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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #81      A Publication of The Nature Institute     December 10, 1998
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Here's to the Information Age: A Toast
       The Human Genome as a Book of Lies
       Digital Diploma Mills Grinding to a Halt?
       Breaking through to Reality
    Letter from Des Moines (Lowell Monke)
       Computer-Centered Learning
       On Giving a Christmas Gift to My Niece (Wendell Piez)
    Words Past and Present
    About this newsletter
                        ** From the NETFUTURE Archives **
                   "Anything can break.  Only a system can have
             a bug."  "Instead of the malice of the isolated object,
                 we face ever more complicated possible linkages
                   among systems of objects."  (Edward Tenner)
                             (For an updated context,
                        see "Words Past and Present" below.)
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Here's to the Information Age: A Toast
    Last June I began an address to over five hundred librarians in Washing-
    ton, D.C., by saying, "I defy anyone here to tell me what information is."
    Seeing no takers, I asked how many in the audience, given several minutes
    to think, imagined they could write down a serviceable definition of
    "information".  Not a single hand went up.
    Subsequently I put the same question to over three hundred librarians in
    Calgary, Alberta, and again no one raised a hand.  Surely this should pro-
    voke some reflection in us (as I think it did in many of those remarkably
    good-humored and sensible librarians).  How can we so universally hail the
    profound significance of living in an Information Age when we don't have
    the foggiest notion what information is?
    An official respondent to one of my talks did later fire back,
       What's the problem?  We all know what information is.  It's the stuff
       our users need.
    Unfortunately, this doesn't quite do it.  Coal miners, MacDonalds employ-
    ees, and dentists are also in the business of providing what their custo-
    mers need.  Does this make them information workers?
    Actually, though, I think the respondent came as close as one can come to
    the substance of the prevailing usage:  information is "stuff".  Which
    makes him, I suppose, a stuff worker, and our age the Age of Stuff.
    The nice thing about Stuff is that, while conveniently and all-embracingly
    vague, it also carries a prestigious halo borrowed from the technical
    theory of information.  (See "Does Information Exist?" in NF #58.)
    According to this theory, mind you, "information" is precisely defined,
    but effectively means nothing; the meaning or sense of a text is
    explicitly excluded from the theory's purely statistical formulations.  So
    it appears we have founded the modern age upon "anything and everything"
    and "nothing at all" -- stuff and nonsense, you might say.
    Raise your empty glasses with me.  Here's to the Age of Stuff and Non-
    sense!  May its nothingness last for-never!
    The Human Genome as a Book of Lies
    I've pointed on various occasions to the informational absurdities
    associated with genetic engineering.  If you want a fuller picture, look
    at the Summer, 1998 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (vol.
    41, no. 4, pp. 504-28).  Science historian Lily E. Kay, in a piece called
    "A Book of Life? How the Genome Became an Information System and DNA a
    Language", traces the bizarre process by which the "scriptural"
    terminology of information systems has taken root in genetic studies.
    Citing the "faith ... that we can now simply word-process the genomic Book
    of Life", Lily goes on to note the "contradictions, misapplications, slip-
    pages, circularities, and aporias" in the appeals to information, message,
    code, and language -- "problems acknowledged already in the 1950s".  By
    1968, she says,
       the genome had become (erroneously, from a technical standpoint) an
       information system, an authorless book of life written in a speechless
       DNA language.
    This misleading and completely obscure usage has gone a long way toward
    convincing the public that genetic engineers actually know what they're
    doing when they juggle and splice snippets of genetic "code".  After all,
    the "code" is being "deciphered", yielding its precise content of "infor-
    mation" -- isn't it?  And aren't we already experts at information pro-
    cessing -- moving bits of information around in a sensible fashion?
    As any honest genetic engineer will tell you, the problem of understanding
    gene expression -- how any given genetic alteration will actually affect
    an organism -- is one we scarcely have a clue about today.  The work
    proceeds, but it's largely trial and error.  All the information talk only
    obscures this fact, in addition to being the purest gibberish in its own
    A penchant for gibberish is not exactly what one hopes for in those who
    propose to rewrite our genetic destinies.
    Digital Diploma Mills Grinding to a Halt?
    York University professor David Noble has recently circulated the third
    paper in his Digital Diploma Mills series.  In the earlier papers he
    lamented the impending takeover of the academy by an unholy alliance of
    administrators, technology consultants, content distributors, and commer-
    cial vendors.  But now he sounds downright euphoric in his confidence that
    the resistance has won.  I won't make any attempt to summarize his paper,
    but he cites such developments as these:
    ** "Expecting an initial enrollment of 5000, the WGU [Western Governors'
    Virtual University] enrolled only 10 people, and received just 75
    ** Onlinelearning.net, "the UCLA partner that describes itself as `one of
    the leading global supplers of online continuing education' .... lost two
    million dollars in its first year of business and was unable to pay UCLA
    the anticipated royalties."
    ** Even the apparent successes are misleading:  "At the Universities of
    Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, the great majority of allegedly `dis-
    tance learning' customers `are in the dorms' while most online programs,
    such as those at Berkeley and Vanderbilt, have retention rates of well
    less than 50%."
    I'm certainly glad to learn that we may see a pause in the commercial and
    technological assault upon higher education.  But I find Noble's almost
    manic reversal of expectation a bit odd.  While urging continued vigi-
    lance, he rejoices that "the tide appears to have turned", so that now the
    words of technology's promoters sound "strangely hollow without the weight
    of history behind them."
    But, short-term nonsense aside, the weight of history is substantially
    behind the promoters.  The technological forces that have been re-shaping
    society will not be deflected by the struggles between this pressure group
    and that, or by the repeated failure of silly predictions about "imminent"
    revolutions.  What counts, in the end, are changes in the way you and I
    live and think.  Without such changes, the "billion-pounded beast" (see
    "Breaking through to Reality" below) lumbers forward unstoppably, only
    pausing here and there to discover where it might lay down the most
    indelible footprints.
    Furthermore, the essential technologization of education proceeds quite
    well with nary a computer in sight.  As I pointed out in "Who's Killing
    Higher Education?" (NF #78), a key issue is the reconceptualization of
    education as the transfer of information from one place to another, and
    this sort of education can occur just as well within a face-to-face class-
    room as over a distance-education network.  The deepest technological
    challenge always comes finally from the fact that, if we are willing, you
    and I can function as the most adaptable machines ever invented.  We are
    the beast.
    I would, in a friendly spirit, advise Noble to tone down the triumphal
    rhetoric and keep his focus on the long-term, underlying issues that are
    indeed of historic proportions.  The "weight of history", after all, has
    produced the technologization of modern society -- and of our minds with
    it -- and is not suddenly going to be reversed by the wilting of this
    month's or this year's Net folly.
    Incidentally, the best line in the paper, I thought, was this:
       Socrates ... was not a content provider.
    It would make a good motto for NETFUTURE.
    (You'll find a copy of Noble's paper at the Red Rock Eater archive,
    Breaking through to Reality
    Writing in Atlantic Unbound (Nov. 4, 1998), Sven Birkerts looks at our
    society's growing unease about "the vanishing line between the real and
    everything else".  We fear, he says, "that the ancient contours of things
    may be disappearing."
    In particular, four recent movies draw Birkerts' attentions:  Pleasant-
    ville, The Truman Show, Wag the dog, and The Game.  Each plays with the
    uncertain boundaries between virtual and real.  And, together, they show
    something about our longings as well as our fears.  In The Truman Show,
    for example, "Truman finally hurls himself at the illusory backdrop of the
    sky that marks the limit of his world -- he breaks through."
       The message [Birkerts concludes] is I want out!  It's as if at the far
       side -- after the full immersion in virtual waters -- it might be pos-
       sible to return with renewed love and trust to the merely real.  But
       this is a pipe dream, of course, for the steady diluting and displacing
       and supplanting of the merely real continues on all sides.  There is no
       wall to crash back through, no picture tube to emerge from, no uncon-
       taminated order of things awaiting us.  There is no back there.  The
       desire for a return may be real, but even to point ourselves in that
       direction we would have to start unmaking the billion-pounded beast
       circuit by circuit.  The lesson of Pleasantville -- as if we didn't
       know it -- is that there is no going back.  There's a countering mes-
       sage, too, about the need to snap out of the media trance -- but taking
       that message in while watching may be just a little bit too postmodern.
    It's true that there's no going back.  But there is going forward.  Unlike
    Birkerts, I do not regret the distinction between virtual and real.  It is
    only temporary, and does serve at least this purpose:  it encourages us to
    become more aware of our own creative (and destructive) potentials.
    What makes us give the distinction too absolute a cast today is our ines-
    capable sense -- a historically unique and recent sense -- that our own
    creations are at bottom arbitrary.  They are subjectively conditioned, and
    we do not know any solid bridge from our own subjectivity to the world's
    objectivity, apart from our strange ability as subjects to tinker with and
    disfigure the world's exterior.
    So our own works, insofar as they are embodied and ensouled -- insofar as
    they are perceptible exteriors breathed through by our own interior mean-
    ings and intentions -- we dismiss as "virtual".  They are subjectively
    engendered, and therefore seem disconnected from the primal, generative
    powers that have fashioned the mountains and forests and rivers of the
    objective world.
    What we have lost in this recent historical shift (which began to set in
    some four hundred years ago) is the sense that our own consciousness is
    continuous -- or potentially continuous -- with the intelligence that
    underlies the world.  We are now forced to ask, for example, whether
    scientific laws are "in the world" or "in our heads", since we can no
    longer tolerate the only possible answer:  "They are in both -- because
    our own interior is also the interior of the world."
    The implications of the older view are, of course, shocking to modern sen-
    sibilities.  I know better than to argue with these sensibilities, which
    have the force of taboo.  However, it is always healthy to see how one's
    own position might appear to those holding completely different assump-
    tions -- especially when the foreign assumptions are almost impossible for
    us to comprehend.  Therefore, as an exercise, I offer here my own
    extremely brief surmises about how we would have to construe the
    "virtual-real" conundrum if we operated with the earlier assumptions:
    ** Because we participate in the world's interior being, we also contri-
    bute to the world's evolution -- from the inside, so to speak, and not
    merely by tinkering with its exterior mechanisms.  That is, our love for
    the world, our devotion to it, our undersanding of its past and future
    possibilities, our moral and artistic seriousness -- these inner traits
    are part of what impels the world upon its evolutionary course.
    ** We can bring the same seriousness to our artifacts.  We can, as J. R.
    R. Tolkien put it, create "by the law in which we're made".  In doing so,
    we connect with what is not merely subjective.  We learn to recog-
    nize the intrinsic potentials of the materials we work with and of the
    contexts we work in.  Our creations are no longer arbitrary, but represent
    the continued working -- modulated through our own freedom and selfhood --
    of the same interior that informs the world at large.
    ** There's a self-fulfilling quality to the experience of one's own sub-
    jectivity as a final prison.  One ceases the effort to grasp and give
    one's own expression to "the law in which we're made", yielding instead to
    a spirit of arbitrariness.  The resulting chaotic, ugly, and arbitrary
    character of so much virtual reality hardly needs pointing out.  While the
    ugliness may seem overwhelming today, there is a long history of art and
    craft in which the world is revealed rather than obscured.
    ** We will move inexorably in one of two directions.  If the subjectivist
    illusion triumphs, it will remain no less true that our interior is in
    fact the interior of the world.  And so the hollow arbitrariness of our
    virtual creations and our meaningless tinkering with the world's mechan-
    isms will eventually infect the world down to its roots, and we will find
    ourselves inhabiting a meaningless, hollow, mechanistic world.
    On the other hand, by letting our hearts beat in sympathetic rhythm with
    the world's timeless pulse, we may accept in a humble and wise spirit our
    growing responsibilities as participants in the foundation of the world to
    ** Either way, virtual reality -- such as we make it -- will eventually become
    neither more nor less than simple reality.  Birkerts' "vanishing line
    between the real and everything else", we can now recognize, was already
    beginning to vanish long ago.  But only now can we fully recognize the
    fact -- a symptom of the need to take conscious responsibility for our role
    on both sides of the disappearing line.  The prospect is either hellish or
    beautiful, depending on our ability to escape the subjectivist trance and
    to reconnect with what, in us, also acts within the world.
    (These reflections follow upon my participation in the "Owen Barfield Cen-
    tennial Celebration" at Columbia and Drew Universities this past weekend.
    You can take them as a gloss upon the remark made at that conference by
    historian John Lukacs:  "The evolution of consciousness -- to Owen Bar-
    field as to myself -- is the only evolution there is."  The conventional
    evolutionary view, of course, is that consciousness is a kind of magical
    side-effect of suitably organized matter.  The less fantastic alternative
    is that consciousness -- which appears, after all, within nature as
    its highest manifestation and as the prerequisite for the very existence
    of the phenomenal world described in so many science textbooks -- is ante-
    rior and fundamental.)
    (Thanks to Michael Corriveau for passing along the Birkerts column.)
    Goto table of contents
                            COMPUTER-CENTERED LEARNING
                                   Lowell Monke
                                                        Letter from Des Moines
                                                             December 10, 1998
    The image of students breaking out of the four walls of the classroom and
    exploring the world through the computer is a compelling one.  And part of
    the attraction of that image is the sense of student control over the
    learning process.  The Internet is often cited as offering an environment
    in which the child can assert his or her own initiative and produce unique
    results through mastery over a complex machine and the resources connected
    to it.  As is so often asserted, it alters the role of the teacher from
    "sage on the stage to guide on the side."  The emphasis here is on getting
    the teacher out of the way so the child can take charge of the learning
    Unfortunately, this is mostly an illusion (and a maddening perversion of
    Carl Rogers' (1969) conception of the teacher as facilitator).  There are
    a number of ways in which the student actually loses control when working
    on the 'Net.  I will only mention in passing the effects of the computer
    itself.  Physically, the computer restricts movement and limits the uses
    of the senses to sight and, occasionally, sound.  For small children espe-
    cially, who naturally rely on all of their senses, especially touching
    things, to learn, this hardly constitutes student-centered learning.
    Whether on the Internet or not, a good share of the control over the
    student's thinking process passes from teacher not to student but to the
    programmer, the invisible pedagogue whose first priority is not the indi-
    vidual needs of a child but satisfying the restrictive parameters of the
    computer (Bowers 1988).  These restrictions are based on the logical,
    either/or construction of the computing process.  It is, by necessity, a
    tightly constricted intellectual environment.
    Operating the computer or any program is, at one level, always a
    multiple-choice activity.  I have visited dozens of elementary classrooms
    where I have observed students clicking away at screens on which they are
    repeatedly offered four or five choices, all leading down predetermined
    paths established by some programmer who knows nothing of the individual
    child making the selections.  All the while, a teacher will be pointing
    out to me how "interactive" the programs are and the value of students
    being in charge of their learning.
    A Narrowing of Options
    What these teachers miss is that they haven't liberated their students.
    They have merely turned them over to that unknown computer programmer who
    has already decided all the possible successful actions the students may
    take.  This kind of learning demands shopping-mall thinking, not
    exploring-the-wilderness thinking.  But it is precisely this this-or-that
    environment that offers a reprieve from the complexities of a world that
    doesn't respond predictably, that offers hints of meaning often too subtle
    for a child to recognize, that demands attention to the ideas, interests
    and needs of other human beings -- in short, a world that tends to frus-
    trate and stretch the student's mind and emotions rather than cater to
    The computer doesn't challenge the student with ambiguous meanings and
    inconsistent responses.  (If it does, it means something is broken and
    needs to be fixed, which more and more mirrors the way many of my students
    view ambiguity and inconsistency in real life.)  It offers a strictly
    deterministic environment of cause and effect.  To enter its world is to
    escape into rigid operational assurance.  In a world of spiraling uncer-
    tainty the computer offers the student a measure of mechanistic control,
    but only if the student first surrenders to its narrow cognitive demands.
    The Internet, anarchic though it be, does nothing to loosen this mental
    straight jacket.  It relies heavily on search engines which simply match
    sequences of meaningless (to the computer system) symbols.  They pass no
    judgment on the veracity, quality or even availability of the sites
    returned.  Postman (1993) reminds us that there was a time when a document
    had to pass the judgment of history, scholars, community standards and the
    teacher before reaching the individual student.  The Internet circumvents
    all of these filters (in the process subverting all of the filtering
    institutions involved) and passes all information directly to the student
    with nothing attached to distinguish the brilliant from the trash.  This
    absolute freedom of information flow has an unintended consequence in the
    realm of education.  The student, and teacher for that matter, are aban-
    doned, left to drift in a sea of information with few or no clues as to
    what will prove to be nourishing and what will be pablum or poison.
    A couple of years ago, one of my top students tried to use the Internet to
    gather information on abortion, but eventually abandoned the effort,
    overwhelmed by the process of sifting through thousands of mostly worth-
    less links and documents.  More importantly, she was unable to determine
    where much of the authoritative-looking information came from, or who was
    really sponsoring the "research" cited.  She finally just shook her head
    and asked me for a pass to the library, where editors, publishers, school
    book selection committees and the librarian offered her the expert assis-
    tance that neither a search engine nor her teacher could provide.
    Her experience, and many others since, have helped me to realize that
    placing on the student the burden of evaluating the worth of every piece
    of information that arrives on the desktop of his or her computer is not
    student control of education; it is education out of control.
    From Learner to Consumer
    I spend a good deal of my time trying to help my students develop the good
    "crap detectors" (to use Postman's polite terminology (1969)) needed to
    cope with the flood of information that flashes on their screens.  But
    these students are 17 and 18 years old; they are presumably able to nur-
    ture a healthy skepticism.  I am not happy about having to teach those
    same skills to my seven-year-old son.  Skepticism is a mature state of
    mind.  To instill a distrustfulness too early produces not skepticism but
    cynicism.  If cynicism is the price he must pay to maintain a measure of
    control over the influences that are flung at him through the Internet,
    then maybe he is better off not "taking charge" of his own learning.
    In this respect the most troubling trend associated with the Internet is
    the blurring of the line between commercial and educational interests.
    The controversy that began with Whittle's Channel One advertising is based
    on the recognition that advertising is less concerned with truth than with
    manipulation.  It is a form of propaganda that has been sanctified as the
    means of fueling a capitalist economy.
    But if education is at all concerned with the search for truth, then pro-
    paganda of any sort does not belong in the schools except as a subject of
    study.  (In our society it should be a required course.)  Yet providers
    and popular 'Net tools are slapping ads on every window presented to the
    user.  Many sites to which the search engines send my students for infor-
    mation are veiled advertising pages.  It is getting more and more diffi-
    cult for them (and me) to determine what is information provided for the
    sake of promoting knowledge and information provided for the sake of pro-
    moting a product, a service or a person.
    As educational and commercial purposes converge, the message that under-
    lies it all is that information is a commodity which can be controlled,
    bought and sold, and that education is the accumulation and consumption of
    this commodity (Solnit 1995).  In the end, control over the student's edu-
    cation is taken over by the marketplace, and what the student learns from
    the Internet at the deepest level is the ideology of consumerism.
    Bowers, C.A. The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing: Under-
    standing the Non-neutrality of Technology. Teachers College Press, New
    York 1988.
    Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
    Dell, New York 1969.
    Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage
    Books, New York 1993.
    Rogers, Carl. Freedom to Learn. Merrill, NY 1969.
    Solnit, Rebecca. "The Garden of Merging Path" in Resisting the Virtual
    Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. Boal, I. & Brooks, J. eds.
    City Lights, San Francisco 1995.
    Goto table of contents
    On Giving a Christmas Gift to My Niece
    From:  Wendell Piez (wapiez@mulberrytech.com)
    This morning I got e-mail supposedly from the founder and CEO of a well-
    known Internet retailer.  They have been diversifying operations to
    include toys, puzzles and games along with books and videos, just in time
    for the retail rush of holiday season in the USA.  And they've got a new
    feature (the CEO writes):
       Gift-Click ... is the easiest way I know of to send a gift.  Just type
       in the recipient's e-mail address, and we'll take care of the rest --
       we'll even find the physical address.  Within seconds, you can select,
       wrap, and send your gift to anyone, anywhere.
    Now as it happens, this year I'm faced with the challenge of finding
    presents for two young nieces (ages 4 and 1).  As they live across the
    country, this message is clearly pitched to me.  Thinking of Abby, the
    four-year-old, I could surf to Amazon and find her a gift "guaranteed to
    please," a present that, according to statistical predictions based on
    profiles I would supply ("yes, she likes Barney; no, Power Rangers leave
    her cold") would be a sure thing to get her attention (for a while) and
    reassure her of her value, at least in comparison to her peers.
    On the other hand, I could take the risk of relying on my own imagination
    and knowledge of her to find, or make, a gift:  a handmade card or book, a
    story recorded on tape in my own unprofessional voice, or a doll, puzzle
    or folk-toy from a local crafts artist.  I would have to wrap it in wrap-
    pings of my own design, and send it along.  Abby would get it on Christmas
    morning and open it up -- and might find it a disappointment, at least
    next to So-and-so's plush toy that "interacts" with the television.
    Would there be an up side to this risk?  Well, this is all I can think.
    The machine-selected gizmo is a sure thing:  but it satisfies only so far
    as my niece is interchangeable with other little girls of her kind.  Think
    of the Alphas and Betas of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and you get
    the picture.  In that world, Shakespeare's works are illegal because they
    have a disconcerting way of giving people pleasures peculiar to
    themselves, cultivating individual sensibilities in each reader.  And
    that's intolerable, at least in a well-ordered world where sufferings are
    all to be eased away by the dependabilities of automation.  If Abby is an
    Alpha, surely she will be happiest if I give her the same present (or
    something defined within the same parameters) as all the other little-girl
    But if she's not interchangeable, if she's Abby, then the present I pick,
    the colors and ribbons of the bizarre wrappings I wrap, the words on the
    card, the relationship I build with her through such peculiar exchanges --
    only she is Abigail, only I am I myself -- might have some consequence of
    their own.  (Notice it's not any of these things alone that creates a com-
    plex exchange; it's all, in irreducible sum.)  Pick the interchangeable
    gift with the factory wrapping and I make her more like the statistical
    norm.  Choose the peculiar, and her peculiar pleasures in return will make
    her more -- herself?  Only her choices will make her herself, I guess:  in
    this case, how she would choose to respond to her uncle's crotchety-
    crankiness, earnest Puritanism and twisted good humor.  But certainly, I
    will make her more my niece, not merely the niece of some Alpha with a
    credit card and an Amazon account.
    Best wishes! --Wendell
    Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
    Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
    17 West Jefferson Street, Suite 207                Phone: 301/315-9631
    Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
    Goto table of contents
                             WORDS PAST AND PRESENT
    (See "From the NETFUTURE Archives Above".)
    The quotations are from Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology
    and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (pp. 15 and 272), as reviewed
    in NF #37.  What I did not add in that review was that, just as the malice
    of the individual object is (apparently) muted by the system, so too is
    the malice of the individual person.  That is, we can participate in a
    malicious system without there being obvious evidence of malicious intent
    on our part.
    But, of course, there's another way to view the matter.  A morality that
    is not forever growing and intimately linked to wisdom -- that is not
    nourished by ever deeper imaginative insight -- is a morality that must
    shrink and harden into ... well, a malicious system.  But by strengthening
    the link between morality and imagination, we can learn to be attentive to
    the ways our "innocuous" participation in the systems around us either
    feeds what is destructive in them or else brings humane life to them.
    The possibilities for this strengthened awareness were the subject of a
    separate essay, "At the Fringe of Freedom", which you'll find at http://netfuture.org/fwd/1998/2.html#1.
    Goto table of contents
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