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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #143                                                   April 1, 2003
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Telephone Booths
       Are Corporations to Blame?
       Cheap Food at Any Cost
       Three Economic Absurdities
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    It feels almost a sacrilege, at this particular moment, to publish an
    issue of the newsletter not dedicated to the world events now
    unfolding.  But, of course, it's also true that we are nearly drowning in
    words about these events.  Perhaps a little respite from the rhetorical
    flood will be appreciated.  I do hope, however, to offer some commentary
    about politics and the war in the next issue.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Telephone Booths
    News item:  Bell Canada is converting old payphone booths into Wi-Fi
    hotspots.  You must be within one hundred feet of a booth to use the Wi-Fi
    Cartoon idea for the New Yorker:  a mass of humanity is crammed into the
    one-hundred-foot radius around the empty booth, with some people on the
    shoulders of other people, and still others swaying perilously on their
    shoulders.  All are talking into their phones, and one is saying, "We're
    trying to set the record for most people not in a phone booth".
    Are Corporations to Blame?
    I am more and more convinced that the chief weakness of many green and
    social justice movements is their predilection for blaming every ill upon
    "capitalistic corporate greed" rather than upon themselves.  The companion
    weakness, of course, is that they seek remedy for every ill from the
    government instead of relying upon their own resources and those of their
    communities and fellow citizens.
    It is certainly true that we need changes in the legal structure of
    corporations, and I personally would like nothing more than to see an
    energetic push in this direction.  But the changes will require careful
    experimentation over a long period.  Meanwhile, why downplay the fact that
    we already have everything we need to bring about one revolution after
    another?  We have, after all, our own purchasing power.  I recently heard
    a talk about the food system by Michael Pollan (see next article) where he
    suggested that "the way we spend our food dollars is one of the most
    important votes we can cast".  He later added, "We are creating the kind
    of world we will live in, one quart of milk at a time".
    Why hasn't this truth electrified those who dream of a better society?
    Victory is ours -- we need only reach out and take hold of it!  Actually,
    I think the truth is dawning on ever more people.  We see the results on
    all sides:  food coops, voluntary labeling efforts, community supported
    agriculture, "buy local" initiatives, consumer boycotts, backyard
    gardening ... (to stick with the food business).
    But the potential of these efforts is sadly vitiated by the penchant for
    blaming corporations and capitalism -- this by the very people who are
    making some of the best use of their own free enterprise and their own
    corporations devoted to social change.  At a teach-in a couple of years
    ago I mentioned the virtue of blaming ourselves first, and one of the
    leaders of this country's alternative movements immediately responded:  "I
    beg to differ with Steve.  It is the corporations we should blame.
    They are the ones with the power".
    Yes, but where does the power come from?  What would become of their power
    if we did not fuel it with our purchases and lifestyle?  And what do we
    mean by "the corporation" if not the employees and stockholders -- people
    like you and me?  The problem arises when all of us, including those at
    the very top (who in some ways can least escape this destiny) allow
    themselves to become mere cogs in a vast computational system that runs by
    itself -- a system whose primary business is to calculate the bottom line.
    Of course, if the system runs absolutely by itself, like a mechanism, then
    you and I are irrelevant and the battle is over.  We can't speak of blame
    at all in this case; mechanisms are not morally responsible.  But if,
    on the other hand, we can work meaningfully for change, then we will do
    so only by recognizing the countless invisible threads binding us to the
    system, and by learning step by step -- with an imaginative eye for the
    overall organic pattern of things -- to work with each other in re-weaving
    those threads.  Thankfully, a great deal of this work is now going on,
    even if it has hardly galvanized the mainstream media.
    It does not hurt to keep in mind -- especially in our time -- that overly
    ambitious efforts to hinder the corporate pursuit of debased values will
    put in place mechanisms equally effective for hindering the pursuit of
    exalted values.  Or, putting it a little differently:  if you distrust
    (with good reason) the power at the top of large organizations, it doesn't
    make much sense to vest your hope in the power at the top of the largest
    organization of all -- the government.
    Certainly government must play an essential role in any vital society --
    but it can do so only if its power and wisdom emerge from below.  There is
    no alternative to our own cultivation of healthy values, and to the social
    nurturing of these values through supporting community structures, a
    richly humane education, ennobling cultural habits, and so on.
    A hopeless task when you look at what's going on in the world around us,
    right?  Yet none of us really believes himself to be trapped in a debased
    condition without hope of improvement.  Why then should we believe it of
    others?  Or why should we believe it of the system as a whole so long as
    we retain any freedom at all to re-weave those threads?  The problem with
    blaming the corporations is that it distracts us from this creative task
    -- a task we are in any case carrying out, for good or ill, with every
    purchase we make.
    Cheap Food at Any Cost
    On his way to address a large audience in Great Barrington, Massachusetts,
    on March 16, Michael Pollan stopped to pick up a half gallon of "Organic
    Cow" milk.  He began his lecture by describing the milk carton, with its
    folksy, down-home evocation of life on a small, caring, family farm, its
    mention of Farmer John's (or whatever his name was) favorite cow, "Babe",
    and its appeal to green values.  Pollan called this familiar advertising
    technique, "Supermarket Pastoral".
    But there was one other thing on the carton, albeit in small type:
    "Horizon Corp."  Horizon, it turns out, is "the Microsoft of
    organic milk", aggressively controlling some seventy percent of the
    national market.  That helps to explain why the milk carton also says
    "ultra-pasteurized".  The extra heating of the milk is necessary in
    order to prevent deterioration of the product as it's being shipped all
    over the country.  Of course, the heating also reduces the nutritional
    value of the milk.  This milk, in other words, is more processed than
    some conventional, local, non-organic milk.
    Such was our introduction to the paradoxes Pollan explored in his
    stimulating presentation.  Author of the recent best-seller, The Botany of
    Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, Pollan is currently working on a
    book about the food system in this country.  If his articles in the New
    York Times Magazine on genetically engineered potatoes and golden rice and
    on the biography of a beefsteak are any indication, the book will open a
    lot of eyes to the far-reaching implications of our most routine
    As for the Horizon Corporation, Pollan discovered that it owns, among
    other things, a confinement dairy with 10,000 cows, none of whom has ever
    tasted a blade of grass.  They are fed grain in order to force unnaturally
    high milk production -- but, yes, the grain is "organic" and so is the
    milk.  All of which suggests that while the step upward to organic may
    have been an advance, it is hardly the last word.  We now have to decide,
    Pollan says, whether "big organic" is what we really want.
    If it is, we'll find it in the ten-calorie, organic strawberry that burns
    435 fossil-fuel calories on its journey to east coast grocery shelves.
    We'll also find it in the factory where 20,000 chickens are crowded
    together -- "organic" and "free-range" chickens, mind you, although Pollan
    learned that their free-ranging is deferred until they're five or six
    weeks old.  Of course, they only live to be eight weeks old, so the free-
    range experience "is not a lifestyle, but a vacation".  Hardly even that;
    by the sixth week these chickens are so conditioned by their unwholesome
    environment that they are often too terrorized to venture through the
    little door into the alien sunlight.  They do hold a formal option on that
    door, however, and this is enough to qualify them as "free-range"
    One by one the successful organic food operations have been bought by the
    giant multinationals.  Cascadian Farms, one of the dominant players, is
    now owned by General Mills.  Boca Burger is a Kraft company.  Stony Field
    Yogurt is in the process of buyout by the French conglomerate that
    produces Dannon Yogurt.  The most celebrated case was that of Ben and
    Jerry's ice cream.  The company's buyout contract with Unilever was
    famously ringed with green and social responsibility clauses, but
    apparently there was no butterfat clause, since the butterfat content of
    the ice cream dropped within days of the sale.
    Pollan's central message was that "the organic small farm is in peril" --
    and this due in part to a dynamic we've seen before:  cheap, all-season,
    water-subsidized produce from the west coast overwhelms other markets such
    as those here in the east.  What's at issue, he believes, is a choice
    between industrial logic and the logic of biology.
    Recalling the "organic dream" of the 1960s and 1970s, Pollan reminded us
    that the vision had three key elements:  1) green, diverse, pesticide-free
    farms, 2) an overhauled distribution system with an emphasis on the local
    and small, 3) and food kept closer to its natural state, with less
    processing.  Big Organic accommodates itself only to the first of these
    three principles.  As a result, the entire system threatens to be
    dominated by the high-calorie strawberry, factory-farmed meat, and (sooner
    or later, if organic advocate Joan Gussow's surmise is correct) the
    organic Twinkie.
    "I wonder", Pollan asked, "whether you can industrialize organic farming
    without ruining it".  He underscored the question by characterizing
    industrial logic:
    ** If you're shipping corn all over the country, you'll insist that all
    your growers plant Jubilee corn, because that's the variety that freezes
    best.  The principle of diversification -- highly valued by the early
    organic growers -- goes out the window.
    ** You won't want the overhead and headache of signing contracts with two
    hundred small growers.  And even if you accepted this burden, it wouldn't
    work to bring in your huge combines to harvest a mere twenty or fifty
    acres.  You have, after all, a fiduciary responsibility to your
    shareholders to run the most efficient business possible.  So the small
    farm disappears.
    ** The more highly processed a food is, the more profitable it becomes.
    Foods therefore go through a fractionating process, with ingredients
    subsequently mixed and matched according to technical and economic
    considerations.  (That's why your organic label lists among its
    ingredients, "cooked in one of the following oils...."  The company wants
    the liberty of choosing whatever oil on the market is cheapest
    ** All this makes for a decisive loss of context.  There is no local
    rootedness, and therefore no rooted sense of responsibility.  Pollution
    and energy use are no longer impacts upon the community, but just the
    costs of doing business.  So you can find organic products sold in
    containers that (with some humorous exaggeration) "will take five hundred
    years to decompose".  Given the ever-greater scale of the operations,
    organic farm waste becomes a severe pollution problem rather than a
    Despite all the efficiencies of industrial logic, "the real cost of cheap
    food is enormous, but none of that cost is paid by the consumer of the
    99-cent hamburger.  Our motto seems to be:  cheap food at any cost".
    Also at any distance.  Pollan pointed out that industrial-scale organic
    producers needed the federal organic standards.  If you buy, ship, and
    sell food all over the country, it's a headache to deal with numerous
    different standards and labels.  The uniform label helps to make
    industrial-scale operations possible, and therefore plays its role in
    inserting greater distance between the farmer and the consumer.  "The food
    chain today is a wall of invisibility .... But it's a very short walk from
    not knowing each other to not caring about each other".  Customers who
    know the local farmer and the farm do not need labels to tell them how
    their food is grown.
    Of course, knowing the farmer can be difficult if you live in Manhattan,
    and in any case, labels are a crucial tool for enabling consumers to make
    informed and responsible decisions.  In general, big industry pushes for
    less information on the label "because their food doesn't have a good
    story to tell -- if there were a good story, they'd be telling it".
    The point, I think, is that we need labels to tell the story of the food,
    but this doesn't necessarily require federal standards -- especially when
    big industry has a rather-too-cozy relation with the regulators and when
    it values the standards primarily as a way of leveling the marketplace
    and discouraging higher standards.  Why not leave things where they
    were before the recent establishment of federal standards?  The federal
    agencies could focus on truth in labeling instead of co-opting the
    labeling and certification process.  After all, a cabbage is not a screw,
    and the rationale for official standardization of threads on screws
    doesn't apply to cabbages.  Nor are federal standards a prerequisite
    for reliable quality.  Labels mean something only so far as they become
    the focus for responsible consumer decisions, and if consumers do show
    a preference for relevant labels certified by organizations they trust,
    then those labels will come into use regardless of government fiat -- as
    indeed they already have.
    It seems clear from the triumph of Big Organic that federal standards,
    even if an acceptable starting point, are far from being an acceptable
    ending point.  These standards establish minimum criteria as the only
    ones that count.  They encourage an inattention to particulars by giving
    the false impression that "the regulators have it covered".  But the
    regulators can never cover for our own responsible behavior.
    One other comment.  According to the industrial logic Pollan outlined, we
    do not so much grow our food as assemble a set of inputs.  I wouldn't be
    surprised if, before long, we begin hearing about food that has been
    "configured".  Never underestimate the penetration of a mechanistic (and
    increasingly high-tech) mode of thinking into all aspects of our lives.
    For a different mode of thinking, here is a European bumper sticker
    advocating localization:  "Eat your view".
    Three Economic Absurdities
    Remember all the news stories you've read about this or that third-world
    community, whose benighted citizens earn an average of, say, $11 per
    month?  I guess the idea is that we're supposed to think, "Oh, how
    tragic!"  Tragedy is doubtless there to be found often enough, but a more
    appropriate reaction to the news story is, "Oh, how nonsensical!"
    What, after all, does the figure mean?  Transpose it into the terms
    of our own existence, and all we can say is that these people must have
    died before they ever got a chance to live.  The number is just an
    impossibility, barring massive charitable handouts.
    The one thing you can be sure of when you see numbers like this is that
    the culture we're talking about has a relation to money very different
    from our own.  In Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, Helena
    Norberg-Hodge describes life some time ago in the Himalayan principality
    of Ladakh:
       In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs
       without money.  They had developed skills that enabled them to grow
       barley at 12,000 feet and to manage yaks and other animals at even
       higher elevations.  People knew how to build houses with their own
       hands from materials of the immediate surroundings.  The only thing
       they actually needed from outside the region was salt, for which they
       traded.  They used money in only a limited way, mainly for luxuries.
    Village houses, ornately decorated and richly furnished, were two or three
    stories high, with floor areas of four thousand feet or more.  They were
    built for "free", with communal labor, mainly using mud.  But with the
    advent of development, everything began to change.  In the main city of
       building with mud is becoming prohibitively expensive, whereas the
       relative cost of cement is falling .... It seems impossible that a
       heavy and processed material that has to be transported over the
       Himalayan mountains can compete with mud, free and abundant, there for
       the taking.  And yet that is exactly what is happening.
       In the modern sector, land becomes a commodity with a monetary value.
       As people crowd together, the space allotted to them gets smaller, and
       land, which had never previously cost money, becomes more and more
       expensive.  To make mud bricks, instead of simply digging up the land
       around your house, you have to travel ever farther from the spreading
       urban area and pay hard cash -- for the mud itself, for the labor to
       make the bricks, and for the truck to haul them back into the city.
       Time now means money, and this becomes another disadvantage of using
       mud, since building in mud is slower.  What is more, as mentioned
       earlier, the majority of "educated" people have not learned how to
       build a house, and the engineers work with cement and steel.  As a
       consequence, the skills required to build with mud become ever more
       scarce, and thus more expensive.  There is a psychological dimension as
       well:  people are afraid of seeming backward -- and everything
       traditional is beginning to be seen that way.  They want to live in a
       modern house.  A mud house is bad for the image.
    Norberg-Hodge depicts in great detail and with superb expertise the
    transition from a rich, remarkably well-adjusted, traditional culture
    (with monthly personal incomes near zero) to a culture under development
    where rising money income was paralleled by an impoverishment of the
    standard of living according to most meaningful gauges.  All too often,
    when you see minuscule average-income figures for third-world locales, you
    are safe in assuming that they do indeed represent a lot of misery -- the
    misery that comes from the disruption of a traditional economy by a money-
    centered one.
    Norberg-Hodge documents the complexity of this development in Ladakh,
    where it amounted to a re-organization of the entire society.  Such
    complexity, however, rarely finds its way into our news coverage.  The
    simple figures are much more impressive.
    Clearly, the numbers mean nothing without being brought into relation with
    qualitative considerations.  This is a trivial point.  Every third grader
    could "get it".  And yet, here we are, passing these numbers around every
    day as if they actually meant something in their own right.  Our
    irrational belief in the magical, explanatory power of numbers seems to be
    at least as great as the older belief in the explanatory power of bird
    livers and chance events.
    There are two other pet peeves I would like to get off my chest.  The
    first can be stated very briefly.  How many times have we heard that this
    or that business ought to be allowed into our community "because it will
    bring such-and-such a number of jobs"?  Number magic again.  Bringing jobs
    is never an argument for a particular business -- no more than "bringing
    economic activity" is an argument for introducing the drug trade.
    Everything depends on the kind of jobs we're talking about.
    It would be instructive for every advocate of "more jobs" to look at all
    the larger cities that already have more jobs.  The lesson would be
    obvious:  having more jobs makes you a bigger city, but no rule says that
    bigger cities have less unemployment (or other problems) than smaller
    ones.  Third-grade stuff again -- but too sophisticated, it seems, for
    many town planners.
    When assessing a potential business or industry, the key thing to ask is
    whether its character contributes to the kind of community you want, or
    instead detracts from it.  If you act accordingly, the jobs that come will
    at least be worth having.  But if you start by just asking for jobs, you
    can be sure that the place will eventually become unlivable.
    My third pet peeve relates to the widespread belief that corporate
    officers have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits.  As far as I
    can see, there's no way to make this a coherent statement.
    What could it mean to maximize profits?  There's widespread agreement that
    trying to maximize the quarterly bottom line is no favor to shareholders.
    Over what period, then, should you maximize it, and what saves your choice
    from arbitrariness?  Further, which stockholders should you have in
    mind -- those who bought last week and will sell next week, or those who
    will sell next year, or five years from now ... ?  If you say, "maximize
    profits over the life of the company for the ideal stockholder who bought
    the IPO and never sells", then your advice becomes vacuous, offering no
    practical guidance to a manager facing decisions now.
    Furthermore, everyone grants that a company sometimes needs to create
    the market niche it wants to fill.  Until this can be done, there's
    often no profit to be had at all, but only a loss.  How much time
    is to be allowed before the experiment (and the loss) is terminated?
    How, in terms of maximizing profit, can you even justify taking on the
    risk, rather than pursuing more reliable profits in a market that is
    already there?  If you reply that all business is a risk, well, then,
    it sounds as though we're in the business of managing arbitrarily chosen
    levels of risk, which is a very different thing from maximizing profit.
    A super-high-risk, shoot- for-the-moon strategy may promise a slight
    chance of insanely great profits, but it also promises the likelihood
    of substantial losses.  What does it mean, in weighing such strategic
    decisions, to say you're maximizing profits?
    But all this is silliness.  Managers do not have an obligation to maximize
    profits.  Not only is this undefinable, it's plain wrong.  Managers have
    an obligation to fulfill the company's chosen mission in society and in
    the marketplace -- presumably a mission to achieve something deemed
    worthwhile, as strange as this language may seem to some business types.
    For this they will need to achieve profitability, and now they will have
    the only possible criterion -- a necessarily qualitative criterion -- for
    assessing this profitability:  it is "maximal" when it furthers the
    mission as far as possible; to the degree it falls short of or exceeds
    this amount, it is deleterious.  And that's exactly the criterion any
    stockholder who has not abdicated his humanity would insist on.
    Numbers gain their meaning from the realities they pertain to, despite our
    society's fanatical determination to make things work the other way
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