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A curious story about a data network developed in Allende's Chile by Stafford Beer. To run an economy of newly nationalized industries the government needed lots of information, fast. Beer's network could achieve in a day what took months in the developed world. The article suggests the network was not biased toward centralized control and was meant to establish a socialistic peer relationship between bureaucrats and managers (it's uncertain where the workers came in to this). Apparently Pinochet's people had it destroyed, so radical was its design. As expected, the comparison is made to the Internet and its egalitarian bias even though Cybersyn, as it was called, hardly resembles the net at all. All told, a very interesting story but also a good example of the association of a communications network with far-left politics. I've therefore categorized this story in tech ideology, or perhaps I should start a separate category for Latin American dot- communism.
Until now, obtaining and processing such valuable information - even in richer, more stable countries - had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o'clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious computer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace.
The electric chair is an example of a bad technology adopted for all the wrong reasons. Its proponents, among them Thomas Edison, claimed it was a faster and more humane method than the predominant method of hanging. Nobody really knew that, and tests on dogs and horses showed otherwise, but that didn't prevent The Electrical Execution Act of 1888 getting passed in New York State. What people liked was the promise of a more santitized, distanced and presumably scientific method of performing a dirty deed. Technology excels at meeting such demands. The first victim of the chair took eight minutes to die; witnesses cried in outrage, fainted and threw up. But the chair flourished in the US until surpassed by the equally dodgy lethal injection. Richard Cohen relates this story by way of Richard Moran's Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair:
Steve Bowbrick remembers when the yeas could rout the nays debating the topic "the internet represents the end of the nation state":
The proposition we were defending... obviously caught the imagination of the students and press in the debating hall. There were audible woops of approval as the result was announced. People really seemed to take pleasure in the imminent collapse of something as big and ugly as the nation state.Although the Internet is "increasingly under attack from the real world" Bowbrick remains a believer:
It's not a fantasy to imagine that as the uncompromised freedom of the first internet decade is eroded it might be replaced by a new freedom to build and augment communities, to produce new social forms and to enrich our lives in the real world as we do so.
Been a while since I've seen this guy's name pop up. The inveterate Dave Hughes: "All I want to do is connect up all 6 billion brains on the planet." We don't need corporations to keep this dream alive, just engineers like Dave and John Udell.
More motivation for technologists from John Udell: "Ultimately, it's not about RSS any more than it was about NNTP. It's about the evolution of our species toward shared consciousness."
Furnbank's review tells us of Joseph Preistley's millenial faith in the power of knowledge. Both Priestley's expression and practice of this faith echo the idealism of the Internet visionaries:
Through enlightened government and Adam Smith's division of labor, [Priestley] wrote,All knowledge will be subdivided and extended; and knowledge, as Lord Bacon observes, being power, the human powers will, in fact, be enlarged; nature, including both its materials, and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable.... Thus, whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.Priestley was before all else a religious thinker, with a fervent conviction that Christianity had been corrupted soon after its birth by Saint Paul's false theology and by the importing of the heathen concept of a soul. In his eyes all that human perfectibility required was the search for truth, in other words for the evidence of God's providence, and the machine revealed this just as clearly as Nature, indeed it was a part of Nature. He was thus completely open, in good Lunar style, about his chemical gropings and discoveries, even publishing details of his failed experiments. It was his frank disclosures about "dephlogisticated air" (i.e., oxygen) that enable Lavoisier to initiate a "chemical revolution" and dismantle the whole theory of phlogiston, and it was a sign of the decline of the Lunar movement that Priestley and his friends could not bring themselves to follow him.
Michael Parfit reviews John Steele Gordon's A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable:
'''A Thread Across the Ocean'' also shows how our longing for new tools is often invested with expectations that go far beyond the capacity of the inventions themselves. Here, sadly, we see the same kind of hopes that the Internet seemed to offer us so recently -- hopes so recently dashed. If cables connected the world, one editorialist wrote in 1857, they would ''make the great heart of humanity beat with a single pulse.'' ''Wars are to cease,'' another wrote. ''The kingdom of peace will be set up.''
'But the kingdom of peace still eludes us. Expectations like these have given us the mistaken impression that technology has failed us, when technology has given more than we asked, and we, in a sense, have failed to live up to our tools. I suspect I know what Gordon would say about that pessimism. In a recent column on the Enron debacle, he wrote, ''Just as every cloud has a silver lining, so disasters always have a redeeming feature.'' ''A Thread Across the Ocean'' celebrates this indefatigable spirit, and there's nothing wrong with that. Everything never comes out all right, but as Cyrus Field knew, in spite of the most hopeless circumstances, some things do. That's what keeps us going.'
The tech bust hasn't dampened the spirits of technologists and their utopian sense of mission. Jon Udell's eyewitness account of the keynote by MSNBC's Forrest Sawyer at InfoWorld's NextGen conference:
'Once we surmount the technical obstacles, the real challenge arises. How do businesses make using rich media as easy and natural as email? How do we all learn to tell stories that people don't just read, but see and hear? "Not a soul in this room will figure out all the ways," Sawyer said, "because we're fighting the last battle." What's the next one? A planetary experiment in shared consciousness: Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere.'
Invention is the mother of necessity, according to Yuval Levin, Staff Member, President's Council on Bioethics:
'Modern technology creates needs at least as often as it serves them. All those sorry saps who happened to live before 1879 did not spend much time saying "If only we had electric lighting." But who among us now could live without it? No one could have imagined a real need for a radio or television before they were invented, but few of us could really give them up today.'
'This phenomenon is not altogether new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood the psychology behind it long ago. In his 1754 Discourse on the Origins of Inequality he says of human creations and inventions that "in time these commodities lost all their pleasantness through habit, and as they had at the same time degenerated into true needs, being deprived of them became much more cruel than possessing them was sweet; and people were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them." Far from leaving us satisfied, technological advances can often leave us feeling greater pangs of need than ever.'.....
This story was blogged at Techdirt and one "dorpus" offers some thoughtful criticisms of Levin's predictions regarding bio-tech and needs invention as well as some words about the genome hype.
The controversy over probate records seems not to bear on this aspect of Michael Bellesiles's narrative, but it's an interesting puzzle in technological adoption. Why were guns adopted so readily when they were clearly an inferior technology? This is from Edmund Morgan's review of Arming America in the New York Review:
'The story and the puzzling defiance of fact begin in sixteenth- century England with the substitution of the musket for the longbow as the standard weapon of the infantry in warfare. The people who supported the change acknowledged that muskets were militarily useful only at a range of up to eight or ten yards; the longbow was effective at two or three hundred. The musket could not be aimed except in a general direction; a bow in the hands of a skilled archer could regularly hit and kill an enemy completely beyond musket range. The musket, always a muzzleloader, took minutes to reload; an archer could aim and fire up to a dozen arrows in a minute. Muskets required continual cleaning and repair; bows were quickly made and easily maintained. In 1595, by order of the Privy Council, the English armed services abandoned the longbow and fought with muskets for the next two centuries and more. Nobody is sure why.
'Muzzleloading muskets were the firearm that the first settlers carried to America and virtually the only firearm available anywhere until the decade before the Civil War. The first muskets were matchlocks, heavy, clumsy weapons in which the charge was ignited by manually touching a lighted fuse to a small "touch hole" in the breech. By the middle of the seventeenth century, after a variety of experiments, gunmakers came up with the flintlock, in which the pull of a trigger caused a flint to strike a spark in a pan of powder adjoining the touch hole. This was the most advanced long arm for soldiers until the flint was replaced by the percussion cap in the 1840s. Muskets became less cumbersome and a little more reliable over the years, but they never attained the accuracy or the range of the longbow.'
"I have to admit it was a guilty pleasure," says Mr. Stump, who has won acclaim for his translations of 20th-century French fiction. "Verne has this all-seeing, all-knowing language. There's something terribly fascinating about it. In Verne, if you know enough, especially about technology, then you can master the world. That is such a comforting myth."
Dinesh D'souza opines in the Red Herring:
Of course there are many people in the West who harbor deep anxieties about technology, even as they concede, and enjoy, its conveniences. The biggest concern is that technology will undermine cherished values like privacy, individuality, community, and human dignity. The critics say that technological progress does not produce moral progress.
We can't just call these critics technophobes or Luddites. We have to meet their argument head on and show that technology doesn't just make our lives easier; it also strengthens our core values. Thus, technological progress can generate moral progress.
The most dramatic illustration of this is the abolition of slavery. Every ancient society had slavery: the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, the Africans, and the Native Americans. Why did the people in power accept slavery so readily? The reason is suggested by Aristotle. In every society, he says, somebody has to do the dirty work. Only if slaves perform the menial tasks can other people find leisure to attempt higher pursuits, like painting, sculpture, and philosophy. Aristotle states that the slave performs a function similar to that of a mower or tractor. The slave is a human tool.
Aristotle's argument contains an interesting corollary: if a society has mowers and tractors, then it doesn't need slaves. Slavery in the West was abolished for many reasons, one being economic: many people realized that it was no longer necessary to force humans to do tasks that machines could perform more efficiently.
So technology helped to free human beings from bondage, and that is a moral gain because it extends a cherished value: freedom.
A sample of moderate techno-liberationism, by Andrew Leonard:
'There was a deeper structure, too, that was even more exciting, tied to the communities and collaboration made possible by the Net. The sheer amount of information available to the world in the new online library could only be a good thing. The free software movement suggested that computer technology could usher in a kind of democratic egalitarianism that would be truly liberating. The astoundingly burgeoning powers of networked computers would unleash all kinds of individual creativity. I never subscribed to the out-of-control techno-libertarian thesis that the digital world would wipe out governments and international borders, but I did believe something empowering was going on. Sure, the necessity to purchase a new high-powered computer every six months to run ever-more-bloated software could be annoying, but that was OK. DSL really was better than dial-up, computers always got cheaper and you simply couldn't live without the Net.
'The dot-com boom, initially, was rooted in that self-evident sense of being on an endless escalator of betterment. But the dementia of the stock market bubble of 1999 and early 2000, substituting greed for glee, began to overwhelm the positive excitement. And the bust ended up making it all seem like a dream. After the election madness of late 2000, the collapse of the economy into the recession of 2001 and, of course, Sept. 11, the attention of those of us who had made an infatuation with technology into a career understandably wandered. As companies went bankrupt and layoffs mounted and bombs began to fall, once- pressing questions -- like whether Linux-based operating systems would ever become truly user-friendly -- lost their urgency.'
Someone at Kuro5hin noticed that "Marketers of Technology are turning to cold war socialist and communist images to promote their products. Associations are particularly strong in the open source community, but larger, older companies are following the trend." The visual accompaniment to dot-communist rhetoric.
"Interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author." This is the Barthesian creed of the hypertext author. But in making ideology flesh, they have proceeded "with a literalness that Barthes would have found disconcerting", says Keith Gessen. The link, that liberator from the tyranny of the sentence, is "a blue-fonted exit sign in every paragraph. It is an illusory freedom, and for the wrong person at that: it merely traps the reader in the author's associations instead of his own."
Another instance of dot-communist rhetoric, this time coming from Brazil, interestingly enough. The Internet, where reds thought they could strike it rich and still be red.
Antonio Negri, a Marxist sentenced to 30 years for supporting terrorism in Italy, is now free. It's not just globalization he loves but the information society, which is a logical stage in dialectical materialism: "In the past, labour depended on capital to provide the factory and all the tools of production. Today, we have all the tools we need to work in our heads. This is the end of the distinction between production and life - life and work have become the same thing. But it is not life that has been reduced to work, like in a totalitarian society. Instead it is work that has identified itself with life. Capitalism today needs to make free men work - free men who have their own means, their own tools."
Jeanne Sheldon, Microsoft's testing supervisor and Y2K authority, says, "I worry a lot about the social and economic impact of panic. Confidence in the effectiveness of computer technology is part of what makes it effective. The funny part of the concerns about cascading failures is that the people expressing the concerns believe that they have solved everything within their domain. It's just those other interconnected systems that might fail. I don't see it as much different from realizing that not all cars have working brakes. Good drivers are aware of that. But they don't stop using public roads because of it."
Compares the hype necessary to get the Suez Canal built to the Internet bubble: "Today's effort to build commercial infrastructure in the form of digital channels like the World Wide Web is still in the early stages, perhaps only a few miles into its own trough. A review of the tortured history of its 19th-century predecessor can teach us much about what has happened so far and what we can expect over the many miles to come."
about this category
Why do we project such outrageous, utopian hopes onto technologies? Could technologies succeed if we didn't hype them? Is the hype entirely a bad thing? Is it dangerous? Aside from technologies what does the propensity to idealize in matters of politics and art tell us about our nature?