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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #147                                                   July 15, 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
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    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Missing Weapons
       Aphorisms on Computers in Classrooms
       Notes on Genetic Engineering
       Raising Hogs Unimaginatively
    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
    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
    ** Money going toward computers could have been used for reducing class
    ** 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
    ** 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
    ** 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
       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".
    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
    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
    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
    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:
    "The Human Genome as a Book of Lies" in NF #81:
    Also see the numerous articles listed under the "Genetic engineering"
    heading in the NetFuture topical index:
    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
    Related articles:
    "The Pigs of Iowa" by Lowell Monke in NF #114:
    "Factory-farmed Pigs: Further Thoughts" by Douglas Sloan in NF #116:
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