaring or sinking on the stock exchange, one knows that we're talking about Microsoft, Dell Computer, Lucent Technologies, Netscape, Seagate, Sun Microsystems, America Online, Cisco Systems, and the like. In this context, the term no longer refers to automobiles, airlines, chemicals, agriculture, or anything of the sort. The word "information" has been dropped as a modifier, leaving "technology" as a pure, seemingly self-evident label.

This innocuous linguistic convenience for busy stock traders has now spread, infecting contemporary journalism and everyday speech, signaling a narrowing of awareness and care. Oddly enough, this constriction of focus happens at a time in which, to all appearances, there is an explosion in sources of news coverage on "technology," hundreds of magazines, newspapers, paperback books, television programs, and on-line sources filled with stories about people's involvement with technical things. For serious technology watchers, this would seem to be a godsend. But if one looks closely at the content of this burgeoning news coverage, the vast bulk of it is limited solely to the computer industry and the Net. What first appears to be a wealth of useful information conceals a profound poverty of outlook.

Within today's "technology" beat, the press typically follows stories of just two kinds. First are reports on the activities of business firms in the computer and communications field -- the latest deals, mergers, acquisitions, new product introductions, and strategies of corporate movers and shakers. News of this sort used to be confined to the pages of Business Week, Fortune, and the financial section of your local newspaper. But under the rubric of "technology" the machinations of CEOs, managers, and lawyers in the information corporations have now been elevated to a status and glamor not unlike that attached to sports heroes and rock stars. Will Bill Gates stave off the Justice Department? Will Steven Jobs stay on at Apple? Will the leaders of Bell Atlantic and GTE bring off their corporate marriage? Apparently, the reading public has an endless appetite for stories of this kind.

Also favored in this approach are reports about digital hem lines - late-breaking fashion trends in the design, marketing, and consumption of computer hardware and software. Which new gadgets does Silicon Valley have in store for us this season? How much computing power will I need to run the next-generation programs? Should I buy the latest Windows upgrade? What colorful services and diversions can be found on the World Wide Web? People who follow rapidly changing info-styles now find a great torrent of chatter about such matters in both print and pixel.

Commitment to this approach seems all but universal. The "Technology Alert" from the Wall Street Journal that arrives in my email each day is never about anything other than computer and communications firms. If one turns to the on-line version of the New York Times and clicks on "technology," dozens of articles about the computer biz and digital hem lines begin scrolling by. Much the same holds for the hundreds of newspapers and magazines that print the latest gossip from the Internet grapevine. Day by day, the dull uniformity of it all raises the question: Why bother reading this dross at all? Here, for example, are some recent items from the Times' predictable stream:

Of course, the mood and outlook of such stories in the Times and elsewhere is strictly "upside," often totally euphoric, Viagra for the mind. In both the giddy writing and glitzy neo-neon illustrations, the model for "technology" journalism in this mode is, of course, Wired magazine. The recent sale of that publication to Conde Nast, publishers of Vogue, confirmed what many of us had suspected all along, that the magazine was less a serious discussion of the transition to a digital society than a never ending barrage of excited promotions for ephemeral electronic products and the personalities who hawk them. Now that Wired is owned by those adept at selling cosmetics and couture, its role is at last thoroughly transparent. What's remarkable is that so many supposedly respectable publications have decided to mimic the tawdry self-indulgence that has become the hallmark of cyber journalism.

An obvious shortcoming of this odd focus for reporting and thinking is the vast spectrum of interesting and important topics it systematically neglects. If one is interested in solar electricity, for example, the second fastest-growing energy source in the world, one can read for years and never find it in today's "technology" coverage. Although the bio-technically driven "second Green Revolution" will likely affect billions of people in years to come, its arrival goes all but unnoticed. If one is interested in the rapidly evolving techniques of flexible production in global factories and offices, don't bother looking in the local newspaper or its on-line edition; from all indications, "technology" doesn't include such things anymore. How about the ecological disasters caused by "advances" in the technologies of fishing and aquaculture? What? Where? When? Why wasn't I informed?

An illustration of a significant piece of news that has gone all but unnoticed amidst the hoopla of American "technology" coverage is the raging controversy about the introduction of genetically modified food in Great Britain. One study by British scientists, reported recently by BBC and The Guardian, found that rats fed genetically engineered potatoes suffered stunted growth and weakened immune systems. Whether or not the study turns out to be reliable, concerns about it and about genetically modified food have sparked citizen protest and disputes among the political parties in Parliament. While you can be sure that the emerging biotechnology firms around the world are closely watching this flap and its possible ramifications, the American reading public is kept in the dark, nourished by hundreds of Olestra-rich puff pieces about Internet fun and frolic.

Perhaps aware of the growing vapidity of today's techno-news reporting, some prominent publications have recently decided they need a larger theme, a Big Picture within which to frame their topics. The startlingly brash, unprecedented, and illuminating context many of them appear to have settled upon is "Innovation." Yes, folks, here it comes! Out of the research labs, into the hands of entrepreneurs, from there to the global marketplace, and into your lives - technology! What matters in this perspective is simply an appreciation of the dynamic flow and process. Never mind the social contexts, broader consequences, or policy choices at hand. Behold the surprisingly colorful people engaged in cutting-edge university and corporate research (and you thought they were just cold and grey!). Follow those far-sighted venture capitalists as they seed the landscape with promising start-up companies. Be the first on your block to catch a glimpse of all the gadgets and new media that will shape the offices, homes and schools of the future.

Given the long history of campaigns to promote technologies of one kind or another in this century, it's amusing that anybody would find this emphasis on "innovation" the least bit novel. In one guise or another, this idea has been the bread and butter of industrialists, advertisers and reporters for eighty years. Ideas and images celebrating innovation were already current in visions of modernity of the 1920s when automobiles and electrical appliances (rather then Palm Pilots) were all the rage. From its very first issue, Henry Luce's Fortune magazine (1930) regaled readers with high-tone stories and photographs depicting links between emerging technology, business initiatives, and social transformation. Then as now, the arrow of causation always pointed in one direction. As the motto of the International Exposition held in Chicago in 1933 boldly proclaimed, "Science Finds -- Industry Applies -- Man Conforms."

As we receive our daily dose of this threadbare mythology, updated for the age of cyber-space, the problem is not merely that the scope of reporting on technology and human affairs is dwindling. Resourceful readers can always search out diverse, substantive sources of news and information about all kinds of technology-related events. The far more urgent problem lies in the fact that, at a crucial moment in human history, public discourse about matters of consequence has been reduced in its outlook, trivialized in its grasp. Since people's awareness of what matters is strongly influenced by what news sources highlight as current and noteworthy, the shrinking perspective of technology journalism is a serious loss.

Among the issues that cry out for attention as a new era dawns is the widening gap of inequality that characterizes the world's population. Our much heralded global economy has been very good at producing a handful of billionaires and millionaires. But for roughly a third of the Earth's people, especially children in the less developed countries, grinding poverty is an everyday reality, a situation already evident even before the economic crises of the past year. Can it be that we find the suffering of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings insignificant when compared to the puzzle of finding a Y2K fix?

While we're at it, why not tackle some of the "bugs" that threaten the environment we will hand to our children? How about fixing the technologies that spew millions of tons of CO2 into the air each day, exacerbating global warming? How about replacing the systems that pour toxic chemicals into the air, water and land, slowly poisoning human populations and other species? Let's eliminate the errors in our tax laws that encourage energy waste and other ecologically destructive practices. And let's fix the development bug that destroys good farmland and devastates the world's forests. These are among the steps that would be taken by those hopeful about Earth's future.

I'm told that if all goes well, if enough time, money, and effort are invested, our computers will actually remember that a new millennium has arrived. Alas, we humans may forget to update our spiritual clocks, ignoring a momentous turning point and the challenge it presents.

Reprinted from TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE 1.2, September 9, 1998 with permission.


Does the Computer Eliminate Boring Work?

(Steve Talbot)

Back in the 1960s, Studs Terkel wrote his classic book, Working, based on interviews with hundreds of Chicagoans. The picture he sketched was not pretty. But in their Second Annual Big Issue (Dec., 1997) the editors of Forbes ASAP assured us that things are different today:

Reading Terkel's Working now is like scanning an ancient text. If there is one common emotion that emerges from the Babel of voices in Terkel's book, it is boredom. Boredom is the leitmotiv of the Industrial Age. Almost everyone, from the spot-welder to the CEO, is deeply bored in Terkel's world. His people dream of a job that is meaningful, challenging, and so fulfilling that they would never want to leave it.

They got their wish. Today, in the information age, the world of work is now so intellectually challenging, meaningful, and compelling that we are never bored.

(http://www.forbes.com/asap/97/1201/index.htm)

On the other hand, if our evident need for distraction is any measure, we may be just about the most bored people ever to walk the earth. Are data-entry workers never bored? Or the customer service employees whose official mission in life is to explain to anonymous callers how to plug in their new printers? Or the growing legions of programmers responsible for maintaining old code? And what about the armies of conscripts pressed into mind-numbing duty against the Year 2000 bug?

As the Forbes ASAP editors see it, our salvation comes from the chip and the Net. Okay. Look at the financial service vocations that have so dramatically re-shaped themselves around the chip and the Net. How easy would it be for the employee of a typical investment firm to place his investments based on meaning and conviction - on a sense of personal responsibility for what his funds do to the world - as opposed to the dictates of number-crunching algorithms? Admittedly, making money for its own sake can be a pleasurable distraction, assuming you don't think too much about the nations or villages whose economy you could just as easily be destroying as helping. But this empty mathematical exercise hardly counts as an advance in the meaningfulness of work.

Then there's the farmer, enclosed in the cab of his huge tractor, traversing thousands of acres while a computer tuned in to a Global Positioning Satellite allocates varying doses of fertilizer to each small sector of the farm's grid. The most likely result is that a concern for abstract "total inputs and outputs" replaces meaningful contact with the land. The farmer no longer feels directly responsible for the processes of life, death, and resurrection going on in the soil. He no longer experiences himself as intimately woven together with them. And, in any case, these processes are most likely being rendered sterile by his current fertilization practices. Does he really find this kind of work more meaningful?

You pick a vocation, and I'll give you another example. The fact is that the computer is an engine of abstraction, removing us - so far as we give it free rein - from direct engagement with the sources of meaning in the world. Certainly we can reach across the barriers of abstraction: the investor can seek out real value behind the mathematical value, and the farmer can take the time and trouble to know his land intimately and care for it in a deeply satisfying manner. But it requires an effort that runs across the grain of all those efficiently operating chips celebrated in Forbes ASAP.

If the editors of that publication are convinced we've entered a new era of meaningful work, it's because, as they put it,

command and control are dead. The chip and the Net have killed it.
But this misses the whole point. The issue is not centralization (with its need for command and control) versus decentralization (with its distributed intelligence). No, the real question has to do with the overall balance between computation and the non-computational. That is, it has to do with the balance between syntax and meaning - between frozen forms of intelligence on the one hand, and our own fluid expressive potentials on the other. It hardly matters whether the patterns of frozen intelligence are centralized or not. As every spider knows, you can immobilize your prey with a delicate web just as well as with a stinger. This is an important issue, having a great deal to do with our seemingly inevitable drive toward ever greater standardization. I'll have more to say about it in the future.

Reprinted from Netfuture with permission.


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