November 3, 2000


A Special Shorty

Here's a special issue, reporting on a conference I went to. Do you care? I bet you'll let me know.

I do have another real issue in the works, with tons of your mail and links 'n' stuff. But before then I may have an extra special issue with a long essay I've been working on. In fact, I may well just send you the link.

We'll see. Meanwhile, let me know if you think this issue is a waste of electrons.


dividing line

I'm writing this while coming back from the self-consciously charming town of Camden, Maine, a village that time forgot but people with lots of tech money found. Camden is the home of Pop!Tech, a conference founded by Bob "Ethernet" Metcalfe and John "Pepsi Apple" Sculley, with lots of support from Camden's surprising cast of local luminaries, including Tom "Peopleware" DeMarco and Andy "ex-KMWorld" Moore.

The theme of Pop!Tech this year was "Being Human in the Digital Age," a topic that ruthlessly narrowed the target audience to all humans, definitely leaving JoJo the Chimp and Natalie the Charlies Angels Talk-n-Learn pull toy out on the sidewalk, weeping.

For 2.5 days, we sat in the beautifully restored Camden Opera House, listening to a series of speakers from a variety of disciplines speaking on topics such as ethics, creativity, work, play, spirituality and globalism. I have a very limited patience for listening to presentations, due to the ironclad Law of Irony, since the Cluetrain book is all about being able to listen and since I now make most of my living as a presenter. But these were of unusually high caliber, so that they considerably slowed down my catching up on my daydreaming. (I'm in the middle of a particularly vivid series involving Larry Ellison and the Kathy Bates character from "Misery.")

The conference was provocative. Here's some of what it provoked in this benighted reporter. (I'm only reporting on sessions to which I feel moved to reply, and in particular, sessions about which I think I can look smart, especially now that the presenters aren't around to reply.)

John Perry Barlow (co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and Grateful Dead songwriter) kicked it off with an hour of what he sees passing beneath him as he flies at 100,000 feet, fueled by caffeine and the trace remains of some really good psychedelics. At first I thought I wasn't getting much from his Dharma Cowboy color commentary besides a bushel of entertainment, but over the course of the next two days, I found myself frequently referring to what he said. I suspect he often has that effect on people.

All of it was interesting, some was genuinely heartening, but some was facile, such as defining humans as the creatures who are dissatisfied. Yeah, sure. But all these attempts to fill in the "Humans are the _____ animal" blank are doomed to failure since they're based on an Aristotelian metaphysics that assumes a rational chain of beings, each uniquely different in a single regard from all the other creatures in its species. Yes, we're the creatures dissatisfied with our lot — and this is a useful counterpoise to the "rational animal" guff — but we're also the hopeful animal, the humorous animal, the Sally Jesse Raphael-watching animal, and the animal that can see the world through the eyes of others (which I think founds morality, but more about that some other time).

Barlow also said that the Web is a type of group consciousness that now needs a conscience, proving once again that a little metaphor can go a long way. And, of course, he told us that there is no such thing as intellectual property and that copyrights and patents were only intended to give a temporary monopoly on a creation that is essentially un-owned. When pressed by a sympathetic CEO of a startup who counts his company's idea as a key asset, Barlow slipped into optimistic generalities on the order of casting your bread upon the water. Too bad. That's exactly where we need a real answer. But, conference formats mitigate against dipping deep into narrow holes.

Privacy. There was a fabulous panel on privacy and censorship with a stellar cast: Whitfield Diffie (inventor of public key cryptography and full-time eccentric), Ira Glasser (executive director of the ACLU since 1978), and Angus King (governor of Maine). Glasser spoke for half an hour without notes about the history of the constitutional development of the right of privacy. Brilliant. Angus King seemed to be bright, sincere and human (although I've been fooled before). Unfortunately, he got 98% of the way through it and then collapsed (intellectually) by saying that he thought government ought to stay out of the question of privacy, that it really ought to be left up to the individual. So, just when the question gets real and real hard, he takes a pass. The challenge is to figure out when and how government ought to be involved. Glasser called him on it, however, saying that that would be a reasonable position if the playing field were truly level, but since corporations have somewhat more power than individual consumers, government is required to help. Now if we could just figure out how.

Kurzweil. In one of my favorite sessions, Ellen Ullman, author of Close to the Machine, took on Ray Kurzweil's dumbass best-seller, The Age of the Spiritual Machine." Even better, Kurzweil wasn't at the conference so we didn't have to get distracted by a rebuttal. She read an essay that was closely reasoned and beautifully written, challenging his claim that someday soon we'll be able to achieve immortality by downloading our brain into a computer. She focused on the conceptual difficulty of knowing precisely what to download and how to represent it.

Yet, even if you could manage those problems, you'd still end up with a representation of a brain, not something that thinks. For example, if you download your brain into a book, the book wouldn't think, and neither would the "system" that included the book, the set of algorithms for governing the change of states, and the graduate student you hire to make the changes. This is essentially Douglas Hofstadter's argument in one of his many books that I didn't finish reading. MIT's Patti Maes, innovator in collaborative filtering, added that she finds it amusing that the people who come up with these attempts to achieve immortality always say that we're 40 years away from making it a reality and are themselves about 50 years old; in other words, they're predicting that just before they kick the bucket, we'll come up with a way to transfer them into a new bucket.

Fear and Trembling. The actual title of this remarkable session was "Tribalism/Globalism." It began with James Adams, president of, former managing editor of the London Times, and board member of the National Security Administration. To get cleared for the latter, you have to pass 8 polygraph tests, drink your own urine, and strangle a boar before it can alert its fellows. He claimed that we are woefully ill-prepared for cyber warfare and that the ability of a single individual to do civilization-wide damage is under-estimated. I spent some time talking with him afterwards, and he seems to be not just rational but actually quite delightful — nothing at all like the Ollie North sort of defense expert who always has one more small weapon secreted somewhere on his body the terrorists will never look. Thus, when he claimed that some electronic goods manufactured in China and France in fact wire back to the mother ship all of the activity passing through them, it was worrisome.

I appreciated, by the way, that when someone said he was pretty sure his mail was being tapped, James basically replied that the guy probably wasn't important enough to incur the substantial expense that would be involved.

Next up in this session was Li Lu, one of the organizers of the Tianamen uprising. He told his amazing personal story — his parents were sent to prison when he was very young, he was put into an orphanage and then happily into foster care, but his foster parents were killed in an earthquake when he was ten ... and that's when his story gets really dramatic — in perfectly idiomatic English. He says the people running the infrastructure in China are all members of the "Tianamen Generation," as he says, all supporters of freedom and all cognizant of the power of the Net.

I had the good luck to have a couple of chances to talk with him privately, including on the two-hour bus ride to the airport, and he is one fascinating dude. He's now a venture capitalist, hugely intelligent, genuinely modest and humble, and very warm. You want hope? Consider the fact that for all he's been through, all he's done, all he knows, he seems genuinely happy.

Morality. Leonard Sweet, author of FaithQuakes and many other books, took the pulpit and delivered a sermon. I liked listening to it because of its counter-tech idiom, and one of the 25-year-olds I had lunch with afterwards liked it because he was the first speaker to acknowledge that there's a genuine generation gap on the Web.

He was followed by Rush Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics. Excellent opening joke, excellent stage presence, an uplifting message of hope, all wrapped around a vacuous core. Maybe in a different venue he would have been able to fill it in more, but, as I understood it, his position is that surveys show the world agrees on its moral values (honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, compassion, and voting for Al Gore), that we identify bad things to do because they feel "yechy" and that the hard moral problems occur when two positive values conflict. Ok, so now what about Napster? How does this help?

Not to mention the essential conservativism of a morality based on avoiding what feels yucky: for a long time, darker-skinned people drinking out of water fountains reserved for lighter-skinned people was palpably yechy to the lighter-skinned. It seems to me, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, that the real issue is that the Web is so unlike the real world in its basics that the only successful way we have of extending the reach of our moral systems — analogy — doesn't work. That is, we can't trust our yechs on the Web.

And when one of the high school students in the audience — the organizers wisely gave some "scholarships" to the local school — picked up on James 's point that a single malefactor can undo the work of billions of benefactors, Rush replied with an analogy: when you open a closet door while holding a candle, the darkness doesn't put out the candle. Ah, why didn't he say so before!

Maybe I just need to hear Rush in a venue more suited to getting the dirt of ethics under your nails.

Me. I gave a talk on what's happening to work, expounding on the obvious ("We're more alike at work than outside of work"), perseverating on the tedious (the Web is an unmanaged place ... ok, we got the point already!), and stringing it together with a set of supposedly humorous observations to distract the audience from the intellectual dishonesty of the content.

Mike Hawley, responsible for the Things that Think and Toys of Tomorrow projects at MIT, was supposed to talk about "play," but he took it a tad too literally and instead actually played the piano. It turns out that he is a concert-level pianist as well as an MIT hot shot. Indeed, he's performing next week at Steinway Hall. He probably speaks six languages as well. It's very tempting to hate him.

Robots. MIT's Rodney Brooks gave a hugely enjoyable presentation about his work building humanoid robots. He focused on Kismet, a robot head that — without benefit of latex to hide its metal skeleton — is remarkably human-like. Rodney believes that humans consist of many related micro-machines, and if you replicate those micro-machines in metal and plastic, the resulting creature will be not a simulation of a conscious life-form, but will in fact be a conscious life-form. I find myself unconvinced by that argument. I spent much of an evening with him but it only took a few minutes to whittle the dispute down to its core. He accuses me of carbon-ism (well, he didn't use that word) because I won't grant that a silicon and steel creature that acts like a human is conscious. I replied that saying that I'm guilty of a form of racism is begging the question, since the issue is whether this particular new creation indeed is different from us only in its material. That is, racism, sexism and the other ism's are evil because they treat creatures differently based on irrelevant differences. Thus, it's wrong to pay an African-American less for the same work, but it's reasonable to rule out hiring women to work in environments harmful to the female reproductive system. Since Brooks and I are disagreeing about which differences may be relevant, it's premature to call me a carbonist.

I suspect that since these robots will be introduced with gradually increasing degrees of seeming (or real) consciousness, we will gradually come to accept them as cohabitants of our planet. Will we accord them full title as thinking and feeling living machines? How the hell do I know?

Joy. The final presenter, before Bob Metcalfe wrapped it up with a summary that I had to miss, was Bill Joy. He pretty much summarized his Wired article that maintains that individuals will soon be able to use nano technology, bio technology or robotics to create dangerous creatures that can replicate, thus spelling an end to the human species. He did not have an opening joke.

Joy believes that Moore's law is not going to end and that within our lifetimes we may have computers a million times more powerful than today's. Furthermore, advances in programming may let us have software a million times more powerful. Thus, we'll have computing systems that are a million times a million more powerful. At that point, we can start modeling the weather, manipulating DNA, and coming up with questions suitable for "Who Wants to Be a Ten-to-the-Twelth-anaire?". And at that point, your frustrated nephew who's angry because his date only went to second base will be able to seek revenge by cooking up, say, a pathogen that defeats our immune system and that reproduces at the speed of blight.

Joy's proposal for preventing this is that we maybe stop developing some of these technologies. But he's so bullish about the good that can be done with them, that he seems as ambivalent as he should be. He also proposed that scientists take a "Hippocratic Oath" promising to think about what they're doing and to do no harm. But the folks working on the Manhattan Project thought they were doing no more harm than the surgeon removing a cancer. And the terrorist scientist thinks he or she is working for a great cause. "No man knowingly does evil," said Socrates, thus making our moral lives very much more difficult, damn his eyes.

But I think we're actually in the realm of myth here. Joy paints a particular picture: computers smarter than God, single individuals able to use that power to destroy the world. There's another picture, however. Consider our current image of the hackers who create computer virus. We generally view them as in a race with the good guys who come up with the inoculations. Sure, occasionally the hacker wins and damage is done. But the two seem to be about evenly matched. Maybe that's the right story about these new technologies. Maybe the good guys will be working on nano-bio-tech that augments our immune system so that it can rapidly form antigens to unpredicted pathogens. Maybe that will make life much harder for the horny high schooler with a chip on his shoulder. Of course, I don't know what will happen. And I trust Joy to have a far better sense — maybe 1,000,000x — of what's realistic when it comes to technology.

There's no doubt that Joy is wicked smart. Awesome. But, in response to a question, he said that he doesn't read fiction. Since it seems to me that, inevitably, in these discussions of the fragility of our fate he is telling a story, I'd be more comfortable if he were not antipathetic to the narrative art form. I hate to think that one of the leading technological minds of our culture is stuck recapitulating bad sci fi. "Those who cannot remember literature are doomed to repeat it."

By the way, Joy larded his presentation with classical references, including Aristotle, Sophocles, and some Roman guy. I suspected that a speech writer had put them in to make Joy look erudite and classically trained, but in response to a question, he made a passing reference to Rousseau that convinced me that he wasn't faking it.

Overall. Would I go back to Pop!Tech? Yeah, probably. Given my dislike of sitting still and listening to others, that's a big compliment.

BTW, I got to meet a bunch of JOHO readers at the conference. They were the ones asking all the smart questions. And, you're very snappy dressers, to boot.

Politically-motivated Misc.

As the tracking polls go back and forth every day, we get headlines such as "Gore pulls within a percentage point of Bush," followed by "Bush ahead by 2." Since for almost all of the last two weeks, the difference has been within the margin of error, shouldn't these headlines read

Margin of error means we just don't know!

What's the point of a margin of error if changes within its boundaries are reported as actual changes?

Just wondering.

PS: Vote for Gore, if only because Bush has said that Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia are his favorite Supremo's. Oh, and also because Bush is a moron.

Who's Tired of Being a Millionaire?

I know for a fact that there are some filthy rich dot communists among you JOHO readers. You want to do something real cool with your bucks? Mike Hawley of MIT (see above) told the conference about If you donate $15,000, the World Bank will match the funds and build a school in Cambodia. You can name it after anyone you want. (Tip: My last name has no "u"'s in it.) And for another $2,000, they'll put solar panels on the roof and provide computers and a Net connection (if possible) so you can actually do some instant messaging with kids who think you are more than swell.

(I'm trying to get some "due dilligence" info about this program. So far it looks on the up-and-up.)


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