Visions of the Information Revolutionaries

[coauthored under pen name Adam Brate]


The Information Revolution is founded upon the technologies of the postwar era: electronic communications networks, digital media, and computers. They are a ubiquitous component of our environment, a literal and figurative web of electricity running through our homes, below our streets, across the skies, before our eyes. Information technologies are inextricably part of our habitat. We can scale their peaks, mine their resources, build castles or shrines on their slopes, or leave them wild and forbidding. The Information Revolution is a series of conscious and positive choices we can make.

The technomanifestos are the writings of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and activists who have—consciously and positively—shaped technologies for personal and collective empowerment. While these revolutionaries acknowledge that these tools have the potential to harm as much as to help, they remain optimistic. They think of computers as part of open, sharing, global systems.

The ideas expressed in the manifestos of the Information Revolution are related to, and in many ways as important, as those expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. Just as the founding papers of the American Revolution delineated a new political system based on the basic principle of freedom, so do the technomanifestos introduce a new set of ideals that counter the oppressive aspects of established institutions. Like the framers of the American Constitution, the information revolutionaries have a potent agenda: to release the power of the people. They build technologies that replace the systems that make people into tools.

Since the Industrial Revolution, most people in the West have led two lives — a personal life and a work life. The personal realm has always been founded upon the strength that underlies intimate relationships and personal well-being: trust, love, faith, friendship, respect, joy, creativity, and cooperation. The work and business realm has been founded upon other principles: efficiency, structure, competition, the scientific method, and the notion that everything can be reduced to its measurable components. The world of work, upon which the world economic and political structure depends, has thus been divorced of human frailties. It has also been divorced of human strengths.

The visionaries featured in this book realized that the advances of the Industrial Revolution have come at the expense of the personal sphere. The economies of the United States and Europe have been built upon the efficiency of the assembly line, which requires people to spend their lives doing the same task every day without joy or creativity. The rise of the bureaucracy occurred as the assembly line took over the business of ideas. The corporation, the governmental institution, and even the classroom are factories of thought that run on the machinery of administrative drudgery: papers, forms, rules, procedures, and tests.

The manifesto writers have understood that information technology holds the potential to reintegrate these private and public spheres. They understand that giving people better tools to create, communicate, and collaborate can make work more like private life: intimately rewarding, participatory, creative and less laborious.

Computers, electronic media, and networks are not just tools of businesses, but, thanks to the information revolutionaries, they are part of our intimate selves and a means of perception and self-expression. Information technology can reveal how each of us is deeply affected by the workings of corporations, economic, political, and media systems. Global networks like the Web enable people to consider worldviews not possible with broadcast media. Computer simulations expose the causes and effects of issues like rainforest devastation, welfare budgets, and gene cloning in political, economic, social, and personal terms. We realize that we live in a global village.

The danger of losing the separation between our personal and work lives – the local and the global -- is that the harmful characteristics of one could affect the other. The global sociopolitical infrastructure may dissolve now that the fear and hatred of a few can spread everywhere. Every moment of our waking lives may become processed and controlled for the sake of inhuman efficiency and rigidity or, simply, “convenience.”

But the hope and promise is that the best of both worlds can be joined; that information technologies can help us build a society that is efficient and competitive, yet still built upon human strengths.

As our technologies become more like us—complex and adaptive – our systems can follow suit. Rigid bureaucracies and hierarchies may gradually be replaced by business relationships based on networks of trust. Our technologies may empower us to communicate collectively, especially in times of political upheaval, without centers of command and control. Or enable us to learn foreign languages and create art more dynamically. Or help us replace monopolies with business environments that thrive on open collaboration and transparent intent.

In short, the aim of the information revolutionaries has been to create new systems— technological, social, political, and economic—that adapt to people instead of the other way around.

Technomanfestos is the story of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other visionaries who, through their writings, reveal the profound questions of how technology relates to human beings, redefining who and what we are and where we are going.. Each of its four parts—Frontier, Revolution, Power, and Symbiosis—represents a stage in the Information Revolution.

Part I, Frontier, begins with cybernetics, the science that studies flexible, human-like systems. Mathematician Norbert Wiener, who founded this science of communications and control in the 1940s, realized the potential of adaptivity and interactiveness s. Cybernetics describes how regulatory feedback allows both human bodies and machines to respond to unexpected changes in the environment and correct for them. In the years following World War II Wiener and others apply the concept to social systems, to history, and to politics, finding a way to define purpose in the human struggle to survive.

Meanwhile, engineer Vannevar Bush embraces the idea that mechanical entities could be modeled from human beings when he proposes a theoretical machine that would link the world’s information in the same associative way as the mind. Mathematicians Alan Turing and John von Neumann construct the logical framework for the modern digital computer, modeling the adaptive human brain and its memory in the language of mathematics. Human nervous systems, computer systems, social systems, and economic systems begin to resemble one another.

Part II, Revolution, features how the established institutions of the Industrial Revolution begin to be dismantled as the technologies of the Information Revolution are created. J. C. R. Licklider and his “intergalactic network” of researchers conceive, build, and propagate the forerunner to the Internet, the ARPANET. Licklider writes about a “human-computer symbiosis” that fosters the strengths of both, implemented in this system of distributed computer networks. Artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky and mathematician/psychologist Seymour Papert work together to learn how the mind works by studying how children learn—and using computers to test their ideas. They construct a theory that the human mind works by dint of a complex society of mindless agents—that intelligence, like civilization, is a phenomenon of interaction. Minsky attempts to model computer intelligence accordingly, constructing electronic societies of mind. Papert designs ways to use computers to help children learn, not by training them, but by giving them a world to manipulate and explore.
At the same time engineer Doug Engelbart builds the Augmentation Research Center—a “bootstrapping” project devoted to augmenting the human capacity for collective problem solving through computer technology. Engelbart and his group devise the tools that make computers adaptable for human beings: interface features like the mouse, windowed displays, and a working hypertext system that enables us to link information associatively. Computer scientist Alan C. Kay and his team at Xerox PARC proselytize the personal computer revolution, embellish Engelbart’s work, and devise an easy-to-learn object-oriented computer language that emulates cell biology. Part II ends with the conviction that Engelbart’s “unfinished revolution” is the idea that computers are tools for communication, creativity, and community, and not just computation and capitalism.

Part III, Power, reveals how, throughout the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, the power of these developing technologies is unleashed, and the focus becomes that of control. The revolutionaries recognize that corporations and governments threaten to coopt the electronic technologies nurtured in earlier years by small, close-knit communities. In the late 1960s and ‘70s activist Abbie Hoffman and media theorist Marshall McLuhan reveal how electronic media make the world into a “global village” that fully connects all humanity—perhaps too closely, and with power in the hands of perhaps too few. In the 1970s and ’80s visionary Ted Nelson conceives of a global hypertext system in which information can be linked associatively, nonlinearly, and disseminated through personal computers worldwide. He imagines it neither censored nor controlled by any government or corporation. In the early ’90s physicist Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web, designed from the start as an open, free network. Meanwhile, Richard M. Stallman and Larry Wall create “free software,” or “open source” code, to save a community threatened by software companies, presenting an alternative to closing off the code. This becomes a new paradigm for the creation and distribution of knowledge in the twenty-first century.

By the mid-1990s commerce encroaches on the Web, and the largest corporations are those that control electronic media and software. Threats of authoritarian government regulation threaten the personal freedoms that the technologies enable. Software activist Eric S. Raymond and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig explore the reasons for hope and fear as the information architecture becomes as important to society as laws or roads. There can be a society that thrives through competition of ideas, not the control of ideas. But wrongminded corporate and governmental regulation could make the information technologies even more dangerous than the machines in industrial mills. Without intelligent regulation to keep the information architecture open and interactive, technology could become the means of oppression instead of empowerment.

Part IV, Symbiosis, set at the beginning of the twenty-first century, reveals how our information technologies are now so inextricable from us that they have become invisible. We exist symbiotically with our computers, our media, our networks—a mutual dependence between society and its technology. They infiltrate each individual’s awareness, connecting everyone in a global consciousness. They facilitate our political revolutions and our personal revelations. All of our interactions are mediated through electronic means, from the electronic light to the cellular phone. Scientists such as K. Eric Drexler predict that our information technologies will transform everything from manufacturing to medicine when we build computers and machines the size of molecules. Nanotechnology epitomizes the double-edged nature of our cybernetic technologies. They simultaneously promises to raise the standard of human life and grind it into dust—all depending upon who has power over them. Or, perhaps worse, they may become so complex and adaptable that they evolve by themselves, evading human control. Computer scientist Bill Joy fears the latter. Technologist Jaron Lanier emphasizes that we must remember the belief at heart of the Information Revolution: humanism.

The ideology of humanism underlies the convictions of most of the information revolutionaries. Humanism consists of beliefs such as the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of compassion. It comprises a commitment to civil liberties, human rights, and a participatory democracy in government, workplace and in education. It embraces the concept of a global consciousness and the collective effort to solve social problems. Most of all, humanism is the belief in free will; that people are ultimately responsible for the kind of world we live in now and in the future.

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The people featured in Technomanifestos are certainly not the only information revolutionaries, but they are the best propagators of ideas central to the Information Revolution. They recognized the power of technologies to communicate ideas and have effectively amplified their own visions throughout the system. Through their writings and their mastery of information technologies, they assumed a position on the front lines. Secondary influences from anthropologists to educators to biologists to linguists to psychologists, an integral part of the web, are mentioned in context. There are many more that aren’t. A book is limited by its form; the world is not.

This book reveals where the Information Revolution has come from and where it may go. The ethical, political, and economic decisions that society is now facing are some of the most difficult. The prospect of future liberties hearkens back to regulatory feedback, the basis of cybernetics. Feedback enables all systems—individual, political, mechanical, economic, social—to adapt with changes in the environment and learn from them. Seen one way, what is feedback but revolution? These technomanifestos put the Revolution in motion.

This is the first book to take such a broad view of how the remarkable events of the past half century were crafted by its creators and how they form today's complex web of technology that permeates every facet of our lives…

Leonard Kleinrock, Professor of Computer Science, UCLA, and Chairman, Nomadix, Inc.

A fun read and very provocative… an intellectual journey, the subject of which is people developing technology to enhance people's lives….will stimulate discussion amongst a wide range of people.

Cynthia Solomon, Ed.D., Logo pioneer and Technology Specialist at Milton Academy

A fascinating cross-grained look at the true and secret history of computer science. It's not about e-business folks! It's about a new kind of reality.”

Rudy Rucker, author of the Ware series and professor of Computer Science, San Jose State University