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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #71       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications          May 14, 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
          When Computers Can't Finger You
          Are Unintended Consequences Really Unintended?
          The Most Powerful Tools Are Unbearably Simple
          Popular Superstition and Scientific Fears
          Brief Notes
    *** Who Said That?
    *** About this newsletter

    What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE

    "I'm a professional information technology analyst and academic, and I find NETFUTURE one of the more interesting resources in the field, primarily due to the author's willingness to go against the grain and raise important questions about the use of information technology and its implications for society."

    (For the identity of the speaker, an expatriate American professor who has
    helped fashion U.S. information policy, see "Who Said
    That?" below.) 

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    When Computers Can't Finger You

    Ken Payne has a skin condition that makes his fingerprints unreliable, so he has been barred from teaching in California classrooms. While an expert can identify his prints, they aren't readable by electronic scanning devices. (It turns out that a small percentage of the population has this problem.) According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, California Department of Justice officials "say they can't conclude Payne lacks a criminal past [as required by law] because their technicians can't compare his prints with the millions of others stored in the state's databases".

    Amazingly, while nearly everyone seems willing to grant that something isn't quite right in this picture and that the law needs amending, the situation has now gone unchanged for several years. Having fought the absurdity since being told years ago that he would never hold a full-time teaching position, Payne -- who has good recommendations as a teacher -- is on the verge of giving up and leaving the state. He sees "no apparent way" through the bureaucratic hurdles.

    Well, almost no way. It appears that, if he cut off his hands, he would qualify under the law's waiver for the disabled. Or he could become a felon, and then the system would finally be able to peg him. There are programs allowing some rehabilitated felons to become teachers.

    What I find most disturbing about this story is not that the system has committed an individual to an obviously wrong pigeonhole (such things are inevitable and can be quickly remedied if the right spirit infuses the system). Nor is it that the reliance on computerized data processing makes such problems worse (although it certainly can). The real punchline of the story is that in all this time not a single school principle or superintendant or county or state education official has had the courage to stand up and say, "I've hired Ken Payne and hereby give notice of the fact to the public and my superiors. I will not alter my decision without reason. Those with power in the matter have two choices: fire me, or put the law right."

    In other words, the right spirit evidently does not infuse the system. And that is precisely the risk of an ever more mechanized, data-processed, computerized society: that we will fail to counterbalance the mechanisms with our own ever more vivid and assertive presence, meeting the system's inevitable failure of logic with our own corrective judgments.

    Actually, this particular case hardly required courage. Any well-respected educator taking the right stand would likely have become a public hero. Not many officials would risk their careers by playing the ogre and firing the hero before the public's gaze. Also, there are usually many options available in this sort of situation, short of a career-risking move. A board of education, for example, recognizing the injustice of the situation, could have publicly petitioned the proper authorities for a waiver.

    That no one has taken a stand against the absurd, no one has acted against the classic failure of computer-enamoured bureaucrats to make a few obvious distinctions -- here you see the negative potentials of the computer age writ large.

    What if real courage were required? As a reading public we devour books like Hitler's Willing Executioners -- imagining, no doubt, that we would stand against tyranny. But if Ken Payne's case is any measure, a simple bit of nonsense that everyone can recognize as nonsense is already too much for us, once it becomes securely embedded in "the system".

    Perhaps it is time for a few genuine, sledgehammer-wielding Luddites to remind us with symbolic outward force that our fluent, independent, inner powers of judgment and action must always be strengthened to hold the balance against the systems of automated judgment growing up in our midst.

    (Thanks to Robert Westcott for the news story. Late word is that, due to international coverage provoked by the Press Democrat story -- which the Associated Press, CNN, and NBC's Today Show all picked up -- California legislators are now talking about addressing the problem.)

    Are Unintended Consequences Really Unintended?

    If you want to get the signature of techno-utopians and Luddites on the same sheet of paper, just write across the top, "Technology can have unintended consequences". They'll rush to sign. This is the new confession promising a more sober technological advance.

    Of course, the most tried-and-true method for bringing antagonists into agreement is to offer them a relatively meaningless statement to agree on. My own fear is that the doctrine of unintended consequences is worse than meaningless -- it may provide cover for a continuing flight from responsibility. "What? Me? I didn't intend that!"

    If I direct some mild disparagement at my wife, and if she, having heard this sort of thing one too many times, explodes in anger, I may not have intended to provoke such an outburst with my low-key remark. I may even have felt kindly toward her at the time, so that I can honestly say I am surprised and hurt by her response. But my honesty remains shallow. I did provoke the outburst; it's just that I preferred not to notice the fact.

    We may, then -- in our current state of awareness -- be unable to predict the consequences of a particular technology. But that does not mean we bear no responsibility for the consequences, or even that, at some level, we do not intend them.

    You may find it hard to imagine that Henry Ford or the early automobile users intended urban sprawl, the breakdown of communities, and environmental devastation. Doubtless they didn't, in any fully conscious sense. Yet how many of them were so attached to the integrity of their local communities that they experienced neighborhood-splitting roads as an outrage? How many were so committed to the integrity of the natural world that every rude and unconsidered gash through the countryside was felt as an abomination? They could have experienced themselves as so deeply embedded in a sacred world that every polluting act was significant as a meaningful and horrifying gesture in itself. They could have made the automobile an opportunity to become more convincingly aware of the differences between local, fully engaged community and the more tenuous relations of community-at-a-distance.

    But the fact is that our culture was headed in a different direction, and we did not, for example, view the world as sacred in the way our native predecessors did. We were, with a powerful determination, closing in on our particular destiny. This destiny may have had its own important values -- I believe it did -- but this does not mean that the eventual outcomes were not the direct consequence of who we were, with all our redeeming and not-so-redeeming traits.

    I am not sure there is such a thing as an unintended consequence of any technology rooted in our own historical development. Except, of course, when we need excuses. One of the challenges of the technological age is that we are encouraged to think of the causes of things as lying outside ourselves, in the ubiquitous machinery that shapes our lives. This suggests that the doctrine of unintended consequences could be a sign of our further submission to technology rather than our mastery of it. You can only appeal to something as an excuse when you think it has enough power over you to render you helpless.

    But if we are instead moved by this new consensus to look more critically at our technological choices in a spirit of personal responsibility, then it will be all to the good.

    The Most Powerful Tools Are Unbearably Simple

    I've been thinking about what may be the most important educational technology in the world today: the stick. And I'm dead serious.

    What triggered these thoughts is the memory of those seemingly endless years when our three boys fashioned every manner of sword for themselves from whatever materials were available. Mostly sticks. I can't say exactly how happy those years were for them overall, but I do know that the sticks brought them great joy.

    Once, during our farming period, a friend visited for a couple of days. He was amazed, he said, that everywhere he went, from morning to evening, he always seemed to be floating along on ripples of giggling and laughter -- now closer and now farther away -- as the kids went about their invented games. Oh, yes, these kids had their share of quarreling, but that's really part of the same story.

    It hardly needs saying that, like tussling wolf cubs, our boys were learning the use of their own bodies. They were also gaining a thoroughly grounded, common-sense knowledge of the world they moved in. They were stimulated toward further reading about things medieval. And, as they grew up, the rules of their games had to evolve, becoming ever more sophisticated examples of the give-and-take required by any adult society.

    One of these boys is now married to a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. Many Waldorf students have little or no exposure to television, which can make it easier to observe the effects of television where they do occur. Our daughter-in-law confirms the vivid stories from other Waldorf teachers about kids who visit friends or relatives for a television-intensive week and then return to school unable to connect with their peers. One young boy, for example, unresponsive to the overtures of his playmates, compulsively repeated the same, fixed, Power-Ranger scenario for many days before slowly regaining his previous, more child-like inventiveness and sociability.

    The common message I have heard from teachers who are alert to this sort of thing is that television-bred kids are in general less flexible, less able to imagine new forms of playing, less able to sit still, and less adaptive to others.

    My own sense of those sword games many years ago is that their impromptu, invented quality gave them a wonderful, double aspect. On the one hand, the kids were fully engaged, body mind, and soul; it was, after all, a game of their making. But precisely because they were the game's authors, they retained a certain freedom and mastery with respect to it. It was something they themselves did rather than something that happened to them, and therefore they could let go. They could change the game as they found themselves changing or as others entered the picture. In a critical sense, they determined the process of childhood development rather than having it programmatically imposed upon their frozen imaginations.

    Plenty of room for research here -- although not the kind of research we tend to get these days. Meanwhile, there's a simple exercise we ought to practice: whenever salesmen offer a new educational technology for children, ask them to explain how it improves on the stick.

    I suspect that, given a little practice at this exercise, we would realize that we have a multi-billion-dollar industry -- from educational television to toddler-ware to video games to every sort of device-with-a-chip -- that exists, not because it meets a need, but simply because we knew how to make the stuff and could get our kids to use it. This in turn has created many of the pathological needs we now face.

    And you say we're not letting technology run out of control? Billions of dollars and we haven't come up with anything that remotely approaches a good, gnarly stick for beauty, perfection of the user interface, and transporting power.

    Popular Superstition and Scientific Fears

    In the American Physical Society's "What's New" for Apr. 24 there was an item entitled, "Superstition: Poll Reveals an Alarming Growth in Believers". Among other things, the poll claimed to show that belief in faith healing soared from 10% to 45% between 1976 and today. "The numbers should not be taken too seriously", writes the APS, "but the trend is unmistakable and scary."

    Physicists, it seems, are easily spooked. I'm not one to deny all the bunk out there, but I'm also not one to ignore the fact that the bunk fills a vacuum left by conventional science. In its religiously motivated irreligion, this science studiously ignores everything that does not fit its old and tired materialistic dogma. Denied any human connection to the subject matter of science, the public creates its own connections -- sometimes arbitrarily.

    But what puzzles me in this story is why the belief in faith healing should be offered as evidence of superstition, given that an aggressive claim of faith healing has long been central to conventional medicine.

    Oops. I've got my terminology confused here. In medicine it's not called "faith healing"; it's called the "placebo effect" -- a much more reassuring term. And one of the blessed things about this effect is the way it can be wielded like a miracle-wand against alternative therapies whenever a cure is evidenced. "Oh, that was merely the placebo effect."

    Which, being translated, reads, "Oh, that was merely faith healing". So be it. But why, then, is this "mere" effect still so little understood after all these years, and why does a mystery relied on so heavily for explanation receive so little attention from mainstream research laboratories?

    My own guess: the mystery really is scary to a lot of these folks. As Owen Barfield once remarked, "Materialism is a psychic phenomenon of fear". Among other things, fear of the psyche itself and its powers for good and ill.

    (Thanks to Peter Kindlmann for the APS item, and to Christopher Bamford for a germinal thought about the "placebo effect".)

    Brief Notes

    ** Two items neatly juxtaposed in a recent issue of Edupage: Vice President Al Gore proposes to set up the Internet in every school in the nation's fifty largest school districts; meanwhile, Linda Roberts, director of the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, says we need some serious research to figure out whether computers and the Internet improve student achievement.

    Mr. Gore, please get a grip on yourself and call Ms. Roberts.

    ** Under attack from faculty, staff, and students, the University of California's technology deal with Microsoft and other corporate giants seems to be falling apart. But Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, whines that "there is little doubt in my mind that the state is unable to provide the $300 million needed to build this technology infrastructure" (N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 1998).

    In the old, pre-Alice in Wonderland days of policy-making, the unfeasibility of a thing meant ... well, its unfeasibility. Now, though, in the age of Moore's Law, surely high-tech companies can transcend such merely numerical inconveniences without imposing any burdens on us!

    ** A front-page N.Y. Times story last November included this statement about reliance on S.A.T. test scores and the like:

    Admission officials say that much as they would love to rely more on nuanced measures like essays and interviews, the pressures to use test scores are growing from the sheer volume of applicants, limited budgets for evaluating them and the rise of college ranking guides that emphasize test scores. (Nov. 8, 1997)
    Evidently, the reduction of the individual to a set of numerical indices can be hard to reverse, once the reductive tools are in place and society has adapted itself to them.

    ** According to Jeff Madrick (quoting the Economist),

    The Boston office of a U.S. consulting company is discarding all of its paper-work and building a computerized Knowledge Exchange, "a vast on-line database containing the company's accumulated wisdom, available ... anywhere in the world seven days a week" on every worker's PC. ("Computers: Waiting for the Revolution", New York Review of Books, Mar. 26, 1998).
    I wonder how this company is going to fend off customers who say, "Hey, if you're right about that, I'll skip the consultant; just let me borrow one of those PCs".


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    *** Who Said That?

    Todd M. La Porte is a professor in the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Before joining Delft, he was on the staff of the Office of Technology Assessment, where he was responsible for looking at long-term technology policy issues for Congress. One of the studies he co-authored there was the 1994 "Study on Wireless Technology and the National Information Infrastructure".

    La Porte's current activities focus on government in cyberspace -- how public organizations are responding to the challenges of the web, and in particular how the web affects the openness and effectiveness of government agencies. This is the research program of the Cyberspace Policy Research Group at the University of Arizona, where La Porte is one of the investigators. You'll find information about this program at its website.

    La Porte, who sees positive potentials in digital technologies, also fears that (as he put it in a Chronicle of Higher Education online Colloquy) "Once again Americans are being asked to go for the quick fix of technology solutions to what are essentially organizational, institutional, and even political problems".


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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:


    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #71 :: May 14, 1998

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