From Steve Talbott (

The evidence of our hollowing out as human beings
is staring us in the face.

Is anyone home?

These days no article about technology and society seems complete without at least one reference to the accelerating pace of change. But, despite their ubiquity, a number of these references have particularly jumped out at me in recent weeks. Here are a few examples:

Here closer to home, I find that my text-only Lynx browser is rapidly becoming a cripple on today's Web. Many sites now require frame support, which my browser does not have. Other sites, such as MSNBC, immediately hang the window in which I'm working; Lynx compatibility is simply not something Web site managers worry about. Apparently, as a sixteen-year veteran of the Net who would rather not spend his time downloading cutesy graphics, I've gotten myself a little behind the curve. I might as well be a dinosaur.

The browser problem illustrates, I think, one striking fact about many Web sites: they are content providers for whom content scarcely matters. They do not begin with something important to say, and then seek the most effective vehicle for saying it. Rather, they are enamored of the vehicle (latest model only!) and are looking for something to say with it. Not surprisingly, the result is a lot of pandering. The message is there only to serve alien purposes.

This is no eccentric reading of my own. It is the explicit acknowledgment of an entire industry that begins by producing and playing with whatever is technically feasible, and then hopes for a "killer app" to fasten the technical innovations upon the body social. Here, too, some recent news reports have leapt out at me:

If you build the technology, a killer app will eventually come -- such is the reigning faith. Of course, as long as the rest of us are willing to go along with this backward game, chasing after the latest gadgetry regardless of need, it works quite well. Out of this willingness, the technological "necessity" that so many perceive in these matters is born.

It's a strange infatuation that has a mature society hitching itself with uncritical enthusiasm to whatever happens to issue from the endless rows of cubicles where programmers -- often college students -- exercise their technically constrained and hopelessly uneducated imaginations. The cubicles themselves, I suppose, are a pretty good image of the inevitable result. We always mirror our inner worlds in the outer.

The Loss of Purpose

So, what is going on here?

Technical innovation -- the devising of new tools -- is surely a desirable activity. But unless there is a balance between our fascination with tools and our concern for the ends they may help us achieve, the tool becomes tyrannical. What stares us in the face today is the startling fact that, not only has the balance been upset, but one of its terms has virtually disappeared. Technological innovation now proceeds for its own sake, driven by its own logic, without reference to human need. We are a society obsessed with new tools, but incapable of asking in any serious way, "what are we developing these tools for?"

It's rather as if a musician became so enamored of new instruments capable of generating novel sounds that he lost all interest in seeking the kind of disciplined musical inspiration that makes his art finally worthwhile.

What I'm talking about here -- and what the preceding quotations testify to -- is a reversal of ends and means. I previously (NF #39 and NF #40) tried to show what this reversal looks like within the individual company, where the pursuit of worthwhile ends under the discipline of economics eventually gets twisted around to a pursuit of profits as an end in themselves. Now, however, I'm talking about society as a whole, driven as it increasingly is by the high-tech industry.

A society obsessed by tools and technology without a balancing focus upon ends is a society whose members are being hollowed out. It is, after all, in establishing and pursuing higher values -- something we can only do from within ourselves -- that we assert our humanity. Otherwise, we merely react, machine-like, without internal compass. That is, we become like the programmed machines to which we devote so much of our energy.

I for one would not want to quarrel with those who recognize a certain necessity in the one-sided tool focus of the past few hundred years. Nor would I want to insist that the U.S. military cease pushing its technical capabilities to the practical limit. And surely there is in any case little likelihood that the foreseeable future will bring a significant slowing of the overall, furious extension of the technical reach of our tools.

What this means is that everything hinges upon our ability to counterbalance the prevailing technical mania with a strengthened inner compass. We must, wherever possible, be all the more forceful in asking, What is this tool for -- how does it relate to the deepest needs and yearnings of the human being? The stronger the tendency of the high-tech/commercial matrix to drive itself forward in terms of its own inherent logic, the more we must appeal to needs, values, and human ends in order to reign in and guide this logic.

In making this effort we can hardly be satisfied with the hollow platitudes of those who would sell us an endless array of new gadgets. Our pressing need is not for more information, or faster access to information, or more connectivity. Our decisive problems arise -- as many others have noted -- from the lack of meaningful, value-centered contexts to which new information can be assimilated, and from those connections to other people we already have, but do not know how to deepen and make healthy. Adding new information and additional connections where these fundamental problems have not been solved only carries us further from ourselves and each other.

Yet within the high-tech industry itself the platitudes have a certain validity. Any company that does not develop new technology fast enough -- human needs and purposes be damned -- will not likely survive for long. This industry, in other words, has itself become machine-like, hollowed out, lacking all evidence of the guiding human interior. Its employees and owners and investors sleepwalk through their working lives, bringing full consciousness only to the technical dimensions of their jobs. And we who buy their products in a similar trance contribute our fair share to the undermining of society.

Do not underestimate the potential evils of a society that worships every new tool in forgetfulness of its own inner purposes through which alone the tools can be justified. Hollow men and women, whether educated or not, whether technically competent or not, can never sustain a healthy society, and are capable of unimagined monstrosities.

Eventually we will have to recognize the symptoms of our hollowness in unexpected places. For example, in the burgeoning commercialized sex industry, where external presentations (now greatly aide by technology) substitute for profound connection between human beings. Or in the deranged excesses at the fringes of the fast-growing New Age movements, where the meaning so conspicuously absent from the social mainstream is sought in borderline experiences -- and even, as with the Heaven's Gate community, in death. Or in the outrages committed against man and nature by commercially driven biotechnologists. Or in the politics of appearance without principle. Or in the fragmentation of society, with the economic disfranchisement of large groups.

Our only escape from the tyranny of the tool as an end in itself lies in our becoming more than our tools. Only we ourselves can supply the ends, and we can do so only by waking up to our own inner resources. The prevailing notion that the logic of high-tech development will itself guide society into a better future amounts to an abdication of our humanity. After all, a society with abundant technical means and no governing values and purposes can only become a hellish and dangerous place. On the other hand, a society struggling toward its own governing values is a society on its way toward healing.

Which is it? Personally, I see little basis for optimism. But it may well be that I've just been leafing through too many trade rags lately.

*** About this newsletter

NETFUTURE is a newsletter concerning technology and human responsibility. Publication occurs roughly once per week. Editor of the newsletter is Steve Talbott, a senior editor at O'Reilly & Associates. Where rights are not explicitly reserved, you may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.

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