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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #112     A Publication of The Nature Institute       October 5, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers (Part 3) (Stephen L. Talbott)
       To automate, or re-enflesh?
       The Emergency Room as an Electronic Game (Valdemar Setzer)
       The Intimate Relationship between Good and Evil (Simon Baddeley)
       An Author's Visit to the Mumford House (Gray Brechin)
       Jacques Ellul's Place: Also Worth Saving (David W. Gill)
       Images That Preclude Thought (Irv Thomas)
    Announcements and Resources
       New Home for "Confronting Technology" Web Site
    About this newsletter
                           To Automate, or Re-enflesh?
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    Some while back a reader urged upon me this principle:  "Anything we do
    that can be automated should be automated".  It's a principle that appeals
    to the common sense of many people today, and complements the notion that
    machines can unburden us of the more tedious and mechanized work, leaving
    us free to occupy ourselves with "higher" and more "human" tasks.
    Appealing as the reader's suggestion is, I'm convinced that it readily
    promotes an unhealthy relation to technology.  Here's why:
    First, it obscures the truth that nothing we do can be automated.  Sure, I
    know that a computer can "add two plus two", but what it does is not what
    we do.  It does not bring consciousness to the act.  It is not exercising
    and therefore strengthening certain skills and cognitive capacities.  It
    requires no attention, no will power, no motivation, no supportive
    metabolism, no memory, no imagination, and no sympathetic muscle
    movements.  Nor is it engaged in any larger purpose when it carries out
    the computation -- or any purpose at all.  It is amazing to see how
    readily we forget these things today and equate a computer's action with
    human performance.
    When a machine "does" what we do, we typically mean that something about
    the structure of the machine's activity can be mapped (by us) to a narrow
    set of formal features abstracted from our own activity.  For example, a
    pattern of electrical pulses can be seen as analogous to the formal
    structure of a problem in arithmetic addition.  This sort of mapping
    happens to be very useful, but no worthwhile effort to assess the
    usefulness can begin with the false notion that the machine is doing what
    we do.
    Actually, the more relevant fact is that the machine displaces and
    eliminates from the situation much that we do, leaving us to consider (1)
    how we might compensate for the disuse of our own capacities, and (2) how
    the entire context and significance of the work has been altered by its
    reduction to those few formal features.
    It's all too easy for the facile calculations of the spreadsheet software
    to begin narrowing a business' conception of its own work, even though the
    business may have begun with a richly meaningful and idealistic set of
    intentions.  Intention doesn't enter into the software's calculations, and
    as that software plays an ever greater role in the business, the question
    is, "Where will the guiding intentions come from -- or will we simply
    allow them to disappear as we yield to the machine's empty guidance?"
    There Is No Stopping Place
    If the first problem with our reader's formulation is that nothing we do
    can be automated, the second problem is that everything can be automated.
    That is, once you equate the kind of reduction I've been talking about
    with "automating human activity", there's no line separating things that
    can be automated from those that cannot.  So "automate whatever can be
    automated" provides no guidance whatever.  In the reduced sense that
    applies, everything can be automated.
    As many have pointed out, you can abstract some sort of formal structure
    from any activity you can describe (the description itself embodies a
    syntactic structure) and this structure can be impressed upon a machine.
    So as soon as you are convinced you have automated the simplest human
    activity, you are climbing a ladder possessing no special rung to mark a
    stopping place.  If a calculator "does what we do", then a computer can in
    one sense or another do what a judge or composer or physicist does.  If we
    do not pay attention to the difference between the computational
    abstraction and the human reality in the simple cases, nothing will
    require our attention to those differences in the "higher" cases.
    Further, the more you automate, the more you tend to reduce the affected
    contexts to the terms of your automation, so that the next "higher"
    activity looks more and more like an automatic one that should be handed
    over to a machine.  When, finally, the supervisor is supervising only
    machines, there's no reason for the supervisor himself not to become a
    So the idea that automation relieves us from grunt work in order to
    concentrate on higher things looks rather like the opposite of the truth.
    Automation tends continually to reduce the higher work to mechanical and
    computational terms.  At least, it does this when we lose sight of the
    full reality of the work, reconceiving it as if its entire significance
    lay in the few decontextualized structural features we can analogize in a
    machine.  (In a machine-driven world, we are always pressured toward this
    reconceptualization.)  But if, on the other hand, we do not lose
    sight of the full reality of the work, then the "lower-level" stuff may
    look just as much worth doing ourselves as the "higher" -- in which case
    we have to ask, "What, really, is the rationale for automating it?"
    This is not to say that, for example, endless hours spent manually adding
    columns of numbers would prove rewarding to most people.  But where we
    typically run into such tasks is precisely where reductive technologies
    (such as those involved in the machinery of bookkeeping and accounting)
    have already shaped the work to be done.  In general, the grunt work we
    want to get rid of is the result of automation, and while additional
    automation may relieve us of that particular work, it also recasts a yet
    wider sphere of work in terms seemingly fit only for automation.  After
    all, the ever more sophisticated accounting software requires ever more
    extensive inputs, so more and more people in the organization find
    themselves caught up in paper-shuffling (or electronic file-shuffling).
    It's where automation has not already destroyed the meaningfulness of the
    low-level work that we discover how high-level it can really be.  The
    farmer may choose not to abandon his occasional manual hoeing -- not
    because he is a hopeless romantic, but because there is satisfaction in
    the simple rhythms, good health in the exercise, and essential knowledge
    of soil and crop conditions in the observations made along the way.  What
    will provide these benefits when he resides in a sealed, air-conditioned
    cab fifteen feet off the ground?
    A Strengthened Inner Activity
    You may ask, then, "Should nothing be automated?"  I didn't say that!
    I've only suggested that we avoid deluding ourselves about automation
    freeing us for higher things.  Have we in fact been enjoying such a
    release?  Any investigation of the matter will reveal that the machine's
    pull is most naturally downward.  It's hard to relate to a machine except
    by becoming machine-like in some part of ourselves.
    When we yield ourselves to automatisms, we become sleepwalkers.  But if
    instead they serve as foils for our own increased wakefulness, then they
    will have performed a high service.  After all, downward forces, too, can
    be essential to our health.  We couldn't walk upright without the force of
    gravity to work against, and our muscles would atrophy without the effort.
    It is, I think, inescapable that we should automate many things -- and, of
    course, there are many pleasures to be had in achieving this.  When I said
    above that an automating mentality will not find any clear stopping place,
    I did not mean to imply that there should be such a stopping place
    -- certainly not in any absolute sense.  In fact, I think it's wrong to
    imagine a stopping place defined in terms of the "objective" nature of the
    Everything is potentially automatable in the restricted sense I
    have indicated, and pretending there is a natural stopping place only
    encourages the kind of mindless automation that is the real problem.  What
    is crucial is for us to be aware of what we're doing and to find within
    ourselves the necessary compensations.  We have to struggle ever more
    determinedly to hold on to the realities and meanings our automated
    abstractions were originally derived from.  That is, we must learn to
    bring the abstractions alive again through a strengthened inner activity
    -- a tough challenge when the machine continually invites us to let go of
    our own activity and accept the task in reduced terms!
    The limits of our compensatory capacities will always suggest wise
    stopping places, if we are willing to attend to those limits.  But not
    absolute stopping places; they will shift as our capacities grow.
    Are we currently setting the bounds of automation wisely?  You tell me.
    Has the accounting software and the remarkable automation of global
    financial transactions been countered by our resolve to impose our own
    conscious meanings upon those transactions?  Or, rather, does the entire
    financial system function more and more like a machine, merely computing
    an abstract bottom line?
    Well, if you're looking at the dominant institutions, I imagine your
    answer will be pessimistic.  But perhaps the most important developments
    for the future are the less conspicuous ones -- for example, the
    alternative food and health systems, the growing interest in product
    labeling, the investing-with-a-conscience movement.  What's essential in
    these is the determination to restore the automated abstraction -- for
    example, the nutrient in the processed food, the number in the
    accountant's spreadsheet -- to the meaningful context it was originally
    ripped out of.
    Holding the Balance
    I guess the sum of the matter is that the restoration entails a gesture
    exactly opposite to the one expressed in, "if it can be automated, it
    should be".  It's more like, "if it can be re-enfleshed, it should be".
    As long as these two movements are held in balance, we're probably okay.
    We should automate only where we can, out of our inner resources, re-
    enliven.  For example, we should substitute written notes and email for
    face-to-face-exchanges only so far as we have learned the higher and more
    demanding art of revivifying the written word so that it reveals the other
    person as deeply as possible and gives us something of his "presence".  Of
    course, this is not the way most of us relate to email -- not even when
    the frenetic, email-influenced pace of work would allow it.
    I suppose few would quarrel with the proposition that our society is much
    more gripped by the imperative to automate than the imperative to re-
    enflesh.  Certainly this is ground for worry, given that the push for
    automation alone is a push to eradicate the human being.
    The threat of eradication was Bill Joy's concern in his notorious
    Wired article.  I share his concern, but it seems to me that the
    effort to define a fixed stopping place is inherently untenable; it just
    can't be done with any consistency.  Nor would we expect that it could be
    done if we had grown accustomed to think organically and imaginatively, in
    terms of movement, balance, tension, polarity (exactly what our machines
    train us away from!).
    It seems to me that some such awareness as I have tried to adumbrate here
    is the prerequisite for our avoiding the eventual loss of ourselves.  It
    must be an awareness of our own, machine-transcending capacities.  We must
    exercise these in a living, tensive balance as we counter the pull of all
    the mechanisms around us.
    This is exactly the awareness that many of Joy's critics have refused.
    It seems obvious to Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines)
    that digital technologies will transform human consciousness, and not at
    all obvious that a transformed human consciousness is the only thing that
    can sustain future technologies -- just as transformations of human
    consciousness have been required to generate and sustain all earlier
    technologies.  There's something self-fulfilling in Kurzweil's prophecies;
    when you lose sight of the machine-transcending qualities of your own
    mind, it is not surprising that you find yourself increasingly susceptible
    to machine-like influences.
    In other words, one way for us to transform our powers of consciousness is
    to abdicate them.  Then it really does become reasonable to see ourselves
    in a competition, perhaps even a desperate competition, with our machines.
    This is the inevitable conclusion of the single-minded drive to automate
    Joy's alarm is justified.  But our core response, while it will certainly
    touch policy domains, must arise first of all in that place within
    ourselves where we are inspired to re-enflesh whatever can be re-
    enfleshed.  To focus instead merely on stopping automation is already to
    have accepted that the machine, rather than our own journey of self-
    transformation, is the decisive shaper of our future.  Yes, we urgently
    need to find the right place for our machines, but we can do so only by
    finding the right place for ourselves.
    Related articles:
    ** Go to part 1 of this article.
    ** Go to part 2 of this article.
    Goto table of contents
    The Emergency Room as an Electronic Game
    Response to:  "Death and the Single Cause" (NF-110)
    From:  Valdemar Setzer (vwsetzer@ime.usp.br)
    I would like to tell you a personal story.
    In 1998, my father-in-law, then 83 years old, had acute health problems,
    was interned into a hospital Intensive Care Unit, and his physiologic
    functions deteriorated.  He was unconscious, firstly due to strong
    sedatives, because he needed artificial breathing.  Then on the third day
    my wife, who is an M.D., noticed that his eye pupils were of different
    sizes.  She realized that he certainly had bad damage in his brain nervous
    functions.  She then told the doctors that they should stop giving him
    medicine and let him die in peace.  Her brother and sister were perfectly
    in agreement with her position.  The next day his doctor came to her and
    told her all the various procedures they were planning to take, like
    dialysis, etc.  "But we don't want this suffering for him anymore!  Please
    let him go in peace." The doctor confessed that his chief said the drugs
    should continue.  When the doctor saw that she was enraged he said:  "But
    we managed to keep a patient this way for over five months!"  She
    answered:  "As doctors, it is our duty to extend the patient's life, not
    to extend his death!" consulted with her brothers, proceeded to the
    chief's office, and ordered him to disconnect the equipment.  He
    protested, said that he gave orders there, etc., but finally agreed.  The
    room was prepared, another patient was removed, and when the equipment was
    disconnected, her father slowly breathed less and less, and calmly died in
    the presence of his children.
    When she told me this story (I was abroad at that time), I had the clear
    impression that some (many?) doctors play with death as if it were an
    electronic game.  They want to feel their power of preventing it, as long
    as possible.  The condition of the patient (and the family) does not
    matter.  It is a game not for life, but against death.
    It is interesting to note that in this case there were no financial
    interests involved:  my father-in-law was under state medical care, so the
    doctors and hospital were receiving peanuts for their work and service.
    With love,
    Valdemar W. Setzer - Dept. of Computer Science, University of Sao Paulo,
    Brazil - vwsetzer@ime.usp.br - www.ime.usp.br/~vwsetzer
    The Intimate Relationship between Good and Evil
    Response to:  "Death and the Single Cause" (NF-110)
    From:  Simon Baddeley (s.j.baddeley@bham.ac.uk)
    I wanted to venture a quick comment on your thoughtful piece.  I think it
    is not at all surprising that good and bad are seen by you as a hair's
    breadth apart.  It was always understood by Christian theologians that the
    devil seeks to get as close as possible to the greatest good.  I am very
    interested in the nature of trust in government and I know that it is a
    vital element of the working relationship between politicians and
    professionals -- but one of the greatest moments of trust is that occasion
    when one person accepts a brown envelope full of cash from another.  Such
    people have a crystal clear grasp of their intimacy and the trust upon
    which it is based.
    Good and evil by this account are not polar but proximate.  This can be
    confusing and makes it all the more impressive that you have been able to
    venture into an area of such moral importance and interest without losing
    your moral touch (a bit like defusing a very dangerous explosive device!).
    You balance on a tightrope of reflective moderation while dealing with
    issues that tempt people to extremes.  I'm not saying you are woolly or
    ambivalent by the way.  Quite the contrary.  I was reminded though of the
    observation of a fine academic social psychologist I knew years ago who
    said the best shrinks are those who stay close enough to madness to
    understand and appreciate it without being drawn into its compelling
    Simon Baddeley
    University of Birmingham
    An Author's Visit to the Mumford House
    Response to:  "Hot Property in Leedsville" (NF-109)
    From:  Gray Brechin (gbrechin@uclink4.berkeley.edu)
    (Gray Brechin originally sent this note to Langdon Winner, the author of
    "Hot Property in Leedsville".  Brechin graciously agreed to its
    publication here in slightly revised form.  SLT)
    Thank you so much for the notice about Mumford's house and the beautiful
    summation of his thought.
    Last summer, just before my book Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power,
    Earthly Ruin was published by University of California Press, I
    visited Yale to look at the papers of Senator Francis Griffith Newlands --
    papers that Berkeley's Bancroft Library does not have.  I then drove into
    the Hudson Valley to visit a friend at Tivoli, but planned the trip to
    make a pilgrimage to Leedsville, since I designed Imperial San
    Francisco to be at least partly a tribute to Mumford's thought.  Not
    knowing where the house was, I stopped at the Carnegie Library in Amenia
    to ask the librarian for directions.  She at first did not understand my
    question and referred me to a section of the library containing all of
    Mumford's works, apparently donated by Sophia.  When I'd made myself
    clearer, she remarked that people come from all over the world to see The
    House, and told me how to get there.  I couldn't miss it, she said:  there
    was a "For Sale" sign outside.
    I drove to the house and parked, and then had an experience that I can
    only liken to my first visit to a Gothic cathedral.  There was no one
    there, and as you said, the house was altogether unremarkable.  I walked
    around it, thinking of the decades they had spent there and the work done
    both inside and out.  I then stood for half an hour, just looking at it,
    intensely moved to be at the site of someone who had such a profound
    impact upon my own life and thinking. Finally, I picked up a stone from
    the gravel driveway, and left for Tivoli.  When I returned to California,
    I told Michael Black and Iain Boal about the sale, and we all agreed that
    the house should be preserved, but had no means to do so, and bowed to
    So I am amazed to hear that it is still on the market.  If some sort of
    campaign can be organized to save the house, count me in.  I can't
    contribute much, but I would give something.  When I was a teenager and
    heard that Frederick Church's house "Olana" in the Hudson Valley was in
    danger, I sent a few dollars, and when I visit that house now and look
    down that splendid valley (which, as you note, is in renewed danger), I
    feel proud that I had some little role in the effort to save it.  Surely
    there must be people around the world who would contribute to saving the
    property there to perpetuate Mumford's memory.
    I'd hoped that Imperial San Francisco would get people to reread Mumford.
    My book did make it to the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list for
    fifteen weeks.  I am delighted when those who know Mumford's work tell me
    that it would have made him proud.  Unfortunately, the book was not
    reviewed in the east coast press.  I am told that its supertitle leads
    eastern critics to think that it is of only local interest to those in the
    Bay Area, when it is, on the deeper level which I hoped to convey with the
    subtitle, about the dynamic pathology of urban metastasis, and of how the
    demands and wastes of megacities are so rapidly rendering the earth unable
    to support life.  I also wanted to show why urban growth must be made to
    seem inevitable and ineluctable, and who most benefits from that growth
    (there is more class analysis than Mumford was wont to do.)  I found that
    even at the recent convention of the Association of American Geographers
    in Pittsburgh, no one seemed to be talking about these critical issues.
    In fact, among the trendiest theoretical geographers, Mumford is not only
    unread but often unknown.  I believe the reason for that is that his
    writings are so un-au courant, as well as so accessibly written.  As one
    of his disciples, I feel somewhat like a Gnostic amidst the Christians,
    and I'm sure that many others who know Mumford's lasting value feel the
    Gray Brechin
    Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow
    U.C. Department of Geography
    Jacques Ellul's Place: Also Worth Saving
    Response to:  "Hot Property in Leedsville" (NF-109)
    From:  David W. Gill (dgill@Northpark.edu)
    (This letter, too, began as a private note to Langdon Winner.  SLT)
    Thanks Langdon ... for a beautiful reflection.
    Five years ago I made a brief but intense effort to find some $$ to buy
    and preserve Jacques Ellul's house in Bordeaux.  Most of the fifty or
    sixty people I contacted responded that it was a great idea but that they
    were overcommitted already and couldn't contribute.  Only one person on my
    contact list attacked my effort, charging me with opportunism!
    In the end we raised about $5k (rather than the $100k necessary to really
    get the ball rolling).  Ten people, by no means the wealthiest, each gave
    $500 to the cause.  We decided to put the $5k in a fund to support efforts
    to transcribe and publish Ellul's unpublished manuscripts.  I'm afraid we
    just couldn't make the dream of buying the house come true. We had to
    yield to financial reality.
    But as I re-visited the old property three or four times this past few
    months while on sabbatical in Bordeaux, I found it incredibly sad to see
    condos and other buildings going up on parts of Ellul's former property,
    now subdivided for "development."  Alas, Ellul's house -- for so many
    years a unique place of gracious welcome to friend and stranger alike, a
    place of warmth and humor, a place of animated conversation and stunning
    insight into truth and reality, a place where great books were written and
    great ideas discussed -- has suffered the fate now befalling Mumford's
    Wouldn't it have been wonderful if both of these houses had been preserved
    for retreats, study conferences and the like?   The memories and the
    impact remain for many of us but one still has to say:  What a shame!
    Fraternally yours,
    David W. Gill
    Carl I. Lindberg Professor of Applied Ethics
    North Park University
    3225 W. Foster Avenue,  Chicago IL 60625
    Tel: 773-244-5662         Fax: 773-583-0858
    Images That Preclude Thought
    Response to:  "Image Ascendent, or Descendent?" (NF-109)
    From:  Irv Thomas (irvthom@u.washington.edu)
    Hi, Steve...
    Just got around to reading your observations on the image thing, and it
    brought to mind something that has been galling me for some time ... at
    least partly because I can't seem to get any confirmation on it, and
    wonder hence if it is just my own perception slowing down because of age.
    It seems to me, Steve, that something has changed in the image production
    -- maybe sometime within the past decade.  Images are being sliced,
    timewise to a precise relationship with the pace at which the mind absorbs
    images, but before we can actually think about them.  I see it as a
    refinement that makes dumb receptors out of us, very much in the way that
    subliminal images were once supposed to do.  In doing so, it also sets up
    an internal tension that is never released by explication of what has just
    been seen -- a steady state of tension that actually does something to our
    Is this so?  And if it is, why isn't there anything being said about it?
    Goto table of contents
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