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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #77       Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications       October 6, 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
       Privacy and Prejudice
       Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 1)
       Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 2)
       Does the Computer Eliminate Boring Work?
       Tips for Television Watchers? (Francois VanSteertegem)
       The Value of a Real Canadian Goose (Stuart Cohen)
       Yes, We Can Sing Through Email (Bryce Muir)
       Would Hemingway Use Emoticons? (John Mihelic)
       Documenting Paralinguistic Practices (Bob Parks)
    Who Said That?
    About this newsletter
                  ** What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE **
        "I earn my living in the computer industry and I'm not sorry I do,
              but I recognize that technologies change our modes of
           perception and consciousness as well as social and economic
        context and behavior.  I think these are the most critical issues
       of the next century.  I am drawn to NETFUTURE by both my curiousity
                  and my desire to make choices I won't regret."
                        (For the identity of the speaker,
                          see "Who Said That?" below.)
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Privacy and Prejudice
    There's a puzzle on the Net, having to do with privacy and prejudice.
    Privacy, of course, is a hot issue today, and rightly so.  Sitting at my
    terminal in my basement, I can probably find out more about you than you
    would care to divulge freely.  In fact, the question playing itself out
    right now in courts and legislative chambers and corporate strategy
    meetings is whether we will all be wholly exposed on the Net.
    But this sits rather oddly with what many have proclaimed to be the Net's
    greatest achievement:  it frees us from bias and bigotry.  The idea is
    that I can't see your age, sex, race, or handicap, and therefore I will
    hold no prejudicial feelings against you.
    This, as I've pointed out before, is nonsense.  We've always managed to
    discriminate against each other on the basis of intangibles such as belief
    fully as well as on the basis of external traits.  In fact, as long as
    anything is left of the other person, we can find something to
    discriminate against.  All of which suggests that our ease in getting rid
    of discrimination on the Net is simply our ease in getting rid of the
    other person.
    But, far from being an end to prejudice, this begins to sound
    uncomfortably like that euphemism for murder -- "termination with extreme
    So the puzzle is this:  are we finding ourselves wholly exposed on the
    Net, or are we disappearing into the darkness between the bits and bytes?
    The answer, I think, is that both are occurring, and they are fully
    consistent with each other.  As we reduce ourselves to bodies of
    information, collections of data, and screensfull of text, we are less and
    less there.  There isn't much of the individual left to
    discriminate against in any deeply personal sense.  But at the same time
    it's difficult to feel any great respect for the impersonal precipitate of
    data that is all we have left.
    Our inappropriate exposure on the Net, in other words, is a direct
    consequence of our absence from the Net.  The two belong together.  An
    individual whose privacy is worth respecting is also an individual real
    enough to be discriminated against by those so inclined.  And only a
    community whose life together is vivid and multi-dimensional enough to
    invite these qualitatively different responses will have any chance to
    shape institutions that encourage the respect and discourage the abuse.
    Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 1)
    In the short note, "Is Genetic Engineering `Natural'?" (NF #75),  I
    commented on the wrongheaded notion that genetic engineering is just as
    natural as the seed selection and breeding that have gone on for
    millennia.  One of my points was that a critical awareness of the risks
    inherent in current genetic manipulations does not imply that we must be
    uncritical about earlier practices, whether natural or not.  From time
    immemorial we have been given the opportunity to carry out our earthly
    stewardship in irresponsible ways.
    Now Craig Holdrege (author of Genetics and the Manipulation of Life)
    brings to my attention a couple of highly questionable examples of
    conventional breeding:
    *  There are hobbyist chicken breeders who -- to judge from the pictures
       in their magazines -- are more interested in bizarre effects that
       tickle our human fancies than in the integrity of the chickens
       themselves.  (I'll have more to say about this idea of integrity in a
       subsequent issue.)
    *  Belgian beef have been bred with such overgrown muscles that they
       cannot be delivered naturally; birth requires Caesarian section.
    The assumption that critics of today's technological imbalances must be
    enamored of older practices is oddly widespread.  Anyone who often speaks
    publicly, as I do, about the risks of modern technologies is inevitably
    met by comments such as "Do you read books?  They're a product of
    technology!"  Or "Books can have undesirable effects, too!" -- as if this
    should blunt one's concern about where we're going with technology today.
    Certainly older technologies can have undesirable effects.  (For a
    discussion of some of these effects, see "Every Tool is an Obstacle" in
    NF #12.)  But who is denying this?  It would be much more sensible to look
    for the problems in our use of earlier tools, and then to expect that
    these problems are becoming ever more acute as the tools become both more
    powerful and more definitive of our lives.
    So it is that the abuses in chicken and cattle breeding can now be
    performed much more quickly and more casually.  The technician need
    scarcely be distracted by the animal itself.  There's none of the
    Frankenstein drama and messiness.  We can construct our monsters in a
    clean and well-lit place.
    We are, in general, less and less constrained by technical limitation.
    But if we abandon ourselves to the excitement of the technical
    breakthrough for its own sake, we will produce chaotic results.  This is
    because the organism itself, respectfully understood in its wholeness and
    integrity, is our only guide not only for what is ethical, but also for
    what will work in any full and meaningful sense.  The geneticist's sharp
    separation of ethical questions from practical ones signifies his
    inattention to the organism's wholeness, and therefore his inevitable
    clumsiness even in practical matters.
    Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 2)
    With the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in the
    environment, many observers worry about the transmission of the altered
    genes ("transgenes") to closely related, wild species through sexual
    reproduction.  An immediate, practical concern, for example, is that genes
    for herbicide resistance in agricultural crops will spread to weeds,
    rendering the herbicides useless.  Since most crop plants (and related
    weeds) are self-pollinating, this danger was thought to be minimal.
    But now a startling bit of research reported in Nature (Sep. 3, 1998)
    has upset this assumption.  Working with mustard plants, Joy Bergelson
    and her colleagues at the University of Chicago have shown that transgenes
    can introduce unexpected pollination behavior.  Most mustard plants are
    both mother and father of their own seeds, with pollen crossing from one
    plant to another only about three times out of every thousand
    pollinations.  But transgenic mustard plants with an introduced gene for
    herbicide resistance were twenty times more likely to cross-pollinate.  As
    a report at Nature's online website puts it, "Something had made the
    transgenic plants more promiscuous".
    Moreover, this difference holds even between the transgenic plants and
    other plants possessing the same herbicide resistance via a natural
    mutation and conventional breeding.  Somehow the artificial process
    changes things.  As the Nature article concludes,
       Whatever the reason, the effect is worrying, and deserves looking into
       further.  Bergelson and colleagues point out that this particular gene
       has already been introduced into dozens of agricultural crops, so it is
       important to find out whether increased promiscuity is a common
       consequence of genetic modification.
    Who knows -- someday we may even try to learn about the inevitable "side
    effects" of genetic alterations before loosing the organisms wholesale
    into the world.
    Does the Computer Eliminate Boring Work?
    Back in the 1960s, Studs Terkel wrote his classic book, Working, based on
    interviews with hundreds of Chicagoans.  The picture he sketched was not
    pretty.  But in their Second Annual Big Issue (Dec., 1997) the editors of
    Forbes ASAP assured us that things are different today:
       Reading Terkel's Working now is like scanning an ancient text.  If there
       is one common emotion that emerges from the Babel of voices in Terkel's
       book, it is boredom.  Boredom is the leitmotiv of the Industrial Age.
       Almost everyone, from the spot-welder to the CEO, is deeply bored in
       Terkel's world.  His people dream of a job that is meaningful,
       challenging, and so fulfilling that they would never want to leave it.
       They got their wish.  Today, in the information age, the world of work
       is now so intellectually challenging, meaningful, and compelling that
       we are never bored.  (http://www.forbes.com/asap/97/1201/index.htm)
    On the other hand, if our evident need for distraction is any measure, we
    may be just about the most bored people ever to walk the earth.  Are
    data-entry workers never bored?  Or the customer service employees whose
    official mission in life is to explain to anonymous callers how to plug in
    their new printers?  Or the growing legions of programmers responsible for
    maintaining old code?  And what about the armies of conscripts pressed
    into mind-numbing duty against the Year 2000 bug?
    As the Forbes ASAP editors see it, our salvation comes from the chip and
    the Net.  Okay.  Look at the financial service vocations that have so
    dramatically re-shaped themselves around the chip and the Net.  How easy
    would it be for the employee of a typical investment firm to place his
    investments based on meaning and conviction -- on a sense of personal
    responsibility for what his funds do to the world -- as opposed to the
    dictates of number-crunching algorithms?  Admittedly, making money for
    its own sake can be a pleasurable distraction, assuming you don't think
    too much about the nations or villages whose economy you could just as
    easily be destroying as helping.  But this empty mathematical exercise
    hardly counts as an advance in the meaningfulness of work.
    Then there's the farmer, enclosed in the cab of his huge tractor,
    traversing thousands of acres while a computer tuned in to a Global
    Positioning Satellite allocates varying doses of fertilizer to each small
    sector of the farm's grid.  The most likely result is that a concern for
    abstract "total inputs and outputs" replaces meaningful contact with the
    land.  The farmer no longer feels directly responsible for the processes
    of life, death, and resurrection going on in the soil.  He no longer
    experiences himself as intimately woven together with them.  And, in any
    case, these processes are most likely being rendered sterile by his
    current fertilization practices.  Does he really find this kind of work
    more meaningful?
    You pick a vocation, and I'll give you another example.  The fact is that
    the computer is an engine of abstraction, removing us -- so far as we give
    it free rein -- from direct engagement with the sources of meaning in the
    world.  Certainly we can reach across the barriers of abstraction:  the
    investor can seek out real value behind the mathematical value, and the
    farmer can take the time and trouble to know his land intimately and care
    for it in a deeply satisfying manner.  But it requires an effort that runs
    across the grain of all those efficiently operating chips celebrated
    in Forbes ASAP.
    If the editors of that publication are convinced we've entered a new era
    of meaningful work, it's because, as they put it,
       command and control are dead.  The chip and the Net have killed it.
    But this misses the whole point.  The issue is not centralization (with
    its need for command and control) versus decentralization (with its
    distributed intelligence).  No, the real question has to do with the
    overall balance between computation and the non-computational.  That is,
    it has to do with the balance between syntax and meaning -- between frozen
    forms of intelligence on the one hand, and our own fluid expressive
    potentials on the other.  It hardly matters whether the patterns of frozen
    intelligence are centralized or not.  As every spider knows, you can
    immobilize your prey with a delicate web just as well as with a stinger.
    This is an important issue, having a great deal to do with our seemingly
    inevitable drive toward ever greater standardization.  I'll have more to
    say about it in the future.
    Since the early days of the Net, "smiley faces" and their kin -- so-called
    emoticons, or emotional icons -- have attracted huge interest.  And they
    still do, if the response to "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF #76) is any
    indication.  (See Correspondence below.)
    I don't mean to denigrate this interest when I profess my own long-time
    difficulty in connecting to the huge mass of commentary about emoticons
    and other paralinguistic devices.  For example, when one reader talks
    about the "revolutionary implications" of email usages such as this:
        don't we wish it were true 
    I can only wonder what new principle is introduced here.  After all, we
    always had the option of saying
       I feel a bit wistful.
    But my high school English teacher's emphatic advice is perhaps more to
    the point:  a good character sketch doesn't tell the reader what a
    person is feeling, but rather shows the feelings.  That is, the feelings
    are exhibited at work, coloring the dialog, action, and imagery.  As John
    Mihelic puts it in his letter:
       Does Gore Vidal need smilacons to convey sarcasm?  Would the King James
       Version have been improved with them?  Hemingway?  Orwell?  C'mon!
       Email is a written medium, just like writing on paper.  If something is
       well-written it will show through.
    Not that email conversation has to be high literature.  I suppose my
    general take on emoticons -- admittedly not the result of a lot of thought
    -- is that they readily substitute a reduced, highly stereotyped
    vocabulary for the infinite range of expressive possibilities found in the
    language as a whole.  There may well be an honored place for such a
    reduced vocabulary, but if there is a revolution in communication going on
    here, I hope someone will point it out to me.
    What really troubles me about many discussions of online communication is
    the odd reluctance to grant any differences at all between modes of
    expression.  Since writing can have its "imagery" and its "musicality",
    there must not be any significant difference between writing on the one
    hand and a painting or sonata on the other.
    But this just seems obtuse, and prompts me to reiterate the point of my
    original article:  it is important for us to enter with great sensitivity
    into the differing qualities of the various modes of communication.
    Otherwise, we cannot know with any fullness what it is we are saying.
    I am not, however, suggesting the existence of absolute barriers between
    different types of expression.  No expressive medium can exhibit such
    barriers.  It is the essential nature of meaningful expressions to shade
    into each other, to interpenetrate and color each other in a way that
    purely logical constructs must not.
    You can see this by recognizing the metaphorical potential of all
    meaningful language, verbal or otherwise.  Metaphor leaps across barriers,
    enabling us to grasp what lies beyond the "given" possibilities of the
    language.  Only a dead, literal language, stripped of expressive qualities
    (for example, a computer language) disallows metaphor.  If a medium lends
    itself to any expression at all, then there are no intrinsic limits to
    what one can express through it.
    I always remember in this regard the remarkably significant communication
    achieved by some of our Vietnam prisoners of war, who could engage in
    nothing more than occasional tapping on the walls that separated them.
    And it occurs to me now that, instead of saying "sonata" above, I could
    have said "Beethoven's ninth symphony".  Yet Beethoven in his deafness
    never heard the symphony.  Or did he?  How could he have composed it
    without hearing it?  Was the written notation on the page, for him, the
    same as a performance after all?
    All one can say, again, is that there are no absolute, inherent limits
    upon what we can give or receive through any type of human expression --
    even if we are blind and deaf, like Helen Keller.  Yet we shouldn't forget
    how daunting Helen Keller's struggle was.  Moreover, we all face
    the reality of our own current limits, and if there are lessons suggested
    by Beethoven and those prisoners, we could put them this way:
    *  It requires a lifetime of incredibly disciplined and single-minded
       effort to deepen one's mastery of a particular field of expression, as
       Beethoven did.
    *  There is nothing like being thrown together in a real place, both
       incommodious and life-threatening, to encourage the discipline that
       leads to deeply felt, profoundly meaningful expression.
    It's a long way, of course, from the prison cell and composer's study to
    the routine exchange of emoticon-strewn email.  But if, as a society, we
    recognized not only the unlimited potential of the written symbol but also
    the blood and sweat between us and the realization of that potential, then
    I would feel much better about the prospects for new, electronic forms of
    communication whose main advertisement to date has been how "easy" they
    Goto table of contents
    Tips for Television Watchers?
    Response to:  "America Screws Up" (NF-76)
    From:  Francois VanSteertegem (fvanst@atl.com)
    I was much impressed by your suggested tips for America Links Up sponsors
    -- a bona fide attack of common-sense if I ever saw one.  But did you
    notice?  Most of the net-related hazards to which your tips refer are the
    same hazards that lurk in TV-land.  There's even the low signal-to-noise
    ratio that you cite in "Is E-trash Necessary..."   Hmmm.
    Francois VanSteertegem
    The Value of a Real Canadian Goose
    Response to:  "Following Up" (NF-75)
    From:  Stuart Cohen (stuart@shore.net)
    I also quote the story about the boy and his father seeing the
    rattlesnake, and the impression it made.  A few weeks ago we were visiting
    my mother in the Berkshires.  My daughters swam in the lake, as usual, but
    what excited my 7-yr old was a moment when a couple of Canada geese -- a
    very common bird hereabouts -- swam a few feet in front of her.  That
    night we watched a number of true-life-nature shows on the TV.  One was a
    remarkable effort by a dedicated team showing wolves hunting wild bison in
    the remotest regions of northern Canada.  I was impressed, but my daughter
    barely budged.
    There is no substitute for direct experience.  In other words: virtual
    reality isn't.
    I continue to appreciate your efforts.
    Stuart Cohen, Photographer/Writer
    Creator of Marblehead 2000 Photo series documenting life in a small town
    at the coming of the new Millennium
    Yes, We Can Sing Through Email
    Response to:  "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76)
    From:  Bryce Muir (pegbryce@gwi.net)
    > Can We Sing through Email?
    Sure.  We do it all the time in written correspondence.  My "vocal"
    styling changes to suit the person I'm writing to.  If it's someone I've
    related to face-to-face, that certainly informs my diction, but I respond
    to cues in text I read, even from "strangers", and couch my responses in
    similar tones.  Don't we all?
    I'm not convinced that written language is so divorced from aural language
    that we don't mimic tonality in a textual dialogue.  What's jargon, if not
    a cult singing, or dialect, if not folksong?  Granted, some writing is
    tone deaf, but then some face-to-face conversation is as flat as Kansas.
    I once sat on a teletype pony loop (I was a radioman in the Navy), where
    every keystroke on each machine was mimicked on all the others.  The
    nature of the circuits were such that you had to keep typing to maintain
    the connection, and this was accomplished by rhythmically hitting the
    figures and letters keys (analogous to the shift key) while you were
    thinking what to spell out next.  It turns out that everyone had his own
    rhythm, and you could tell who was talking by listening to the beat.
    Invariably you would pick up that beat when you started to respond, and
    the "music" was hilarious.  I'm convinced that audial mimicry is endemic
    to the beast, and we read with our ears, and write in tune, more often
    than we might think.
    I often write more than I think.
    Would Hemingway Use Emoticons?
    Response to:  "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76)
    From:  John Mihelic (jmihelic@forlife.com)
    Dear Mr. Talbott:
    Can we sing through email?!!  Am I missing something?  Whenever I hear
    people noting the lack of verbal inflection or of body language in email
    prose, I wonder what happened to good writing.  Writing is writing.
    Writing that is flat or uninflected or dull is simply that -- writing that
    is flat or uninflected or dull.   There's no need to blame personal
    writing inadequacies on the computer, any more than you'd blame it on the
    pencil and the sheet of paper.
    I have noticed a tendency for computer jocks to think they invented the
    world, and to mistakenly conclude that because they never heard of
    something that it must not exist.   It appears that good writing is one of
    these things.   And those little smilacons are certainly part of that
    phenomenon.  Does Gore Vidal need smilacons to convey sarcasm?   Would the
    King James Version have been improved with them?   Hemingway?  Orwell?
    C'mon!  Email is a written medium, just like writing on paper.  If
    something is well-written it will show through.
    John Mihelic, a longtime subscriber.
    Documenting Paralinguistic Practices
    Response to:  "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76)
    From:  Bob Parks (bobp@lightlink.com)
    I have followed with interest the development of "emoticons" (smiley
    faces, etc.) in chat room and email communication.  This development is
    related, but somewhat independent of the structures developed for MOO
    communication - such as ":::setting down my coffee cup:::" and ":::smiling
    Recently I have been noticing a new sort of paralinguistic marking
    structure that may have revolutionary implications for electronic
    communication.  I have a dictionary that I am planning to convert to XML,
    and on the XML-dev email list I began to notice the informal use of
    XML-like tags to indicate complex rhetorical intent.  For example, one
    author said something like "although <ironic> others may have said this
    before </ironic>".  And another said something like "<wistful> don't we
    wish it were true </wistful>.  I think these sorts of XML markup could
    then be linked with XSL style sheets that would give us great creative
    latitude in rendering communicative intent.  One author could render
    these statements with distinctive fonts, or colors, or icons (similar to
    Chinese characters?) or other representative modes .... And when the text
    is accompanied by a text-to-speech rendering program, the intonation
    could be made appropriate.
    In any case, I'd like to ask if you would solicit from your readers other
    examples of the way such paralinguistic features are now rendered, and
    ideas on how they might be rendered.  I'm doing a collection of email
    quotations and paralinguistic features, and will acknowledge all
    Bob Parks
    Associate Professor
    Elmira College
    Goto table of contents
                                 WHO SAID THAT?
    Working in the heart of the geographic information systems business, Lance
    McKee is Vice President, Corporate Communications, for the Open GIS
    Consortium (OGC).  OGC envisions "the full integration of geospatial data
    and geoprocessing resources into mainstream computing".  To achieve this,
    it brings users and providers of geographic information systems together
    to create software interfaces to facilitate the exchange of complex
    geographic data.  (See http://www.opengis.org.)
    McKee sees OGC offering a rough model for participatory steering of
    technology.  It is, he believes, an embryonic form of a kind of
    institution that will have increasing importance as traditional
    governments realize their inability to govern technology, which now
    arguably affects citizens' lives more than religion, labor movements, or
    local or national politics.
    Mentioning his interest in "simple" things such as gardening, sculpting,
    and boat building, McKee goes on to ask, "Why don't I retire, or radically
    simplify, immediately?"
       Because, despite the revulsion for an "unjust economy" I felt when I
       was in my twenties, working in day care centers, I now want to
       participate actively in the economy, for these reasons:  to promote my
       family's and relatives' welfare; to travel and meet interesting people
       and not feel stuck in local and home doldrums; to experience first-hand
       some of the changes (some good, some bad) that are taking place in the
       world, with an eye toward how we direct change toward the good; and to
       be able to name the terms of my life now and in my retirement.
       Balancing one's life doesn't always mean moving immediately in the
       direction of utmost simplicity.
    Goto table of contents
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #77 :: October 6, 1998 Goto table of contents

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