NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #147 July 15, 2003 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- A Publication of The Nature Institute Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.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. CONTENTS --------- Editor's Note Quotes and Provocations Missing Weapons Aphorisms on Computers in Classrooms Notes on Genetic Engineering Raising Hogs Unimaginatively DEPARTMENTS About this newsletter ========================================================================== EDITOR'S NOTE The main articles from The Nature Institute's newsletter, In Context #9, are now online. They include an essay of my own ("To Explain or Portray?") about the nature of scientific explanation in the light of Goethe's thought, and also articles about the star-nosed mole, the genetically engineered contamination of Mexican corn, and an African journey. Go to http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic9. SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS Missing Weapons --------------- With the official completion of the costliest and most hyped scientific venture in history, the promoters of the Human Genome Project are now busy gently dampening all the overheated expectations they earlier worked so hard to inflame. Sure (they modestly concede), they have managed to decode the Book of Life; but there's just this little problem that they don't happen to understand what they decoded -- which makes for an interesting definition of "decode", doesn't it? And if they didn't really decode the genome in any respectable sense, what the hell was all that noise about? And all that money under false pretenses! I get several dozen emails a day offering similar deals on various promised benefits -- deals no more misleading than the one genetic scientists cut with a supportive public. Is there any way this public can hold to account the perpetrators of a billion-dollar science scam? Meanwhile, the upshot of the matter is that, despite the efforts of the largest team of inspectors ever assembled, the advertised Weapons of Mass Enhancement remain about as well hidden as ever. (More on genetic engineering below.) Aphorisms on Computers in Classrooms ------------------------------------ I have, in the following aphorisms, attempted to digest many of the past NetFuture articles on computers and primary education -- along with some current reflections on the topic -- into a series of brief, provocative statements. The hope is that they may stimulate discussion among school board members, parents, and teachers. Not all of these statements are my own; some originated, for example, with Lowell Monke or Edward Miller, who have written in, or been quoted in, NetFuture. --------------------- ** Lack of information has not been the bottleneck in education for decades, or even centuries. Rather, the task for the teacher is to take the infinitesimal slice of available information that can actually be used in the classroom and find some way to bring students into living connection with it. ** The single thing children suffer from most in today's society is the lack of close relationships with caring adult mentors. ** Given how many hours a day children pursue mediated experience through cinema screens, television screens, and video game screens, it hardly makes sense to add a computer screen to the mix while saying reassuringly, "Let's make sure the children use it in a balanced way". ** Computer labs have been displacing art, music, craft, and physical education classes. Does anyone pretend to have shown that the exchange is beneficial? ** Money going toward computers could have been used for reducing class size. ** The huge amounts of time teachers are having to spend learning to adapt their curriculum to the computer and themselves to the latest software could have been devoted to a livelier understanding of the subjects they teach. ** Children, whose developing bodies need vigorous and varied physical activity, already spend too much sedentary time in cars, classrooms, and in front of televisions, contributing to an epidemic of obesity, among other things. ** The claim that computers can stimulate kids, if true, hardly points to the decisive need for an overstimulated and hyperactive generation. ** The quality of kids' play is correlated with their later cognitive, aesthetic, and social skills. There is no demonstrated connection between these skills and early computer use. ** Studies (by Louise Chawla and others) have shown that naturalists, ecologists, and environmental activists, together with teachers in these fields, have had, more than most people, childhood experiences in wild places with adult mentors. ** If it's impossible to love mankind without loving the people around you, it's also impossible for computer-wielding children to love the Amazon rain forest, African wildlife, and the environment in general without learning to love the bits of nature immediately around them in yard, street, and park. ** Children are more and more subject to artificial, disconnected, and chaotic environments, making it hard for them to find a stable ground for their lives in the world -- as illustrated by the boy who was taken to the aquarium and then asked, "Is this real reality or virtual reality?" ** Internet-based multicultural programs in our schools are often more a celebration of electronic monoculture triumphant than of the invisible local cultures that technology is so efficiently marginalizing. ** Literacy depends much more deeply upon the child's powers of attention, language-use skills, imagination, and questioning strategies than it does on the alphabet-sound and word drills computers are so often used for. We can reasonably ask whether the drills weaken the more fundamental capacities. ** For most people the computer, whether inside the classroom or outside, stands as an image of the human mind. But, for all its increasing presence in the lives of children, it presents an extremely one-sided, limiting, and distorted image of the mind. ** Using the computer without understanding it encourages children to defer to it inappropriately, as when many say the computer never makes mistakes and is therefore more authoritative than their teacher. ** Teaching the principles of computation, in any full sense, is best deferred until secondary school. ** Secondary schools are widely failing in their responsibility to teach students about digital technologies. They substitute computer use and online experience for an understanding of the technology. ** Parents pushing for computer use in schools are often driven by fears for their child's employability and by an undue respect for the computer as a glamorous emblem of technical expertise. ** Pressure to use computers in the classroom comes from the massively funded marketing arms of high-tech corporations, who are perfectly happy for the public educational system to condition the interests and buying habits of their future customers and oversee the vocational training of their future employees. ** Elementary schools should not be vocational training centers. ** The task of schools is to encourage the development of children who can decide what sorts of jobs are worth having in the coming century, not to train children to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out. ** A great deal of computer-based learning turns out to be more about creating nifty computer effects than about learning the subject at hand. ** The computer is often used as a gimmick to lend a touch of glamor or excitement to a subject. Why is this artificial glamorization more appealing than making the subject itself exciting -- something good teachers have no difficulty doing? ** As computer exposure among the young increases, the glamor factor is progressively losing its effectiveness. Therefore we see escalating competition among web sites and software makers to deliver novel entertainment value, much as we have seen in television and cinema. Indeed, turning children over to the computer for their education is much like turning them over to television. Babysitters have long appreciated the convenience of this. ** More and more children's web sites have the same purpose as Saturday morning television: to keep children glued to the screen until they see the next commercial -- a task on which vastly more psychological expertise is brought to bear than is ever available to schools pursuing the child's inner development. ** Parents who are impressed that their tube-bound kids are so focused should ask themselves whether "focused" means "mesmerized". ** The computer has been embraced as an all-purpose answer without the educational problems for which it is the needed answer ever having been articulated -- and in willful ignorance of all the problems the computer itself introduces. (For a listing of the articles from which many of these thoughts were extracted, see the "Education and computers" entry in the NetFuture topical index: http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html. For a substantive, well-referenced treatment of the general issues, get in touch with the Alliance for Childhood, http://www.allianceforchildhood.net.) Notes on Genetic Engineering ---------------------------- **** I suspect that one of the most destructive influences in science today is exerted by the system of Nobel awards. The competition for these prizes can distort entire research programs, and the powerful winners of the competition, shielded from criticism as they often are, wield an authority that too easily buttresses dogma and protects incompetence -- all the more when the winner happens to be a co-discoverer of that central fetish of our age, the double helix. This is why the review in Science (April 18) of James Watson's new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, is so significant. For several decades Watson has been able to spout the most blatant and sometimes bigoted nonsense (for example, that we should engineer "stupidity" out of people and make sure all girls are "pretty") while enjoying immunity from criticism within the major institutions of scientific power. Because of Watson's exalted position, few have been willing to say what the many recognize. But now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix, Science magazine has done the unthinkable by publishing Susan Lindee's review of Watson's book. After citing an array of bewildering opinions from Watson, she fires off this zinger: The alert reader might well ask how such a convoluted nexus of belief and prophecy could gain cultural legitimacy, or even a sympathetic publisher. What forces made this tangle of mysticism, historical ignorance, religiosity, corporatism, exaggerated technocratic rationality, intemperance, and social naïveté plausible to so many people? Or even to James D. Watson? Lindee adds that "Watson is merely a potent sign of what has happened to the biological sciences in the last fifty years. Biology is now an important corporate sector, and Watson is a captain of industry". A captain, moreover, who imagines himself possessed of the keys of knowledge. "Stressing that DNA predicts just about everything, he repeats the common claim that DNA reveals what is most important about individual human beings" -- and, more specifically, the claim that "identifying genes which are linked to a disease leads to cures for people who have the disease". For the last fifteen years or so [Lindee writes], the overwhelming majority of scientific and press reports about such newly found genes have included a suggestion that the discovery carries us toward a cure for the relevant disease. This is ubiquitous enough to be understood as a literary convention in genomics. But discovered genes do not lead directly to cures, and the gap between promise and performance is drawing increasing attention from the media. At the end of her piece Lindee conjectures that "perhaps someday, when the body's complex operations are better understood, the knowledge the [genome] project has produced will appear as quaint as phlogiston or mesmerism". And she concludes by advising us that Watson's "latest promotional brochure is not worth anyone's time". Finally! I would give a few bucks to read some of the private mail at Science following this shishkebabing of a sacred cow. **** Every cell in your body contains not only genes, but many other substances as well, such as oligosaccharides (polymerized sugars). Yet we would be surprised, Lenny Moss observes, "to hear someone attribute some aspect of their personality to the fact of having their father's oligosaccharide for stubbornness". Moss wonders how it is possible that "two biologically ubiquitous types of molecules could be so fundamentally different that it would make perfect sense to speak of one as a determinant of, for example, one's stubborn disposition, but only humorous to ascribe as much to the other". Moss' book, What Genes Can't Do (MIT Press, 2003), is his attempt to throw historical, scientific, and philosophical light on the relation between genes and the rest of the organism. Both a cell biologist and a philosopher, Moss adds his voice to a growing chorus calling for a saner and more organic view of the gene: The empirical fruits of several decades of research in molecular, cell, and developmental biology have revealed that what distinguishes one biological form from another is seldom, if ever, the presence or absence of a certain genetic template but rather when and where genes are expressed, how they are modified, and into what structural and dynamic relationships their "products" become embedded. I hope to review Moss' book in the future. **** A recent piece in Business 2.0 -- one of countless articles aimed at redirecting our genomic expectations (and our pocketbooks) toward the Next Big Thing -- elicits comment from a number of key figures in genetic engineering about past letdowns and coming excitements. There is, for example, Leroy Hood, inventor of the automated DNA sequencer: "The Human Genome Project has given us a genetic parts list," Hood sighs. Before the wonder drugs expected to sprout from genomic research can arrive, he says, science must learn how all the parts on that list work together. Then there's Craig Venter, leader of the private genome sequencing effort: Now that we have the genetic code, for the first time in history we have the responsibility to look at how all the components interact to create life. And Michael Phelps, director of UCLA's Center for Molecular Medicine: This is orders of magnitude more ambitious than the Human Genome Project. Which is another way of saying that the genome project was orders of magnitude less ambitious than what was really needed to achieve the advertised aims. Unfortunately, no hint of this "inadequate by orders of magnitude" judgment was allowed to tarnish the superlatives that drove the genome project during its main thrust. Only after the money was nearly all spent did we begin hearing cautionary words. Of course, dampening all the false expectations of the past is only half the job. The other half is to create new expectations for the future. The Business 2.0 article helps this process along. If Hood succeeds in his new effort to "learn how all the parts work together", the author tells us, "it could finally usher in the biotech golden age that the Human Genome Project once seemed to promise". I have a small question. If the task today really is to figure out how everything works together, might it not be desirable to spend a little time looking at everything -- that is, looking at the organism itself, as a whole, in its environment? Shouldn't we expect such looking to be a prerequisite for any truly integrated understanding? Too bad, though; the naturalists have been dying off while everyone else follows the hype and money into molecular biology. Even so, one wonders: probably the most successful genetic project in history -- one it's not at all clear we could duplicate today -- was the domestication of animals. How did those ignorant and superstitious ancients do it with no automatic sequencers and nothing but their own "crude" observational skills to draw on? **** Molecular biologists have repeated the intellectual blunders that derailed the AI enterprise. When, back in the forties and fifties, it fully dawned on computer scientists that digital machines could be given not only number-crunching but also logical capabilities, researchers were electrified. After creating a few successful theorem-proving programs, they excitedly concluded that computers were on the verge of thinking. Herbert Simon (another Nobelist) proclaimed in 1958 that machines could already think, and in 1965 he predicted that within twenty years they would be capable of "doing any work that a man can do". Four decades later almost no one would make such a prediction about the next twenty years. In the same way, as soon as it was thought that there was a "code" in DNA, biologists rushed to the conclusion that the crystalline substance in their test tubes held, in its logical organization, the key to the secret of life. And so a decoded genome, they felt certain, would lead straightway to a detailed understanding of life and a cure for many diseases. The matter turned out quite different. The decoding of the genome means nothing at all without a decoding of protein folding and functioning. And when the folding problem is, in some narrow sense, declared "solved", we will see that it does not give us the answer either. So we will move on to the next aspect of the organism -- all without attending to the error in our very notion of "decoding": if the decoding of the genome was meaningless without the decoding of proteins, then we didn't actually decode the genome in the first place. It's not the kind of thing one can decode. The determining unity of the organism is not found in one of its parts, but is a shaping power working through all the parts. We're dealing not with logical codes, but with generative forms and meanings, and these always shade into and transform one another in complex, context-dependent ways. The root problem in both AI and genetics was the mind's tendency to fixate upon what it can grasp most easily, to the exclusion of the more difficult stuff. When you abstract certain logical elements from the real content of a mental or cellular process, your imagination can run wild as you project onto those elements all sorts of neat, machine-like logical relations and interactions. But it's quite another matter to deal with the actual reality of the content from which you did the abstracting. This content has a way of blurring all those satisfyingly clear logical relations you imagined, just as any truly meaningful thought -- if we are willing to attend to its meaning -- has a way of blurring the purely logical structure we may try to abstract from it. Bill Gates has informed us that "the gene is by far the most sophisticated program around", and it is indeed true that DNA is commonly thought of as embodying some sort of program. But the program metaphor vastly underestimates the role of DNA. After all, DNA does have something to do with what goes on in all the rest of the organism, whereas a computer program has almost no relevance to the machine that embodies it. Hand-held, desktop, or mainframe? Metal or plastic? Electromechanical relays, vacuum tubes, or transistors? Black, gray, or translucent? Contrary to the usual way of thinking about DNA, a computer's program (its genotype, under the metaphor we are considering) does not determine the machine's phenotype and does not mastermind the machine's evolution from one generation to the next. DNA has a much more intimate relation to the organism as a whole than a computer program has to the computer as a whole. So of what help is the program metaphor, beyond expressing a bare wish that the body should be conveniently controllable by some sort of machine-like logic? Genetic algorithms (computer programs written so as to undergo continual modification, allowing them to "evolve") and other forms of evolutionary computation, so far as they are designed to simulate our genetic "program", are, then, doubly estranged from the organism: they are the crudest of program models of genetic constructs that, themselves understood as programs, can have little relation to living organisms. Related articles: ----------------- "Me and My Double Helixes" in NF #144: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Apr2903_144.html "The Human Genome as a Book of Lies" in NF #81: http://www.netfuture.org/1998/Dec1098_81.html#1b Also see the numerous articles listed under the "Genetic engineering" heading in the NetFuture topical index: http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html Raising Hogs Unimaginatively ---------------------------- The May 11 New York Times carried a feature article about air pollution and related health issues in the vicinity of large-scale hog farms. Neighbors of these farms have long claimed to suffer headaches, breathing problems, diarrhea, nosebleeds, ear aches, and lung burns due to the toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia released from manure lagoons. Perhaps most seriously, there is a suggestion of irreversible neurological damage. According to Dr. Kaye H. Kilburn, a University of Southern California professor who studies the effects of toxic chemicals on the brain, The coincidence of people showing a pattern of impairment and being exposed to hydrogen sulfide arising from lagoons where hog manure is stored and then sprayed on fields or sprayed into the air [makes a connection between the two] practically undeniable. And Dr. Viney Aneja, a professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University and a student of air pollution around farms, advises: This is a factory. Treat it as one. It should be under the same constraints as a chemical operation. On the other side, farmers and industry officials call the residents' concerns "totally unfounded". Dick Isler, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Producers Council, says of one particular case: I do not think there is any way that it can be proven that that hog farm, which is a half-mile away, has any effect. [Studies show that] any time you are more than a hundred feet away it is not a problem. Multiplying lawsuits are now tending to force the issue. A class-action suit against factory farms by some 1800 residents of Mississippi has resulted in a moratorium on new farms. But in both state and federal government, the industry's clout is massive. The whole matter seems to be at a stage corresponding to the early (and long ineffective) campaign to establish tobacco's ill effects upon health. The Times quotes a former prosecutor at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michele Merkel, as saying, "You had decisions about enforcement that were being made on the political level without any input from the enforcement". Merkel resigned in protest. Eric Schaeffer, former director of civil enforcement at the EPA, claims that Agriculture Department officials have been protecting the industrial farms. The article tells us that At the Agriculture Department, officials have reclassified research topics relating to industrial farms and health, including antibiotic- resistant pathogens, as "sensitive". As a result, at least one scientist, James Zahn, has left the department. "It was a choke hold on objective research", said Dr. Zahn, who had studied swine and bacteria until he left last fall. "Originally we were praised for the work we were doing. All of a sudden we were told, no more antibiotic resistance work". Internal department email messages made available by the Natural Resources News Service show that Dr. Zahn's superiors barred him from presenting research at a conference in Iowa in 2002. A message from a supervisor advised Dr. Zahn that "politically sensitive and controversial issues require discretion". The debate over health effects will presumably run on for many years. In a sense, though, it is merely a distraction -- the sort of distraction that the technocratic mind is most effective in responding to. Distractions can be treated in isolation from everything they are connected to. The one thing the technocrat does not want to deal with is the quality and character of an overall picture. And the overall picture in this case is far more immediately obvious than the damaging effects of tobacco ever were. These industrial farms have many thousands of hogs generating millions of gallons of waste per year. The runoff and water pollution are undeniably severe problems. The inevitable complement of the concentration of animals is the barren monoculture of corn practiced over vast acreages of surrounding farmland, with its own pesticide and fertilizer-runoff disasters. The animals themselves live a hellish existence, with their health compromised and their natural instincts frustrated. And the stench, which most certainly travels far beyond one hundred feet, is a health problem for the surrounding communities -- not only because it causes neurological deficits and other harm (if it does), but because the experience of such a stench is itself an experience of sickness. Is the quality of this picture all that difficult to read? Yet you can be sure that the technocrats, incapable of taking in a large, coherent picture of anything, have set about procuring "fixes" to the isolated issues that are all they can see. Massive ingenuity is being brought to bear upon the retention of runoff -- and, as lawsuits multiply, will surely be brought to bear upon the toxic gases. So, too, regarding antibiotic resistance, the endlessly ramifying problems of large-scale crop monocultures, and the pathologies induced in animals by an overcrowded and unnatural existence. Doubtless, one can conceive technically exciting fixes for every isolated problem. It takes an entirely different and qualitatively more sensitive mindset to realize that most of these fixes, technically brilliant and satisfying as they may be, only make the overall picture sicker. We need to be aiming for a different picture. But the awareness that we have such an option is hidden from those who see the existing shape of things as somehow a matter of "inevitable progress". They simply can't conceive a different picture; they live in the consciousness of prospective solutions to well-defined problems -- which means, problems we can interpret within the current shape of things. The limitation of a technocratic society is always a limitation of imagination. Related articles: ----------------- "The Pigs of Iowa" by Lowell Monke in NF #114: http://www.netfuture.org/2000/Nov3000_114.html#2 "Factory-farmed Pigs: Further Thoughts" by Douglas Sloan in NF #116: http://www.netfuture.org/2001/Jan1101_116.html#3 SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2003 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: http://netfuture.org/ To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html. Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #147 :: July 15, 2003 Goto table of contents
This issue of NetFuture: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Jul1503_147.html.