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                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #34      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      November 25, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          How Long Before Reality Sets In?
          Technology As Religion
    *** Is Wired a New Age Journal? (Stephen L. Talbott)
          And other impressions of some recent issues
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    How Long Before Reality Sets In?

    One keeps hoping that the collective hysteria about wiring every child's classroom will finally reach the point of exhaustion, allowing us to ask a few, first, timid questions about what we are doing and why. I can't say there are any substantial signs of impending quiescence, but a couple of straws in the wind did blow my way this past week.

    A friend who is deeply immersed in the educational technology scene wondered aloud whether "the system is going to break down under its own weight." There are computers on many desks, but people don't know how to use them. Support technicians are "screaming for help, but the money just isn't there." When you calculate how much money needs to be there, it's obvious that no one has thought the matter through.

    Shortly after voicing these thoughts, my friend participated in his school district's committee meeting for setting technology standards. This was his email report:

    What a mess! The state is giving us millions of dollars to buy computers but there is no money to support them or train the people who will be using them. So we are supposed to get all this hardware and software on one-time money and then steal money from all of the educational programs to support them for the next however many years. It means hiring half a dozen new technicians (we have added that many in the past 2 years already) reallocating staff development time almost exclusively to computer training, and expecting teachers to somehow figure out how to make the machines work well in the classroom on the time they now have. And no one thinks anything will be sacrificed in the process?! Ah, but that's the price of progress, right?

    The fascinating thing that came out of our first meeting was that everyone is frustrated by their own frustration -- that is, no matter what computer anyone in their building has gotten, within a year they are dissatisfied with it. I hadn't realized just how deeply the ideology of consumerism had permeated educational computing. But there it is as bold as can be: the perpetual state of dissatisfaction that drives the consumer society has reached the core of educational computing.

    It would be depressing if I didn't detect how disgusted everyone on the committee is with it. Maybe the time is ripening for a reevaluation of the whole idea. I'll keep you posted.

    Meanwhile, a correspondent volunteered the following thoughts after stumbling onto my web page:
    Schools will quickly discover that what they have bought is just the license to the current technology (or perhaps they were "given" the license -- for now). It will be obsolete -- not in five years -- but in five months. I seriously doubt any significant population of teachers will be able to keep up with the technology and thus be able to use it effectively....

    I have worked in computer development for years. I am able to absorb new technology at a fairly high rate as are many of my peers -- but we are all struggling to keep up now. The churn is incredible. Getting products to market with the most recent-vintage technology is difficult and often impossible. We have to tell customers "no" a lot more, though some are reasonably cautious about using the newest stuff. There is a stratification of technocracy occurring. Microsoft and other originators are at the top. Applied technology companies like mine, in the middle. The end-users are the most susceptible to technology churn, assuming they intend to continually use current-vintage technology. And in the school system, there is a stratification occurring where some have and some don't. (Frankly, I don't think the have-nots are at a disadvantage, except that they probably don't have other resources that are more important, as well!)....

    I don't know what the problem is that these goals and programs are about. But I do know there are problems that they do not address, and I suspect that these are the real showstoppers -- not that Johnny can't surf. [Quoted by permission.]

    And a third straw. It's a good sign when technology-infatuated Forbes ASAP (Dec. 2, 1996) can carry an article with this remark from Hudson Institute Fellow Mark Helprin (reported via Edupage):
    Terrified lest their children be computer illiterate, lemming parents have pushed the schools into a computer frenzy in which they spend years learning to use Windows and WordPerfect. This is much like 'Sesame Street,' which, instead of waiting until a child is five and teaching him to count in an afternoon, devotes thousands of hours drumming it into him during his underdeveloped infancy. But while numbers will remain the same, fifth-graders will, when they get to graduate school, have no contact with Windows 95.
    I cannot imagine any more effective way to degrade education than to force teachers to become technicians chasing the latest -- or, for that matter, outdated -- technology. To link the school room directly to the frenetic, commercialized madness that is driving high-tech industry today -- and to do so with scarcely a second thought -- is insanity. At least, that's the charitable interpretation. We can hope that the second thoughts voiced above are now starting to glimmer within the minds of thousands of railroaded teachers throughout our educational system.

    I have, incidentally, put a piece called "Impressing the Science out of Children" online. It is one of several chapters available in full text from The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.

    Technology As Religion

    Neil Postman writes the following in The End of Education (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966):
    [It is] far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology -- in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this be not a form of religious belief, what is?

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    *** Is Wired a New Age Journal?
    From Stephen L. Talbott

    Never having given Wired magazine more than a passing glance, I decided it was finally time to check it out when an offer for three free issues arrived in the mail. Two of them now sit on my desk, and only after paging all the way through one of them did it strike me that I hadn't read more than a single sentence on any page. After a little reflection, it became obvious to me that the magazine's editors didn't really want me nosing about and reading their sentences. I'm supposed to absorb the subliminal impact of the words osmotically, through my pores, with the assaultive graphics running interference. The text here plays much the same auxiliary role as in an advertisement or music video.

    Well, that was enough to spur some serious, if intermittent, reading. Here are a few random takes on the November, 1996 issue:

    Daring Journalism

    One of the lead articles is by Joshua Quittner, a technology editor for Time. He devotes some 12 pages to a couple of trash Web journalists suffering an extended adolescence. As to the fact that Quittner was paid by Wired to write an article for Wired about two employees of Wired: it's easy -- he just plays it as daring journalism.

    Beyond Luddism In High School

    A brief article describes an Alabama high school's creation of a student-run company that assembles and sells computers to rural communities. $30,000 in 1995 sales is expected to become $300,000 in 1996. But according to one of the student "employees":
    It's not about money. It's about learning, teaching and sharing information.
    Noble ideals. Unfortunately, the reporter allowed this student to utter one more sentence:
    When I leave here I'll have a hand up on everyone else, no matter where they live.
    Vocational tech schools have been around for a long time and are a respected part of the educational system. If Wired is excited about such schools, fine. But it's a safe bet the editors will never carry a story about students assembling fountain pens or refrigerators. The computer's high-tech glamor, however, is evidently enough to give fresh substance to a story.

    Jason Sheftell, the author of the piece, recommends that "Jeremiahs and Luddites" who fear a worsening division between technological haves and have-nots should take note of this school. He seems to have forgotten that the line between haves and have-nots runs through every computer business -- for example, between the manufacturing floor and the engineers upstairs -- and that the essence of all such divisions is precisely his hero-student's desire to get a hand up on everyone else.

    In any case, you can be sure that the VP of manufacturing at the local high-tech firm will rejoice to hear of the school's program. These days the company might even offer to take the school private and run it out of the Training Department.

    Of Hippies, High Tech, and Cougers

    Bruce Sterling did a piece on the Burning Man festival in Nevada. The event appears to be a kind of desert Woodstock, a wired Haight-Ashbury scene (yes, it runs a real-time Web page) soaked in enough self-consciousness to be regarded as performance art. Much of the art consists in building large, wackily low-tech/high-tech structures and then burning them down while crowds dance and parade around. All rather self-indulgent and, as Sterling notes, tremendously expensive. Also seasoned with just enough danger to give the experience an edge. (Sterling cites two deaths and the festival slogan, "survival is a personal choice.")

    The moral of the essay comes down to this:

    I went to Burning Man. I took my kids. It's not scary, it's not pagan, it's not devilish or satanic. There's no public orgies, nobody gets branded or hit with whips. Hell, it's less pagan than the Shriners. It's just big happy crowds of harmless arty people expressing themselves and breaking a few pointless shibboleths that only serve to ulcerate young people anyway. There ought to be Burning Man festivals held downtown once a year in every major city in America.
    It all sounds fun enough to me. But somehow it puts me in mind of a recent conversation my wife and I had with our 21-year-old son, Jonathan. He's now living up against the Cascade Mountains in Washington, where he practices and teaches tracking and the various arts of the naturalist. This particular conversation followed upon our learning that a couger had killed a deer close to Jonathan's cabin (while also putting an undignified fear of God into the resident beagle).

    As parental concern led to some questioning, Jonathan mentioned how the presence of cougers concentrates the minds of his young students wonderfully, contributing to the intensity of their learning. Then he added: "The trouble with young people today is that there aren't enough large predators around."

    Seems to me this might go just as well for wired hippies with money to burn. But, then, I always was rather tight-assed for a child of the Sixties.

    Intelligent Advertising Agents

    There are occasional eruptions of common sense, even if, in the larger context of the magazine, they don't have much room to fly. Jaron Lanier, in a nice little commentary on intelligent agents, worries that "if an agent seems smart, it might really mean that people have dumbed themselves down to make their lives more easily representable by their agents' simple database design." He points out, for example, that "many of us are already leading lives designed to be favorably assessed by the crude databases that calculate our credit ratings."

    One could also ask how many producers of Web content write with one eye on trendy keyword lists and the habits of search engines. Similarly, the increasing use of machine-based language translation will constitute a powerful invitation to reduce every communication domain to a kind of technical "microworld," rather like the microworlds that once brought a (very temporary) optimism to artificial intelligence laboratories.

    The same sort of question arises wherever intelligent machinery is employed. The things we will bother to pick up a telephone for begin to change once we realize the limits of telephone answering systems. And once we have adjusted to these limits, we no longer notice the limiting effects of the technology. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Joseph Weizenbaum observed that what counts as history begins to be affected by the design and use of news bureau databases.

    Lanier goes on to point out how

    Today's advertising agencies will become tomorrow's counteragent agencies. This might involve fancy hacking, but it might also be softer. Counteragencies will gain information about agent innards to attract them, like flowers wooing bees.
    Here, too, there's an issue that extends across a huge spectrum. Wherever a purely technical capability is confused with a human end, we eventually have to wake up to an endlessly escalating, ultimately fruitless and resource-wasting confrontation. In the case of intelligent agents, the problem is that every attempt to automate a more subtle information-gathering process is met by a more powerful set of information-diffusion techniques -- and the one thrust is exactly what makes the counterthrust possible, since it's essentially the same technology in both cases. The only net change over the long run is that our awareness of whatever delicate streams of meaning we may have followed is more and more overwhelmed by the external clash of competing mechanisms endlessly churning the sea of information.

    Much the same thing can be said about the ever-escalating battles between tools of expression and tools of censorship, as also about the arenas where privacy is met by invasion of privacy, and security by violations of security.

    Eventually, we're going to have to realize that the technological battles are increasingly freakish side shows that divert far too much attention from the human encounters where alone the issues can be decided favorably. Worse, the side shows are helping to re-shape society so as to make the encounters less and less possible.

    Wired As a New Age Publication

    Five separate articles tout the merger of computing and biology. We're told in one of them how brain waves are being used to control computing devices, suggesting to this reader that we may be embarked upon a kind of practical reductionism -- a cultivation of the crudest sort of brain-subordinate thinking. (More on this, perhaps, in a later issue of NF.)

    In another article, a promoter of a biocomputing symposium claims that "recent developments like the human genome project have shown that biology must be done computationally." For a little sanity on this issue, see Craig Holdrege's book, Genetics and the Manipulation of Life, reviewed in NF #31.

    The same book is also a useful antidote to the interview with Paul Di Filippo, who is "pushing science fiction into the biological realm, preparing us for the gene-spliced future." Asked about the restrictions on the twiddling of human genes, Di Filippo replied:

    Posit this scenario: scientists announce that sharks possess the secret to preventing cancer -- all it takes is the insertion of certain shark genes into a fetus and your baby will never have cancer. How long do you think even Jerry Falwell is going to stand up against that? As soon as one potential benefit is demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction, it will open the floodgates.
    Despite the daft notion that a few shark genes might prevent cancer, Di Filippo's prediction is profoundly serious -- because the daft notion is shared by society at large. In a technologically entranced culture, it doesn't take much to demonstrate "potential benefits."

    Yet another article describes a "device" (absurdly reported as if it were actually under development) dubbed the Soul Catcher. It will deploy "nanobots to crawl into your cranium, latch onto your sensory nerves, and begin rendering experiential data." This data would then be stored and made available for playback by others, who could then relive your experience. So much for the mind-body problem. Wired quotes a researcher who claims that these nanobots will give us "immortality in the truest sense."

    All this, I think, helps to locate Wired firmly within the squishy precincts of the New Age. Its writers' relish of spiritualistic language is clearly evident. Fred Hapgood explains how "the Web will be at least technically haunted," and Nicholas Negroponte, speaking dismissively of physical locality and embodied existence, begins one observation with "even in the world of atoms...." From Soul Catching to DNA downloading, the technical feasibility of an apparatus of immortality and channeling is held enthusiastically as an article of faith. It is a faith grounded in the larger society's devotion to the doctrine of eternal technological progress.

    Think of it this way: there are both tender-minded and tough-minded salesmen for the New Age. In Wired's tough-minded version, the "beyond" is turned back upon our own bodies, driven into our flesh right down to the nano level. Like every thorough-going materialism, it finds the body melting away before its advance -- tissues to cells to molecules to atoms to subatomic "particles" -- until both body and doctrine are reconceived as pure, computational abstraction. Programs, for example, or DNA coding. And in this edifice of abstract immateriality -- once it has congealed in our atrophied imaginations to a kind of ghostly substance -- the hope for a New Age is lodged.

    The potential for a tough-minded New Age creed has been building for a long time. Science has increasingly presented a world of high abstraction to us, and we have had no trouble in reifying ("thingifying") these abstractions in our minds. For example, we project a world of "particles" and "waves" onto the mathematical formalisms of physics. Physicists -- at least when they stop and think about it -- tell us this is illicit, but that has little effect upon the popular imagination.

    So it is that Negroponte can talk about "the world of atoms" as opposed to the world of bits -- and not realize that his atoms are at least as abstract and removed from the world of sense experience as his bits. Actually, the world of atoms is pretty much the world of bits, and both stand removed from the world of trees, rocks, streams, and people. Clearly, though, he pictures it otherwise -- and can do so only because atoms, in his mind, have become something like "solid" metaphysical entities. This habit of metaphysical projection, so closely allied with the tendencies of science, creates a fertile field for the kind of materialistic other-worldliness that seems endemic to Wired. A habit of mind that illicitly reads normal sense experience into "the world of atoms" can just as easily read the experience of immortality into a pattern of bits and bytes.

    In any case, all this business of immortality and a haunted Net is, for some, exciting stuff. I suppose one test of it occurs on a personal level. Would you be willing to exchange your husband, wife, or closest friend for the downloaded version?

    When Contradiction Becomes Nonsense

    One final observation. Many others must have noted the extreme degree to which Wired is a parody of itself. Its "hard-hitting journalism" is a superficial strand of popular culture reduced to critical mush. Its irreverence toward the establishment is a continuous advertisement for the most deeply entrenched, most crassly commercialized establishment of all. Its leading-edge style is cliche.

    A touch of self-parody can be humanizing. Total self-parody is merely nonsense.

    To experience self-contradiction and engage in a lifelong struggle to transcend it ennobles us. Simply to wallow in self-contradiction is to abandon the human enterprise.

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 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.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #34 :: November 25, 1996

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