How to survive the coming Cyberclysm? To find a rational position between the alarmists and the utopians? Salvation may come from the menace itself.
Whatever mischief technology creates, technology can undo. The tools of our redemption - and the means of chasing off the ever-circling Luddites -- are right under our noses. Perhaps the great website of the 21st century - or even the last half of this year -- won't sell stocks or auction off goodies. It'll be an Intervention Program, something between a SuperSearch Engine and Information Foraging Site.
We need Websites that really understand us, protect us and go to bat for us. I'd call my personal version Clotho, after one of the lesser gods of Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks are definitely the place to turn for protection against the Cyberclysm. Their poets and playwrights wrote all the time about humanity's tragic inclination to fiddle with the world and screw it up at the same time.
Clotho was one of the Fates, gods given the subtle but awesome power to decide a person's destiny. Clotho (the other two are Lachesis the measurer, and Atropos the shearer) is the spinner, who spins the threads of life.
Thunderbolt-throwers like Zeus are useless to invoke in this context, too blustery and ill-tempered. Only the Fates have the perspective required, the range of skills. They're used to sorting through complex choices. They assign men and women to lives of good and evil. They decide the length the length of human's lives.
The Fates are discreet, largely unknown, and it's never been precisely clear how far their power extends. What is known is that even the most powerful of the other Gods won't mess with them.
I imagine a Clotho program as an intermediary, standing between me, Gee Whiz Computing and technology, not so much to keep them away as to manage how much I have to deal with.
Intervention Software isn't a fantasy. It's a practical possibility with the advent of intuitive software technology and AI computing advances. Futurists from Freeman Dyson to Ray Kurzweill predict computers will be making rational, human-like decisions in a few years. We could put them to work for us.
The notion that a computing program could intervene in this way - come between us and the Cyberclysm -- and bring some sanity and coherence to an individual's experience of runaway technology and Ubiquitous Computing is hardly far-fetched.
I don't want Clotho.org to turn back the clock, just to regulate the pace of change, leave me the dignity of autonomy, and do me the courtesy of letting me check my own refrigerator for milk instead of letting a digitalized refrigerator do it.
In place of computer-equipped health-monitoring toilets, I'd just as soon retain the right to decide when and if I go to the doctor to have my bodily fluids chemically analyzed. I'd rather see technology deployed in some of the wondrous ways of the Net and Web in recent years --- the open sourcing of computing and the liberation of information, the use of supercomputing to take on social ills from cancer to Ozone, the growth of personal communications and community-building.
But we need help. This is, after all the, the job of the Fates -- to manage coherently.
Clotho.org could stand between us and Ubiquitous Computing, growling back the Microsofts, governments, media - hypemongers and arrogant hordes of programmers, gadgetmakers and marketers. Unlike information-sorting programs and sites - there are dozens - Clotho wouldn't present us with fewer choices, but making tough choices for us. She would function as our Big Sister when it comes to technology, keeping the predators away, occupying the space between humans and the new technologies scaring the hell out of them.
A vigilant Clotho would design her site along the sancrosanct principles spelled out in O'Reilly's landmark guide, "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web," a book Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. It should be the Web designer's Bible, if it isn't already, since it challenges us to put users, not makers, foremost when we think of the Web and the Net.
A Clotho site would use logic and search engine technology to brutally edit the Web, weeding out the excesses of the Cyberclysm. She'd ask hard questions. Do we need refrigerators with computer chips that will alert the local supermarket when we're out of milk? She would scare off, or at least curb, some of the worst Cyberclysm offenders, the microelectronics industry.
Is this really possible?
In his recent essay in Netfuture No. 94, [http://www.oreilly.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/1999/Sep1499_94.html#33], Winner suggests that humanity's needs for the coming century be rated on a 1 to 10 scale.
Do we need a Palm VII, or should we stop at the Palm IV? Do we need cellphones to access sports scores on the Web as we drive home from work, or can we wait a half-hour till we get home? Clotho would ask. If not, she'd vaporize the thing, or failing that rate it 1.5. She'd keep it away from us.
Perhaps she could draw from Slashdot's amazing and elaborate discussion moderating systems (where offensive speech isn't banned but smothered in cool software programs), and meta-moderate technology for us.
We might program her to screen out anything under a 4. We'd never get the chance to buy it, or maybe even know it was out there. The Cyberclysm would recede, at least for those of us in her care.
Clotho would definitely play God (which is okay, since she is one.) We'd be presented with a handful of news stories each morning - the most significant, the most useful, the most entertaining, based on her own vision and on recognition software that comes to understand our needs, tastes and wishes. She'd rate our need for information in general on the same scale. No story, scandal, press conference, announcement or debate under a 4.0 would get by. If she'd been around, most of us might blessedly never have learned the names of William Bennett, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, or Linda Tripp.
As far as I'm concerned, Clotho could screen out virtually every debate on every Washington talk show and the country's civic life would be improved a thousand times overnight. This means I'd almost never heard anything from Washington, a technological boon to humanity if there ever was one.
Clotho.org would also fend off much of the techno-news streaming toward us from C/Net and Wired News, and sift for technology information that we actually wanted to know. She could store information we might need to know for a later time.
She'd take revenge on behalf of the tens of millions of people forced to buy things they don't want or things they can't use, made anxious by poor instructions and buggy programs, coerced into hours and days of stressful struggles to reach people who won't take any responsibility for the things they've made and sold, who won't help people figure out how stuff works.
Clotho could be the Goddess of Unintended Consequences, forcing us to consider the implications of the things we bring into the world. Maybe she'd turn the CEO's of the most arroganant companies over to Hades (flamers, beware) for some roasting and agonies.
Clotho would be tough minded, as befits a Spinner. She would ask questions about technology and information before stuff could get past her and reach innocents like me:
l. Is this information necessary? Do we need to know it? Does it advance knowledge, inform or entertain us? Or does it tell us something we already know, provide a service when we can easily do ourselves, replicate what already exists?
2. Do we need this new product? Does it have unintended consequences? Will it be almost instantly out-of-date?
4. Will the people who offer this product support it? Will help be available at all times?
5. Are we leaving human beings enough time, peace, and opportunity for at least some spiritual dimension in their lives? Or are we labor-saving and information-providing them to distraction?
Clotho could slow the pace of Ubiquitous or Gee -Whiz Computing, ruling that even in the Digital Age, perhaps we can simply turn our coffeemakers on when we wake up instead of programming them. She'd put a quick, merciful end to health-checking toilets.
She'd created the mythical middle ground, missing when it comes to technology, a place where we grow, learn, and move forward in a reasoned, noncoerable, way. Such a kingdom would be a radical departure from the insane Technoville in which we now increasingly dwell.