NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #56 Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications September 23, 1997 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's Note *** Quotes and Provocations What Are Televisions For? For Whom the Locomotive Rolls Don't Worry about Impressionable Youth Technology Isn't What It Used To Be Education As If the World Mattered *** Why All the Fuss about Stockholders? (Marjorie Kelly) The right to plunder corporations violates the free market Departments *** Announcements and Resources Education and Technology: Conference at Columbia University *** About this newsletter
Don't miss the announcement at the end of the newsletter for a conference on "The Computer in Education," featuring Joseph Weizenbaum, Alan Kay, Fritjof Capra, and others, at Columbia University.
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I resent the whole notion of being intellectually challenged by my television set.Funny thing; the guy sure sounds intellectually challenged to me.
Transport officials did subsequently apologize. And, by way of explanation, a spokesman for the Ambulance Service helpfully explained: "It was obvious after a few trains ran over her that she was dead" (Albany Times Union, September 14, 1997).
He might have added that we'll surely get used to it. After all, we've already learned that the disturbingly red meat of a fresh road kill gets reduced to a bland, barely noticeable gray mat in a remarkably short time.
I share with the profession of "sophisticated" writers an aversion to drawing the overly obvious moral from a story. But, as someone has said, we live at a time when stating the obvious has become the first duty of every responsible citizen. So here is the moral as I see it: The more complex and interlocked the technological system becomes -- and the more our life rhythms are entrained by the system -- the harder it is to countenance any normal human gesture (such as paying respect to a dead person) that would interfere with the system's pre-set and automated functioning.
Which brings us to the central theme of NETFUTURE: as the technological system ramifies, extending its iron filaments through all the interstices of society, we have to work harder and harder at discovering and asserting the transcendent meanings of our humanity. Otherwise, we will be ground under by the ever-reasonable necessities of the system.
Take another, closely related example. As the crowds at sporting events or rock concerts approach 100,000 and beyond, it becomes all too likely that someone will have a heart attack and die during the event. We can hardly expect that games and concerts will be canceled wholesale as a result -- and even less so as the audience expands still further via world-wide television. But there are some healthy lessons one can learn from this.
I can, in the first place, recognize the symptoms for what they are. These mass-spectator events, driven by commerce, are more and more impersonal, and less and less the occasion for significant human exchange or achievement. Technologized sport strives toward the robotic and the sort of specialized-but-one-sided physical capability that characterizes the lower animals; and the rock concert is more an occasion for celebrity worship than for ennobling or revelatory art. In both cases the people around me serve more for the engendering of a visceral, mass psychology than for any sort of transaction in which the individual matters.
Second, having recognized the symptoms, I can with renewed seriousness address the question, "Who is my neighbor?" If it becomes diluted to the point of meaninglessness to speak of everyone in the stadium as my neighbor, it is not at all meaningless to think of a person seated in my section as a neighbor -- particularly when he suddenly starts having difficulty breathing. Or the pedestrian who is being assaulted in front of my apartment. Or, for that matter, the woman who has died under the wheels of the trains I am dispatching.
It is the advertised glory of cyberspace that virtually everyone becomes my neighbor in a kind of global stadium. What this means, of course -- at least along the path of least resistance -- is that no one is my neighbor. A train dispatcher can all too easily appeal to the convenience of the many in making a decision to keep the trains running, thereby turning his face away from one, particularly unfortunate woman.
I do not say that these decisions will always be easy. Exactly the opposite. They can become nearly impossible. It would indeed be folly to try to treat everyone in the stadium as my neighbor -- which is why it seems so natural to ignore those who do momentarily present themselves as neighbors. And the train officials no doubt had vivid memories to draw upon, telling them what it was like to face crowds of frustrated commuters. Commuters have needs, too, don't they? -- and their numbers far exceed those of the suicidally inclined.
The tightening grip of the technological system, which tends to put us all into a "stadium relationship" or a "commuter relationship," requires us to be uncommonly awake. Whoever my neighbor turns out to be in the brave new world, I can be sure that treating him as such will require me to take the path of greatest resistance. And with every new, technological advance, the resistance is likely to become greater still.
Well, I don't know how shocking this sort of thing really is these days -- probably not very. What struck me, though, was the stance of the advertising folks. Says one William Oberlander, executive director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York:
If you have to scream louder or whatever, then so what? No one's really worrying about what it's teaching impressionable youth. Hey, I'm in the business of convincing people to buy things they don't need.Presumably, Oberlander does not take the same, cynical stance toward his own children or those of his friends. Why do the principles change when he goes to work? One can only surmise that it has to do with the "market mechanism" and with what it means to be "in business." Somehow the commercial context, erected upon mass communication technology, filters from our actions the moral implications that hold between individual human beings directly addressing each other. Oberlander apparently functions within a machine so inexorable that his own freedom and moral orientation just don't seem to count. Of course, the rest of us are immune to the appeals of this machine.
Oh, I almost forget. The ads appear to be working quite well.
Well, unfortunately for the argument, human reason happens to exist for the purpose of making distinctions. And one particularly useful set of distinctions bearing on the history of technology was offered this past week by Seyyed Nasr at the Penn State conference on Education and Technology.
Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, said it is flat-out false to equate modern and older technologies. He listed these reasons, among others:
Regarding the last point, I would add that our very word for technology comes from a Greek word referring to the skill and craft of the artisan. And if you're curious about the reigning tendencies, check out the computer science and electrical engineering programs at your university. What sort of artistic work has been integrated into these programs? Or look at what's happening in primary and secondary education, where the crushing cost of new technology is squeezing out shop and art classes.
As to the historical distinctions Nasr was making, a reinforcing point came from Carl Mitcham, who (I believe) is director of the Science, Technology, and Society program at Penn State. He distinguished between tool and machine, noting that the effectiveness of the tool typically derived from the skill of the user. You could not imagine a tool that would do the "right thing" if only you imparted some amorphous, threshold energy to it. The human shaping of that energy was critical. But now we have machines that need only be "flipped on" in order to carry out critical tasks.
None of these distinctions tells us that modern technology is good or bad. They simply tell us what sort of challenge we're up against. As to the prevalent disinterest in understanding this challenge -- well ... that's bad. As people like to say, it's what we do with technology that really counts, and our disinterested doing today can only lead toward the slavery of which Nasr spoke.
it hadn't occurred to me that they'd be quite as awed by the quiet and dark of our campsite as they were. When we walked away from the fire and stood by the lakeshore staring up at the stars on this new-moon night, some of them almost gasped. Of the six kids camping with me, four had never been shown the Milky Way before, even though we live in an exquisitely dark corner, a place where the Milky Way shines from horizon to horizon on a dark night.Stunned by this experience, McKibben came to see that nothing in conventional education gives students an experience of "the splendor of their own world." In fact, education teaches these kids -- whose minds "hum with the fab images of some generic California" -- to escape to a richer place.
McKibben determined to fashion a different sort of education. He and his neighbors expect that, at the new school they've been planning, students will "spend an hour or three outdoors every day."
They're going to know Mill Creek, which runs by the schoolhouse door, in every season; from the age of four they're going to know what a watershed is. They're going to learn music from the violinist who lives next door to the school, and also from the loons that come to the nearby lake in early spring. They're going to learn math in some of the traditional ways, and also by figuring out how those loons migrate. They're going to learn some history from a book, and they're going to learn some more at the town nursing home. They are going to raise food and cook, and they are going to share that food with people in this town who need it, and they are going to learn civics by helping protect the creek and the forest and the lake and the people of this place.McKibben acknowledges that most schools have "units" of environmental education. But he sensibly observes that "what you do every day is what forms you, shapes you." And what most schools in his own New York do every day is prepare students for the state-mandated "regents test."
And, of course -- although McKibben does not comment on this -- the effort to move education online is an effort to place yet an additional veil of distance and abstraction between students and the world in which they live. In the global village, it seems, even the true villager is denied remembrance of the virtues of his village.
(This is an extraordinary issue of a journal that is beautiful and impressive in any case. Orion's contributors include the likes of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Edward O. Wilson, and Barry Lopez. For further information, you can contact the staff at firstname.lastname@example.org or tel. 413-528-4422. The journal is quarterly, and U.S. subscriptions cost $25.)
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From Marjorie Kelly
(The following commentary is reprinted with permission from Business Ethics, January/February, 1997. For information about subscribing and obtaining sample copies, see the end of this essay.)
Where does wealth come from? More precisely, where does the wealth of public corporations come from? Who creates it?
To judge by the current arrangement, one might suppose capital creates wealth -- which is odd, because a pile of capital creates nothing. Yet capital-providers, stockholders, lay claim to all wealth public corporations generate. They also claim the more fundamental right to have corporations managed exclusively on their behalf. Corporations are believed to exist for one purpose: to maximize returns to shareholders. This message is reinforced by CEOs, the Wall Street Journal, business schools, and the courts. It is the guiding idea of the public corporation, and the law of the land -- much as the divine right of kings was once the law of the land. Indeed, the notion of "maximizing returns to shareholders" is universally accepted as a kind of divine, unchallengeable truth.
It is not in the least controversial. Though it should be.
What do shareholders contribute, to justify the extraordinary allegiance they receive? They take risk, we're told. They put their money on the line, so corporations might grow and prosper. Let's test the truth of this with a little quiz: Stockholders fund public corporations -- true or false?
False. We speak as though it were true: "I have invested in AT&T," we say -- imagining AT&T as a steward of our money, with a fiduciary responsibility to take care of it. In fact, dollars don't go to AT&T, but to other speculators. "Investments" reach a public corporation only when new equity is issued -- a rare event.
Public corporations need capital to operate -- $555 billion in 1993, for example. According to the Federal Reserve, equity contributed 4 percent of that. Borrowing provided 14 percent; retained earnings, 82 percent. From 1987 to 1994, corporations bought back more equity than they issued. Dividends flowed out in generous streams: 1.2 trillion. Capital gains piled up. But the flow of funds the other way was nil.
Well, yes, critics will say -- that's recently. But stockholders are pocketing gains today, because they funded corporations in the past.
Not so. Take the steel industry. A study by Eldon Hendrickson examined capital expenditures from 1900 to 1953, and found that common stock provided only 5 percent of capital -- over the entire first half of the twentieth century. Equity capital is one relatively minor source of funding, vital at a certain point. Yet it entitles holders to suck out all wealth, forever. Equity investors essentially install a pipeline and decree that corporations' sole purpose is to funnel wealth into it. The pipeline is never to be tampered with -- and no one else is to be granted access (except CEOs, whose function is to keep it flowing.)
With the exception of initial public offerings, the commotion on Wall Street is not about funding corporations. It's about extracting from them.
The productive risk in building businesses is borne by entrepreneurs and their initial venture investors, who do contribute real investing dollars, to create real wealth. Those who buy stock at sixth or seventh hand, or 1,000th hand, take a risk -- but it is a risk speculators take among themselves, trying to outwit one another, like gamblers. It has little to do with corporations, except this: Public companies are required to provide new chips for the gaming table, into infinity.
It's odd, and it's connected to a second oddity -- that we believe stockholders are the corporation. When we say "a corporation did well," we mean its shareholders did well. Employees might be shouldering an outsized workload, getting by without health insurance, doing without a raise for three years -- still we will say, "the corporation did well." One never sees rising employee income as a measure of corporate success. Indeed, gains to employees are losses to the corporation. Employees can go to work for twenty years, using all their energy to create wealth for a company -- yet not really be considered part of that corporation. They have no claim to wealth they create, no say in governance, and no vote for the board of directors.
Investors, on the other hand, may not know the names of the companies they "own." They may not know where "their" companies are located, or what they produce -- and they may hold stock for only a day. Still, corporations exist to enrich them alone. Only those who own stock can vote, like an earlier time in America, when only those who owned land could vote. Employees are disenfranchised.
We think of this as the natural law of the free market. It's really the government-made law of the corporation. And it violates free market principles. In a free market, everyone scrambles to get what they can, and keeps what they earn. In the artificial construct of the corporation, one group gets what another earns. One group contributes nothing, never lifts a finger, and takes no responsibility ("limited liability") -- yet has a "legitimate" right to siphon off all wealth. Another group does all the work, and makes the corporation a success -- yet counts itself lucky not to be thrown off the premises in a layoff.
The oddity of this is veiled by the incantation of a single, magical word, "ownership." Because we say stockholders "own" corporations, they are permitted to contribute nothing and take everything.
What an extraordinary word. One is tempted to recall Lycophron's comment, during an early Athenian movement against slavery. "The splendor of noble birth is imaginary," he dared to say, "and its prerogatives are based upon a mere word."
You can request a sample copy of Business Ethics, together with their network catalog, by sending a fax to 612-879-0699 (the preferred method), or else sending email to email@example.com. Their U.S. mail address is P.O. Box 8439, Minneapolis MN 55408. Please tell them you were referred by NETFUTURE.
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The featured speakers, who will engage in extended conversation over the course of the three days, include the following:
Ronald Brady, professor of philosophy, Ramapo College.
Fritjof Capra, director, Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, California, and author of The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, and The Web of Life.
Hubert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, and author of What Computers Can't Do, among other books.
Alan Kay, formerly of Apple Computer, and now Disney Fellow and vice president of research and development, the Walt Disney Company.
Edward Miller, former editor, Harvard Education Letter.
Lowell Monke, technology educator and contributor to NETFUTURE.
Gregory Simon, formerly Vice President Gore's chief domestic policy advisor, and now an independent consultant.
Stephen Talbott, your NETFUTURE editor, and author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.
Joseph Weizenbaum, professor of computer science, M.I.T., and author of the classic, Computer Power and Human Reason.
Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College, and author of Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind.
The conference is open to the public, and also offers course credit options. The non-credit fee is $100. For further information, call 212-678-3987.
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Copyright 1997 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.
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #56 :: September 23, 1997
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