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The Caller ID Arms Race

(Steve Baumgarten)

This passage from Netfuture #95 (Toward Appropriate Behavior by Objects):

Is the jogger's burden of luggage just an obvious problem to which there's an obvious technical solution, or is it rather a symptom of a deeper problem having to do with the entire structure of our lives? And is this deeper problem linked in turn to an unbalanced proliferation of the very sorts of devices now being proposed as a solution?
brought to mind something a little closer to home and already a reality: the ever-escalating telephonic arms race prompted by the introduction of Caller ID.

At first, Caller ID looked like a great solution to a minor problem -- knowing who's calling so you can choose whether or not to take the call. After all, why shouldn't you, as a regular Joe, have the same capability that important executives have had for ages (even though in their case it's called having a personal secretary)?

But then came blocking -- after all, why should a caller have to reveal his calling number to someone who might potentially have Caller ID?

But with blocking came another problem -- suddenly your Caller ID box is less useful than it used to be. Less useful, more importantly, than it was represented by the phone company as being. For if you couldn't always use it to screen your calls, what use was it after all?

So then came "blocked number blocking" (I'm not sure of the official name for this, but it most definitely is a service you can choose to purchase from the phone company). With this, you instruct your Caller ID box simply to refuse all calls from people who utilize Caller ID blocking on their line.

I know people who have this, and the amazing thing is that they think it's a good thing. They also state, outright, that they're willing to miss some calls from friends and family who either forget or don't know how to "unblock" their lines before calling them -- they say, proudly, that they've "trained" these people to unblock their lines, and that therefore everything works just fine.

So now that the phone companies have provided us with this wonderful technology that should be making our lives so much easier, we find that it is, instead, making it much more complicated. Suddenly we have privacy issues that were never before issues -- and suddenly we find ourselves instructing machines to reject calls from certain people unless those people make an extra effort on our behalf and change their normal behavior. Worse, the people involved are those closest to us -- the very people whose calls we most want to receive.

Caller ID is a wonderful example of technology designed and implemented solely because it could be (and could be profitable), not because it solves any real problem. It might not be on the level of a coffee maker that knows when you're on vacation, but while the coffee maker is still the stuff of science fiction, Caller ID crept up on us slowly, but has now thoroughly engulfed us and changed us, and not, I believe, for the better.

Alien Technologies That Operate on Us

(Steve Talbot)

Well, in ninety-seven issues of NETFUTURE I've managed to avoid mentioning alien abductions. For any who are disappointed by this, I offer the following reflection (perhaps written too late at night):

A reported one million Americans think they have been abducted by aliens, and millions more find such reports credible. Many of the abductees claim to have been put into a kind of sleep or paralysis while in alien custody, during which they were subjected to some sort of operation. The intent of the operation, according to some of those who have studied the accounts, is apparently to meet some need of the aliens, who on their part seem peculiarly soulless and incapable of feeling -- all head and no chest. As evidence of abduction, the victims point to blocks of time that somehow disappeared from their lives, times when they were absent from themselves.

I am no keen student of alien abductions and I have no inclination to buy these reports at face value. What interests me is that the abduction experience stands as a useful metaphor throwing light on our relationship to technology. The intelligent machinery surrounding us today is a kind of alien presence, and it does tend to induce a loss of consciousness or paralysis. This makes it possible for technology to operate on us unawares in the interest of some ruling, impersonal necessity. Essential aspects of our lives -- the highest aspects -- often disappear as we sleepwalk through a daily existence structured and orchestrated by ever more intricate webs of automated logic. In its own way, of course, the computer is all head and no chest.

Those who suffer the ministrations of aliens apparently feel helpless at the aliens' approach. There is nothing they can do, and the thought of resisting the abduction, if it occurs at all, is not acted upon. The general public's feeling in the face of technology's onslaught is much the same. The quixotic individual who refuses the latest gadgets seems merely whimsical, and calls down upon himself the epithet, "Luddite!" Everyone just knows that it is useless to struggle against technological advance. "It's all going to happen anyway."

Where metaphors prove genuinely illuminating, they lead us to previously unsuspected truths. I will wager you that, one way or another, our waking up to the role of technology in our lives will prove decisive to our eventual understanding of the abduction experience.

Steve Talbot is editor of Netfuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and human responsibility.

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