My misgivings about Second Life expressed in the post Real Is Beautiful brought an email response from Paul Hartzog, a fellow grad student at Michigan and the a leading proponent of Panarchy, the most obviously sane, rational, and just form of government - therefore perhaps the one we are least likely to experience in our lifetimes. :-) Our brief exchange is reproduced here with permission. We ended up with him pointing me to a Wired article about technology and the Amish, which led me to look more deeply into the concerns I have.
aFirst I should tell you a little more about Paul. I believe he is one of the most mature thinkers about the future of technology. We met in a complex adaptive systems course, which was a natural for him given this quote from his About page:
I spent years working in the internet technology arena, and I’m fascinated by the notion that network technology is reconnecting the world. After a long period of distance and separation human civilization is returning to its tribal origins. Technologies that allow us to work together in new ways make possible an era of “do it yourself” cooperation. That means people being able to help each other without relying on hierarchies do things for them. These anarchical networks are best understood within the framework of complex adaptive systems.
So, this means we have to study new phenomena like open source, wiki, and social software, but it also means that we have to look back to the roots of civilization: tribes, gift economies, communities, and political theory.
Here's Paul's email response to my Real Is Beautiful post:
Your take seems just a tad anti-technology. We do know that social software as it is called has actually reinvigorated human face to face interactions. I think this is a good thing, of course.
I just finished The Gutenberg Elegies which you really should read. Same basic idea: tech changes things, I liked them better the old way, yadda yadda yadda.
I actually DO believe that virtual experiences are real experiences (see Dibbell's paper about a rape in cyberspace). But I agree about Second Life being a waste of time. I just can't sort them out.
To which I replied:
Re Dibbell's account of a rape in cyberspace, My first post about Second Life was all about that event.
I don't consider my views anti-technology; rather, I hope they can be seen as a part of the dialogue on what constitutes appropriate technology, and how a culture can safely assimilate new technologies. A cluster bomb with the bomblets painted to look like toys is one example of a highly inappropriate technology - a point with which our government and some few others apparently disagree. The jury is still out on whether virtual reality is appropriate, but I would argue that it is, when used for the right reasons, e.g., to accomplish necessary things that can't be accomplished in RL. Dr. Yellowlees' schizophrenia environment is an example of such a necessity.
There is a potential, though, for a "death of a thousand cuts". As uses that are individually not just appropriate but highly desirable accrue, the technology becomes pervasive and widespread unintended consequences ensue. At some point the accumulated unintended consequences of our mindless adoption of technologies will reach a tipping point beyond which the scope of our options will become constrained by the consequences to a greater degree than new technologies can expand that scope - a rather unpleasant sort of emergent phenomenon.
It's clearly happening already in the realm of carbon-based energy generation technologies. Developing nations, China in particular, are demanding and taking their fair share of the world's CO2 absorption capacity, a fair share unfortunately based on the OECD's past greed. Climatic temperature shifts are underway, the civilized world's solutions to which (A/C and heating) involve more carbon-based fuel consumption, releasing yet more CO2, exacerbating the shifts. The ultimate tragedy of the commons scenario is the inevitable outcome if humanity cannot react with sufficient rapidity and efficacy.
This sort of thing happens all the time in the natural world. I believe the word they use for it in ecology is "die-back". We owe it to our children, and all our future descendants, to avoid that fate. Flight into SL and other virtual worlds may be a fatal distraction from this crisis for the residents of our "global village", or maybe it will somehow provide the lever that tips the situation in a more sustainable direction. Like you, I can't sort it out.
"I don't consider my views anti-technology; rather, I hope they can be seen as a part of the dialogue on what constitutes appropriate technology, and how a culture can safely assimilate new technologies."
Ah, then you will want to read this: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.01/amish.html
The article by Howard Rheingold, the first high-tech maven of the Whole Earth Catalog crew and now a renowned technology futurist, describes the Amish people's secret love affair with the cell phone. It's a few years old and I wonder what has changed in the Amish view of the cell phone since then, but I don't have time to research it properly.
I have long been fascinated by the Amish and their peculiar love/hate relationship with technology. Or so it seems from the outside of their relatively opaque culture. I found this explanation in a Web page called The Amish: Technology Practice and Technological Change that puts their techno-skepticism in a more understanding light:
The most important factor of Amish life is Gelassenheit, or submission to the will of God. Gelassenheit is based primarily on Jesus' words, "not my will but thine be done." By giving up individuality and any thought of selfishness, they embrace God's will by serving others and submitting to Him. To the Amish, Gelassenheit is seen in all of the following aspects of Amish life:
Personality: reserved, modest, calm, quiet
Values: submission, obedience, humility, simplicity
Symbols: dress, horse, carriage, lantern
Structure: small, informal, local, decentralized
Ritual: baptism, confession, ordination, foot-washing
** Excerpted from Kraybill, Donald. The Riddle of Amish Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989, p.26.
The Amish feel that Gelassenheit should permeate every facet of their existence, and even be apparent in their material possessions. Consequently, they will only selectively use modern technologies. As seen in the symbols of Gelassenheit, the Amish believe that using lanterns and the buggies typifies their lifestyle of simplicity and modesty. Any technology that does not uphold the Gelassenheit principles is banned from use. Electricity is seen as a connection with the outside world and violates the Amish principle of separation from society. Electricity also promotes the use of household items, such as the television, that allow the outside, "English," values of sloth, luxury, and vanity to infiltrate the household. Automobiles are not often used because they degrade the Gelassenheit principle of a small, close-knit community. The Amish fear, with good reason, that these modern transportation technologies will cause them to spread apart, much like most modern American families. Also, the Amish fear that the automobile will promote competition among themselves. They worry that the car will become a status symbol and promote vanity, which is in direct violation of the Gelassenheit value of modesty. The telephone is banned from the household because, much like the automobile, it promotes a separation of community. Instead of taking a carriage or walking to a friend's house, the Amish feel that they would be tempted to simply stay home and speak on the phone. In order to uphold Gelassenheit, many modern technologies have been banned from regular use.
My views on technology align very closely with this, though I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that modern communication technologies have brought us close together as a "global village" as Marshall McLuhan predicted. I am actually very excited about the possibilities inherent in Second Life and other similar immersive environments. What I don't see is a dialogue of the sort one expects to see in village life about the effects of the marvelous toys that connect us with each other. With gravity and the laws of physics in general, we have a pretty good intuitive understanding of consequences. Given the unprecedented nature of the rapid evolution of information technologies over the past century and a half, we are in unknown territory, without even our body's innate understanding of natural laws to guide us.
We are flying blind. I'm as ready to fly as anyone else - I just want us to understand the dangers. Blind people tend to be very conservative in their movements when in unfamiliar territory, just as the Amish are conservative in their relationship to technology, and for much the same reasons. There's a lesson in their conservatism for us in adapting to our newly acquired blindness.
I gotta go. More soon...