Rheingold and Turkle

Do you see any connection between the changes you attribute to human use of computers with the radical deterioration of human quality of life in industrial society claimed by intellectual critics such as Sven Birkerts, Clifford Stoll, Kirkpatrick Sale, and more populist critics who seem to be raising objections, questions, and resistance to the once-accepted notion of "technological progress?"

One of the things that the once accepted notion of technological "progress" has brought with it is that increasingly, people are faced with situations that would have seemed "unthinkable" only a few years ago. The problem is that we now know how to do theset things, yet they are still un-thinkable that is, we don't know how to think about them.

Medical technology raises some of the most urgent questions: We don't know how to think about the once-unproblematic notion of motherhood when one woman can donate an egg, a man she has never met can donate spern, a third woman, unknown to both these parties, can have the child grow within her, while a fourth woman stands ready to raise the child. On the one hand, we seem on the border of defining motherhood in social terms, who stands ready to raise a child, love a child, protect and take responsibility for a child. On the other hand, we seem to be defining "parents" and "family" in increasingly biological terms. It seems to me quite understandable that at moments when the unthinkable becomes possible, there are these dramatic paradoxes in our approach to issues -- but it means that when the paradoxes become apparent, technology is there to blame.

There is too, an all-or-nothingness tone to much of technological criticism that speaks to its being a "Rorshach" for other things, a place where some irrationality expresses itself. You see this in notions of "computer addiction" or "internet addiction." Computers and communication networks are not drugs. They are complex media that different people (and different social and political groups for that matter) use in different ways. Yet the notion of addiction seems almost irresistable. X amount of heroin use is never a good thing; this same amount of internet activity can be a helpful or a hurtful thing, depending on the content of the messages and the role of the activity in the life of the person doing it.

Some of us feel that with the deterioration of local communities, we have lost a certain direct contact with others. Now, for some people I interviewed, the telephone is looked upon nostalgically as a means for direct communication -- a technology whose distancing was once seen as alienating, now becomes a model for a lost golden age. I believe that when people see the virtues of email for completing "transactions" on the internet, they fear that communications that once had a "softer" or non-instrumental dimension (a business call to a colleague where some personal matters were discussed as well) will be turned into efficient email "transactions."

The fear is of making too many of our encounters into transactions. This may be progress on one dimension but an important step back on another. But each technology needs time to develop as a medium that enhances the experience of people. In my family, my grandparents used the telephone for emergencies and my parents used it to do routine business and make plans. I used it as an extension of my social an emotional communication.

With computer-mediated communication, things are moving very quickly. We are only now developing the fora and the people able to turn this medium to the richest purposes.

Brainstorms Tomorrow Mind to Mind