• Goto NetFuture main page
  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #101     A Publication of The Nature Institute      January 27, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Attack of the Intelligent Refrigerators
       Making Guinea Pigs of Students
    The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers (Part 2) (Stephen L. Talbott)
       or: Why We'd Be Better Off without the MIT Media Lab
       Criticize Out of Love, Not Resentment (Kevin Kelly)
       Toward a More Balanced View of the Media Lab (Amy Bruckman)
       Too Much Complaining (Bob Gaughan)
       An Overdue, Grace-filled Literacy (Tom Mahon)
    Announcements and Resources
       Education in Search of Spirit
       Where NetFuture Gets To
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    NetFuture gets around.  An Israeli website offering the newsletter in
    Hebrew is in the works, selected articles are translated into Spanish, and
    every issue gets forwarded through secondary circulations far beyond my
    ability to track.  For a few pointers, see "Announcements and Resources"
    below.  Of course, annotated links can spring up anywhere and everywhere,
    but of those that have been brought to my attention, the following
    provided by William P. Dunk of William Dunk Partners, Inc., has tickled my
    fancy.  In a "best of class" listing, he runs his NetFuture blurb under
    the heading, "Best Real Y2K Warning":
       We spend our computer lives worrying about privacy, viruses, and
       horrible, horrible programs from Microsoft.  But these are not the real
       problems.  The question is how that keyboard and screen and poorly
       constructed content is changing our lives in ways we can never picture.
       Stephen L. Talbott in the newsletter NetFuture looks at how our lives
       change in a digital world.  He knows whereof he speaks -- with roots in
       programming and technical writing.  See
       http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture.  With a URL like that, he is
       proving that technology can ruin our lives.  See, "Editor Explores
       Unintended, and Negative, Side of Technology," The New York Times,
       November 25, 1999. p. D7, by Lisa Guernsey.   Talbott reminds me of the
       vivid discussion of microwaves several years ago:  data out of the
       Soviet Union showed us that the real threat from microwaves was the
       insidious long-term health problem from unnoticed frequencies, not the
       short-term obvious emissions from leaking microwave ovens.  Talbott
       does his letter in longhand, but only publishes on the internet.
    Dunk is right about the monstrous URL, which is actually an alias for the
    even more monstrous "real" URL:
    http://www.oreilly.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture.  [Added later: the
    url is now http://netfuture.org.]  Dunk's own URL is more parsimonious:
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Attack of the Intelligent Refrigerators
    We've been talking about ubiquitous computing lately, so I guess I should
    pass along this item from NewsScan Daily (January 18, 2000):
       In recent days there have been a number of product announcements for
       "smart appliances":  General Electric Co. has demonstrated the concept
       of an Internet-connected refrigerator, with an ability to read bar
       codes as you put your groceries away and reorder what's consumed;
       Whirlpool Corp. has shown a command-center refrigerator, complete with
       food-tracking capability and a wireless pad to let consumers download
       recipes from the Net; and Sunbeam Corp. has begun talking about its new
       bedside alarm clock that turns off the electric blanket and turns on
       the coffeemaker; and the bathroom scale that transmits your weight to
       the gym.  A Sears executive sums it all up this way: "This is kind of
       like the Normandy invasion.  You will see products with service
       capability that will stretch your imagination in the years to come.
       This is a big deal."  (Washington Post 18 Jan 2000)
    Normandy invasion?
    Making Guinea Pigs of Students
    By way of half-hearted penance for shoving the entire MIT Media Lab into a
    single pigeon hole (see Amy Bruckman's letter, below), I offer the
    following evidence of good sense from at least one corner of the Lab.
    Michael Schrage, a widely read columnist and a Media Lab research
    associate, had this to say in a recent interview:
       When we had the telephone revolution, we didn't have Teddy Roosevelt or
       Woodrow Wilson calling for a telephone on every single desk of every
       single student.  In the early days of television, we didn't have
       Kennedy ... calling for a TV on every desk or one in every classroom.
       And yet, with regard to the computer, we've somehow developed this
       bizarre "silver bullet" mentality, that there are single-shot solutions
       to educational quality, and that the computer, well-programmed or well-
       networked, is a solution to the problem -- that education is a problem
       to be solved.  Well, that's complete nonsense.
       My design bias is the computer is a resource that is not yet understood
       and we are in the process of conducting all kinds of experiments.  We
       should be conducting these experiments with a little more self-
       criticism, a little more skepticism and a little less championing of
       the computer.  Just because I think the computer is a fantastic,
       terrific medium does not mean that I believe that, for example, K
       through 12 students should become educational guinea pigs for a bunch
       of idealistic ideologues.  (Educom Review, January/February,
    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau.)
    Goto table of contents
               or: Why We'd Be Better Off without the MIT Media Lab
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    In part 1 of this series I voiced my first complaint against the
    ubiquitous technology pushers:  by letting their work develop out of a
    one-sided preoccupation with the technological milieu rather than
    immersion in the meaningful contexts affected by their inventions, they
    inflict technological "answers" upon us without any serious reference to
    the supposed problems.
    I don't mean to suggest that the bearers of technological wonders are shy
    about telling us how their inventions will solve this or that problem.
    They are all too eager.  When you are convinced you have a nifty answer,
    everything begins to look like a problem demanding your answer.
    This leads to my second complaint:  technology pushers too often fail to
    recognize the difference between solving a problem and contributing to the
    health of society.  Solving problems is, in fact, one of the easiest ways
    to sicken society.  A technical device or procedure can solve problem X
    while worsening an underlying condition much more serious than X.  Here
    are a few examples:
    ** There's already wide recognition of the danger in solving the problems
       presented by medical symptoms.  Aspirin, by eliminating pain, can mask
       an underlying illness or cover for bad habits that in the end may prove
    ** One reason television-watching is on the increase, or so I read in an
       article today, may be that "it's a way to stop conflicts between kids
       and adults".  Yes, in the heat of the moment you could say that
       television is an effective answer to the problem of family conflict.
       But won't this truce of convenience, this mutual disengagement, very
       likely lead to an even more radical parting of the ways somewhere down
       the road?
    ** The same article contained the observation that "there are a lot of
       neighborhoods where you're better off staying in watching TV than going
       out on the street".  In such neighborhoods the television may indeed be
       at least a partial solution to the problem of personal safety.  But in
       a deeper sense you will find that television has helped to make the
       street what it is, if only by sucking what was once the vigorous
       communal life of porch and street, first, into the family living room,
       and then into the isolated dens of individual family members.
    ** The technical mechanisms of hypertext are thought by many to solve the
       problem of providing adequate context for documents.  And they do solve
       the "outward" problem of aggregating and structuring a collection of
       text blocks.  But, as all web users have discovered by now, this
       solution can work against any effective grasp of context.  Being a
       click or two away from everywhere is disconcertingly like being nowhere
       at all.
       Every worthwhile context involves an inescapable and creative tension
       between a center of meaning and a boundless periphery that shades into
       the unknown.  This tension is given form by means of the conceptual
       threads we must (with the author facilitating) actively weave through
       our reading.  When the supplied links substitute for, or weaken, our
       own activity -- as they will when we believe the links themselves can
       do the work of supplying context -- then we lose context instead of
       gaining it.
    ** Everyone seems to believe that the cell phone is an instrument
       conducing to personal safety.  And, in a narrow sense, this is
       certainly true.  Many a parent breathes more easily after conferring a
       phone upon a son or daughter who must travel alone.
       But what is it that makes one alone?  Doesn't the widespread use of
       cell phones, in our cultural milieu, tend to thicken a little further
       that mutual insulation between us by which society becomes a less
       hospitable and less safe place?  Each of us becomes less inclined to
       seek help from those immediately around us, and the habit of offering
       help weakens.  For people who pass each other with cell phone attached
       to ear, the important items of business -- including the sources of
       help -- always seem to be elsewhere, and there is not much room for
       attention to the immediately surrounding social context.  The question,
       "Who is my neighbor?" becomes harder and harder to answer.
    The Basic Choice
    None of this should be controversial.  You might even say that these
    examples make the trivial and universally recognized point that social
    problems are complex.  But what isn't so widely recognized -- or is too
    often forgotten -- is that the technological mindset, so excellently
    trained to think in terms of discrete solutions, bugs, fixes, precise
    "specs", and well-defined syntaxes, is not inclined toward a reckoning
    with organic complexity.
    But this is exactly what is needed.  With an organism, or a society of
    organisms, changing one "spec" implies changes to everything.
    While (with some justification) we make it the engineer's task to frame
    problems that are as "well-behaved" and as rigorously specifiable as
    possible, we face social problems that can be fully understood only with
    the fluid, pictorial, category-blurring, whole-encompassing finesse of the
    Or, putting it a little differently:  society presents us with
    conversations we must enter into, not problems to be solved, however much
    we find the reduction to manageable problems a necessary, temporary
    expedient.  Only when we remain aware of what we are doing and continually
    allow the larger context to discipline, dissolve, and re-shape our
    narrowly focused problem solving do we remain on safe ground.
    But let me clarify what I am and am not saying.  I'm not saying that you
    shouldn't give your daughter a cell phone.  I can imagine situations where
    I would do it.  This would have the immediate (and substantial!) virtue of
    contributing to the safety of a loved one.  But if I were not also working
    consciously against the unhealthy tendencies of the larger context that
    necessitated the phone, and to which the phone itself all too naturally
    contributes, then I would be adding my small share to the miseries of
    society.  I would be making society safer only in the sense that
    exclusive, gated communities may make a society safer -- for some people,
    and for now.
    Seeking clarity at this point is crucial because what the technology
    critic seems to be saying can easily provoke a justified incredulity in
    those who, with all good faith, are working to put more sophisticated
    technical resources at our disposal.  "Do you really mean that, in terms
    of our underlying social problems, we'd be better off without cell phones
    -- and computers, and GPS locators, and space probes, and genetic
    engineering techniques?  And even if this were true, can you possibly
    believe that, outside the dreams of madmen, the world's vast apparatus of
    technological advance could be dismantled?"
    No, I believe none of those things.  What I do believe is that, with our
    technologies in hand, we are given the freedom to construct a hellish,
    counter-human, machine-like society, or else a humane society in which the
    machine, by being held in its place, reflects back to us our own inner
    powers of mastery.  And the difference between these antithetical
    movements is the difference between focusing more on the human dimensions
    of whatever domain we are concerned with, or on the technological
    dimensions.  In the former case, we will recognize that the primary
    challenges always have to do with the development of character, insight,
    volitional strength, imagination, and so on; our technical activities will
    be valued above all for the way they can help us develop these capacities.
    The other, gravely misdirected approach is to focus on technological
    developments as if they themselves held solutions.
    So, no, I don't suggest that we ban cell phones.  But our society's
    fixation upon technological development as the very substance and marrow
    of human evolution has become ferocious.  There is a grotesque
    disproportion within American culture between the terms in which we see
    our billion-dollar investments and the real needs around us.  This
    distortion is dangerous and needs healing -- a prospect that admittedly
    appears as unlikely today as a broad, public consciousness of recycling,
    pollution, and environmental issues must have seemed in the Fifties.
    I can't say what our technological trajectory would look like if we were
    fully conscious of the issues; but it is certain that, with our attention
    upon the things that count, the trajectory would be radically different --
    which is not quite the same as saying we should "halt all technological
    progress".  The point, rather, is to escape the mindset that sees progress
    primarily in terms of technology.
    A Paradoxical Reversal
    I pointed out above that solving problem X is not necessarily to
    contribute to society's health.  This can be stated more strongly and
    paradoxically:  to the extent we believe we have a rigorous technological
    solution, that solution will probably worsen the very problem it
    was intended to solve.
    You can already see this reversal in the bulleted examples listed above.
    For example, devices helping to "guarantee" our safety may, in the end,
    work against safety itself.  But we need to take clear hold of the dynamic
    at work here.
    The automobile, an early-twentieth-century driver might well have thought,
    will bind us into closer communities.  The distance between us is overcome
    and we can connect more easily with each other.  Yet the automobile's
    effect on our communities was quite otherwise.  One can in fact argue -- I
    often do so in my public lectures -- that all distance-collapsing
    technologies, by their very nature, end up inserting greater distance
    between us.  I have no space to develop this thought here, but I think you
    can see the force of the claim easily enough.
    Look at it this way:  the whole idea of a distance-collapsing technology
    is to enable us to get more quickly from point A to point B.  But getting
    more quickly from A to B means having less time and opportunity for
    attending to any of the points between A and B.  Moreover, as the
    influence of distance-collapsing technologies spreads, A and B themselves
    become intermediary points in an ever-expanding net of one-time
    destinations that are now mere waystations.  If we're to cover those
    spaces efficiently, we have no more time for A and B than for any of the
    points between.  And so we find ourselves in a world where we're all just
    passing through.
    How can people who are just passing through -- determined to criss-cross
    each other's paths at ever more dizzying speeds -- come closer together?
    The easiest result -- not an absolutely necessary one, but the result we
    can most naturally fall into -- is the one that only seemed at first
    glance to be paradoxical:  we find ourselves flying further and further
    apart rather than coming together.  As abstract spatial distance yields to
    our technological prowess, the qualitative nooks and corners of particular
    places -- places where significant meetings can occur -- disappear into
    the quantitative vastnesses of that abstract space.
    Clearly I am distinguishing here between two different senses of "coming
    together."  And that is the crux of the matter.  Technology can indeed
    overcome those physical spaces, but if this is how we frame the problem
    (and we must frame it this way if we want a perfectly effective
    technological "solution") then we have turned our eyes away from the much
    less easily defined problems that really matter.  This is how the new and
    wondrous technology becomes guaranteed to make the real problem worse.  If
    you falsely believe that X will achieve Y, then you've not only lost sight
    of how Y can really be achieved, but you're also turning your attention in
    unpromising directions.
    The certainty of the unhappy reversal, in other words, is a direct result
    of a technological fixation that encourages a subtle but disastrous shift
    in what we imagine our problems to be.  The engineer, of course, can
    always say, "Hey, I was just trying to overcome the problem of spatial
    distance.  What people do with this opportunity is their choice."  There's
    profound truth in that.  But the disclaimer is more than a little
    disingenuous in a society -- and an engineering culture -- where the
    exercise of the technical machinery for connecting persons is chronically
    confused with personal connections.
    The Machine and I
    In summary:  There's nothing easier than to find problems your new gadget
    will solve.  It's so easy that it has encouraged a standard formula of
    journalism:  "Dr. Jones' new discovery (or invention) could lead in time
    to [your choice of solved problems here]".  How standard this formula has
    become is a good measure of how technocentric our society has become.  The
    technical achievement just must, it seems, translate into a social good.
    There is no equivalent standard formula that routinely acknowledges the
    risks of the new development.  There is no recognition of the historical
    logic of reversal I've discussed here -- and therefore the prevailing
    formula becomes part of this logic, helping to guarantee a destructive
    I don't know of any truth more worthy of contemplation in our society
    today than this one, startling as it may appear:  No problem for which
    there is a well-defined technical solution is a human problem.  It has not
    yet been raised through imagination and will and self-understanding into
    the sphere of the human being.  And what is this sphere?  It is, above
    all, the domain of the "I", or self.  The "I", as Jacques Lusseyran
       nourishes itself exclusively on its own activity.  Actions that others
       take in its stead, far from helping, serve only to weaken it.  If it
       does not come to meeting things halfway out of its own initiative, the
       things will push it back; they will overpower it and will not rest
       until it either withdraws altogether or dies.  (Against the Pollution of
       the I, Parabola, 1999)
    All problems of society are, in the end, weaknesses of the "I", and it is
    undeniable that technologies, by substituting for human effort, invite the
    "I" toward a numbing passivity.  But by challenging us with less-than-
    fully-human problems and solutions, technologies also invite the "I" to
    assert itself.  This assertion, this grace bestowed by technology, always
    requires us to work, in a sense, against the technology, countering
    it with an activity of our own -- countering it, that is, with something
    more than technological.  Then the technology becomes part of a larger
    redemptive development.  When, on the other hand, technology itself is
    seen to bear "solutions", the disastrous reversal has already occurred.
    What we should ask of the technology pushers, whether they reside as
    engineers at the MIT Media Lab or as employees at high-tech companies or
    as consumers in our own homes, is a recognition that the primary danger
    today is the danger of this reversal, where the strengthening activity of
    the "I" is sacrificed to the automatisms around us.  For every technology
    we embrace, we should require of ourselves an answer to the question,
    "What counter-force does this thing require from me in order to prevent it
    from diminishing both me and the social contexts in which I live?"
    I spoke a moment ago of technologies inviting us toward passivity, or else
    inviting us toward self-assertion.  But this is not quite the same thing
    as saying that technologies present us with choices and we are equally
    free to go to the right or to the left.  The choices aren't symmetrical.
    It takes an inner wrench, a difficult, willful arousing of self, to accept
    active responsibility for what technologies do to us.  Passivity, on the
    other hand, is easy.  It's the choice we can make, so to speak, without
    bothering to choose.  It's also the predominant stance toward technology
    in our society today.  Many a massive PR and sales apparatus is aimed at
    dressing up the choices of passivity to make them as titillating and
    irresistible as possible.  And, by many accounts, our yielding to the
    titillation is what drives the "new economy".
    The subtitle of this series of articles is "Why We'd Be Better Off without
    the MIT Media Lab".  Let me broaden that here.  What we'd be better off
    without is every organization that pushes purely technological "solutions"
    as if they were what could make us better off.  The Media Lab has
    done its best to make itself the reigning symbol of this push -- and I
    think would proudly lay claim to the crown.  But it remains true that the
    pathology infects our society as a whole.
    In part 3 of this series I will look at the prospects for labor-saving and
    time-saving devices.
    Related articles:
    ** Go to part 1 of this article.
    ** Go to part 3 of this article.
    ** See the "Fundamental Deceit of Technology" heading in the NetFuture
       topical index.  The articles listed there help to characterize the kind of
       reversal I've been talking about above, where the advertised solution
       easily becomes a worsening of the problem.
    Goto table of contents
    Criticize Out of Love, Not Resentment
    Response to:  "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" (NF-100)
    From:  Kevin Kelly (kevin@wired.com)
    You have my applause and respect for the direction you are headed, as made
    clear in issue 100.  What you are trying to do is very difficult, and many
    have failed in it so far:  present a critical view of technology that is
    convincing to the technologists themselves.  Whether Kirk Sale and Jerry
    Mander are right or wrong, no one actively making new stuff is going to
    pay them much attention.  Primarily because Sale and Mander are caught in
    an us/them view that does not allow the nerds to side with them, however
    much truth may be in their views.  Some of the other critics that began
    from "inside" the nerd camp, more recently have adopted an us/them stance
    as well, making them more visible, but less likely to influence those who
    need convincing.  That's why I admire your evolving tact in seriously
    questioning technology in terms that mean something to those who know
    their bauds and bits.
    With that respect in mind, I have a suggestion. Just as you would like
    someone talking about the coming global prosperity to speak of it while
    facing the poor in Calcutta, so you would like someone talking about why
    the nerds at the Media Lab should disband to say this while facing the
    scientists themselves -- having spoken to them in depth about what it is
    they are trying to do, what they think humans are for, and what they truly
    hope for with their gadgets.  As you probably realize, daily papers are
    not very good at conveying this nuance.  You should inquire of this
    yourself.  Coincidentally, this is precisely the question that
    Wired began by asking:  what are the dreams of the people making
    our new world?   The answers -- far from clear -- share at least one
    characteristic:  people love to be asked this question, and are very eager
    to share.  They do think about it, although they often don't know what
    they think!
    That's your challenge.  It is easy for a wannabe critic to write a sarcastic
    gloss for Mother Jones on how dumb the nerds are, how screwed up their
    ideas of technology are, how destructive they are to the planet, and how
    superior the readers of MoJo are because they keep technology in its place
    (or think they do).  It is far far harder to write a newsletter on the
    internet which is read by techies, which actually changes their minds about
    the things they love.
    And love is the crux.  I believe that true insight into the nature of
    technology and its consequences won't come out of resentment and disgust,
    but out of love.  Fifty years from now when we look back, the person who
    will have illuminated the minds of this generation into the social ways of
    technology, will almost certainly be someone who loved technology (and its
    creators) more than they despised it (and them).
    I think you are on the right track.  Ultimate honesty about your own
    stance will get you everywhere.
    Kevin Kelly     kevin@wired.com     Editor-At-Large, Wired magazine
    149 Amapola Ave, Pacifica, CA   94044  USA       www.well.com/user/kk
    +1-415-276-5211 vox    +1-650-355-3660 home   +1-650-359-9701 fax
    Kevin --
    That is one of the most remarkable and discerning messages I've ever
    received -- all the more because, by graciously giving me more credit than
    I am due, you demonstrate in your own text the very principles you are
    talking about.  After all I don't consistently or sufficiently show full
    respect for the people I address and the creative efforts I write about.
    Writing as a "critic", I find it all too easy to fall into an unhealthy
    adversarial and demonizing stance.  As readers of NetFuture know, I've had
    to make this a matter of continuing struggle.  And, of course, you know
    this too, which is why you gently referred to my "evolving tact".  I
    appreciated that -- it must mean I'm making some progress!
    Anyway, you're right about the value of directly engaging those one is
    "speaking at".  Actually, I've been hoping such a conversation with the
    Media Lab folks would develop out of my writing, and I'm open to all the
    possibilities.  Well, almost all.  I shy away from debating formats, where
    the concern to score points normally extinguishes whatever light might
    have been shed on things.  Also formats that emphasize sound bites over
    substantial exposition.  But I do get the feeling that some worthwhile
    possibilities for genuine conversation are coming nearer to hand.
    P.S.:  I'm a bit of a nerd myself, and I have found Jerry Mander's
    work full of revelation!  (Regrettably, I haven't yet found the time to
    read Sale.)
    Toward a More Balanced View of the Media Lab
    Response to:  "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" (NF-100)
    From:  Amy Bruckman (asb@cc.gatech.edu)
    Dear Steve,
    Speaking as a friend of both Langdon Winner and Alan Wexelblat, it's clear
    to me that they're both right.
    Langdon is right that some, though not all, research on ubiquitous
    computing is technocentric -- pursuing technology for its own sake, with
    little consideration of human needs.  Of course some projects that begin
    in a technocentric fashion end up benefiting people in unexpected ways,
    but most don't.  For a nice example of ubiquitous computing work grounded
    in human-centered design, I suggest you look at Beth Mynatt's work here at
    Georgia Tech on assisted living for the elderly.  She is studying the
    problems older people have that force them to leave their homes, and
    designing ubiquitous computing devices to help them stay independent
    Alan is right that many people's tendency to attack ubiquitous computing
    research so passionately is curious.  It's really just a small niche in
    computing research today.  Why is this particular target chosen, and why
    does it inspire so much ire?  In the context of these debates, it seems to
    me that ubicomp is functioning as a symbol of the broader ways in which
    technology is changing our lives.  Society's interests would be better
    served by reflecting on that bigger picture, rather than getting
    distracted by this one small corner of it.
    Speaking of symbols, in your writing it seems that the MIT Media Lab is
    functioning as a symbol as well -- a symbol of technocentrism, hype, and
    wasted wealth.  Please remember that the Media Lab is a diverse place.
    While some of the work done there is technocentric, other work is
    exemplary in its focus on human needs and broader societal values.  For
    one example, you might look at Mitchel Resnick's work on empowering inner-
    city children to have meaningful control over computer technology through
    The Computer Clubhouse project.  I could cite a dozen more such examples.
    Research done at the Media Lab tends to be both better and worse than work
    done elsewhere -- it's bipolar.  The Media Lab permits a degree of
    intellectual freedom and access to resources unmatched elsewhere.  That
    freedom has both a cost and reward -- it means freedom to do work which is
    so innovative that a traditional department would have quashed it.  And it
    means freedom to do work that is so inexcusably bad that a traditional
    department would have quashed it.  In the early stages it's hard to tell
    one from the other.  The Media Lab's victories and failures are a package
    deal -- you can't have one without the other.  The net benefits easily
    outweigh the costs.
    Amy Bruckman
    Assistant Professor
    College of Computing
    Georgia Institute of Technology
    Too Much Complaining
    Response to:  "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" (NF-100)
    From:  Bob Gaughan (bgaughan@nortelnetworks.com)
    Steve --
    I guess your thing is what does Technology do for Humanity.  I think those
    are fair questions and I think that holding people's feet to the fire on
    that is a good thing.  It does come across, however, as "I will always
    bring up these critical human issues as a counterpoint to whatever you are
    doing or saying".  So, then it becomes one of if someone like myself can
    not demonstrate to your satisfaction that my every waking moment is
    dedicated to solving the problems that you have identified, then I am
    wrong/immoral/indecent, etc.
    Perhaps a less confrontational approach would make more sense.  Because
    one of the things that strikes me is that the people developing the
    technology are producing/delivering something and you are simply
    Bob Gaughan
    978 288 3678
    Bob --
    If "simply complaining" means "whining", well, by all means, let's not
    have it.  But if complaining means pointing out potentially disastrous
    attitudes and recommending a different approach -- well, why is it I get
    the feeling that you still don't like the idea?  Perhaps it's because (1)
    you're able to characterize the quest for a humane technology as my
    "thing"; (2) you ascribe to me a view I expressly disowned -- namely, the
    view that one should spend every waking moment thinking of grave moral
    issues; (3) you don't acknowledge that when it does come to a reflective
    justification of our vocations, it's only proper (indeed, only possible)
    to appeal to the highest principles of behavior; and (4) you seem to
    believe that "producing or delivering something", even if it is toxic to
    society, has a virtue that makes it superior to "complaining", even if it
    is aimed at pinpointing the toxicity.
    You may be right about a "less confrontational" approach.  (See previous
    letters.)  But your letter illustrates the difficulty in discovering just
    how to manage that, because it seems fairly clear that I could become less
    confrontational, in your view, only by abandoning much of my own position.
    As long as that's the nature of the call for detente, I'm inclined to
    think the real need is for more confrontation, albeit of the right sort.
    The extent of the conflict between competing understandings needs to be
    brought out more starkly, so that it can be seen as a genuine conflict,
    and not merely a will toward dispute.
    Of course, if this comes across as a confrontation between egos or a
    reading of the other person out of the conversation, then all is indeed
    lost.  And if that is what you have actually experienced (or any other
    reader has experienced), then I would certainly like to know about it.
    An Overdue, Grace-filled Literacy
    Response to:  "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" (NF-100)
    From:  Tom Mahon (tmahon@ncal.verio.com)
    Congratulations on reaching Issue #100.
    Re. your topic in this issue: I spoke at a conference in May '98 co-
    sponsored by MIT's AI Lab and a consortium of Boston-area divinity
    schools.  A worthy effort - one of too few - to engage a dialog between
    religion and technology.  One of the scientists who presented offered the
    opinion that the universe is essentially meaningless, we are motes in the
    cosmos, yada yada yada...
    Finally, one audience member couldn't take any more and asked the man if
    he had children and did he love them.  Yes he had children, he said, and
    of course he loved them.  Then how, he was asked, can he say the universe
    is meaningless.  That, he replied, is something he hadn't come to terms
    with yet.
    I felt an urge to hit the guy upside the head and say, "Give it some
    thought, you silly goose!!!"
    But what institution can meaningfully mount a challenge to this man, when
    so many of our moral managers are utterly disconnected from science and
    technology; from an appreciation of nature and its forces?  I spoke at
    another, more typical divinity school elsewhere a few years ago and, after
    I summarized some lessons of 20th century science, one of the students
    told me the material was interesting but he failed to see how it
    reinforced the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.  Again, I felt the urge to
    take physical action to help someone straighten out his thinking.  But
    before I could say or do anything, the other divinity students came to my
    defense and told their classmate that the angels would want him to try.
    When our moral leaders require angelic approval to be aware of the world
    around them where will we find the critical mass of insightful people
    knowledgeable enough to articulate the guidelines by which we engineer
    electrons, atoms and genes?  Which goes back to your earlier, urgent
    appeal for technology literacy.  It is a grace-filled literacy long
    Tom Mahon
    PS, Some suggestions on ways to map technology to compassionate actions
    are suggested in my essay in ChipCenter, an online resource for electronic
    engineers at
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Education in Search of Spirit
    One of the exciting things about the new Alliance for Childhood (NF #99)
    is seeing what its various supporters come up with as their own response
    to the various contemporary assaults against childhood.  You may want to
    check out a new and particularly fascinating effort going under the name,
    "Education in Search of Spirit".  According to the founders of this
       Education in Search of Spirit is not another model to fix what's wrong
       with the present system.  Our energies will not go to solve the
       `problem' of low test scores, school violence, dropouts, lack of
       textbooks or any of the other downstream symptoms.  Our innovation is
       to look at the totality of the social structure and ask where the
       responsibility for education belongs in a free, compassionate, and
       egalitarian society and to ask what is a new educational approach if we
       want to release our human potential for innovation, compassion, and
       We are not so much creating change as maximizing the changes that are
       already underway in education and the rest of society.  Education in
       Search of Spirit is a focused drive to link the same enlightened ideas
       animating adult society into the lives of children in the domain of
       education.  Our proposal is to be the catalyst bringing change agents
       together, not to organize them.
    For details, see http://www.whole.org/education_in_search_of_spirit.htm .
    Where NetFuture Gets To
    As part of an ongoing listing, here are a few more places where you might
    run into content from NetFuture:
    ** Frank Thomas Smith has begun an intriguing new web publication called
    the Southern Cross Review, now in its third issue.  It bills itself as "a
    multicultural review of fiction, social and spiritual issues, education
    and science", and has picked up the Jacques Lusseyran article from NF #92
    and the Alliance for Childhood's statement on Technology Literacy from NF
    #99.  The Review also carries original work, both fiction and nonfiction,
    some of it in Spanish.  It even has a special Children's Corner.
    ** NetFuture reader Hugo Castellano is webmaster for one of the leading
    Spanish educational websites, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It's
    called Nueva Alejandri'a, and has recently begun publishing an e-zine,
    Contexto Educativo, to bring notable articles on education to the
    attention of teachers in Spanish-speaking schools.  Describing educational
    policy in most of Latin America as "utterly technocratic", Castellano says
    there is much resistance to this policy among teachers, and he hopes that
    the site's translation of relevant NetFuture articles will help the
    teachers to fight back.  http://contexto-educativo.com.ar
    ** Peter Kindlmann, who is Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering at
    Yale University, and also the founder and president of Congruent Design,
    Inc., runs a forwarding service called EAS-INFO (also known as ENG-INFO).
    He occasionally picks up items from NetFuture, and, in a message to me,
    describes his interests this way:  "We share many attitudes, with mine
    more toward not having the practicalities of higher education tinged with
    too much techno-utopianism.  In a way you might say that I distrust
    writings in the `future perfect' tense (in Phil Agre's felicitous phrase).
    And of course lots of other things at the intersection of information
    technology and society interest me also."  To sample the archives, go to
    http://www.yale.edu/engineering/eng-info/ .  To subscribe, send a blank
    message to subscribe-eas-info@lists.eng.yale.edu .
    ** All this reminds me of a valuable resource that has remained much too
    hidden from most NetFuture readers:  Lowell Monke's NetFuture-affiliated
    "Confronting Technology" site.  It's not overwhelming in scope -- just
    very useful if you're wanting to do some exploration beneath the surface
    of the various debates about technology.  There's a link to the site from
    NetFuture's home page, but you can also go to it directly:
    http://www.grinnell.edu/individuals/MONKE/ .
    Lowell, incidentally, was one of nearly a hundred people asked by
    Electronic School to envision how digital technologies will change the
    nature of teaching and learning.  You'll find his comments, along with
    others, at http://www.electronic-school.com/2000/01/0100f1part2.html .
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
    individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
    paragraph are attached.
    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
    survive without them.  For details and special offers, see
    http://netfuture.org/support.html .
    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #101 :: January 27, 2000
    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NetFuture main page