Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Back to the Future! (Part 4)

THE CALF PATH -- Sam Walter Foss (1858 - 1911)

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh —
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet.
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach —
But I am not ordained to preach.

This is the final installment in what has become a 4 part series(!) The first three installments can be read here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The Communication Age

In my last post I talked about the Communication Age and how the internet represents the current evolution in a long string of technological advances in the realm of communications.

In less than two decades, the internet has grown into a technology that we now take for granted. But is it obvious exactly what the internet is? How would I explain the internet to 11-year old Jim?

It might pose a challenge. At first glance, it seems simple enough: most technologies are defined by how we use them ... or, more to the point, what we use them for. The problem is, we do so many things with the internet today, that such a generic definition is hard to come up with! We might call it an information tool, or a connectivity tool. But these terms are vague and really not very useful.

Of course, you can define the technologies that the internet is made up of. The term internet technically refers to the physical interconnection of many thousands of individual networks around the world. People often use the term World Wide Web interchangeably when referring to the internet; but they are not the same. The WWW refers specifically to the global collection of interconnected documents; i.e. "information", which can be accessed via the internet. But custom sees us continually using the term Internet or just "the Net" to refer to the entire pantheon of technologies, tools, and concepts associated with today's modern digital connectivity culture. To avoid any confusion, I will continue using the word in this vague way.

In reality, the internet revolution was made possible by the confluence of three factors: affordable computers, affordable high-speed connectivity, and fast, affordable data storage. All of these elements didn't come together at once, but without them, the internet as we know it, in all of its versatility, would not be possible. It could easily have remained an elite, restricted online environment, useable only by large corporations, government organizations, and universities. But it was its accessibility to the general public that allowed it to explode into a multi-faceted communications tool, driven as much by the creativity of the wide world of webusers in general as by the immense profit potential the medium promises to those enterprising companies of every industry equipped to capitalize on it.

Defining the term "internet" technically doesn't tell you much about what it can actually do for you though. It is somewhat akin to saying that a "cake" is made of flour, eggs, and sugar: it doesn't tell you anything about what a cake really is; how it tastes ... and when and why we eat it.

The "Net" is difficult to define exactly because it unites a variety of media in a single conduit: perhaps it can be best described as a mixture of the telephone, television, radio, the magazine, and the catalog all-in-one (and all of which are currently under threat of eventual replacement by the internet!). And that's just the start of it. It can be (and generally is!) exploited commercially, but the key to the internet's power (which may also be its greatest weakness ... I'll come to this point in a minute) is that anyone can share whatever he or she wants to. We can share our knowledge, our opinions, our beliefs... we can share our art, our interests, our thoughts. That doesn't mean that everyone has to be a generator of content -- but the internet is not a passive medium, and it is that aspect that differentiates it from the one-way "network television" model of communication.

The Internet and Tribal Culture

I know that "the internet" is a huge subject ... and I could go on all day about it. But there is one aspect in particular which interests me greatly, and which is related to the topic that I started in the previous posts.

I have belaboured the point about the Internet being a communication channel for a specific reason: how we think of this phenomenon can be significant in evaluating our expectations as to what this technology can actually do for us, which will determine the future directions it may take our society. Throughout history, new technologies have often led to dramatic cultural transformations over time: and this is particularly true of communication technologies. The internet has a tremendous transformation potential because it is simultaneously a "personal" communication device as well as the most effective and democratic mass communications tool ever developed. Not every cultural transformation is painless, however.

In spite of its apparent success, the internet has raised some new fears that spring from its darker side: a whole slew of technological parasites have arisen that may threaten the technology and its utility: viruses, spam, spyware, trojans, phishers... the internet has become a threat to our privacy. As we come to depend on our computers to store everything we know (rather than boxes in the basement), we must fear the consequences of that dependency -- the possibility of losing that data, or, worse, of someone stealing it with malicious intent. As we come to depend on the internet for everything, including access to our bank accounts, the security of this medium is paramount. Our credit card numbers can travel the world over: can we trust a particular internet merchant just because he has a flashy, official-looking website?

Besides this aspect of security, another spectre haunts the internet: all of the effort we invest to protect our privacy on the internet from the mal-intentioned also may serve to protect those who seek to prey on the innocent: the child molesters, terrorists, hate-mongers, extremists. Online, people can assume any identity they wish to: mild-mannered office worker by day, aggressive sexual predator in the virtual world. Although much of this behavior may be just harmless fantasy rollplaying, the possibility of encountering a large number of people who share "interests" normally shunned by society may provide a false sense of legitimacy that ends up reinforcing and strengthening destructive behavior.

This is a negative consequence of what is apparently one of the principal characteristics of today's internet. The connected personal computer is not really an information tool: it is a communication tool. Culture itself is built on communications between people; the sharing of ideas, technologies, language, experiences. In the past, geographical, linguistic, and political isolation led groups of people to develop their own cultures, which sometimes turned out very different from a similar group of people just across the river. The internet strips away those borders, and provides the potential for a global culture that transcends physical boundaries.

To a large extent, we see this happening: but there is also another very strong trend which can be cast in a positive or negative light, depending on ones' point of view: the formation and propagation of internet sub-cultures. The internet is a powerful tool for communication: never before has it been so easy to spread a message to thousands or even millions of people. As such, it has never been so easy to find other people who think like you do, who share your beliefs, or who can come to share them. People who agree with each other tend to gravitate towards one another in the virtual world, often reinforcing their own set of beliefs while spreading them to others. These virtual special interest groups can be referred to as "internet tribes".

This trend explains the plethora of "social networking" tools that have sprouted like weeds across the internet: what began decades ago with the "usenet" has branched into dozens of new ways to meet and connect with people. Nowhere is this more evident than with today's teenagers, who arguably live as much in a virtual world as a in the real world: internet chat rooms, forums, instant messengers, blogs, flogs, MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, webcams, MMORPGS's not unusual for a teen these days to count the members of their social circles in the dozens or even hundreds of people, many of whom they may never have even met face to face.

Social networking tools be incredibly useful, allowing us to find and build relationships with people who share our interests, create our own "tribes", without regard to where we may be located in the world. But of course, it also raises serious questions about the nature of the relationships formed, when the people with whom you are socializing may not even be who they claim to be. Or, even if they are, you don't know their background, their history, who their family is... reasonable items of worry for parents who hope to see their children safely through to adulthood.

Another more subtle item of concern is the effect that the formation of tribal sub-cultures can have on our belief systems. This may be an innocuous occorrence when a social group forms around, for example, "Java Programming" (C# and .NET sucks!); but many groups are based on political, religious, or social ideologies. Since it is usually in our nature to seek out people who think like ourselves, we may end up encouraged to "adopt-an-ideology", polarizing our own views, or taking on "labels" which may encompass ideas and beliefs we did not inicially possess. Since we can, in general, pick and choose what we read and who we communicate with, we have a natural tendency to read things written by people which we already agree with, excluding those points of views which we tend to reject. When we affiliate ourselves with a particular group, we often aggregate related ideas or opinions held by those in the group to our own (this is the definition of "ideology"). This closed-loop system may end up reinforcing our beliefs to the point of radicalization. So, incredibly, even though we supposedly have more access to "information" than ever before in history, we still find ourselves dividing up into polarized groups, drawing lines in the sands of the internet, and squaring off against each other just like we always did. Except today, the "enemy" isn't necessarily on the other side of the river: he may live on the other side of your street!

There is nothing new about this behavior ... "culture-forming" is apparently part of human nature, and dividing ourselves into groups is part of this process. Usually this is a positive thing -- an adaptation to some reality which affects a group of people; but it is basically the same process that created, Nazi Germany, for example. In the past, charismatic or influential leaders, large numbers of missionaries, or control over the media were necessary to reach a vast audience. The internet only makes this ancient behavior much easier, and far more accessible to "normal" people.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the existence of opposing viewpoints ... actually, debate is healthy and desirable. But often the very existence of a given tribe is founded on some fundamental ideology which can not be called into question without resulting in the dissolution of the very group itself! Members of a group called "I hate Microsoft" might debate pros and cons of their respective operating systems with a group called "Microsoft Rules". Some individual members might actually be convinced to switch sides; but like a living organism, the instinct for self preservation dictates that the group itself must defend its own ideology, even against a logical argument, or suffer death. Through natural selection, the moderate members are weeded out, until only the radicals are left to toe the party line. Like an audio feedback loop within an amplifier, the group's ideas are fed back into themselves and augmented repeatedly until nothing comes out but a high-pitched whine!

The internet is a new deal for us, so it may take a while for us, as a society, to get used to it. False information, lies, and distortion can travel just as quickly over the internet as truth can; in fact, it often travels faster because radicals and extremists use inflammatory language, designed to provoke strong emotions and appeal to our basest instincts. What I am contending here is that one of the unexpected consequences of the internet is the propagation or amplification of new and existing extremist ideologies. If I were going to do a doctoral dissertation in anthropology now, this would probably be my subject.

Freedom and the Internet

Abuse of the internet is a complex problem, but use of the internet at all is a threat to oppressive governments around the world. Even in such societies, where free public access to information can be a menace to the established social order, those in charge are challenged with the question of how to bar access to the internet and still build a technologically modern culture. This may seem an unlikely danger to those of us living in western democracies; but even here debate still rages about how free our access to information should be, and just how much privacy individual citizens should be allowed. It may not take much more than a few high-profile incidents to provide our governments with the public backing they need to further invade our privacy and restrict our access to knowledge, in the name of our own security. As we become ever more reliant on this technology, control by the government of the internet or its progeny may make George Orwell's vision of the world entire feasible.

It is in this war that one of the major battles is currently being waged, as large corporations, entire industries, and even private individuals seek to maintain control over their intellectual property. The internet encourages and facilitates the interchange and sharing of data digitally, and that includes art, music, film, books, software .... Many forward-thinking content-producers are concluding that the old-ways are doomed to failure, and are experimenting with alternative models of commercialization in order to be fairly compensated for their efforts. But battle-lines are drawn, and, one way or another, things may get nastier before they get better.

Fear and the Future

It's not surprising, then, that the internet occasionally inspires a certain degree of fear. It may even become tempting, at some point, to begin to think in terms of Daedalus & Icarus: the internet is our Godzilla, or our Frankenstein's monster. The internet has grown far beyond its original conception, has evolved creatively and dynamically into -- something new, and -- just maybe -- sometimes, something dangerous. Can this be the price we pay for our desire for omnipotence?

If there is one thing that hasn't changed when it comes to forseeing the future, it is fear of the future. Both change and the unknown generally inspire fear, and the future is the ultimate unknown, no matter how hard we try to predict it. Today, as in the past, we can find any number of potential reasons to fear the future. In fact, when I was 11 years old, there was always one possible scenario that would prevent me from living to see robots and our expansion through space in the year 2000: and that was the seemingly inevitable destruction of the human race in a global thermonuclear war. If you are under 25-30 years old, you probably won't even know what I'm talking about. But the fear was genuine, and the anticipation of Mutually Assured Destruction, despite its obvious madness, fostered nightmares throughout my childhood.

Today the phantom of nuclear destruction seems more distant, but other anxieties have taken its place: global warming, genetic engineering, cancer causing substances in virtually everything we eat ... terrorists with access to Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Most people haven't yet come to fear the internet enough to reject its use; probably because it is too incredibly useful. The vague potential of "danger" isn't enough to outweigh that utility. Cars are dangerous too, but they are so useful for getting around, very few people would consider giving them up. The changes to our culture wrought by the internet will likely be as profound and long-lasting as were those brought on by the automobile itself, or television. Maybe more-so.

The internet and the home computer, along with the mobile phone, the i-Pod, and a thousand other wearable gizmos, have insidiously infiltrated and installed themselves into our very culture. This seems to be an accelerating trend: and there is no stopping it. It is changing the way we buy and sell. It is changing the way we think about "intellectual property". It is changing the way we socialize, and the way we search for "information". But, perhaps even more significant, it is changing the way we define "information".

The Nature of Information

According to John Brockman, of The Edge (a non-profit online magazine that promotes "inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues" as well as working "for the intellectual and social achievement of society"):

"We are in the age of 'searchculture', in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it? "

He is voicing what seems to be a valid fear: just as calculators and computers have virtually eliminated our need (and our capacity!) to work out complex mathematical calculations longhand, might not the instantaneous access to answers to virtually any question without us even having to think eventually erode our capacity for rational thinking, logic, and reasoning? If this is a legitimate concern, than I say that the problem is even more serious than Brockman alludes to: at least we can trust the answers that a calculator gives us, since they are the result of computation; unless the software or the electronic circuit fails, it will never make a mistake. Google gives us no such guarantees about the nature or quality of the information it returns us. Even its much talked about "page rank" algorithm has nothing to do with trustworthiness of the information; pages are supposedly ranked more by popularity than any other factor.

The internet wasn't designed from the ground up to be all that it is today. Indeed, in theory, it is something that should never work ... it only works in practice! What use is an "information tool" that can bring you wrong information just as easily as right?

The key to answering to that question is the recognition that there is no such thing as "true" information!

"Information" ... as a concept ... can encompass every kind of knowledge, including opinions, beliefs, and ideas, along with a nebulous concept called "facts". Now I am going to wax philosophical and make what may seem to some a controversial affirmation:

All that can really exist in our consciousness -- all that we classify as "information" -- are the result of two kinds of actions -- observation, and communication. All that we actually know -- what we classify as "knowledge" -- is the result of our interpretation of this information: the deductive or inductive reasoning we apply to our knowledge to arrive at our own conclusions about the meaning of that information.

"Observations" are those phenomena which we experience with our own senses; but we would do well to remember that even our own senses can be tricked, and how we understand all that we perceive still depends mostly on learned information, transmitted to us through communication. "Communication", then, is the dissemination of "knowledge" between people, which in turn means the transmission of our observations, and that which has been "communicated" to us, and of our interpretations of these things.

Never before has it been more obvious than with the internet that all "knowledge" is relative: a student researching a given subject for a term paper may easily encounter a wide variety of different points of view, or beliefs about that subject. He may also encounter contradictory "facts": after all, anyone can make (up) a web page. You can try to limit your research to "trustworthy" sources, but eventual contradictions are inevitable, and the access that we now have to a large number of sources of "information" should make it obvious that, no matter where we find our information, we are simply, only, "communicating" with other people (even if my source is someone long dead!).

But there is a silver-lining to all of this, which is the point that I hoped to eventually arrive at with this rambling discourse. Throughout almost all of human history, mankind has had to rely on a very small number of sources of information for all of our knowledge; usually this information was passed on verbally within the tribes or community in which we lived. Usually this set of "knowledge" was adapted to the individual reality of each individual group of people, and worked well for them. Ocassionally, upheavals would occur, when new observations of nature or contact with other groups called into question our accepted beliefs.

Then, suddenly, someone came up with a way to "record" our "knowledge" symbolically, first by drawing pictures and then, just a little later, by scratching abstract symbols which represent the sounds we make. If all of human history were compressed into a year, then this "revolution" would have occurred only a week or so ago. Suddenly it was possible to truly "accumulate" knowledge, pass it on to future generations and even, eventually, share it cross culturally.

In this cosmological blink-of-an-eye, humans changed all the rules: new technologies, new ways to raise and grow food, new machines of warfare. But for the first few thousand years of written history, this fundamental, important ability of our species was restricted to an elite few: even the capacity to read was not widespread. Most people were condemned to be followers: when your sources of information are limited, you are at the mercy of those leaders who tell you what should or must believe. Those that could read were still lucky to have access to one or two books (probably the Bible or Koran being one of them ...). Still, it was enough to get us where we are today.

On this one-year timeline of human history, the invention of the printing press was just over a day ago. The television, 2.5 hours ago, and the internet: just about an hour ago. Each of these revolutions brought more and more sources of information into contact with the average person, until, finally, with the internet, we reach the point where we are today.

In the poem presented at the beginning of this post ("The Calf Path"), Sam Foss creates a little parable which decries mankind's tendency to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before, rather than stepping off the beaten path and maybe finding a better way to do something. A copy of this poem was first given to me by Dad when I was in high school: it exemplified what was one of his "pet philosophies", and it (and he) has had a tremendous impact on the way I think. The idea of the calf path became something of a family philosophy. The idea can be summed up as basically saying: Don't take anything for granted. Don't believe everything you hear (or read). Always look for a better way to solve a problem. Dad's skepticism was often confused for stubborness (or maybe that was the other way around!), but nobody questioned his capacity for creativity and innovation.

My take on the calf path is more to the point of this blog post: in the poem, Sam Foss says:

"... For Men are prone to go it blind, along the calf paths of the mind" .

To me, this means that it is easier to just follow a path than to understand why the path was made the way it was.

Of course, what makes human beings the most successful animal on the face of this earth is that we excel both at innovation, and at transmitting the results of that innovation to each other ... as well as down to successive generations. History has been built both by leaders and by followers; but the great leaps forward have been taken by those who dared to step off the path. I am not arguing in favor of blind skepticism, which is even worse than blindly following others; humanity wouldn't have made it very far at all if every step forward started at the beginning. Rather, I am simply presenting the case for my belief that the next generation of intellectuals and innovators will be those who seek to understand why a path was made the way it was, as opposed to just choosing a path and following blindly. Usually, when you are on a given path, you can't really see if the route you are following is the correct one. You need to step off the path and take a look at it from afar so you can evaluate it, possibly compare it with other potential paths. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that everyone should make their own paths!

This brings me back to the first post of this sequence, and the picture of the supposed "home computer" of 1954. This "future" in which we now live is one in which we have at our disposal the potential to communicate with a large number of people, and the possibility of sharing more and more "knowledge" and information than ever before in history. Much of this information will seemingly be less accurate (technically speaking, or scientifically speaking) than what we could only have found in the library or the newspaper just a few years ago: and some of it will be outright lies. Still, many people whom I know (and many of them I have "met" in online tribes!) have adapted with ease to this paradigm of internet knowledge. Rather than locking themselves into radical extremist "tribes", they recognize the importance of "critical thinking" with respect to virtually everything we observe or receive via any communication, whether the source be the internet, the local TV station, the newspaper, or a library book.

The optimist in me believes that it is not specifically the access to other people's "knowledge" -- chewed up, processed and spit back out at us -- which drives our capacity for innovation (this is just the calf path of the mind). Rather, it is the free exchange of ideas which stimulates creativity, produces change, and makes great things happen. My contention is that we find ourselves on the edge of a critical moment in human history, that possibly will make all of the great leaps of the past look like trivial baby steps in comparison. If history itself is any indication, the next few decades will see more radical and deeper changes in human culture and technology than we have ever seen in all of human history. People may fear and resist some of this change, but "information" is an inexorable tide which, once accessible to all, no levee will be able to hold back.

Hmmm ... now I wonder what the future will be like when my kids are 40 years old?!


At March 29, 2006 11:38 AM, Mark said...

Jim, this was way too much for me to read at work, but I did it anyway. I liked your take on tribes and how the Internet makes it so easy to pigeonhole oneself. This is a good quote:

"It is somewhat akin to saying that a "cake" is made of flour, eggs, and sugar: it doesn't tell you anything about what a cake really is; how it tastes ... and when and why we eat it."

Why do we eat it? Better yet, why do some of us bother to bake it?

At March 29, 2006 7:33 PM, Jim said...

Thanks Mark. I'm glad someone managed to wade through it!

Now I'll see about getting to those lightsaber instructions!

At March 30, 2006 12:01 AM, Anonymous said...

Wow Jim, that was a long one...but a good one. I know I'm always bring up our childhood but I'll always remember that my introduction to the "computer technology" always seemed to be a result of various items you or your dad would bring to the lake...whether it was your first Atari game, the first Compaq you used to drag along, or various other games,etc.

The fact alone that we can speak and see each other via webcam today...let alone communicate as we are now...speaks volumes about the good side of technology.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts...I enjoyed reading it.

At March 30, 2006 12:02 AM, Anonymous said...

Guess I should have signed that


At March 30, 2006 12:02 AM, Anonymous said...

and proofread it!

At March 30, 2006 4:13 PM, Jim said...


Yeah, I remember lugging that ultra-portable suitcase-like
Compaq (and the Panasonic Sr. Partner) all over the place. I think Dad still has the carcasses of those museum pieces somewhere! A blazing 4.77 Mhz Intel 8088 processor!

As to communicating with a webcam ... I'm not sure how much of an advance that is! But I'll reserve comment on that question for another blog post!

At March 31, 2006 1:40 PM, Mark said...


Just wanted to throw out there that "Like I Care - Jeff's Blog" uses the same theme I do for my blog. Now I'm thoroughly (but not Thoreauly) bummed and will have to create mine own.

At June 04, 2007 10:22 AM, Anonymous said...


At June 04, 2007 10:22 AM, Anonymous said...

At June 04, 2007 10:22 AM, Anonymous said...


At June 04, 2007 10:22 AM, Anonymous said...



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