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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #74       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications          July 9, 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
          Garbling the Seeds of the Future
          The Teacher Is Central, but `Teaching' Is Not
          What Is Balance?
          Are We All Petty Bureaucrats?
          Complex, Emergent, Self-organizing Nonsense
    *** Correspondence
          When Search Engines Are No Longer Independent (Kevin Jones)
    *** Announcements and Resources
          Making Education Whole
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    It's funny that I should find your NETFUTURE newsletter now, when I'm hitting my head against the overwhelming emptiness of my career connecting people with computers. I find here eloquent expression of what have been formless and nagging doubts .... So what is a person to do when all her skills are tied to computers? Start over at McDonalds?

    (For the identity of the speaker,
    see "Who Said That?" below.)

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Garbling the Seeds of the Future

    Anyone who thinks new technologies are "only tools", which we can selectively use in whatever way we want, should look at the continuing transformation of agriculture. A few relevant developments:

    ** The United States has been quarreling with Europe regarding the export of genetically altered seed and food products to European markets. European agencies have insisted on labels so that concerned citizens can choose, while U.S. officials bluntly state their own concern: "Strict adherence to labeling requirements would do damage to our trade" (Timothy Galvin, Department of Agriculture). The sooner the transgenic products get inextricably mixed up with conventional products in the enormously complex food industry, the happier these officials will be.

    ** They needn't wait for long. "Our genes are incorporated into approximately nineteen million acres around the world -- covering an area larger than Switzerland and the Netherlands combined", according to Tom McDermott of Monsanto. And that's just one company. Further, no laws and regulations can prevent insects from carrying pollen from one plant to another; the problem of determining what is transgenic and what isn't may eventually become insoluble.

    So when the seed companies complain of vagueness in the labeling requirements, they have a point. There's also the question of second and third-order effects. Should milk, for example, be labeled if the cows producing it have consumed some amount of transgenic food?

    ** Many people worry that gene-spliced corn designed to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural insecticide) will give rise to Bt-resistant bugs. The remarkably facile response of the seed companies: No problem; we recommend that farmers interplant normal, unaltered crops along with transgenic ones. (Sure, and your salesmen are out there urging farmers to limit the size of their orders for transgenic seed, right?)

    ** New technology announced in March allows seed companies to prevent seed-saving and replanting by farmers. Due to genetic twiddling, the seed self-destructs in the second generation. Whereas formerly the seed companies could readily control only the production of hybrid seed, the new technology opens the way for effective control of any seed whatever.

    As farmers become ever more dependent upon the seed companies, the implications for biodiversity are hardly rosy. This is one illustration of the many, systematic ways our new "knowledge economy" makes for a drastic contraction of knowledge. (More on that another time.) Skillful seed selection by farmers based on intimate familiarity with the local environment, soil, and pests may well become a lost art. Meanwhile, until the new technology takes hold, any farmers with rebellious intent will face the Pinkerton investigators that Monsanto has hired to track down seed-saving farmers.

    ** A number of African nations are having second thoughts about the Green Revolution (which came to their continent much later than elsewhere). As the Economist reports,

    For a few years, Ghana's maize yields did indeed increase with imported hybrids, but they required more and more fertilizer. When farming subsidies were cut under IMF-inspired economic reform, Ghana's small farmers faced a triple problem. They could not afford the soaring cost of chemicals; the land had become saline (they came to call fertilizer "the devil's salt"); and they had largely abandoned their own seeds. (May 16, 1998, p. 50)
    It's a familiar pattern: subsidize a new technology to get people hooked, burn all bridges to the more sustainable practices of the past, and then (you can be sure this is the next step) start in again by developing a new round of commercially profitable, technological "fixes". (Genetically altered, salt-tolerant crops?)

    (News taken from press releases of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, http://www.rafi.ca/, and from the Economist, May 16 and Feb. 2, 1998. Thanks to Neil Ruggles for passing along a report on seed-saving.)

    The Teacher Is Central, but `Teaching' Is Not

    The life of the young child, all the way down to the organic level, is essentially a life of play.
    The healthy child wants to play from morning to night. The sense of play bubbles up from deep within and helps keep the life forces, so necessary for the tremendous growth taking place, flowing. If a child loses interest in play, it is usually a sign of illness. Keeping children from play is like putting them into a state of illness.
    So writes Joan Almon, a widely experienced teacher and consultant, in an article entitled "Minds at Play". (See below for the source.) She has no patience with those educators who feel pressured to attack the child with academics at the earliest possible age. "They do not realize that conscious learning in the pre-school years interferes with the dream-like state of consciousness needed in play." Today, she says, many educators are realizing that
    concentrated early academics tended to produce youngsters who by the age of nine or ten were burnt out and showed no interest in schooling. As high school students they were unable to think. They could answer true/false questions, but could not formulate answers to open-ended questions.
    Unfortunately, a simplistic notion has restricted our options -- namely, the notion that we must choose between leaving the children to their own devices (which quickly leads to chaos) or else imposing a structured, academic schedule upon them. Yes, the teacher is utterly decisive for the children, but this does not mean he must "teach". The key here is to understand the key role of imitation and fantasy in the healthy child.
    In reality, we don't need to teach children anything; we need only to be loving, active parents and let the imitation of example take over .... The young child really is like a sponge that absorbs nearly everything. Of greatest interest are grown-ups. A child wants to be parented so as to grow up and become fully human. Children look to parents, teachers and other adults to see how to go about living on this earth and how to make it their own. Children want to imitate everything they see grown-ups doing. The power of imitation of example goes very deep. A child can slip inside our skins and imitate our moods and our thoughts about life. Parenting, in large part, is trying to be worthy of the child's imitation of our example. Fortunately, children do not expect us to be perfect; they do long, though, for us to be inwardly growing so that they can imitate this striving.
    In a worthy kindergarten, "the teacher is always ready for the children to help, and usually there is a table full of children gathered around, sewing or cooking along." More subtly, the children begin to recreate these activities in their own play. And "when children absorb the mood of concentration and the adult's love of the work being done, a yet more subtle, but perhaps more important, imitation of example takes place".

    These powers of imitation, she claims, metamorphose later in life into the ability to form independent judgments -- a transformation that does not seem so strange when you consider the self-confidence and the creative practice that are gained when, through imitation, the child succeeds in making an activity his own.

    Almon goes on to make a stunning observation -- stunning, not because it is unexpected, but because in its very obviousness it brings lightning-bolt clarity to so many issues muddied in today's educational environment:

    The most advanced play I have seen in a kindergarten involved a gifted teacher who carried out her work projects not for a day or two, but for weeks and months. She would work on a sewing project that would take a month or more to complete. Or she would carve wooden toys for the kindergarten, being busy carving several days a week for entire months. As she worked, she was always attuned to the children and their needs. Day after day there was a steady, quiet hum for the ninety minutes the teacher worked and the children played. And the quality of the children's play was astonishing.

    In today's homes and kindergartens children see very little concentrated work going on. Adults dash from one task to another and a sense of hurry permeates life. When children imitate the example of hurrying adults, a nervousness enters them and their play suffers considerably. Uncorrected, this nervousness may appear later as a superficial quality in the young person's thinking.

    So what advice does Almon offer to parents today?
    You can give a young child a head start in life by enhancing all those aspects of life which further creative play and avoiding those that interfere with it. For example, offer lots of warmth and a protective environment, a variety of simple play materials and the opportunity to see adults doing meaningful physical work. Keep exposure to the media, for example, television, movies, videos and video games, to a minimum, so your child's fantasy is not overwhelmed by someone else's images, and so that the child's will is not deadened by hours of passive watching. Finally, bite your tongue every time you want to explain something to a young child. Allow them the joy of discovering their own answers -- through play.
    (Joan Almon is chairperson of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, 1359 Alderton Lane, Silver Spring, Maryland 20906. Tel. 301-460-6287. You will find the full text of her article at http://www.whole.org/. For more information about this web site, see "Announcements and Resources" below.)

    What Is Balance?

    Complain about computers replacing teachers in our schools, and you will almost certainly receive the answer, "We don't want to replace the teacher. We want the computer and the teacher. It's a matter of balance."

    Yes. But if students were already spending three or four hours a day staring into a video screen, you'd hardly be able to claim that adding a few more hours doing the same thing was a matter of balance. And, of course, students do already spend three or four hours a day staring into a video screen -- at home or elsewhere.

    So what we have, in effect, is this: educators, forced to paddle along in a boat already badly listing to one side, now must cope with "wire 'em up" maniacs who are frantically dumping computers into the low side of the boat while chanting, "just keep things in balance".

    Are We All Petty Bureaucrats?

    I've been devoting much of my "spare time" during these past several weeks to bringing up Linux side by side with Windows 95 on my new PC. It's a struggle. Between the Linux installation itself (my first time), hardware incompatibilities, network configuration (TCP/IP, PPP, UUCP, dial-in, dial-out, kermit, and so on), X Window configuration (with an unfamiliar window manager), disk re-partitioning, and a seemingly endless queue of inter-linked challenges -- well, for someone who's managed cleanly to avoid PCs and Microsoft until now, and whose UNIX system administration skills are more rusty than they ought to be, it's been an unsettling time. My sleep has often been disturbed -- especially when I make the mistake of wrestling with a computer problem late into the evening.

    Of course, there are also great satisfactions when some of the pieces finally come together. It was at just such a moment that I got to thinking about what I was doing and how I was feeling. I realized that my struggles and victories are those of the stereotypical petty bureaucrat: I spend my days getting long rows of in-boxes properly hooked up to the corresponding out-boxes; making sure every action is part of a correct, overall procedure; defining, codifying, logging, and verifying; reducing everything to precise predictability; and then taking great pleasure when all the parts move, lockstep, exactly according to plan.

    I don't mean to denigrate this pleasure. It plays a legitimate part in the human psyche. We need a principle of order to be at work in all that we do. The problems arise only when that principle becomes one-sided, no longer balanced by imaginative freshness, inner flexibility, and a habit of revisioning our activities. The computer, whose own functioning must always be "strictly according to specifications", is, I would argue, a powerful influence toward imbalance. The rigidities we encounter globally -- for example, in the Year 2000 Problem -- are, in other forms, a dominant feature of our daily, bureaucratic interaction with our own computers. By now we routinely accept them. We build our relationships to the world upon these bureaucratically correct procedures, scarcely aware of the constraints.

    But the level of functioning described above is not the only one. Step down a level, for example, and you will find yourself laboring in an even more obviously mechanical fashion, keystroke by determinate keystroke, click by determinate click. It's a world of fixed mappings from action to result. Putting it in different words: the voice with which we speak the modern world into being is increasingly a synthesized voice. The immediate physical and gestural elements from which we construct our online selves are as resistant to the ancient qualitative and expressive power of the word as the bureaucrat's blank face.

    Does it make a difference that you and I must interact with each other by building upon a foundation of mechanical keystrokes and bureaucratic procedures? The easiest way to answer that is to imagine carrying on your relationship with your spouse or best friend exclusively by choreographing a set of fixed, predefined gestures. Yes, it can be done; in the choreographing, at least, there is a degree of freedom. But the more rigidly the materials with which we must work have been predefined, the more powerfully creative we must become in imposing our own meanings upon them.

    You may be thinking: "The typewriter, too, required us to communicate with mechanical keystrokes; did that warp our personalities?" The point is an important one, and you might have added mention of our communication through the printing press, and even the development of the alphabet and writing. Each of these involved a step in the mechanization of human expression and in the detachment of the word from the living, present speaker.

    One consequence of this was that the writer (and I suspect even more the typist) was freed to project various styles or personas of his own invention. Of course, one could also learn to do this in face-to-face presentation, but when we write there is less work in "putting on the act" -- we don't need to live the new style with quite the same intensity. Our entire physical organism does not become a vibrating, resonant instrument of our expression, as it does when we speak and gesture.

    It is notorious, of course, that the computer carries the opportunity for creation of artificial selves much further. And my point is not to decry this freedom but rather to point out that it must be exercised. The problem arises when, instead of grasping our freedom and becoming deeply, fully, with profound moral commitment, who we are, we allow the freedom to become mere arbitrariness and artificiality. Behind the various poses, there remains a blank. Then the machinery conducing to our freedom substitutes for our missing selves and enslaves us.

    What the bureaucrat too readily forgets -- that the regulations were made for man and not man for the regulations -- is even harder to keep in mind when the bureaucratic machine he oversees is a machine pure and simple. It's no accident of terminology that our computers execute "programs" compounded of correct "procedures" -- or that they are uncompromising in their rejection of syntax errors. They challenge us, in effect: either you embrace the yet untapped power in your selves to transcend our syntax, or else you will become a pawn of the syntax.

    Unfortunately, we already have a history of passive submission to the narcosis of television, and throughout our society we continue to honor and employ the black arts of unconscious manipulation, otherwise known as marketing. It is not clear where we will find the resources to assert ourselves against the forces from beneath that are training us to become bureaucrats and sleepwalkers.

    As for me, I stayed up late last night helping my wife figure out how to create a complex table in Microsoft Word, which I was using for the first time. Then, sleeping only fitfully, I dreamed of merging and splitting endless rows and columns without, however, getting any closer to my goal, which had somehow disappeared from sight. I hope these are not the dreams our future is made of.

    Complex, Emergent, Self-organizing Nonsense

    In NF #70 ("Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away?") I mentioned a boy who, when taken to the aquarium, looked at all the fish and asked, "Is this virtual reality or real reality?" I didn't realize at the time that a new aquarium was then preparing for its June 13 opening -- an aquarium full of nothing but virtual fish, thanks to sophisticated, 3D-graphics software. The Boston facility calls itself the Virtual FishTank.

    Of course, there's an "educational" justification for this expensive whimsy: the electronic schools of fish supposedly show how complex patterns of behavior can result from simple rules. For example, by following just a handful of instructions ("try to keep a minimum distance between yourself and other objects"), the virtual fish seem to move much like a school of real fish, keeping together and flowing smoothly around obstacles.

    Those who write the enabling programs for this sort of thing inevitably speak of complexity, self-organizing systems, and emergent or unprogrammed behavior. Around these (mostly incoherent) notions they project a kind of mystical aura, as if they had stumbled upon altogether new and transcendent principles of scientific explanation.

    You find this sort of rhetoric, for example, in the discipline of "artificial life", which began with simple programs that created changing patterns of light and dark rectangles on a computer screen. By choosing their rules well, programmers could make these light patterns evolve and reproduce themselves in interesting ways. As a result, many programmers became convinced that they had discovered the innermost secrets of evolution, of reproduction, and of life itself. As Chris Langton, one of the originators of artificial life, has surmised,

    Life isn't just like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation.
    Likewise, the head of research at British Telecom Laboratories, Peter Cochrane, has remarked:
    It may turn out that it is sufficient to regard all of life as no more than patterns of order that can replicate and reproduce.
    It must be nice to sit twiddling the bits and algorithms on your computer and suddenly find yourself possessed of the secrets of life -- all without wasting your best years out there in nature studying living organisms.

    All this merits more extended treatment than I can give here, but I can't avoid brief mention of two points:

    ** The behavior of those schools of fish is not unprogrammed. Ignorance of the implications of one's program does not make the implications unprogrammed. You can be sure that, by choosing rules appropriately, researchers now routinely design programs to produce behaviors that once came as a surprise. They've simply gained more understanding of the programmed activities they're dealing with, and of the programming style they're now employing.

    ** Statistical and probability "explanations" of the natural world pose philosophical puzzles that not many of the enthusiasts for "complex, self-organizing behavior" are addressing. It is not at all clear how much of a clue to the goings-on in real fish is provided by program rules aimed at capturing a few aggregate, statistical features of some of their movements. Certainly there is no claim that the rules could be used to predict the actual path of an individual fish in the sea -- or the path of the school as an integral whole. One thing that is sure is that the search for statistically describable features is leading many researchers to ignore the richly variegated, perceptible phenomena whose detailed study was once considered the prerequisite for scientific advance.

    The preference for this sort of ignorance is an indication, I think, of the powerful drive within science today to eliminate the last memories of an ensouled world, the last memories of living beings. By resorting to high abstraction, one avoids the spiritual discomfort of confronting the Other; the actual fish has all but disappeared from the statistical ruminations of the programmer. What manifests in some of us as a powerful squeamishness when handling living creatures, and in others as a deep reverence, simply disappears into the bloodless intellectual levitations of the theorist.

    "Complexity" lies squarely within the lineage established by terms like "pattern" and "gestalt". Owen Barfield has noted how these terms shield us from what we prefer not to recognize, substituting an abstraction for a being who has a claim on us. "We glimpse a countenance, and we say hurriedly: `Yes, that is indeed a face, but it is the face of nobody'."

    Of course, television, cinema, the Net -- and indeed all available media -- increasingly give us countenances that are the faces of nobody we need to reckon with. You can now add the Virtual FishTank to the long list of invitations to experience a world with no one there. At least it can't do our children any harm, right? After all, they are already growing accustomed to their peers shooting other kids as if no one were really there.


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    *** Correspondence

    When Search Engines Are No Longer Independent

    From: Kevin Jones (jdesign@nas.com)

    Hi Steve,

    I was reading yesterday (I think it was Wired News, via Yahoo) that most of the Internet search engines are being acquired by major media companies. For example, forty-three percent of InfoSeek is now owned by Disney.

    It surprises me that I haven't seen any indication of public concern about the situation. It seems to me that media company control of search engines is a great first step toward allowing them (or anyone else) to control Internet content. After all, if the material you want is on the net, and you can't find it, you're effectively cut off from access to it.

    Am I missing something? Will enterprising persons create "outlaw" search engines after the media start snuffing references to Web content which runs counter to their interests? Should I get into writing science fiction?


    Kevin Jones

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    *** Announcements and Resources

    Making Education Whole

    Joan Jaeckel runs a new web site for educators at http://www.whole.org/. The site is still a bit roughly edited, but you'll encounter some down-to-earth, effectively stated, and common-sense perspectives on technology here that you'll be hard put to find at the big-name sites. If you're at all intrigued by Joan Almon's comments cited above (see "The Teacher Is Central, but `Teaching' Is Not"), you'll certainly want to check out the variety of other materials Jaeckel has made available. There are several currently featured essays (including one by Barry Sanders, author of A Is for Ox), as well as news clippings, networking resources, a book list, and an events calendar.

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    *** Who Said That?

    Joan Cole has been working with computers since 1981, when she was in high school and her father bought one of the first IBM PCs. She currently works in second-line support of client-server applications. She made the discouraged-sounding statement quoted above more than a year ago, and I was curious what sort of accommodation she had reached in the meantime. (Was she working for McDonalds?) So I sent off mail requesting permission to use the quotation and asking for an update. Her delayed response is full of advice that I'm sure many readers will appreciate:

    What's been going on? Well, one difference is that I read my personal email less frequently! In some ways, I've been in a holding pattern -- I still have the same job. But I have made some changes. I currently view my job as a means to my avocations -- I have taken up motorcycling and taken some long tours. I am using all of my available vacation time, rather than letting it build up. I am spending my leisure time now on creative pursuits, fiber arts and music, and am in the midst of writing a book on Tarot. I guess you could say that at the moment, I'm using my computer job the way that food service jobs have long been used by those in creative fields. I am still not certain exactly which direction to go for a new career, so I am exploring options and building a number of more entertaining skills. I'm taking a minimax strategy towards skill currency, spending just enough time keeping up with technology to keep this job, but not investing all my waking hours in pursuit of that impossible goal.
    Interestingly, today I was reading the results of a survey (Investor's Business Daily, June 30, 1998) claiming that seventy percent of employees in high-tech jobs would prefer to be working in a different field. Fifty-six percent indicated they'd rather be working in the liberal arts. Of course, if we were doing computer science right, it would be one of the liberal arts, firmly embedded within historical, sociological, legal, and artistic disciplines. Then, presumably, people like Joan Cole would not be forced into regarding their work as merely a means to earn the money that enables them to do the things that really seem worthwhile.


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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1998 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:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #74 :: July 9, 1998

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