NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #81 A Publication of The Nature Institute December 10, 1998 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS -------- Quotes and Provocations Here's to the Information Age: A Toast The Human Genome as a Book of Lies Digital Diploma Mills Grinding to a Halt? Breaking through to Reality DEPARTMENTS Letter from Des Moines (Lowell Monke) Computer-Centered Learning Correspondence On Giving a Christmas Gift to My Niece (Wendell Piez) Words Past and Present About this newsletter --------------------- ** From the NETFUTURE Archives ** "Anything can break. Only a system can have a bug." "Instead of the malice of the isolated object, we face ever more complicated possible linkages among systems of objects." (Edward Tenner) (For an updated context, see "Words Past and Present" below.) ========================================================================== QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS Here's to the Information Age: A Toast -------------------------------------- Last June I began an address to over five hundred librarians in Washing- ton, D.C., by saying, "I defy anyone here to tell me what information is." Seeing no takers, I asked how many in the audience, given several minutes to think, imagined they could write down a serviceable definition of "information". Not a single hand went up. Subsequently I put the same question to over three hundred librarians in Calgary, Alberta, and again no one raised a hand. Surely this should pro- voke some reflection in us (as I think it did in many of those remarkably good-humored and sensible librarians). How can we so universally hail the profound significance of living in an Information Age when we don't have the foggiest notion what information is? An official respondent to one of my talks did later fire back, What's the problem? We all know what information is. It's the stuff our users need. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite do it. Coal miners, MacDonalds employ- ees, and dentists are also in the business of providing what their custo- mers need. Does this make them information workers? Actually, though, I think the respondent came as close as one can come to the substance of the prevailing usage: information is "stuff". Which makes him, I suppose, a stuff worker, and our age the Age of Stuff. The nice thing about Stuff is that, while conveniently and all-embracingly vague, it also carries a prestigious halo borrowed from the technical theory of information. (See "Does Information Exist?" in NF #58.) According to this theory, mind you, "information" is precisely defined, but effectively means nothing; the meaning or sense of a text is explicitly excluded from the theory's purely statistical formulations. So it appears we have founded the modern age upon "anything and everything" and "nothing at all" -- stuff and nonsense, you might say. Raise your empty glasses with me. Here's to the Age of Stuff and Non- sense! May its nothingness last for-never! The Human Genome as a Book of Lies ---------------------------------- I've pointed on various occasions to the informational absurdities associated with genetic engineering. If you want a fuller picture, look at the Summer, 1998 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 504-28). Science historian Lily E. Kay, in a piece called "A Book of Life? How the Genome Became an Information System and DNA a Language", traces the bizarre process by which the "scriptural" terminology of information systems has taken root in genetic studies. Citing the "faith ... that we can now simply word-process the genomic Book of Life", Lily goes on to note the "contradictions, misapplications, slip- pages, circularities, and aporias" in the appeals to information, message, code, and language -- "problems acknowledged already in the 1950s". By 1968, she says, the genome had become (erroneously, from a technical standpoint) an information system, an authorless book of life written in a speechless DNA language. This misleading and completely obscure usage has gone a long way toward convincing the public that genetic engineers actually know what they're doing when they juggle and splice snippets of genetic "code". After all, the "code" is being "deciphered", yielding its precise content of "infor- mation" -- isn't it? And aren't we already experts at information pro- cessing -- moving bits of information around in a sensible fashion? As any honest genetic engineer will tell you, the problem of understanding gene expression -- how any given genetic alteration will actually affect an organism -- is one we scarcely have a clue about today. The work proceeds, but it's largely trial and error. All the information talk only obscures this fact, in addition to being the purest gibberish in its own terms. A penchant for gibberish is not exactly what one hopes for in those who propose to rewrite our genetic destinies. Digital Diploma Mills Grinding to a Halt? ----------------------------------------- York University professor David Noble has recently circulated the third paper in his Digital Diploma Mills series. In the earlier papers he lamented the impending takeover of the academy by an unholy alliance of administrators, technology consultants, content distributors, and commer- cial vendors. But now he sounds downright euphoric in his confidence that the resistance has won. I won't make any attempt to summarize his paper, but he cites such developments as these: ** "Expecting an initial enrollment of 5000, the WGU [Western Governors' Virtual University] enrolled only 10 people, and received just 75 inquiries." ** Onlinelearning.net, "the UCLA partner that describes itself as `one of the leading global supplers of online continuing education' .... lost two million dollars in its first year of business and was unable to pay UCLA the anticipated royalties." ** Even the apparent successes are misleading: "At the Universities of Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, the great majority of allegedly `dis- tance learning' customers `are in the dorms' while most online programs, such as those at Berkeley and Vanderbilt, have retention rates of well less than 50%." I'm certainly glad to learn that we may see a pause in the commercial and technological assault upon higher education. But I find Noble's almost manic reversal of expectation a bit odd. While urging continued vigi- lance, he rejoices that "the tide appears to have turned", so that now the words of technology's promoters sound "strangely hollow without the weight of history behind them." But, short-term nonsense aside, the weight of history is substantially behind the promoters. The technological forces that have been re-shaping society will not be deflected by the struggles between this pressure group and that, or by the repeated failure of silly predictions about "imminent" revolutions. What counts, in the end, are changes in the way you and I live and think. Without such changes, the "billion-pounded beast" (see "Breaking through to Reality" below) lumbers forward unstoppably, only pausing here and there to discover where it might lay down the most indelible footprints. Furthermore, the essential technologization of education proceeds quite well with nary a computer in sight. As I pointed out in "Who's Killing Higher Education?" (NF #78), a key issue is the reconceptualization of education as the transfer of information from one place to another, and this sort of education can occur just as well within a face-to-face class- room as over a distance-education network. The deepest technological challenge always comes finally from the fact that, if we are willing, you and I can function as the most adaptable machines ever invented. We are the beast. I would, in a friendly spirit, advise Noble to tone down the triumphal rhetoric and keep his focus on the long-term, underlying issues that are indeed of historic proportions. The "weight of history", after all, has produced the technologization of modern society -- and of our minds with it -- and is not suddenly going to be reversed by the wilting of this month's or this year's Net folly. Incidentally, the best line in the paper, I thought, was this: Socrates ... was not a content provider. It would make a good motto for NETFUTURE. (You'll find a copy of Noble's paper at the Red Rock Eater archive, http://www.egroups.com/list/noframes/rre/975.html.) Breaking through to Reality --------------------------- Writing in Atlantic Unbound (Nov. 4, 1998), Sven Birkerts looks at our society's growing unease about "the vanishing line between the real and everything else". We fear, he says, "that the ancient contours of things may be disappearing." In particular, four recent movies draw Birkerts' attentions: Pleasant- ville, The Truman Show, Wag the dog, and The Game. Each plays with the uncertain boundaries between virtual and real. And, together, they show something about our longings as well as our fears. In The Truman Show, for example, "Truman finally hurls himself at the illusory backdrop of the sky that marks the limit of his world -- he breaks through." The message [Birkerts concludes] is I want out! It's as if at the far side -- after the full immersion in virtual waters -- it might be pos- sible to return with renewed love and trust to the merely real. But this is a pipe dream, of course, for the steady diluting and displacing and supplanting of the merely real continues on all sides. There is no wall to crash back through, no picture tube to emerge from, no uncon- taminated order of things awaiting us. There is no back there. The desire for a return may be real, but even to point ourselves in that direction we would have to start unmaking the billion-pounded beast circuit by circuit. The lesson of Pleasantville -- as if we didn't know it -- is that there is no going back. There's a countering mes- sage, too, about the need to snap out of the media trance -- but taking that message in while watching may be just a little bit too postmodern. It's true that there's no going back. But there is going forward. Unlike Birkerts, I do not regret the distinction between virtual and real. It is only temporary, and does serve at least this purpose: it encourages us to become more aware of our own creative (and destructive) potentials. What makes us give the distinction too absolute a cast today is our ines- capable sense -- a historically unique and recent sense -- that our own creations are at bottom arbitrary. They are subjectively conditioned, and we do not know any solid bridge from our own subjectivity to the world's objectivity, apart from our strange ability as subjects to tinker with and disfigure the world's exterior. So our own works, insofar as they are embodied and ensouled -- insofar as they are perceptible exteriors breathed through by our own interior mean- ings and intentions -- we dismiss as "virtual". They are subjectively engendered, and therefore seem disconnected from the primal, generative powers that have fashioned the mountains and forests and rivers of the objective world. What we have lost in this recent historical shift (which began to set in some four hundred years ago) is the sense that our own consciousness is continuous -- or potentially continuous -- with the intelligence that underlies the world. We are now forced to ask, for example, whether scientific laws are "in the world" or "in our heads", since we can no longer tolerate the only possible answer: "They are in both -- because our own interior is also the interior of the world." The implications of the older view are, of course, shocking to modern sen- sibilities. I know better than to argue with these sensibilities, which have the force of taboo. However, it is always healthy to see how one's own position might appear to those holding completely different assump- tions -- especially when the foreign assumptions are almost impossible for us to comprehend. Therefore, as an exercise, I offer here my own extremely brief surmises about how we would have to construe the "virtual-real" conundrum if we operated with the earlier assumptions: ** Because we participate in the world's interior being, we also contri- bute to the world's evolution -- from the inside, so to speak, and not merely by tinkering with its exterior mechanisms. That is, our love for the world, our devotion to it, our undersanding of its past and future possibilities, our moral and artistic seriousness -- these inner traits are part of what impels the world upon its evolutionary course. ** We can bring the same seriousness to our artifacts. We can, as J. R. R. Tolkien put it, create "by the law in which we're made". In doing so, we connect with what is not merely subjective. We learn to recog- nize the intrinsic potentials of the materials we work with and of the contexts we work in. Our creations are no longer arbitrary, but represent the continued working -- modulated through our own freedom and selfhood -- of the same interior that informs the world at large. ** There's a self-fulfilling quality to the experience of one's own sub- jectivity as a final prison. One ceases the effort to grasp and give one's own expression to "the law in which we're made", yielding instead to a spirit of arbitrariness. The resulting chaotic, ugly, and arbitrary character of so much virtual reality hardly needs pointing out. While the ugliness may seem overwhelming today, there is a long history of art and craft in which the world is revealed rather than obscured. ** We will move inexorably in one of two directions. If the subjectivist illusion triumphs, it will remain no less true that our interior is in fact the interior of the world. And so the hollow arbitrariness of our virtual creations and our meaningless tinkering with the world's mechan- isms will eventually infect the world down to its roots, and we will find ourselves inhabiting a meaningless, hollow, mechanistic world. On the other hand, by letting our hearts beat in sympathetic rhythm with the world's timeless pulse, we may accept in a humble and wise spirit our growing responsibilities as participants in the foundation of the world to come. ** Either way, virtual reality -- such as we make it -- will eventually become neither more nor less than simple reality. Birkerts' "vanishing line between the real and everything else", we can now recognize, was already beginning to vanish long ago. But only now can we fully recognize the fact -- a symptom of the need to take conscious responsibility for our role on both sides of the disappearing line. The prospect is either hellish or beautiful, depending on our ability to escape the subjectivist trance and to reconnect with what, in us, also acts within the world. (These reflections follow upon my participation in the "Owen Barfield Cen- tennial Celebration" at Columbia and Drew Universities this past weekend. You can take them as a gloss upon the remark made at that conference by historian John Lukacs: "The evolution of consciousness -- to Owen Bar- field as to myself -- is the only evolution there is." The conventional evolutionary view, of course, is that consciousness is a kind of magical side-effect of suitably organized matter. The less fantastic alternative is that consciousness -- which appears, after all, within nature as its highest manifestation and as the prerequisite for the very existence of the phenomenal world described in so many science textbooks -- is ante- rior and fundamental.) (Thanks to Michael Corriveau for passing along the Birkerts column.) SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== COMPUTER-CENTERED LEARNING Lowell Monke (email@example.com) Letter from Des Moines December 10, 1998 The image of students breaking out of the four walls of the classroom and exploring the world through the computer is a compelling one. And part of the attraction of that image is the sense of student control over the learning process. The Internet is often cited as offering an environment in which the child can assert his or her own initiative and produce unique results through mastery over a complex machine and the resources connected to it. As is so often asserted, it alters the role of the teacher from "sage on the stage to guide on the side." The emphasis here is on getting the teacher out of the way so the child can take charge of the learning process. Unfortunately, this is mostly an illusion (and a maddening perversion of Carl Rogers' (1969) conception of the teacher as facilitator). There are a number of ways in which the student actually loses control when working on the 'Net. I will only mention in passing the effects of the computer itself. Physically, the computer restricts movement and limits the uses of the senses to sight and, occasionally, sound. For small children espe- cially, who naturally rely on all of their senses, especially touching things, to learn, this hardly constitutes student-centered learning. Whether on the Internet or not, a good share of the control over the student's thinking process passes from teacher not to student but to the programmer, the invisible pedagogue whose first priority is not the indi- vidual needs of a child but satisfying the restrictive parameters of the computer (Bowers 1988). These restrictions are based on the logical, either/or construction of the computing process. It is, by necessity, a tightly constricted intellectual environment. Operating the computer or any program is, at one level, always a multiple-choice activity. I have visited dozens of elementary classrooms where I have observed students clicking away at screens on which they are repeatedly offered four or five choices, all leading down predetermined paths established by some programmer who knows nothing of the individual child making the selections. All the while, a teacher will be pointing out to me how "interactive" the programs are and the value of students being in charge of their learning. A Narrowing of Options ---------------------- What these teachers miss is that they haven't liberated their students. They have merely turned them over to that unknown computer programmer who has already decided all the possible successful actions the students may take. This kind of learning demands shopping-mall thinking, not exploring-the-wilderness thinking. But it is precisely this this-or-that environment that offers a reprieve from the complexities of a world that doesn't respond predictably, that offers hints of meaning often too subtle for a child to recognize, that demands attention to the ideas, interests and needs of other human beings -- in short, a world that tends to frus- trate and stretch the student's mind and emotions rather than cater to them. The computer doesn't challenge the student with ambiguous meanings and inconsistent responses. (If it does, it means something is broken and needs to be fixed, which more and more mirrors the way many of my students view ambiguity and inconsistency in real life.) It offers a strictly deterministic environment of cause and effect. To enter its world is to escape into rigid operational assurance. In a world of spiraling uncer- tainty the computer offers the student a measure of mechanistic control, but only if the student first surrenders to its narrow cognitive demands. The Internet, anarchic though it be, does nothing to loosen this mental straight jacket. It relies heavily on search engines which simply match sequences of meaningless (to the computer system) symbols. They pass no judgment on the veracity, quality or even availability of the sites returned. Postman (1993) reminds us that there was a time when a document had to pass the judgment of history, scholars, community standards and the teacher before reaching the individual student. The Internet circumvents all of these filters (in the process subverting all of the filtering institutions involved) and passes all information directly to the student with nothing attached to distinguish the brilliant from the trash. This absolute freedom of information flow has an unintended consequence in the realm of education. The student, and teacher for that matter, are aban- doned, left to drift in a sea of information with few or no clues as to what will prove to be nourishing and what will be pablum or poison. A couple of years ago, one of my top students tried to use the Internet to gather information on abortion, but eventually abandoned the effort, overwhelmed by the process of sifting through thousands of mostly worth- less links and documents. More importantly, she was unable to determine where much of the authoritative-looking information came from, or who was really sponsoring the "research" cited. She finally just shook her head and asked me for a pass to the library, where editors, publishers, school book selection committees and the librarian offered her the expert assis- tance that neither a search engine nor her teacher could provide. Her experience, and many others since, have helped me to realize that placing on the student the burden of evaluating the worth of every piece of information that arrives on the desktop of his or her computer is not student control of education; it is education out of control. From Learner to Consumer ------------------------ I spend a good deal of my time trying to help my students develop the good "crap detectors" (to use Postman's polite terminology (1969)) needed to cope with the flood of information that flashes on their screens. But these students are 17 and 18 years old; they are presumably able to nur- ture a healthy skepticism. I am not happy about having to teach those same skills to my seven-year-old son. Skepticism is a mature state of mind. To instill a distrustfulness too early produces not skepticism but cynicism. If cynicism is the price he must pay to maintain a measure of control over the influences that are flung at him through the Internet, then maybe he is better off not "taking charge" of his own learning. In this respect the most troubling trend associated with the Internet is the blurring of the line between commercial and educational interests. The controversy that began with Whittle's Channel One advertising is based on the recognition that advertising is less concerned with truth than with manipulation. It is a form of propaganda that has been sanctified as the means of fueling a capitalist economy. But if education is at all concerned with the search for truth, then pro- paganda of any sort does not belong in the schools except as a subject of study. (In our society it should be a required course.) Yet providers and popular 'Net tools are slapping ads on every window presented to the user. Many sites to which the search engines send my students for infor- mation are veiled advertising pages. It is getting more and more diffi- cult for them (and me) to determine what is information provided for the sake of promoting knowledge and information provided for the sake of pro- moting a product, a service or a person. As educational and commercial purposes converge, the message that under- lies it all is that information is a commodity which can be controlled, bought and sold, and that education is the accumulation and consumption of this commodity (Solnit 1995). In the end, control over the student's edu- cation is taken over by the marketplace, and what the student learns from the Internet at the deepest level is the ideology of consumerism. References ---------- Bowers, C.A. The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing: Under- standing the Non-neutrality of Technology. Teachers College Press, New York 1988. Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Dell, New York 1969. Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, New York 1993. Rogers, Carl. Freedom to Learn. Merrill, NY 1969. Solnit, Rebecca. "The Garden of Merging Path" in Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. Boal, I. & Brooks, J. eds. City Lights, San Francisco 1995. Goto table of contents ========================================================================== CORRESPONDENCE On Giving a Christmas Gift to My Niece -------------------------------------- From: Wendell Piez (firstname.lastname@example.org) This morning I got e-mail supposedly from the founder and CEO of a well- known Internet retailer. They have been diversifying operations to include toys, puzzles and games along with books and videos, just in time for the retail rush of holiday season in the USA. And they've got a new feature (the CEO writes): Gift-Click ... is the easiest way I know of to send a gift. Just type in the recipient's e-mail address, and we'll take care of the rest -- we'll even find the physical address. Within seconds, you can select, wrap, and send your gift to anyone, anywhere. Now as it happens, this year I'm faced with the challenge of finding presents for two young nieces (ages 4 and 1). As they live across the country, this message is clearly pitched to me. Thinking of Abby, the four-year-old, I could surf to Amazon and find her a gift "guaranteed to please," a present that, according to statistical predictions based on profiles I would supply ("yes, she likes Barney; no, Power Rangers leave her cold") would be a sure thing to get her attention (for a while) and reassure her of her value, at least in comparison to her peers. On the other hand, I could take the risk of relying on my own imagination and knowledge of her to find, or make, a gift: a handmade card or book, a story recorded on tape in my own unprofessional voice, or a doll, puzzle or folk-toy from a local crafts artist. I would have to wrap it in wrap- pings of my own design, and send it along. Abby would get it on Christmas morning and open it up -- and might find it a disappointment, at least next to So-and-so's plush toy that "interacts" with the television. Would there be an up side to this risk? Well, this is all I can think. The machine-selected gizmo is a sure thing: but it satisfies only so far as my niece is interchangeable with other little girls of her kind. Think of the Alphas and Betas of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and you get the picture. In that world, Shakespeare's works are illegal because they have a disconcerting way of giving people pleasures peculiar to themselves, cultivating individual sensibilities in each reader. And that's intolerable, at least in a well-ordered world where sufferings are all to be eased away by the dependabilities of automation. If Abby is an Alpha, surely she will be happiest if I give her the same present (or something defined within the same parameters) as all the other little-girl Alphas. But if she's not interchangeable, if she's Abby, then the present I pick, the colors and ribbons of the bizarre wrappings I wrap, the words on the card, the relationship I build with her through such peculiar exchanges -- only she is Abigail, only I am I myself -- might have some consequence of their own. (Notice it's not any of these things alone that creates a com- plex exchange; it's all, in irreducible sum.) Pick the interchangeable gift with the factory wrapping and I make her more like the statistical norm. Choose the peculiar, and her peculiar pleasures in return will make her more -- herself? Only her choices will make her herself, I guess: in this case, how she would choose to respond to her uncle's crotchety- crankiness, earnest Puritanism and twisted good humor. But certainly, I will make her more my niece, not merely the niece of some Alpha with a credit card and an Amazon account. Best wishes! --Wendell Wendell Piez mailto:email@example.com Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com 17 West Jefferson Street, Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631 Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285 Goto table of contents ========================================================================== WORDS PAST AND PRESENT (See "From the NETFUTURE Archives Above".) The quotations are from Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (pp. 15 and 272), as reviewed in NF #37. What I did not add in that review was that, just as the malice of the individual object is (apparently) muted by the system, so too is the malice of the individual person. That is, we can participate in a malicious system without there being obvious evidence of malicious intent on our part. But, of course, there's another way to view the matter. A morality that is not forever growing and intimately linked to wisdom -- that is not nourished by ever deeper imaginative insight -- is a morality that must shrink and harden into ... well, a malicious system. But by strengthening the link between morality and imagination, we can learn to be attentive to the ways our "innocuous" participation in the systems around us either feeds what is destructive in them or else brings humane life to them. The possibilities for this strengthened awareness were the subject of a separate essay, "At the Fringe of Freedom", which you'll find at http://netfuture.org/fwd/1998/2.html#1. SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 1998 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.
NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .
Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:http://netfuture.org/
To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #81 :: December 10, 1998 Goto table of contents