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Computers, the Internet, and the Abdication of Consciousness

An Interview with Stephen L. Talbott, by Dolores Brien

The thrust of Stephen Talbott's deeply thought and deeply felt work is to awaken us from our psychological somnambulism vis à vis the technology which permeates our personal life and culture.

In his unsparing, probing book, The Future Does Not Compute, Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, (O'Reilly & Associates, 1995), Talbott begins with a question: "Can human ideals survive the Internet? His reply is only if we arouse ourselves to responsible consciousness. Focusing on the computer and the Internet as the dominant technologies of this time, he argues that they do not exist purely exterior to us. As creatures of our own making, they are actualizations of capabilities, certain tendencies, biases, desires and intentions-not all benign and at best one-sided-which are active in the human psyche. But we fail to see ourselves in them because, says Talbott, we have "abdicated consciousness." Unaware as we are, we seem not to care about the effect they are having on us and so will do nothing about it. Offering no or little resistance to its advance into our lives, we have adopted a passive, even fatalistic view of this technology in which we are embedded and upon which we are increasingly dependent.

We surrender ourselves to it, however, at a terrible cost, not the least of which is a loss of a whole and centered self and the freedom to make choices appropriate to what it means to be a human being. Talbott writes, "[T]oday the needful work is to distinguish ourselves from our machines. It is to rediscover, for example, that all knowledge of knowledge of man, and that nothing worth calling an ideal can be found in an engineered world, but only in ourselves."

DB: Since your book was published the Internet has become an even greater force to reckon with especially now that it has become the hub of e-commerce. Its success is another and rather frightening example of our enthusiastic and yet unreflecting adaptation to the latest technology. You call this nearly mindless adaptation, "an abdication of consciousness." Since the need for a heightened consciousness, particularly about the computer and the Net, is very much the theme of your book, would you elaborate what you mean by this?

ST: Technologies-- and especially digital technologies--powerfully invite us to forget ourselves. Whether it's a matter of mindless channel surfing, or aimless drifting through a maze of hypertext links, or fleeing ourselves by climbing in our automobiles and driving to the mall, or skimming endless screens of text without making any effort to connect with the speaking self behind the words, or letting the promptings of a computer program substitute for the exercise of living judgment in the current moment -- in many regards the technological society is a kind of paradise for human beings who wish to act on the level of automatons.

If I were to invite a group of people into a meeting room and then announce that the purpose of the meeting was to predict when we would get up and leave the room, they would call me crazy. Rightly so. And yet we accept this sort of thing all the time. We even pay people to engage in it -- for example, futurologists. They expend great ingenuity in trying to predict what's going to happen when , what sort of society we will have five, ten, or twenty years down the road -mostly based on the new sorts of gadgets we will use. Yet it is rare in these orgies of prognostication to find any serious, ethically engaged reference to the human choices by which we will make that future society whatever it is. It's as if our choices were things that happened to us, not things we do.

And, of course, this very attitude tends to make our choices into things that happen to us. They possess us, not the other way around. But this abdication is itself a choice. We choose to sleepwalk through our lives.

DB: Isn't it rather the case that our technologies have become so much a part of us, almost a "second nature" that it never (or at least seldom) occurs to us to question what they have done and continue to do to us? You just accept it, live with it, and of course, take advantage of the perceived benefits. And besides what can you do about it? If something goes wrong you wait for another technology to come along to straighten it out. (Like computer programs to curb children's access to the Internet.)

ST: Yes. I guess you could say that we live in the tension between choosing and being acted upon -- and everything depends on our direction of movement, whether toward greater conscious choice or greater subservience to the things that drive us. Certainly, as you point out, our technologies are working powerfully to entrain us in their automatisms. But at the same time we have a degree of freedom, and that free place, however constricted, may well be the only place we ever have a right to address another human being.

Freedom only seems to make sense as a name for the movement toward responsible wakefulness, and not as a name for some presumed ideal state. After all, perfect freedom wouldn't have much meaning; what would we be free from, if we acted purely out of the inner necessity of our highest selves and suffered no downward pull? Nor would absolute lack of freedom make any sense; is a stone unfree? The idea of freedom applies only to a state of transition. We are works in progress.

DB: As works in progress, however, we are also, as you point out, "scattered selves." Swept up in the chaotic flow of the world our technology has created we are distracted, inattentive, restless. This leaves us incapable of what you call "conscious self-possession." Some see in this phenomenon the making of a new, post-modern self, one with many personae but no unifying center. Is this inevitable, do you think, or are we just coming to terms with a situation over which we have no control-so we invent this new "self" to accommodate ourselves to it?

ST: A self without a center, or a self that is not a unity, is a contradiction. It is certainly true that, to one degree or another, we are all contradictions, "divided against ourselves". But surely one can see that every move toward health is also a move toward wholeness and integrity. Insofar as the Net succeeds in distracting us from ourselves, it will prove a personal and social disaster.

As I mentioned, the temptations for distraction and sleepwalking are on every hand. But we shouldn't forget that these temptations are also invitations to discover within ourselves a higher power of wholeness and integrity--exactly that power required to overcome the temptation. There are people who are taking up this challenge, even if they're not the ones making the news.

DB: Well, you are certainly one of these people and I'm glad to see you are making some news. You made a rather provocative statement in your New York Times interview. "The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy. As our friend, it will destroy us." This is an idea which you have also stressed in your book. But how, in fact, can one really work with the computer (and, of course, the Internet) keeping constantly in mind that they are "the enemy?"

ST: How do we work with our own one-sided tendencies? Not by despising them, but by making sure we put more energy into the counterbalancing possibilities of our nature than into the side that is already overdeveloped.

The computer represents a kind of perfection of our one-sided tendencies over the past several hundred years. It is a head without a chest. It nudges us toward the expression of form without any deeply felt content -- like the equations of pure mathematics or the propositions of pure logic. It floods us with information as data. It encourages us to fragment and decontextualize things.

So if we want real content, if we want to grasp the meaning of things, and if we want to apprehend the wholeness of the world, then we have to work for it. Our tools will steadily increase our powers of analysis and fragmentation without much effort from us, so that is the easiest way to go. (It's the way we can go while sleepwalking.) In order to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, we have to achieve some hard, inner work that none of our tools can do for us. It's a deeply creative work for which we cannot rely on any program.

DB: Jung warned insistently about the danger of the psyche becoming "one-sided" but generally we interpret that to mean what happens solely within the psyche. You introduce another and very important insight -- how one-sidedness comes about as the result of an interaction between our selves and the external world-for example, with the computer. Since this is something we are not at all clear about, could you develop this further?

ST: I don't see any way to distinguish sharply between interaction with our selves and interaction with the world. A better word than "interaction" would be "conversation", and a conversation is always a play of meaning with meaning. These meanings come from "inside", whether it is the inside of us or the inside of the world.

You can see what I'm getting at by considering the view that computers are just tools. That is, they're essentially neutral. The values are in us, we're told, not in the machines, and everything depends on how we use them.

But that's crazily one-sided. Sure, everything depends on how we use these machines, but it's also true that a whole history of use is already built into them. We've given outward form to certain habits, certain preferences, certain tendencies of our own nature, and the computer is the result. So we don't start with the machine as a tabula rasa upon which we can freely inscribe our current intentions without constraint. The computer is itself such an inscription upon the raw materials of its manufacture -- an exceedingly complex and "intelligent" inscription that is capable of embodying far more biases, urges, and values than, say, the television.

These, of course, are our biases, urges, and values, but we encounter them out there, in the machine, because we've built them into the machine. Everything we touch significantly becomes an expression of us, and we then have to deal with that expression as we meet it in the world. This is the conversation I spoke of.

DB: Jung also stressed the need to keep the opposites in tension and that from this tension a third possibility arises. Throughout your book you call for the need to keep our relation to the machine in a tension. For instance, in writing about the machine as an expression of the human being which also acts independently upon us, you say we have to "keep both sides of the truth in our minds, flexibly and simultaneously." Would you see any "third possibility" emerging from sustaining this tension?

ST: I'm not quite sure this particular tension is the sort Jung was speaking of. If there's an opposition here, then I suppose the third possibility is the realization that it is neither a matter of us acting on mere objects nor of our being acted on by them; rather, we are caught up in a conversation with ourselves. And certainly Jung has a lot to say about the fact that we meet ourselves in the world. Technology is the first and easiest realm for experiencing this. But, no, that's not really true. The easiest place is in our relations with other people. The technological domain is the second-easiest place. And the natural world is hardest.

DB: Why the hardest?

ST: Because we've trained ourselves for several centuries to view the world as a set of inert objects -surfaces without interiors. The older view, of course, was that the world had an interior-it was ensouled-and this interior was akin to our own interiors. I think we are in the long and painful process of realizing that, for all the technical gains objectification of the world has brought us, we have lost an essential part of the truth. You can sense how much is at stake in the battle for this truth when you glimpse the powerful, gut-driven reaction of the materialist thinker to any suggestion that nature has an interior. The British philologist Owen Barfield has remarked that "materialism is a psychic phenomenon of fear." The materialist needs his objects-that-are-nothing-but-surface because he is afraid of what he might encounter if he looked beneath the surface. (Reminds one of Galileo's telescope.)

DB: The Internet seems to have played an important role in stimulating and in organizing the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. Some point to this as a positive example of how the Internet can promote democracy and even some sense of community. What are your thoughts on this?

ST: Everyone on the Net seemed to think this way a few years back. But as the commercial and political machines begin to take hold of the new technologies, many are having second thoughts. The balance between the resources of the big guys and the small guys isn't about to change (we've been seeing a greater income spread in this country for some time), but now, on the Net, the game will be speeded up and rendered more technically challenging.

Digital technologies can be used to help fulfill almost any possibility you can imagine. The question is how we as a society are inclined to re-shape ourselves around the technology. You have to look at the prevailing biases and proclivities. In a society already abandoning what vestiges of community are left to it, the Net provides the perfect means for accelerating this process. In a society with less and less citizen participation in politics, the Net again provides the perfect means for accelerating the process.

Look at television. Anyone watching a politician speak from Washington in the 1950s might well have thought, "This amazing technology will surely renew participative democracy in this country. It brings the most distant politician into the intimacy of my living room. We'll all be involved together in everything that happens." Well, welcome to cosmetic, image-conscious, poll-driven politics, with steadily increasing voter apathy.

The simple fact is that all distance-collapsing technologies have the effect of inserting greater distance between us.

DB: What do you mean?

ST: The first automobile users could well have thought that these new vehicles would bind our cities and towns more closely together. How could they not? It was now so easy to move about, visiting others and doing the deeds of community. Yet the reality didn't quite turn out that way. We have urban sprawl with its endless suburbs and malls, the walling off of entire districts by freeways and ramps, and pollution.

The telescope brought the stars nearer to us, but today we hardly have any experience of the stars at all. This led Robert Romanyshyn to say, "Perhaps we had to travel to the moon in 1969 because it had gone so far away." I think he's right.

Even the conquering of the smaller distances has the same general effect. The microscope is one of many tools that have helped to conceal the patient behind tissue analyses, arrays of numerical indices, genetic profiles, and so on. The patient is now further away from the doctor, not nearer.

None of this is really paradoxical. Distance-collapsing technologies enable us to move through space more quickly, passing each other by at ever greater velocities. Obviously, there's less and less time to attend to particular people and places. One-time destinations become way stations. Places that once had a qualitative texture and feel now become coordinates on the grid. We're all just passing through.

Only if we counter these technologies with a greater power of attention to the specific, the qualitative, the local, the here and now, can we keep our balance. This is the general rule, first voiced, so far as I know, by Rudolf Steiner: To the extent we commit ourselves more fully to a machine-mediated existence, we must reach more determinedly toward the highest regions of our selves; otherwise, we will progressively lose our humanity.

DB: But in the face of the overwhelming presence of this machine-mediated existence, the individual effort to reach towards this higher region of the self seems inadequate. Maybe it has great symbolic value and I certainly agree we have to make the effort, but something more seems urgent as well, but what exactly?

ST: If you know of any greater power than that available through the realization of our highest selves, I'd certainly like to know about it!

DB: I am not questioning this power so much as reacting to the implication that this is a solitary, individual process. Save your own soul and you save the world. It seems to me, on the contrary, that there has to be as well a communal striving towards this goal which will foster the kind of consciousness you talk about. For me, your newsletter NetFuture is an example of such a communal quest.

ST: I certainly agree. Actually, I think the individual and community stand in one of those polar opposite relationships, where there is not only a tension of opposition between them, but also a mutual dependency. We can only become true individuals in community, and we can only create true communities where the individual thrives. Or, in slightly different terms: what is most truly individual in us is also what is most universal. And in different terms again: we discover ourselves in the other.

DB: You question whether this prospect of a global electronic culture will really result in a coming together of peoples, or whether it will produce just more alienation from each other. Also, that this electronic culture is monolithic in nature and works against the viability of alternative cultures. Isn't this another, insidious form of abstraction and rationalization which ultimately is anti-human?

ST: Yes, precisely because we have not made it our project to counterbalance technology in the manner just mentioned. Our global financial relations, for example, have succumbed to the pure calculational prowess of the computer; we do not reach toward that higher place where we can separate ourselves from the mechanisms of investment and ask, "What worthwhile work in the world do I want to sustain with this money?"

When you have trillion-dollar capital flows streaming through the world seeking nothing more than their own mathematical increase, you can be sure that some of the means for obtaining that increase will turn out to be unhealthy for economies and societies -- a lesson we've recently seen writ large.

DB: There is an assumption, almost universally accepted, that, whatever the disturbances it causes, in the long run this technology-based globalism will be good for all of us. That is the side we want to be on in this "McWorld vs Jihad" conflict that is also going on. Perhaps we are not paying enough attention to the Jihad side which is admittedly chaotic even violent, but as Benjamin Barber says maybe it "tends the soul that McWorld abjures and strives for the moral well-being that McWorld, busy with consumer choices it mistakes for freedom, disdains." Here we have two opposing forces, but it is not clear to me how we can hold them in any kind of productive tension. How do you see this?

ST: I think there's a great deal to what Barber says. Globalization, you could say, is a drive toward efficient, well-defined process, and, by itself, such a drive necessarily leads to the loss of qualitative content. We become more and more efficient, but are less and less sure what it is we're being so efficient about. And if we want to regain content, we have to realize that it is always particular. It's not just the Muslim world that is growing alienated from global processes today; it is anyone who cares deeply, feelingly, particularly, about anything. It is anyone who has not made a god out of efficiency while forgetting to ask "efficient about what?"

In today's world the primary way to work toward true globalization is to revitalize local places. That's because globalization and localization are another one of those polarities, where each pole depends on the other. If you globalize without strengthening locales, you end up with an efficient web of global relationships, but there is nothing there standing on its own and capable of any meaningful relating. On the other hand, if you try to strengthen local contexts, you will find that it is the nature of every meaningful context to weave connections from one thing to another without fixed boundary. (Think of what we've learned about ecological communities.) You can't block this expanding contextualization -- which is a kind of globalization -- without suffocating the local community.

Every sound community breathes naturally between its inward focus and its outward relationships. But the one-sided, technologically conditioned globalization of our day simply destroys local community, as Jerry Mander documents so well in The Absence of the Sacred.

DB: As you became increasingly aware of what technology is doing to us, to our sense of self and our very humanity, you made radical changes in your life. Drawing on your own experience, are there some final thoughts you would be willing to share with us about the path to a "responsible consciousness?"

ST: Technology is us. This is perhaps more true of the computer than of any earlier technology. We had to conceive the machine "in here" before we could build it "out there". It operates in us as well as in the world. That's why you find corporations and the mechanisms of global finance becoming more and more like computers--a process that was well advanced even before we had computers.

So the real issue isn't technology as it is usually thought of -- all those machines we build. The real issue is self-mastery. Can we rise above the level at which we ourselves perform like computers? No one can tell you what to expect if we do succeed in this higher task, since the one thing it won't look like is the predictable execution of a program. The highest expressions of the human being may look natural and inevitable after the fact, but they are always a complete mystery before the fact.

Where to look for these expressions? I think the best place to look is in the out-of-the-way places, the places that don't capture the headlines or the attention of the moguls and political leaders. In general, the developments that massively re-shape a culture start in the humblest and least noted places. (The history of Christianity and the Roman empire provides perhaps the classic example of this truth.) And, in any case, each of us in his own humble place must act as if his endeavors were re-shaping the entire culture. The fact is that they are, and the great divide today is between those who accept this fact with a grave sense of responsibility, and those who look outward, to technology, for the hope of the future.

Steve Talbott :: Computers, the Internet, and the Abdication of Consciousness