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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #136                                              September 26, 2002
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       The Evolution of Progress
    What Are the Right Questions? (Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott)
        ... regarding machines and organisms
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    Due to a domain-name disconnect between O'Reilly & Associates (which hosts
    the NetFuture website) and Speednames.com (the domain name registry),
    www.netfuture.org was inaccessible for a week or two, until a few days
    ago.  I was on vacation at the time the problem set in.  You should have
    no difficulty reaching the site now.
    With the relatively brief exchange in this issue, Kevin Kelly and I resume
    our ongoing dialogue.  Given our previous difficulty in achieving direct
    engagement, this current installment represents, I think, a kind of
    pulling back on both our parts to reassess how we might proceed more
    effectively.  This introspective pause appears to have been helpful, and I
    am now much more optimistic about the prospects for a mutual illumination
    of our two views.
    A fair while back I mentioned a piece I'd written called "The Lure of
    Complexity", an essay about complexity studies in science.  Part 2 of that
    essay is now available on our website:
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    The Evolution of Progress
    A few notes from my re-reading of Historical Consciousness, a 1968
    work by historian John Lukacs:
    ** "Those who keep talking about our Revolutionary Age of Dizzying Change
    and of Unprecedented Progress [Lukacs writes] literally don't know what
    they are talking about".  In particular, he argues that, for large numbers
    of people in the West (and especially the U.S.), living conditions -- life
    expectancy and infant mortality; the occurrence of physical pain; the
    quality of personal medical care; the literacy rate; the comfort and
    conveniences supplied by house-wide heating, indoor plumbing, electricity,
    hot water, fans, elevators -- all these "changed more radically during the
    fifty years before 1914 than at any time in recorded history before or
    ** He goes on to note that the same thing holds true for communications:
       Napoleon could progress from the Seine to the Tiber no faster, and no
       differently, than could Julius Caesar two thousand years before:  yet a
       century later one could travel from Paris to Rome in less than twenty-
       four hours in a comfortable sleeping-car.  The locomotive, the
       steamship, the motorcar, the submarine, the airplane; the radio, the
       telegraph, the telephone -- they were all invented and put into
       practice before 1914, the only post-1914 invention of this kind having
       been television.  Of course, there is a difference between the
       supersonic jet plane and the Wright Brothers' contraption, but it is a
       difference in degree not in kind.  Sixty-five years ago one could
       travel from New York to Philadelphia in one hour and forty minutes, on
       comfortable and well-appointed trains available at every hour of the
       day.  Not only have comfortable and well-appointed trains, at least in
       the United States, nearly ceased to exist; but also, jet planes and
       superhighways and all the recent governmental double-talk about high-
       speed rail lines notwithstanding, I strongly doubt that we shall in our
       lifetime travel from city to city in such speed and comfort as could
       our ancestors more than fifty years ago.  (pp. 306-7)
    This doubtless needs a qualification or two these thirty-four years after
    Lukacs published those words -- for example, concerning the ease of travel
    between cities on opposite sides of the globe.  There is also the question
    of digital technologies, although one could well argue that, for many
    people (teachers, for example), computers have brought more complication,
    frustration, and distraction than positive change.
    ** In any case, my own suspicion is that the longstanding conviction that
    we live in an Era of Dizzying Change and Unprecedented Progress is itself
    a good place to look for really significant change.  If I read the trends
    at all correctly, our idea of progress has been shifting.  Where, a
    century ago, progress just seemed to be the way society and science and
    evolution worked -- a kind of law built into the nature of things -- now
    progress is increasingly felt to depend on fateful choice.  We find
    ourselves situated on a knife edge, with a hopeful future on one side and
    catastrophe on the other.  Not that we always have a clear idea which is
    which!  But, one way or another, we sense that we are choosing our own
    fate.  This is the result of the continuing emergence, or coming of age,
    of the modern individual.  We are, in fact, more responsible for
    the future than our predecessors were, if only because we have grown more
    aware of the implications of our activity.
    ** Ironically, science and high tech are perhaps the most backward
    fields in this respect.  In complexity studies, for example, you see
    a mechanical notion of automatic progress still fully enshrined -- and
    almost worshipped.  And it is among computer and genetic engineers that
    you are most likely to encounter the sentiment, "Progress is coming and
    there's nothing you can do about it; resistance is futile".  On the other
    hand, in the massively flourishing civil sector -- with its interests
    ranging from environmentalism to disaster relief to reform of corporate
    governance to feminism -- you find everywhere a humanly gripping sense
    of divergent possible outcomes, and of responsibility to choose among
    It may be that we are so powerfully riveted by the idea of Dizzying Change
    in part because unanswered questions of destiny -- questions only the
    responsible individual can answer -- trouble our psyches.  An easy way to
    disburden ourselves of the resulting unease, of course, is to project our
    own responsibilities onto the external "mechanisms" of the market or
    history or evolution, which will carry us forward in the right (or at
    least the inevitable) way without any need for our conscious guidance.
    But, clearly, this will not do for growing numbers of people.
    ** As always, however, one needs to look for contrary tendencies in
    dialogue with each other.  We see not only the individual being called to
    stand firmly within himself and to plumb his own moral resources, but also
    the individual disappearing into the machinery of the age.  In this
    regard, Lukacs notes "a monstrous kind of intellectual stagnation" whereby
    "certain institutionalized ideas, no matter how absurd, live on":
       There are enormous institutions, in enormous buildings, employing
       enormous numbers of people, incarnating and representing basic ideas in
       which hardly any of them -- employees or beneficiaries -- really
       believe.  (Examples of such institutions:  compulsory education courses
       in the United States, compulsory Marxism-Leninism courses in the Soviet
       Union.)  (pp. xxxiii - xxxiv)
    To Lukacs' examples of this "bureaucratization of intellectual life", I
    would add many of the large commercial corporations of our time, where
    huge numbers of employees spend their days serving ends they have no deep
    convictions about.
    ** In a later "Conclusion" to his book (written in 1985), Lukacs quotes
    William Barrett on the misunderstanding of "future shock":
       People are not shocked by technical novelty; they gobble it up like so
       much cotton candy.  And they are scarcely conscious of the way in which
       they are transformed in the process.  The shock .... comes from
       encountering the residue of the old and immemorial that is still with
       us -- the core of life that has not changed and that technology cannot
       master, the old emotions and the old quandaries.  (pp. 329-30)
    We had imagined we were getting a new world, with all its exhilarations;
    what could be more unsettling than to discover this world populated by our
    same old selves?
    ** In our democracy, Lukacs avers, ideas may move remarkably slowly:
       Texts and pictures may be flashed across the world in seconds, tens of
       thousands of people are transported across continents in hours:  but
       the movement of ideas, together with some of the most essential forms
       of human communications, are slowing down, breaking down .... the dead-
       weight impact of an accepted idea may roll on and on, influencing men
       and events long after its original rational springs stopped flowing.
       (p. 142)
    Nothing reminds me of this dead-weight impact more than our failure,
    during these latter days, to renew and revivify our notions of patriotism
    suitable to our current situation, as opposed to merely trotting out
    symbols and rhetoric from the past.
    ** I found myself often wanting to quarrel with Lukacs on this or that
    point.  One example.  In discussing the slow movement of ideas, he remarks
    how, despite this slowness, Americans acquire and exchange things
    with great rapidity:  "their possessions and their sense of possession are
    extraordinarily impermanent".  In this fact he sees evidence that,
    whatever else we may be, we are not a "materialistic people".
    I will not venture a generalization one way or the other about our
    being a materialistic people, but I do think Lukacs' remark reflects a
    misunderstanding of materialism.  To value possessions and the permanence
    of things is not to be materialistic.  Rather, it is to recognize
    something more than mere materiality in the things.  It is to receive
    the material object as a bearer of meaning and value, which suggests
    that the object is not really material in its essence.  The true sign
    of materialism, I would argue, is the disregard of material things;
    they become mere interchangeable gadgets precisely because, on the
    materialistic view, they can hold no value, no inner significance.
    Goto table of contents
                          WHAT ARE THE RIGHT QUESTIONS?
                        Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott
                         (kk@kk.org; stevet@netfuture.org)
    This exchange is part of an ongoing dialogue about machines and organisms.
    For the previous installment see NetFuture #133.
    KEVIN KELLY:  Sometimes when two people disagree, they try their best to
    explain and in the end they still disagree.  How can two who speak the
    same language, grew up in the same culture, if not neighborhood, or maybe
    even raised in the same family, read the same books, hear the same news,
    talk to the same people -- how could they disagree on such fundamental
    concepts?  How can one culture produce a Jimmy Carter and the guys
    who believe the 9/11 disasters were engineered by a conspiracy?  How could
    one culture yield both Steve Talbott and Kevin Kelly?  And we aren't even
    the extremes.  It beats me, but that is the glory of the world.
    I don't think we can expect much agreement, Steve.  But that is not what I
    was looking for.  This began many cycles ago because I felt that your
    incredibly forthright essays were inadvertently dissing the very people
    you hoped to reach.  You have thought a lot about these issues, and have
    much wisdom, but will your language and stance allow it reach those active
    in constructing what you rail against?  I have been engaged in this dialog
    constantly on the lookout for some argument, some counsel that I could
    bring back to technologists -- a bit of insight that would speak to those
    making the world I describe, and perhaps change their minds. But I
    feel empty handed.
    So let me try this directly.
    There are thousands, if not hundred of thousands, of creative humans
    around the world currently building, directly and indirectly, the
    convergence of life and machine.  You claim to not want to talk about what
    will be, but about what is; nonetheless, in the near future there will
    be beings which you, or your counterpart, will not be able to
    distinguish between an organism or machine.  These entities will be both
    in the lab and in our lives; some will be operating in the background out
    of people's awareness, and others will be in our faces.  Some will start
    as genetic organic beings and will end up like machines, and others will
    begin life constructed and end up organic.  Their existence isn't a matter
    of conjecture, or philosophy, or definitions.
    My question to you:  What is your advice to those now working on these
    projects?  If you had the chance to send them a short email that you know
    that they would have to read, what would you tell them?  I suspect
    references to Kant and Coleridge aren't going to cut it for this.  It
    needs to be utilitarian.  What would you like them to do (or not
    do)?  To keep in mind, or not keep in mind?
    Would you tell them to stop now, stop working on these projects of
    convergence, they are morally wrong.  Why are they wrong?
    Or would you say, keep working, but as you work, make these new things
    this way, a better way.  What way?
    Or would you select some types of machine/organism cyborgs and say these
    are wholesome and those are worrisome; work on these.  Which ones, and how
    do you choose them?
    In fact we don't have to wait a hundred years, because if you don't shift
    definitions, right now, here and now, we already have artificial
    intelligence, synthetic consciousness, directed evolution, man-made life,
    genetic engineering, hybrid vigor, mechanical organisms, and the
    convergence of the made and born.  In small doses it is here now.  We are
    making the next version tomorrow.  Whether we come to agreement in
    NetFuture or not, the work will go on.  It accelerates every year.
    Is there anything you want to tell us while we make this new world?
    If you can keep it to a few paragraphs, something they can paste up on
    their cubicle, I can pass it on to the troops.
    STEVE TALBOTT:  You are frustrated and would like a few paragraphs from me
    to help clear the air, if not settle matters.  You want those paragraphs
    to be utilitarian, instructing your engineer friends in what I think they
    should do or not do.  And you would like me to address the fact that "we
    already have artificial intelligence [and] mechanical organisms".
    I will try, as far as possible, to give you what you ask for, all the more
    because I think you have real cause for frustration.  What I offer,
    however, may not come in quite the form you are looking for, and this
    itself may help to clarify the differences between us.
    But first, there's one place where, unfortunately, I cannot meet you at
    all.  You keep telling me that we already have mechanical organisms and
    that I should get used to it.  But isn't this exactly what we've been
    debating?  You can't simply assert your hybrids into existence!  We both
    have to look at the things we are talking about and offer criteria by
    which to lump them together or distinguish them.  The question is then how
    well our criteria fit the reality.
    In case there remains any doubt:  I do not think our mechanisms are
    on their way to becoming organisms.  The sense in which we embed
    intelligence or ideas in mechanisms -- amazingly sophisticated though it
    is -- is not the sense in which intelligence works in organisms.
    Beyond this, I have to admit that supplying the "few paragraphs" you
    desire seems a daunting challenge.  I'm hoping you will be able to see
    Suppose I asked you for a few paragraphs capturing the difference between
    Spanish and English culture.  Or between the Van Gogh and Cezanne styles.
    Or between the contemporary and medieval European mind.  Each of these
    tasks would involve you in a deeply qualitative enterprise.  There is no
    simple list of facts or well-understood ideas that would reliably do the
    job for your readers.
    Yet your paragraphs about Spanish and English culture might succeed
    brilliantly.  If so, they would necessarily have a poetic element --
    something that enabled the Englishman to make the various metaphoric leaps
    enabling him to "get inside the skin" of the Spaniard.  But, of course,
    your paragraphs would by no means nail the differences in any exhaustive
    sense, and while some reader's might "get it", others would not.  And for
    your readers to receive any of your meaning at all, they would have to do
    a great deal of inner work.  In the end, a profound appreciation of the
    cultural differences you were pointing at might require a lifetime's
    effort.  Most readers might not bother, preferring the certainties of
    their own comfortable thought-world.
    It appears to me, Kevin, that the distance between your and my views is at
    least as great as the distance from London to Madrid.  It is, in fact,
    more like the chasm separating the dawn of the scientific revolution from
    our own day.  A tremendous effort is required of anyone who would leap
    across these past four centuries so as to understand the broad disjunction
    between the older mindset and our own.  Moreover, a crucial aspect of the
    qualitative difference between these two eras has to do with the
    progressive loss of sensitivity to qualities themselves, especially within
    the primary cognitive enterprises of society.  This has been the result of
    an explicit choice to ignore qualities within science, and is why the
    artist and craftsman, who must attend to qualities, have so little
    to do with science today.  (It was otherwise in Galileo's day, not to
    mention Da Vinci's.)
    So what I am asking you to consider is the possibility that these past
    several centuries have brought us, not only many gains, but also the loss,
    at least in relative terms, of certain cognitive capacities.  These have
    to do with a discriminating sensitivity to the qualitative aspects of the
    world.  And I am further asking you to consider the possibility that
    everything I've tried to say about wholeness and organisms can only begin
    to make sense through the recovery of what's been lost.  The only
    wholeness we can talk about is qualitative wholeness.
    That is, if wholeness is to be found, it is through attention to the very
    qualities that science has assiduously ignored for several centuries.  So
    you can hardly expect this wholeness to be a self-evident matter in our
    Many of those who are concerned to extend their cognitive reach find it
    obvious that they should have to pursue various exercises for training
    their perception and thinking.  This is certainly true for those
    interested in the development of a qualitative, or Goethean, science (with
    which my own organization, The Nature Institute, is concerned).  It
    requires no less work to strengthen atrophied mental capacities than it
    does for atrophied physical ones.
    One thing I can recommend in general is the value of immersing oneself in
    a different culture or a different historical era, then trying to
    articulate as clearly as possible what is distinctive about the foreign
    consciousness.  This involves one in a difficult, qualitative adventure,
    and the effort cannot help but counter the mechanistic one-sidedness of
    our contemporary culture.
    So if I were to offer one piece of advice to your engineer friends, it
    would be this:  read (and, for a few years, live with) Owen Barfield's
    History in English Words.  (See below for ordering information.)
    The suggestion may seem quirky, but it is quirky only in the way that all
    such advice must be quirky:  it cannot fit everyone.
    I realize that this is a long way from answering your specific questions
    about whether engineers should work on this project or that one, and so
    on.  But you have to understand how wrongheaded it would be for me to
    focus my argument upon that level of advice, in view of what I am saying
    overall.  I am pointing to a different way of seeing the world, a
    different set of meanings.  Without these altered meanings,
    whatever new things we do will turn out to have much the same old
    significance.  But with these altered meanings, even the same old
    activities will gain entirely new dimensions; they will no longer be the
    same old activities.  (That principle of wholeness again!)  In the matters
    of deepest import, what we do counts much less than what sort of people we
    Finally, you warn me that "references to Kant and Coleridge aren't going
    to cut it" with your crowd.  Of course, I haven't asked anyone actually to
    read Kant or Coleridge (and have probably read far less of them myself
    than you imagine).  But the evident message in your warning leads me to
    wonder:  do we really need to be so timid in challenging your friends?
    After all, they bring a stunning intellectual subtlety and sophistication
    to the complex technologies they work with daily (thereby, I might add,
    complicating the lives of numerous other people, who have been forced to
    cope with the unfamiliar terms of an engineer's world).  Why should these
    engineers demand an absence of subtlety when they finally turn to the
    traditions of humane learning many of them have ignored for so long?  Such
    a demand would seem to reflect an assumption that nothing very profound is
    on offer outside the sphere of engineering.
    But perhaps you're just being too cautious.  I suspect that many engineers
    will welcome the insights to be had from unexpected quarters, and will
    accept the need to work for those insights.
    As I mentioned, Kevin, I do think you have ground for frustration.  I owe
    you a much fuller and more adequate characterization of the neglected,
    qualitative pole of our mental functioning than I have yet provided.  Such
    a characterization is central to everything I've been saying, and to the
    differences between us.
    I felt a bit sheepish, even guilty, when you said you'd come away from our
    conversation empty handed.  After all, if the meaning-gap between our
    positions is as great as I'm suggesting, then I am all the more obligated
    to provide you with the leverage for a metaphoric leap across that gap,
    something I clearly haven't done.  And, at the same time, I need
    continually to assess whether I myself have adequately leapt the gap in
    the opposite direction.  I guess we've both got plenty of work to do to
    make this conversation blossom.
    (Note:  Readers can order Barfield's History in English Words for
    $10.95 plus shipping by calling 800-856-8664 or going to
    KK:  I am in awe of your gentle and graceful admonishment.  You have put
    your perspective and hesitations very clearly here, and as usual you have
    done it with honesty and sympathy.  I feel you have done all you can to
    meet me at least halfway, if not further.
    I take your point and accept it:  there is an outlook on the world that
    people in the past had which is very difficult to us now to either
    understand fully, and sometimes to appreciate.  It takes work, effort,
    discipline and practice to connect with such outlooks.  Those kinds of
    alternative world-views are so attractive to me that instead of going to
    college I spent my time in Asia, trying to look at the world through its
    eyes.  (I eventually married a native Asian, and our kids are bilingual in
    But it's been the world of the past that has offered me the most in other
    views.  Most of my reading these days is history.  I particularly love
    material that helps me get into the mindset of people living with less
    technology.  One of my favorite books is The Long Ships by Frans
    Gunnar Bengtsson.  This work of historical fiction is little known in the
    US (in fact it is out of print here, but you can get copies in the UK),
    but this is the book that almost any Swede will hand to you and say, if
    you have to read one book that will help you understand the Norse mind,
    this is it.  No other text has immersed me so deeply into what the
    medieval mind (not just the Vikings) were thinking.  For the first time I
    got what superstitions were about, what religions were to ordinary
    unschooled folks then, why dignity was more important than life, and so
    on.  By the end of this saga, I felt I could almost think medievally.
    A likewise little known masterpiece from Russia is the only other work to
    have transported me to the medieval mind so thoroughly.  It's a
    breathtaking film about a historical wandering medieval icon painter
    called Andrei Rublev (the film is called "Andrei Rublev") and everything
    about the film is as unHollywood as it could possibly be.  No chase
    scenes, no love scenes, no third act, etc.  Imagine if you could somehow
    give a bunch of medieval monks and craftsmen back then a 35mm Black &
    White movie camera and asked them to make a film.  They'd have a weirdly
    different point of view and unconventional (to us) manners and filmic
    language.  That's what this film -- which was banned by the Soviets for
    decades -- is all about.  Seeing the world from a bygone view.  Strangely,
    disturbingly beautiful, too.
    I will seek out Mr. Barfield's opus per your recommendation.  Quite to my
    surprise, nerds and geeks are often far better read than I, and the
    engineers I know have no trouble appreciating the ideas of Kant and
    Barfield.  But the reason those philosophers aren't going to cut it in
    this assignment -- to give some advice to machine makers -- is that (IMHO)
    their ideas are not up to speed and they are not going to help the
    engineers make decisions today.  For better or worse the philosophers
    whose works are influencing the engineers are science fiction
    authors.  Why?  For the very reason you have brought up -- there is a
    different perspective now, a different cultural matrix, a whole different
    conceptual language, and those guys don't speak it, but the science
    fiction authors do.  You can either force this generation to speak the old
    philosophy, or else breed some new philosophers who speak the new.  I was
    trying to urge you -- who know the old perspective -- to speak to the new.
    But it is okay if you don't want to.
    You said:  "In case there remains any doubt:  I do not think our
    mechanisms are on their way to becoming organisms."
    I love it when you are so clear!  Let's take this crystalline statement
    as a forking path.  If I am wrong, and indeed mechanisms are not only
    not becoming organisms, and never will, then what should we -- the people
    making the future -- be doing differently?  Well, I guess you might say
    we should pay more attention to your ideas of qualities, and the science
    of qualities.  And how might that help us?  (This is your cue .... )
    On the other hand, what if I am right?  What if machines are on
    their way to becoming organisms.  What if I could present evidence that
    convinced you of that.  If you accepted that idea, what would your
    response be?  If you woke up one morning convinced that by gosh, oh my,
    egad -- machines, those cold  critters, really are merging into living
    organisms!!!!!  What would you do differently?
    Finally, I would ask you, what would you need as fully convincing evidence
    that machines and organisms are truly becoming one?  What would the needed
    proof for you look like?
    Go to the next installment of this dialogue"
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #136 :: September 26, 2002
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