WHEN THINGS START TO THINK | Chapter 7: Rights and Responsibilities

May 15, 2003
Neil Gershenfeld
Henry Holt & Company (1999)

WHY . . . should things think? the rights of people are routinely infringed by things, and vice versa. Dumb computers can’t be fixed by smart descriptions alone. Useful machine intelligence requires experience as well as reasoning. We need to be able to use all of our nses to make sense of the world.

Telemarketing. Thirteen unlucky letters that can inflame the mostill-tempered rage in otherwise well-behaved people. The modern baneof dinnertime: “click . . . uhh . . . Hello . . . Mr. Gersdenfull,how are you today?” Much worse than I was a few minutes ago. Themost private times and places are invaded by calls flogging goods that have an unblemished record of being irrelevant, useless, orsuspicious. Answering these calls is a pointless interruption, listeningto the answering machine pick them up is almost as bad, and shuttingoff the phone eliminates the calls that I do care about.

Who’s responsible for this unhappy state of affairs? I don’t blame the poor person at the other end of the line who is stuck tryingto make a living by being subjected to other people’s ire. And Idon’t really fault their bosses, who are doing what they are supposedto do in a free market, taking advantage of a perceived commercialopportunity. I blame the telephone, and Pope Leo X.

If modern information technology dates from Gutenberg’s developmentof movable metal type in the 1450s, then Martin Luther was the firstmaster of the new medium, and Leo X the first opponent of its personalization.At the time in Europe the Church had a monopoly on divine communication,which had to use its format of a Latin Bible, available only throughthe word of priests who were its authorized trained representatives. Popes Julius II and then Leo X took advantage of the monopoly tofund an ambitious building program for St. Peter’s Cathedral byselling indulgences. These handy letters offered the remission ofsins, and a shorter period in purgatory along the way to guaranteedeternal salvation. Johann Tetzel, the monk whose territory for sellingindulgences included Luther’s community, was particularly creativein marketing them. On his convenient price list murder cost eightducats; witchcraft was a bargain at two ducats. He even offeredindulgences to help save family and friends who had already passedaway. Such a deal.

Luther’s disgust at this venal corruption of the principles of the Church drove him in 1517 to post a complaint on the local BBSof the day, the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. His Ninety-fiveTheses (Luther 95?) argued that salvation must come from personal faith and deeds, not purchase of papal authority. His story mighthave ended there, but for a difference in responding to the affordancesof a new medium. Luther recognized that the printing press enabledone-to-many communications. Before movable metal type, hand-copiedbooks had been so expensive that only the wealthy or the Churchhad direct access to them; by 1500 there were millions of printedbooks in circulation. Within weeks of its original posting, Luther’s Theses had been copied and spread throughout Europe. Leo in turnunderstood the threat that widespread printing posed to the authorityof the Church. He tried to restore central control by issuing apapal bull to require certification from the Church before bookpublication, and in 1521 excommunicated Luther, forbidding the printing,selling, reading, or quoting of his writings. After Luther respondedby burning the bull of excommunication, Leo had him summoned forjudgment to the tastefully named Diet of Worms, where he was exiled.

Luther won. His brief exile gave him a chance to translate the New Testament into German, and his excommunication gave his booksales a great boost, bending the Church’s propaganda apparatus intocreating PR for him. The Reformation sprang from Luther’s Theses.He and his fellow authors understood that they were writing forthe printing press and hence produced short tracts that were easilyduplicated — the first sound bites. The authors of the Counter-Reformationdidn’t appreciate this change, writing hefty tomes in the old stylethat were hard to distribute.

The Reformation message fell on the fertile soil of a laity fed up with a clergy that forced divine interactions through their preferred means, demanded meaningless ritual observances, and introduced self-serving modifications into the liturgy. The availability of vernacular (non-Latin) Bibles let ordinary people evaluate and then question the claimof privileged papal authority. From here grew the modern concep tof personal freedoms distinct from communal responsibility.

Fast-forward now a few centuries. I had just received a new laptop,one of the most powerful models of its generation. I wanted to useit to make a presentation, but for the life of me I couldn’t find any way to turn on the external video connection. Resorting to theignominy of reading the manual, I found this gem of technical writingexplaining how to get into the machine’s setup program to switchthe video output:

1. Make sure that the computeris turned off.

2. Remove any diskettefrom the diskette drive.

3. Turn on the computer.

4. Watch closely the flashingcursor in the top-left corner of the screen. When the cursor jumpsto the top-right corner of the screen, press and hold Ctrl+Alt,then press Insert. You must do this while the cursor isat the top -right of the screen. Release the keys.

Performing this feat requires three fingers and split-second timing.Even the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t top this for imposing nonsensical rituals onto sane people. And, like the Church, the computer industryforces most people’s interactions to go through one approved means(windows, keyboard, mouse), and it sells salvation through upgrades that are better at generating revenue than delivering observablebenefits in this lifetime. The Reformation was a revolt, enabledby the spread of information technology, against the tyranny ofcentral authority. I’m increasingly concerned about the tyrannyof the information technology itself. In many ways we’re still fightingthe Reformation battle to establish access to printing presses,when we should be worrying about the access of the printing pressesto us.

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and Leo’s response helped to inspirethe English Bill of Rights after King James II was deposed in 1688.Among other sins, James had abused the ultimate line-item veto,the royal Dispensing Power that let him make exceptions to laws,to try to place Catholics throughout the government and military.In 1689 his Protestant son-in-law and daughter, William of Orangeand Mary, were crowned King and Queen (thanks, Dad). Parliamenthandled the sticky question of the authority to do this by presentingWilliam and Mary with what became the Bill of Rights. This establishedthe grounds upon which James was deemed to have forfeited his rightto rule, and then took the remarkable step of listing thirteen newrights that the monarchy would have to accept, including freedomof speech in the Parliament.

The U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not explicitly include a Billof Rights, a source of widespread dissatisfaction. People didn’ttrust the Federalist argument that they had nothing to worry aboutsince the Constitution didn’t give the government authority overindividual rights. This was remedied by the first act of the firstCongress, passing the amendments that were ratified by the statesin 1791 to create the U.S. Bill of Rights, modeled on and in someplaces copied from the English Bill of Rights. The First Amendment,of course, extended the freedom of speech and the press to everyone.

The importance of widespread access to the means of communicationswas echoed in the Communications Act of 1934, the bill that establishedthe FCC to regulate the emerging radio and telephone services. Itstates its purpose to be “. . . to make available, so far as possible,to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide,and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequatefacilities at reasonable charges. . .” The telephone system wasto be managed privately as a common carrier that could not arbitrarilydeny service to anyone, and would be permitted to cross-subsidizelocal phone service to keep it affordable. The result has been thearrival of telephones in 94 percent of U.S. households.

Today the successors to the printing press remain as essentialas ever in helping distributed groups of people respond to the excessesof central authority, whether by photocopied samizdat in Russiaor faxes to Tiananmen Square demonstrators. Such communication enablesa kind of political parallel processing that is a very clear threatto efforts to keep political programming centralized. National attemptsto limit and regulate Internet access are increasingly doomed, asthe means to send and receive bits gets simpler and the availablechannels proliferate. Borders are just too permeable to bits. WhileChina was busy worrying about whether to allow official Internetaccess, packets were already being sent through a satellite linkthat had been set up for high-energy physics experiments.

Now constellations of low-earth-orbit satellites are being launchedthat will bring the convenience of a cell-phone network everywhereon the globe. Motorola’s Iridium system comprises sixty-six suchsatellites. (It was originally named after the seventy-seventh element,iridium, because it was going to have seventy-seven satellites,but when it was reduced to sixty-six satellites the name wasn’tchanged because the sixty-sixth element is dysprosium.) Governments,and private companies, are launching spy satellites for commercialapplications. These satellites can almost read a license plate fromspace. Soon, the only way to cut a country off from the rest ofthe world will be to build a dome over it. The free exchange ofinformation makes abuses harder to cover up, and knowledge of alternativesharder to suppress.

We should now worry less about control of the means of communicationand more about control by the means of communication. While we’vebeen diligently protecting each new medium from manipulation bylatter-day Leos, communications and computing have been mergingso that the medium can not only become the message, it can makesure that you know it.

A ringing telephone once held the promise that someone was interestedenough in you in particular to look up your number and call you.The phone numbers themselves were deemed to be public information,but the telephone companies kept careful control over the databasesused to produce the phone books. This was a stable arrangement untilthe advent of cheap personal computers and massive storage on inexpensivecompact disks. It was perfectly legal to ship a PC and a cartonof phone books off to a low-wage country, where the informationwas laboriously typed in (a few times, actually, to catch mistakes)and sent back on a CD. Access to your telephone had been constrainedby the difficulty of any one person using more than a few phonebooks; now it became available to anyone with a CD drive.

Phone numbers were just the beginning. Every time you call an 800number, or use a credit card, you deposit a few bits of personalinformation in a computer somewhere. Where you called from, whatyou bought, how much you spent. Any one of these records is harmlessenough, but taken together they paint a very personal picture ofyou. This is what Lotus and Equifax did in 1990, when they announcedthe Marketplace:Households product. By assembling legally availableconsumer information, they pieced together a database of 120 millionAmericans, giving names, addresses, ages, marital status, spendinghabits, estimated incomes. Interested in finding rich widows livingon isolated streets? How about chronic credit-card overspenders?No problem. This shocking invasion of privacy was perfectly legal;the only thing that prevented the database from being sold was thetens of thousands of outraged e-mail complaints that Lotus received.Lotus’s blunder only helped to pave the way for the slightly lessindiscreet direct marketers that followed, cheerfully collectingand selling your particulars. These are the data that turn a ringingtelephone from an invitation to personal communication to an announcementthat you’ve been selected as a target demographic.

My wife and I spent a few years getting to know each other beforewe moved in together, making sure that we were compatible. I wasn’tnearly so choosy about my telephone, although I certainly wouldn’ttolerate from a spouse many of the things it does. The phone summonsme when I’m in the shower and can’t answer it, and when I’m asleepand don’t want to answer it; it preserves universal access to mefor friend and telemarketing foe alike. Letting the phone off thehook because it has no choice in whether to ring or not is akinto the military excuse that it’s not responsible for its actionsbecause it’s only following orders. Bad people won’t go away, butbad telephones can. A telephone that can’t make these distinctionsis not fit for polite company.

If a computer is connected to the telephone it’s probably usedfor e-mail, and if it’s used for e-mail there’s probably too muchof it. I get about one hundred messages a day. A surprising amountof that comes in the middle of the night, sent by a growing populationof nocturnal zombies who arise from their beds to answer their e-mailbefore the next day’s installment arrives. The computer’s printerwill need paper, and more paper, and more paper. In 1980 the UnitedStates consumed 16 million tons of paper for printing and writing;ten years later that jumped to 25 millions tons. So much for thepaperless society. If you want to carry the computer around withyou it needs batteries; the United States is currently throwingaway 2 billion of them a year, the largest source of heavy metalsin landfills.

There’s a very real sense in which the things around us are infringinga new kind of right that has not needed protection until now. We’respending more and more time responding to the demands of machines.While relating religious oppression to poorly designed consumerelectronics might appear to trivialize the former and selfishlycomplain about the latter, recognize that regimes that imposed thesekinds of practices on their subjects have generally been overthrownat the earliest opportunity.

The first step in protecting rights is to articulate them. In keepingwith the deflation from Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to the Billof Rights’ ten amendments, I’d like to propose just three new ones:


You have the right to:

  • Have information available when you want it, where you wantit, and in the form that you want it
  • Be protected from sending or receiving information that youdon’t want
  • Use technology without attending to its needs

A shoe computer that can get energy from walking instead of needingbatteries, that can communicate through a body instead of requiringadapter cables, that can deliver a message to eyeglasses or a shirtsleeveor an earring, that can implement a cryptographic protocol to unobtrusivelyauthorize a purchase without providing any identifying information,that can figure out when to speak and when not to, is not reallyan unusually good idea; it’s just that a laptop that cannot do thesethings is an increasingly bad one.

By shifting more authority to people, the Reformation led to anew morality, a new set of shared standards of rights and responsibilitiesthat helped define what it means to be civilized. The opportunitiesand excesses associated with the digital world now require thatthis morality be updated from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first.Oppressive machines are as bad as oppressive churches; freedom oftechnological expression is as important as freedom of religiousexpression.

As market forces drive down the cost of computing and communicatingso that it can become a discretionary purchase for most people,like buying a TV, universal access is becoming less of a concern.A new barrier enforcing social stratification is ease of access.The members of my family have no trouble earning advanced degrees,yet they struggle to connect a computer to the network, and manageto find countless ways to lose files they are working on. They relyon a complex social and technical support network to solve theseproblems (me). If a Ph.D. is not sufficient qualification to usea computer, how can we hope that putting computers in the handsof more people can help them? Democratizing access to solutions,rather than technology, is going to require as much concern forthe usability as the availability of the technology.

Our legal system is already straining to cope with the unexpectedimplications of connecting smart distributed systems. Establishingtechnological rights cannot happen by central command; it must happenby changing the expectations of both the designers and users ofthe new technology. Here, too, the first step is to articulate thebasic requirements needed to meet our demands. With the currentdivision of labor, neither people nor things can do what they dobest. Accordingly, I would also like to propose three rights forthings.


Things have the right to:

  • Have an identity
  • Access other objects
  • Detect the nature of their environment

My office has ten things that include a clock, and each one reportsa different time with equal confidence. I perform a high-tech equivalentof marking the solstices by the ritual of navigating through tensets of menus to update the time. My annoyance at having to do thisis pointless if these competing clocks are not given the resourcesneeded to do what I expect of them, which is to tell me the time.That requires they know something about timekeeping, including determiningwhere they are to set the time zone, communicating with a time standardto get the correct time, and even recognizing that most of themare redundant and don’t all need to report the same information.

Taken together, these rights define a new notion of behavior, sharedbetween people and machines, that is appropriate for a new era.Along with these rights come new responsibilities; what was suitablein the sixteenth century is not now. E-mail is a good example ofhow social norms suitable for the physical world can outlive theirusefulness in the digital world.

My mother taught me to speak when spoken to. This reasonable instructionmeans that each day I should send out one hundred e-mail messagesin response to the hundred or so that I receive from other people.Of these, about 10 percent need further action that requires initiatinga new message to someone else. At the beginning of the day I hadone hundred messages coming in; at the end I have 110 going out.If, then, each of my recipients is equally well-behaved, the nextday there will be 121 circulating because of me. If each recipientremains as courteous, in a week my day’s investment in correspondencewill have paid a dividend of 214 messages. This exponential explosionwill continue unabated until either people or networks break down.Of course some messages naturally don’t need a response, but everyday in which you send out more e-mail than you receive, you’re responsiblefor contributing to e-mail inflation.

The problem stems from an asymmetry between the time it takes tocreate and read a message. While most people don’t write any fasterthan they used to, it takes just moments to paste big stretchesof other texts into a message, or forward messages on to others,or add many people as recipients to one message. What’s not immediatelyapparent is the cost in other people’s time. If I take a minuteto skim each message I get and then a minute to dash off a hastyresponse, I’ve used up half a working day.

Given this mismatch, the most considerate thing to do is answere-mail only if it can’t be avoided, and to do so as briefly as possible.When I arrived in the Media Lab I used to write carefully craftede-mail messages that addressed all sides of an issue, patiently,at length, taking as much space as needed to make sure that I saideverything just right, not missing anything that warranted comment,or explanation, or observation. My peers’ terse or absent responsesleft me wondering about their manners, if not their literacy, untileach hour I was adding per day to do e-mail left me wondering aboutmy sanity. In an era of overcommunication, saying less is more.This is entirely unlike what is appropriate for handwritten correspondence,where the effort to send a message exceeds the effort to receiveone.

The spread of computing is making it ever easier to communicateanywhere, anytime; the challenge now is to make it easier to notcommunicate. We’ve come too far in connecting the world to be ableto switch everything off; we must go further in turning everythingon. Our devices must become smart enough to help us manage as wellas move information.

One of the inspirations for the prevailing windows-and-mice userinterface was Jean Piaget’s studies of child development. Windowsand mice represent a stage when infants begin to gesture to identifythings in their environment. This was never meant to last as longas it has; like infants, interfaces should also grow up. Aroundthe time that infants start pointing they also start talking. Theypractice language by incessant chatter, saying things over and overagain for the pleasure of hearing themselves speak, but not yetunderstanding the repercussions of their actions. That’s what somuch electronic communication is, growing pains as our social expectationscatch up to the technological means with which we live.

Amid this din, a quiet voice paradoxically cuts through with perhapsthe best insight of all into communication in an Information Age.The original media hacker, Luther, somewhat grudgingly publisheda complete edition of his Latin works in 1545 to correct the errorsthat had accumulated in earlier copies. In the preface, he explainshis hesitation to release one more contribution to his society’sinformation overload: “I wanted all my books to be buried in perpetualoblivion, that thus there might be room for better books.”

WHEN THINGS START TO THINK by Neil Gershenfeld. ©1998 byNeil A. Gershenfeld. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt andCompany, LLC.