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<nettime> Technological Visions: Utopian & Dystopian Perspectives. (conf report)

Technological Visions: Utopian & Dystopian Perspectives.   

Annenberg Center for Communication
Annenberg Schools for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
University of Southern California, Los Angeles
November 6-7, 1998

Conference report copyright by Steve Cisler1999. This report may be
archived, served, and stored in full on non-commercial sites, as long as it
is not encumbered with annoying banner ads. Commercial sites must contact
the author at It will also be at this web address:

"We have technologies so powerful that they can only be used for good or
evil." -Firesign Theater 

"Conferencdes are the leisure of the theory class and won't disappear.   The
'prana' is missing from onine discourse.  Humans like to congregate."
-David Nye

Where is technology taking us? Where are we pushing technology? And what do
we mean by technology: language, printing presses, television,
biotechnology, or Internetworked computers?  Annenberg School for
Communication advertised this FREE two day conference on the Internet.
Thanks to Art McGee from Los Angeles for telling me about it. After seeing
the interesting lineup of speakers, I wrote the organizer. Professor Sandra
Ball-Rokeach, and was asked to present a paper. Professor Ball-Rokeach is
the principal investigator for the Metamorphosis Project. which she
described as an in-depth look at communication patterns of various Los
Angeles neighborhoods. This includes Internet uses as well as participants'
view of dangerous, safe, and unknown neighborhoods. It seemed to be one of
the most complex studies of communication patterns for a large city that I
have heard about. The organizers alloted all the speaking time to their
invited guests and the audience, but they did post some preliminary results
from this remarkable study. I urge readers to take a look at the web site
where it will be tracked.

The mission of the conference was to raise the level of public discourse
about new communications. technologies. Currently the new technologies are
described in an ahistorical context, as if no past existed. This conference
included a variety of historians including Lord Asa Briggs, Langdon Winner,
David Nye, and Carolyn Marvin, all of whom have written extensively about
the history of technologies. When I was at Apple, I always thought it was
important to look back and learn from the past, but for most there, the
future and present were overwhelming enough.

The speakers were put up at the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, a small
renovated building facing the ocean. The large front porch  was perfect for
casual conversations, and some of us wanted to have the meetings there! 
However, we headed over to the USC campus in Los Angeles.  At the start
there were 70 people in the audience including the speakers. This number
increased as the meeting progressed, and  more than 350 people tuned in to
the Real Video broadcast, and eventually the delivered papers will be on
their web site and be distributed as a book.

Elizabeth Daley, Director of the Annenber Center, gave the best reason I
think an organization can have for putting on a conference: to bring people
together who would not ordinarily meet. The Internet allows people to
connect without traveling, but we tend to hang out online in cliques and
affinity groups. Conference organizers act as cultural routers, and this one
was rather successful in that respect.  We looked at the utopian and
dystopian stories that help us navigate through very uncertain times.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, Professor of Sociology at MIT, gave the keynote in which
she said we limit our options when we confine our discussions to utopian or
dystopian scenarios, where the computer and the Internet are seen as unitary
rather than shorthand for a very wide range of devices, services, and
experiences.  She likens this to adolescence with its need for passion, for
black and white.   "The ambitious scholar is under pressure to find strong
effects (of new media and the Internet)."  Her talk drew on Marx and Sven
Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies) and Seymour Papert. We have a fear of the
shifting boundary between what is human and what is machine and who is in
control. She felt she had drawn a line in the sand when she encountered the
MIT Media Lab's affective doll that has a form of artificial intelligence
built into it. The doll  learns to act happy or sad, depending on how you
shake it. We adults tend to worry about "the kinds of  objects that capture
out children's attention in perhaps forbidden ways."  For this reason, she
believes there is a need to study the relationship we (and our children)
have to these objects which are "sort of alive."

Langdon Winner. Professor of Political Science, RPI, was announced as
playing "a central cautionary role." Winner has written a number of books
about the history of technology, and he used to write a column in MIT's
Technology Review, but they decided to emphasize "innovation" and dropped
any pretense at including a critical look at technology.  

Although many people include  accounts of faulty predictions in their
speeches, Winner had some very good examples: an 1885 speech by Olmstead on
the promise of the telegraph, and the literature of the aviation industry,
both precursors for the copy churned out about the promise of computers and
Internetworking.  He criticized the purveyors of the "technological
ridiculous" and said it prevents us from solving problems with our own
skills rather than thinking the next new one would do that. To some extent I
saw this in the early rhetoric of community networking (mine included) where
the adoption of local computer networks would melt boundaries and bring
people together who had not met before. Of course,it is more complicated
than that;I believe the networks are useful but they do not work alone. We
still need other ways of meeting and of communicating and solving problems.

Lord Asa Briggs was the next speaker. He had worked on Enigma, the Second 
World War codebreaking project at Bletchley, UK, written a history of the
BBC and is Chancellor of the Open University.  He's interested in the
divergence and convergence of technolgoical predictions.  His talk discussed
reactions to technology as expressed in railway literature (Charles Dickens
was very much against this new  mode of transportation)

In the privacy and censorship panel Larry Irving, head of the NTIA said 
"I'm a real teletopian. I worry when people talk about the problems of
technology. You have be optimistic or technology will be used inother ways.
The US Civil Rights movement  would not have happened without television. 
The media that the first panel criticized  is basically empowering."  He
thinks there are more good things than ever before. However, in his personal
life he confessed to using a Safeway discount card with a different name so
that more consumer data would not be linked to other databases where they
stored information about Larry Irving.

My mind drifted and Turkle's worries over affective AI dolls merging with
smart shopping carts that would "know" you (your tastes which are more an
more synonymous with your spending habits) and guide you down certain aisles
to steer you to the right purchases. A shopping cart with your mind as its
own. Sort of like a tout for a Turkish carpet dealer, taking you to selected
shops that kicked back  part of any sale.

Peter Lyman the university librarian at U.C. Berkeley,  talked about the
prolems of the metaphors assoicaited with the Internet: virtual community,
information highway, and digital library. He felt the metaphors can be
stretched too far and can inhibit our thinking about real problems. He
talked about the issues of archiving Internet information, how the gift
economy is still central to parts of the Internet. He noted that the
Internet archive has counted seven million authors on the Internet. He asked
if the market is an adquate replacement for the public sector.  What happens
to equality when it's based on ability to pay?

Phil Zimmerman, the creator of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) had a dystopian
view of the future: 
"Can technology survive omniscience?" He detailed gloomy scenarios about the
spread of invasive data mining, linking of disparate databases through
national ID numbers (SS numbers in the USA). He spoke about his ploy for
getting the PGP source code out for review: he printed books using an OCR
font, and the books were legally exported, scanned, and then compiled. His
main worry about government omniscience is that they will be tempted to go
from good to bad governance. Larry Irving looked rather uncomfortable as he
listened to Zimmerman.

Richard Chabran and  Romelia Salinas of University of California Riverside
talked about the global society and the Latino community. They showed a web
site called Virtual Varrio:

Amy Bruckman of Georgia Tech gave a talk:"From hype to reality: the
educational potential of online communities."

Stressing user centered design, she talks to real people before hacking
code. The process is iterative with honest evaluations, and the result is a
learning environment that is fun and self-directed. Electronic Learning
Communities is constructivist and stresses community and collaboration over

I spoke about "Why (my) technology projects fail" where I gave a taxonomy of
failure (annoying technology failuares, catastrophic, and delayed or slow
release failures) and then detailed the Apple Library of Tomorrow projects
that I had funded while at Apple. I ended with a discussion of success
factors to prevent failures in community-oriented projects. The paper will
be on the conference web site later this year.

One of the speakers I was looking forward to was David Nye, an American
Studies professor at Odense University in Denmark. His tomes on the history
of technology had influenced my thinking and writing about community
networks. He spoke about predictions and technology. The predicitons are
narratives about the future.  They are usually positive and inevitable.  

prognostication, predicition, forecasting and projection He noted that
predictions for 2001 written in 91 did not include the Internet at all.
- New technologies are market driven.
 -Innovations proliferate rapidly (in contraxt to inventions)
-The best design does not always win
-The uses of new products are hard to foresee -
- Technology's symbolic meanings may determine its uses.  An electric. light
was originally used for conspicuous consumption. 

Wendy Grossman, author of Net Wars noted  "I have more in common with people
on the WELL than with my neighbors. "

Her predictions: (if we survive Y2K). The Net is not a single entitty.   The
Net won't make that much difference to most people. A lot of the kids are
using it as a passive medium.  For most people the net will be invisible.  
She called for a revival of  the community bulletin boards and pleaded
"Don't let history say that Bill Gates invented the Internet."

John Perry Barlow  of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a writer for
Wired, still believes the Internet is the biggest thing since  fire. He
admitted "There's a lot of money predicting the future,even if you know you
are wrong."

He noted, at Vint Cerf had concluded in the early days of the  Internet that
 "The people who are the most wired are the ones with the most frequent
flier miles."

He said the most important activity is "creating a planetary nervous system
for the creatures of thought. It will take a long time and is just gathering
steam. He added that we are just beginning to learn to use the tools we

"Neo-luddites have forgotten how to dance with the future. They are afraid
of technology that happened after they were 25: Things that happened after
their minds calcified."

He believes that by 2003 everyone will have an email address, but I think
billions won't even have electricity in their villages, let alone a phone or
satellite. Barlow is very enthusiastic about the rate of expansion in "the
South" (a.ka. developing countries, non-industrialized nations,). As for

"They don't have the vice of industrializiaton. They are not monotheits. 
They are naturally prepared to live in a highly networked society.  I'm
putting money on it, and you in the North should go there to see it happen."

"I think there will be new definiton of what it means to be human. The
Internet is a kind of mind that we create by our participaton." He hopes to
have manufacturing geared toward a market of one. Don Delillo used the
phrase "isolated systems of craving" to describe this goal.

A few academics read their papers. This practice shows the persistence of
the medieval lecture, a time when books were rare. The scholar read to the
students who rarely owned the texts.  It's still an accepted practice at the
end of this century. That shows the lack of change, even in the midst of
rather advanced presentation technology.

Katie Hafner, a writer for the New York Times "Currents" section had just
attended a conference called NDA. Few in the audience knew what the term
meant (non-disclosure agreement, a document one signs before company secrets
or business direction are explained or traded.) Hafner said the Internet has
worsened the herd mentality among writers. The deeper issues of technology
are not covered, only the latest gadget, stock, or trend. History is not
invoked in board rooms or by reporters. Nobody is looking back. If they did,
there would be more scrutiny of the AT&T breakup as Microsoft is on trial.
Carolyn Marvin's main focus: What keeps a global coummunity together? 
She's interested in 19th cent. transformation that began with the telegraph.
See her book When Old Technologies Were New for more on this topic. She
claimed that new forms of communication  "have always try to make bodies
inconsequetial by adjusting the social disance between them."  With the
Internet she says we need a new set of rituals (some bloody) to keep us
together. In the past, vernacular texts held the nation state together. 

Some of the talks were at such a level of abstraction that I felt like I was
on a walkabout and didn't understand the songlines of the guides. The
cultural deconstruction papers were particularly heavy going.

During the Q&A I said that Robert Putnam is looking at the transformative
possibilities of internetworking. I wondered if there is any major effect
that is unifying in a national sense? Hafner replied, for want of a better
answer, "Beanie Babies web sites."

At the end Marita Sturken summarized some of the themes. Most prominent is
the figure of the child in relation to technology.  Annenberg plans to start
an archive of historical narratives with accounts  of the relation between
children and technology.

I rated this conference very high on all counts.  It was accesible (no cost
to the attendee and a concerted effort to broadcast it on the Internet);
adequate audience participation; excellent mix of speakers from many
different areas, good technology support for those who needed it, and
important themes rarely covered in other conferences.
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