NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #67 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications March 12, 1998 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's Note *** Quotes and Provocations The Human Being as Chimpanzee Technology as Infantilism El Nino and Technological Determinism *** The Human Side of Cloning (Craig Holdrege) Are We Driven by Anachronistic Urges? *** Cloning a Mirage (Stephen L. Talbott) People and the Genes That Enable Them Departments *** Correspondence Cryptography Is Fuel on the Fire, Not a Solution (Don Davis) *** Announcements and Resources Our Web Site Is Now Mirrored New NETFUTURE-related Discussion List First Forum on Walden3 for NETFUTURE Readers *** Who Said That? *** About this newsletter
What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE
"Just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed reading your essays over the past many months. You have a deep and refreshing view of these complex issues, which are often treated so superficially. I've assigned several of your essays in my Networks and Society class. Your fan, (signed)"(For the identity of the speaker, who is a leading authority on cryptography, see "Who Said That?" below.)
A lot of possibilities seem to be developing these days. Check the "Announcements and Resources" section below for information about the two new mirrors of the NETFUTURE web site, and a new discussion list for NETFUTURE readers, netfuture-l.
You'll have noticed the new little feature, "What People Are Saying about NETFUTURE". I have received so many intriguing and supportive comments over the lifespan of the newsletter, sometimes from unexpected places, that finally I decided I should share some of them with readers.
If you have a noteworthy reaction to the newsletter, or have witnessed significant fallout from it, let me hear from you. My interest, incidentally, goes beyond glowing positives (although it does include them!) and beyond well-known public figures.
Goto table of contents
Apparently Silver doesn't read alt.sex.bestiality. Anyway, speaking of re-engineering, it sounds as if Silver's own genome could profit from a little selective downsizing. Have they identified the gene for hubris yet?
the technological imagination touches upon the same psychic domain as nostalgia; they both involve fantasies of infantilism. The memory of being unconscious, fully immersed in the world, and completely taken care of is the same as the hope for a future world in which technology will provide these same benefits. That is to say, technology, when enacted without conscious knowledge of what is involved, is not progress but regression. Finding the soul of technology requires that this confusion be clarified, this false hope abandoned, in order to diminish an inflated view of what technology is about and to locate its own limited domain. (Facing the World with Soul, Lindisfarne, 1992)
I suppose media sensationalism and consumer preferences have condemned us to an endless series of "events of the century". But the problem with the El Nino coverage goes beyond mere hype. The media build-up effectively subverts the possibility of public understanding.
All the references to El Nino-driven storms, El Nino-borne allergies, El Nino droughts, El Nino deaths, and El Nino floods have one thing in common: they conjure a picture of some discrete thing or event out there in the Pacific, bearing down on us and threatening to do us in. This thing stands at the head of a chain of causes and effects, with every flooded house and parched coconut tree taking its place in the chain.
So much for an ecological understanding of the world. If we were cultivating an awareness of the whole, we would realize that it makes about as much sense to speak of an El Nino-driven storm in the current rhetorical climate as to speak of a frown-driven rise in blood pressure. Yes, the frown may be followed by the pressure rise, but only because they are both related to a larger, infinitely complex pattern of interactions. The pictorial meaning and coherence of the pattern must be read as much with the eye of the artist as with the mechanical thinking that looks for linear chains of cause and effect. And once we start looking, we may find key elements of the picture in our own back yards. The changes in the Pacific, after all, do not arise from nothing.
The familiar cause-and-effect thinking of science artificially freezes the world and then abstracts from it, yielding falsehood when we forget the freezing and the abstracting. This is true not only in the ecological sciences, but even in the mechanical ones. Owen Barfield once wrote a dialog that included this exchange between Sanderson (a schoolteacher) and Brodie (a physicist):
SANDERSON: Does an effect follow its cause in time, or is it simultaneous with it?Material cause and effect are not clear, rigorous notions. We can usefully employ them in some fields, but only by concealing from ourselves the fluid, interpenetrating unity of things -- only by freezing, fragmenting, isolating, reducing, abstracting. Our ability to perform these operations is priceless; our forgetting that we perform them is disastrous. As the ecologists have made so clear, when we act simplistically, in the state of forgetfulness, we inevitably screw things up.
BRODIE: It follows; otherwise it wouldn't be an effect.
SANDERSON: I know it wouldn't. Is time infinitely divisible?
BRODIE: We must assume so.
SANDERSON: I know we must. Then what happens in the instant of time that elapses between cause and effect? Alternatively, if we say they are simultaneous, how do we distinguish an effect from a cause?
(Worlds Apart -- A Dialogue of the 1960s)
Technology is closely related to science. The popular insistence upon naive, cause-and-effect thinking about technology is why I have largely given up media interviews. One is asked to explain (in a minute or less) why such-and-such a use of technology will produce either utopia or ruin. There is no patience for an elaboration of the finely nuanced social conversation within which technology becomes whatever it is.
Each of us participates in that conversation, and therefore contributes to its outcome. And this I guarantee: if future technological developments do us in, we will be victims, not of some obvious causal mechanism, but rather of the conversational nuances we have missed.
Goto table of contents
From Craig Holdrege
Craig Holdrege, a biologist and teacher, authored the 1996 book, Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. (See NF #31 for a review of the book.) In the wake of the cloning furor raised by Dr. Richard Seed's brief moment of fame, I had the opportunity to question Craig about the developments. Here are his responses. SLT
NF: Is it possible to make an exact copy of a human being?
HOLDREGE: No. I don't mean that scientists will not one day be able to clone a human being, but in so doing they wouldn't be creating an exact copy of someone. The concept of "exact copy" may be applicable in the world of inanimate technological objects. An object like a photocopy has an identity essentially as a replica of something else. But such a concept is totally inadequate when applied to human beings.
Let me explain. When Dr. Richard Seed made his intentions known to clone a human being, I was teaching human biology in a ninth grade class. We were discussing the development of the motor capacities and limbs. We studied how at about the age of one year a child begins to stand and walk upright on feet and legs that are undeveloped and not yet adequate instruments for standing and walking. Only through the activity of standing and walking do the bones, tendons and muscles develop fully. The leg bones actually straighten, the foot bones go through major restructuring, and the arches of the feet form in the course of about six years. These and many other examples show that the form and function of the human body are dependent upon the activity of the individual person. We are in this sense co-creators of our bodies.
After we had considered these phenomena, I asked the students whether in making clones scientists would be creating "exact copies". A clear answer resounded from the class: NO!
These students had seen through the schematic notion of "exact copy" because they had gotten a concrete impression of the complex nature of development, a process in which heredity, environment, and the individual all play a role. A clone is a group of genetically identical individuals. In this sense identical twins form a clone, because they originate from a single fertilized egg. Despite their common genetic origin, identical twins differ from each other even at a morphological level; their fingerprints, for example, are distinctly different.
The danger of such schematic concepts is that they become real in the minds of people, so that we begin "seeing" the human being as a complex genetic mechanism, or the clone as a copy. When we then act on the basis of our misconceptions, our actions can only be irresponsible.
NF: Will scientists eventually clone human beings?
HOLDREGE: The answer is, No one will know until it's tried. In the technique that was used to clone the sheep Dolly, and which is being looked at as a possible model for human cloning, an adult cell was taken and its nucleus implanted into an enucleated egg. This was done 277 times, but only one egg developed further into a full-fledged organism -- Dolly. This shows how uncertain the technique still is. But because the experiment did succeed at least once, many scientists believe it could work with humans.
NF: How do you judge the climate of the scientific and biotech community with respect to human cloning?
HOLDREGE: Human cloning was hardly an issue until Dolly was cloned. At that time -- a year ago -- most scientists clearly stated their moral opposition to human cloning, and many did once again after Richard Seed brought the issue into the headlines in January. But you also find scientists and people involved in fertility medicine making statements that would not have been made a year ago. (See "I Scrambled Your Genes" in NF #62.) More and more, human cloning is being discussed as a purely technical problem. Sean Tipton, Washington director of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, was asked about human cloning. His reply:
It's still dangerous, and you don't experiment on people when you haven't yet figured out how to replicate it reliably in animals .... We need to learn about activating the eggs. We need to learn about and refine our techniques for the nuclear transfer. All these things need to continue on animals. When we get to the point where ninety percent of the time we try it with sheep, we're successful, then we should try it on primates. And when we get to the point we can do it reliably with primates, then, in an appropriate setting, with appropriate institutional review of the experimental protocol, you look for patients willing to give their informed consent and you try it out on a human. But you have to be very careful about getting to the point in the correct manner. (Salon Magazine, http://www.salonmagazine.com/news/1998/01/08news.html)Such statements, if not so detailed -- are becoming more frequent. The climate is clearly shifting.
NF: How does this shift relate to the question of responsibility?
HOLDREGE: In the view expressed by Tipton, responsible science involves carefully organizing the experimental process and achieving an "acceptable" success rate. The issue of whether we want to clone human beings in the first place is neatly avoided. Marcel Lafollette, a science-policy expert at George Washington University, describes the typical objectivist stance:
In the laboratory ... you are supposed to carry the research forward without any regard for questions of what is right and wrong .... Yes, scientists are humans. But they are also trained to look clinically at their work and at least to try to put emotions and subjective criteria aside. (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 22, 1998)This paradigm is a total anachronism at the end of a century that has provided more than enough examples of the consequences of isolated and short-sighted decision-making in research and policy. The more decisions are based merely on narrow scientific and technical questions, the more likely they are to call forth far-reaching, unwanted effects. The case of nuclear power is a prime example and at the same time a powerful metaphor for this problem. Nuclear power plants must be completely isolated from the outside world in order to function properly (the ideal ivory tower). Such a plant may be functional for decades, but the radioactive materials it produces will exist and endanger life on earth for thousands of years to come.
I'm not equating cloning and radioactivity. I simply want to point out very clearly that every step we take in such a technology creates the conditions for the future. At the present, cloning research appears to me to be driven by forces that consider only a limited perspective and would push forward on that basis alone. These forces include the enticement we just discussed: what can be done should be done. Then there are strong economic interests. The industry based on cloning techniques is booming and soon it will be driven to make returns on the large investments. Its primary "responsibility" will be to meet its self-created needs. Can you imagine a more powerful lobby against potential regulations?
Let me mention just one other force that gets in the way of acting responsibly: human egotism. Surely, as techniques in animals become more reliable, there will be plenty of researchers who would love to go down in history as the first scientists to have cloned a human being. At the same time, while much lip-service is given to the "potential medical benefits" of human cloning, most of what is envisioned would be playing out the egotism of prospective "patients". As the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin states:
There are circumstances in which parents may want to use techniques of assisted reproduction to produce children with a known genetic constitution for reasons of sentiment or vanity or to serve practical ends .... Were it not for the belief in blood as essence, much of the motivation for the cloning of humans would disappear. (New York Review of Books, Oct. 23, 1997)In each case -- in the drive to do the do-able, to make money, or to perpetuate one's blood -- the motivation is not taken from what really matters: the human being with the cloned body. The result of this neglect is that the person is denigrated to an object -- exact copy, a source of spare parts, "my" child. If we are to find the basis for responsible action, then we must break through such schematic conceptions to a concrete understanding of the individual human life in its broadest possible context.
Goto table of contents
From Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com)
A few comments on Craig Holdrege's concluding remark (previous article) that "we must break through schematic conceptions to a concrete understanding of the individual human life in its broadest possible context":
The primary schema that needs breaking through is the one given by cause-and-effect thinking, as explained in "El Nino and Technological Determinism" above. We imagine little computational mechanisms -- genes and chromosomes -- at the head of neat chains of causes and effects. The end products of this assembly line are human traits.
But if our aim is the welfare of the whole person, this schema is not very helpful. Mechanisms may work well, or they may not work well, but they have no welfare. Moreover, the notion of genetic mechanisms is as flawed as the popular image of El Nino. In particular:
These points are scarcely controversial. But, while readily acknowledged, they quickly fade from mind before the onslaught of one-dimensional, causal thinking.
There is no doubt that this thinking will lead us to ever more remarkable skills in manipulating the material basis of life. But knowing how to manipulate a thing is not the same as knowing what is best for it. In fact, the manipulation of people, as conventional wisdom recognizes, tends to be antithetic to their genuine welfare.
We can already glimpse the problem by looking at animal experiments. As Holdrege points out, the genetically engineered super-mouse that is now too heavy to climb a stalk of grain will probably not share the researchers' idea of what constitutes experimental success. The researchers lost sight of -- or just didn't care about -- the unity and harmony of the mouse's life, in which such things as climbing instinct and body weight happen to be intertwined. We may indeed find ourselves called to work artistically upon the organism's unity (as perhaps our ancestors did when they domesticated certain animals), but the work will have little in common with the tunnel-visioned tinkering of today's genetic engineers.
That is the crux of the matter. Unless we look at the shape of its entire life, including its purposes and meanings, we have no basis for talking about a creature's welfare. And in the case of persons, the picture we must read is always aesthetically and morally tinged. We are dealing with the depths and needs of the human spirit that must enliven the re-tooled bodies we so blithely engineer.
But it is not I who artificially insert a moral note in the discussion. The artificiality belongs to those who cap their search for mechanisms with ungrounded moral appeals -- as when geneticist Lee Silver asks,
On what basis can we reject positive genetic influences on a person's essence when we accept the rights of parents to benefit their children in every other way? (Remaking Eden, p. 236)"Positive" influences? How did this value term arise from the genetic mechanisms Silver investigates? On what basis does he distinguish positive from negative influences, and in which category does he place Beethoven's deafness, or Helen Keller's blindness and dumbness?
No, I am not suggesting that one person ever has the right to say to another, "This disability is (or is not) good for you". Silver is the one making such value judgments. My point is only that, if you're going to discuss values at all, you damn well better look at the sort of context from which values arise. And a knowledge of genetic mechanisms won't get you very far in that enterprise.
The genetic enhancement of just my child has no impact on society at all. Why is it immoral for me to want the best for my children? (p. 243)It isn't immoral, of course. What is immoral is the attempt to revise someone else's destiny without first doing everything possible to understand it. It is not terribly difficult, after all, to realize our limitations in this regard. A mother might be tempted to spare her child every physical hurt, every psychic wound, every disappointment, but if such a flawed hope for the child's "best" were magically realized, the child would be a monster -- or, at least, not fully human.
In reality, of course, such magic is not possible. Try to protect the child from every possibility of injury, and you may injure him beyond healing. Avoid disappointing his desire for an endless supply of chocolates, and you will store up other, worse disappointments. Such naivete is exactly what underlies the genetic engineer's claim that he lays before us an endless supply of "positive" outcomes which we can merrily take hold of without worrying about the trade-offs.
Of course, if you restrict yourself to this mechanism or that one, refusing to look at the person, you will not be bothered by meanings and trade-offs and questions of welfare. Genetic mechanisms, imaginary or otherwise, need only be "fixed".
A fixing mindset likewise bolsters conventional medicine's bias toward suppressing symptoms. A symptom might be defined as "whatever you attempt to conceive and treat on a cause-and-effect model". If, instead, you seek to promote well-being, you will need a wisdom and artistic insight into the individual standing before you that most medical practitioners have hardly begun to imagine.
You will also find that a disease and its symptoms can play an essential role in the promotion of well-being. We are, in part, our symptoms, and to attack them merely as things to be gotten rid of is to extinguish the person. Symptoms allowed to speak may be engaged and overcome, thereby transmuting themselves into our highest capacities; symptoms unceremoniously waved away take part of us with them.
But this line of thought is apparently far too subtle for those who enjoy fiddling in their high-tech sand boxes with that ultimate tinker toy set known as the human genome, and who revel in the positive engineering opportunities presented by every piece of the set. No need to grasp beforehand the significance of the whole. And no need to fret unduly about what "positive" might actually mean for particular human beings. Values, after all, are not for the scientist to import into his work -- but only for invoking when the grant money is about to run out.
Goto table of contents
Dear Mr. Talbott,
As a cryptography consultant, I'm occasionally asked about my views on key escrow and key recovery. It often seems that most of the civilized world has drawn up into two camps on the topic of cryptography and government policy. However, I take a third position in this highly polarized debate: I suggest that cryptography cannot help resolve this debate, because the technology itself is a polarizing influence.
The privacy-vs.-oversight debate is a very old one in society, and technology has greatly aggravated this tension. Partisans on both sides have sought to embrace cryptography as an unbeatable tie-breaker in their favor, and of course this has just raised the stakes and made both sides desperate not to lose completely. So, I think this technology has served society very poorly, by raising the stakes so dramatically in a contest that neither side should win. After all, given that people never could be trusted not to bash each other's heads in with rocks, inventing firearms didn't solve the problem, and neither did forbidding firearms solve the problem. The existence of firearms just exacerbates the quarrel. So, too, cryptography is not a solution for either side in the privacy debate; it just throws new fuel on an old fire.
In business, key-escrow is necessary whenever regulations or prudence require oversight of confidential operations. Escrow is also valuable for protecting corporate data from destruction due to lossy key-management. None of this addresses the popular debate to which the question refers. The corporate need for escrow has little to do with wiretaps-vs.-privacy for citizens, because privacy rights have little relevance in corporate work, anyway. I think there's some implicit wishful thinking in the question: "Maybe widespread commercial demand for highly-secure cryptography will balance the government's demand for key-escrow." This corporate demand is unlikely to appear. Few if any corporations want to have perfectly-held secrets in-house, because internal and external oversight is an accepted condition of doing business. Indeed, in commerce, trustless cryptography is a solution seeking a problem, because corporations have to trust one another routinely every day. The public-sector's debate about electronic privacy will have to be settled on its own merits, without commercial help.
Network Security Consultant
Goto table of contents
http://www.ifla.org/udt/netfuture/and the other in France:
http://ifla.inist.fr/VI/5/nf/index.htmlFor those unfamiliar with mirrors: they are simply duplicates of a web site -- in this case, of the original NETFUTURE web site at O'Reilly & Associates:
http://netfuture.orgIf one site proves hard to reach or slow in response, you can try either of the others.
subscribe netfuture-l yourfirstname yourlastname(that's an el, not the number one, after "netfuture-") to this address:
The focus will be on issues raised in the current NETFUTURE.
If you're a newcomer to MOOs, you can get on board from a web browser by going to http://www2.hawaii.edu/rap/Walden3/. You'll be given some orienting information and shown how to get into the MOO and to the NETFUTURE location. (Feel free to check in ahead of the public forum, just to familiarize yourself with the environment.) If you're already familiar with MOOs, you can telnet straight to walden3.mhpcc.edu. Give "walden3" as your login name, "pond" as your password, and then type "connect guest". You'll be able to assign yourself a name after that.
I expect to be there. With some trepidation --
Goto table of contents
Dorothy Denning -- as everyone knows who is working in the area of computer security -- is professor of computer science at Georgetown University, specializing in information warfare and information security. She authored the standard text, Cryptography and Data Security (1982), and more recently co-edited Internet Besieged: Countering Cyberspace Scofflaws (1997). Currently she is working on a book about infowar.
In the preface to Internet Besieged, Denning and co-editor Peter Denning write that computer security violations
are a serious threat to information infrastructures everywhere. Until they are addressed satisfactorily, all the widely touted boons of the Internet -- from tele-work to distance education to electronic commerce -- will not be realized .... We also believe that the solutions to these problems cannot be achieved solely by technological means. The answers will involve a complex interplay among law, policy, and technology.SLT
Goto table of contents
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:
To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #67 :: March 12, 1998
Goto table of contents