NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #68 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications March 31, 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 Information Trumps Reality Good-bye Organic Food? The Computer as Teacher *** Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 3) (Stephen L. Talbott) A Taste for Number Magic Departments *** Who Said That? *** About this newsletter
What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE
"For all us tin men and straw men, NETFUTURE is a reminder to keep our hearts and heads about us in the challenge of a hugely seductive catastrophe."(For the identity of the speaker, who brought "technology refusal" to the consciousness of educators in a widely read 1993 essay, see "Who Said That?" below.)
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A young woman hobbles painfully onto the college basketball court and positions herself by her team's basket. The whistle sounds, a teammate throws her the ball, and -- while the opposing players stand and watch -- she puts the ball through the hoop. Then the young woman hobbles back off the court and the other team shoots a basket, similarly unopposed. With the score now 2-2, the real game begins. But the young woman, whose college career-ending injury had left her one point shy of the scoring record, now has her record. Everyone feels wonderful (with the possible exception of the previous record holder).There you see the mystical power of information. The fact in the database takes precedence over the brilliant, real-life career supposedly being honored. Of course, the career was actually being dishonored. The supporters of the pre-game exercise said, in effect, "The young lady's career lacked its own intrinsic meaning and value. None of us will sufficiently appreciate her without the additional two points in the database, however artificial and disconnected from her achievement they may be."
The idea of it all is brutally clear: manipulate a human life so as to produce a bit of stored information, which then becomes the basis for appreciating the life. Information today less and less derives from real life; more and more it defines real life.
The Net, of course, is the primary Kingdom of Information. Many of its current policy debates can be seen as expressions of the following problem: when our "presence" on the Net dissolves (as it tends to do) into decontextualized bits of information, what distortions affect the various recontextualizations that occur? That is, how do our lives get redefined?
The data harvester with a product to sell redefines us one way, the bank's loan department assessing our credit data redefines us another way, the politician analyzing survey data with an eye on the upcoming reelection redefines us yet another way, the security cracker looking for an opening, the lonely person looking for a conversation, the haranguer looking for a soap box ... each finds it all too natural to cultivate a reduced image of the human being on the other end of the channel.
The same danger certainly occurs off the Net as well. But there is no denying that the more thorough and easy the decontextualization -- and the Net is a veritable engine of decontextualization -- the more difficult it is to remain faithful to the real-life depth of persons and communities in our various reconstructions. Information, fragmented though it be, takes on a life of its own.
That is unfortunate, because information is not so much the beginning of understanding as the end of it. Information is the last, abstracted residue of what once was living knowledge. In the case of basketball, it is the reduction to mute number of moves to the hoop that only a poet, physiologist, mechanical engineer, sports analyst, and artist, combining their insights, could capture with any justice.
After decades of struggle by organic growers, distributors, and retailers to establish reputable certification procedures and gain a toe-hold in markets overwhelmingly dominated by conventional agribusiness, the organic movement has finally looked like taking off. Since 1990 the market has grown by 20 percent per year. Sales in 1996 were $3.5 billion.
Too lucrative, apparently, for the big boys to ignore any longer. So along comes the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a proposed federal rule for organic labeling. The new rule prepares the way for:
To allow these practices -- all of which are banned under existing organic certification programs, and all of which violate the expectations of the buying public -- is to go a long way toward destroying the market.
Agricultural officials have every right to the belief that those who prefer to grow and eat organic produce are pursuing a scientifically empty ideal of health and wholeness. But it is quite a different matter simply to redefine the enemy into your own camp, denying it the freedom to establish its own distinctives and to pursue its own ideals, illusory or otherwise.
And that is exactly what the Department of Agriculture is proposing. In a downright amazing attempt to stifle a free market, the new rule forbids the certification of any food that advertises standards more stringent than the ones now being put forth. The would-be organic grower cannot even tell the customer that this food or that was produced without antibiotics or without transgenic organisms. Customers of "organic" produce will no longer be able to make choices based on whatever information they deem important.
The message is clear: "If we experts deem your standards unfounded, we will legally discourage you from gaining the information necessary to act upon them." It's a strange position to take at a time when markets of every conceivable sort, driven by informed consumer choice, are all the rage.
One other thing. Peter Hoffman, a chef and restaurant owner, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece,
Organic food is not just about a product; it is a philosophy in which the process of production is as important as the final result. Organic growers rightly believe that soil is a living organism to be nurtured and that farming practices need to be concerned about the long-term health of workers, consumers, and surrounding water supply and the animals living within the habitat. (March 24, 1998)All of which highlights a generally ignored fact in the Age of Information: what counts as significant information depends upon our fundamental, qualitative meanings -- the inner light with which we view the world. All the great issues facing us hinge upon the qualities of that light, qualities determining what stands out as significant and what does not. Nothing deep and difficult ever hangs upon mere information.
The deadline for commenting on the USDA's proposed rule is April 30. You can check out the rule and offer commentary by going to the USDA's web site:
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nopAlso, you might want to look at the sites for organic farmers and the organic trade association:
** Educational consultant Edward Miller: "The biggest problem children face in our society today is the lack of close, caring relationships with adults."
This is a point the advocates of the electronic classroom have so far not cared to emphasize. And yet, the entire future of education hangs upon it.
** Ronald Brady, professor of philosophy at Ramapo College: "When we put a computer in the classroom, we've put in an objectified image (for popular consciousness) of the mind."
A mind, incidentally, that all too readily stands in for Miller's "caring adult". As teachers in the Des Moines school district recently told me: "Students listen to what they find on the Net before they listen to their teachers. Computers have more credibility with kids than either print or live teachers."
** Douglas Sloan, professor at Columbia Teachers College and organizer of the conference: "Problem-solving techniques can't tell us what the problems are".
If we know perfectly well what a problem is, then we are also close to knowing what the solutions are. A truly unsolved problem is one we don't yet fully understand, so what it requires of us first of all is an ability imaginatively to reconceive what the problem is. We must see it as something different from what we saw at the beginning. After all, what we saw at the beginning was problem-ridden.
Computers excel at manipulating the data relating to well-defined, and therefore largely solved, problems. Re-visioning a real problem -- seeing it as something different from what the programmer may have had in mind -- is only possible through the development of our own imaginations.
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From Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com)
In Part 2 of this series I briefly dealt with the doctrine of the Invisible Hand. There I argued that the transmutation of private selfishness into public good simply doesn't occur within any social reality we know. The conviction that it does, however, grows out of a fundamental habit of the modern mind. That habit, as it finds expression in economics, is the subject of this installment.
It's one thing to work toward a worthwhile goal, pursuing it in an economically disciplined and profitable fashion. It's quite another thing to make profit your primary goal and the measure of everything else.
Society's welfare hangs upon the difference. The difference, moreover, is immediately recognizable in all concrete human contexts where people are actually paying attention to each other. It's the difference between serving each other's needs as effectively as possible, and using each other. And yet, the concerted drive of economic theory and commercial practice has been to obliterate the distinction. If we fully succeed in the obliteration, the social consequences will be hellish.
Chances are, given the prevailing thought about these matters, you now expect me to set off on a rant against capitalism and the market. If so, you are mistaken. I am only talking about how you and I, as free moral individuals, choose to behave in the marketplace, and your mistaken expectation reflects the fact that this consideration has largely been banned from respectable business conversation.
It's true that there is no room for my topic when it comes to the theoretical elaboration of "market mechanisms". Mechanisms cannot worry about acting healthily or destructively.
But we can. An economic theory and commercial practice that fail to reckon centrally with this fact -- a fact that no description of a mechanism can fully accommodate -- are simply irrelevant to the world we live in.
Page after page of professional economic journals are filled with mathematics formulas leading the reader from sets of more or less plausible but entirely arbitrary assumptions to precisely stated but irrelevant theoretical conclusions .... econometricians fit algebraic functions of all possible shapes to essentially the same sets of data without being able to advance, in any perceptible way, a systematic understanding of the structure and operations of a real economic system. /1/Similarly, Herman Daly, formerly a senior economist at the World Bank, and his co-author, theologian John Cobb, Jr., opine that
There are probably no important theoretical or policy debates that have been resolved by econometrics, which was supposed to provide the empirical test for resolving all disagreements. What happened, however, was that each side of any debate developed its own econometricians (or "economeretricians" as some critics have called them). /2/And, again, the economic historians Ernesto Screpanti and Stefano Zamagni refer to
that habit, which has become almost a vice for a great deal of contemporary economic theory, of only analyzing simple and well-defined problems so as to allow the scholar to find clear `truths' without getting too mixed up in the facts. /3/The flight into mathematics and other abstractions does not necessarily lure us into a fantasy world. Everything depends upon whether we keep firmly in mind the full-fleshed reality from which the abstractions were drawn. But the tendency, it seems, is all in the other direction. The corporate takeovers of the junk bond era, for example, "were often the result of a twenty-six-year-old apprentice investment banker playing with his computer rather than a move by someone who knew something about the industry" /4/.
Indeed, the irrelevance of practical knowledge has been defended explicitly, as when economist Alfred Kahn disavowed the need for airline executives to understand much about planes since, after all, planes are just "marginal costs with wings" /5/.
So it is that economists "were spared the time-consuming process of reading history or studying the details of complex institutions. They had only to devise the models, collect the statistics, and crunch the numbers" /6/.
The result, of course, is a wonderfully elegant and rigorous system, laid out in axioms, equations, and compelling deductions. The only problem is that it doesn't describe the real world -- and certainly not a world worth striving for. Hinting at this aversion from reality, Charles Schultze once remarked that
When you dig deep down, economists are scared to death of being sociologists. The one great thing we have going for us is the premise that individuals act rationally in trying to satisfy their preferences. /7/But "rationally" does not mean for economists what you and I might mean by it. "Like a mechanism" and "mathematically describable" come closer to the intent.
Business Week recently capsulized the thought in a column entitled, "Spend and Grow Rich -- It's the American Way". It dealt with "the industrious ant and the devil-may-care grasshopper", concluding:
Japan and Germany still don't grasp that consumption is acceptable. Even good. In the real-life version of the old fable, the ants lose. /9/No, hardly "real-life". But my point is not the misanthropic one that consumption is bad. Rather, it is that the argument, as given, is startlingly vacuous. It says nothing about what sort of consumption is good. Lacking any such qualitative caveat, it clearly asserts that the consumer's monetary transactions as such -- their sheer numerability -- is what produces the good.
To say that this view is unspeakably anti-human is not to impugn the market. Quite the contrary. It is to say that the market is such a critically important human achievement that what we do there actually matters.
the state must eliminate all externalities and managers should make all decisions so as to increase the total value of the firm. All else is chimera. /10/(Externalities are, briefly, any social costs or benefits of a product or service not reflected in its market price.)
It is excruciatingly evident that when Jensen and Fagan talk about increasing the "total value of the firm", they are talking about the numerical bottom line. Their "value" is a value abstracted to nothingness, pure quantity that is not the quantity of anything in particular. So a $100 profit on the sale of cocaine constitutes the same "value" in their sense as a $100 profit on the sale of penicillin. To distinguish the two would require us to consider, for example, the welfare of the cocaine and penicillin users. But, unfortunately, these are mere stakeholders. Worrying about their interests can only lead businesses into a quagmire. As Jensen and Fagan put it:
Stakeholder theory ... provides no guidance whatsoever for making decisions. This is, perhaps, its main danger. It turns managers loose to exercise the whims and idiosyncrasies of their own personal prejudices. More importantly, it leaves no objective way for others to measure how well or poorly they are doing. /11/So much for values. On Jensen and Fagan's view, they are either perfectly measurable -- and therefore indifferent even to starkly opposite qualities and meanings (which is to say they are not values at all) -- or else they are mere whims and idiosyncracies of personal prejudice. There is a stunning sense of helplessness here in the presence of the human intention to fashion effective instruments for pursuing what we deem worthwhile.
What makes it so easy to ignore the anti-human logic of the number-crunching-is-all-you-need style of thought is the slippery nature of that little word, "value". We all too easily read real value into the word when in fact the context allows only a numerical value. This slipperiness gives Jensen and Fagan's words a feeling of social substance when they say:
Value maximization provides a simple rule to guide expenditure: spend an additional $1 on resources to improve quality for customers, for example, so long as they value the increment in quality at more than $1. Far from giving a license to ignore its various constituencies, value maximization gives firms a clear criterion for making trade-offs between them. /12/But for all that talk about quality and customer value, we're still in the same ballgame. What customers value is again assessed purely numerically -- by the buck spent -- and therefore leaves the cocaine indistinguishable from the penicillin. It doesn't ask whether a product or service is good or bad for a neighborhood, good or bad for the customer's health, good or bad for those who produce it.
Again, please don't misunderstand me. I am not preparing a brief for "legislating people's morals". But I am saying that the moral qualities of our actions -- in business as elsewhere -- have everything to do with the kind of society we live in, for good or ill. And if this is true, how can an economics that willfully turns its face from this reality claim to tell us anything about the welfare of society?
But in the shorter run the decisive fact is not that we've arrived at some optimized equilibrium, but that, as growing human beings, we are on a path. And along that path our task is not the maximization of some pre-established, purely numerical "value", but rather the discovery of our values, the struggle to become worthy of them, and the exercise of creative imagination and disciplined work in socially incarnating them.
Jensen and Fagan's argument effectively disconnects business from human progress. How could a business pursuing "value maximization" in the 1950s have helped society move toward the kind of environmental responsibility that subsequently expressed itself in recycling and pollution control? How, that is, do you work toward meaningful change if your only option is to measure current proclivities and then cater to them?
You might reply, "Well, as people change and become more environmentally responsible, they will be willing to pay for `green' goods and services, and businesses will leap forward to supply them". That is true enough. Fortunately, there were people willing to work toward change, and to spend their money accordingly.
But why are these people not to be allowed within the corporation's doors? Why must they leave the most human part of themselves outside? What our lives are about is growing and changing; are we helpless to make the corporation an instrument of our growth and change? We are helpless if, within the corporation, we must abandon as a private "whim" every value that has not already found expression in a profit-maximizing price.
"But corporate America clearly is driving social change." Yes. That is the fearsome thing. It is driving change, but we are not driving it, except as willing servants of a largely autonomous mechanism. Hardly a surprise when economists have pushed so far toward conceiving the whole process -- including our own participation in it -- as a mechanism. When you achieve change by subverting conscious human choice, what you get is the play of subterranean instincts, needs, and passions -- a play that easily slips into chaos.
It only needs adding that, in a sense, Jensen and Fagan are indubitably correct, for as we have seen, they begin by saying, "If we wish to maximize the standard of living...." So they indicate from the start that they are interested in society only so far as it can be reduced to numbers -- that is, only so far as it can be abstracted out of sight. We have no way to know what they are substantively correct about, because they've disavowed all substance. Their recipe verges on the tautological: you can best maximize the numbers by maximizing the numbers.
The standard of living abstraction goes hand in hand with the gross domestic product (GDP) abstraction, which, as many commentators have pointed out, simply measures market activity -- money changing hands:
It makes no distinction whatsoever between the desirable and the undesirable, or costs and gain. On top of that, it looks only at the portion of reality that economists choose to acknowledge -- the part involved in monetary transactions. The crucial economic functions performed in the household and volunteer sectors go entirely unreckoned. As a result the GDP not only masks the breakdown of the social structure and the natural habitat upon which the economy -- and life itself -- ultimately depend; worse, it actually portrays such breakdown as economic gain. /13/The authors of that remark go on to observe that, by the prevailing standards, "the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce".
More concretely: It is fine to say that your profit from the sale of apples is $1000, and your profit from the sale of oranges is $1000. But if apples are not the same as oranges, neither are profits from apples the same as profits from oranges -- or profits from cocaine the same as profits from penicillin. Yet everything in the distinction is lost as soon as you say, "Total profit = $2000" and proceed to crank that figure into still other calculations, heedless of the concrete realities -- the real world -- from which the numbers arose.
Obviously, any economists who felt obliged to look at the real world would have to reckon with the qualities of things, and therefore would be unable to remain wholly within the neat abstractions that lend so much elegance to their theoretical habitations. There's the rub for a discipline where "prestige increasingly is associated with mathematical sophistication and less with what light may be thrown on what is actually going on" /14/.
But it is not only the theoreticians who invoke a number magic whereby the maximization of particular numbers is thought to guarantee the realization of particular qualitative values. Every time you and I invest our money solely for maximum return we invoke the same magic -- assuming we really do believe in the socially beneficial consequences of what we are doing and are not merely being cynical and grasping. If we invested in a specific enterprise because we believed it was doing something important for society -- if that importance was what mattered to us first of all -- then we would not automatically move our investments around simply on the basis of financial return. Nor would we invest in vehicles that prevented us from choosing which companies received our support.
Perhaps you will object, "But money isn't empty number. It represents human ingenuity and skill and hard work, with all their positive values". Exactly my point. That, at least, is how we ought to view money. But when we invest with a view to numerical maximization alone, we are blotting out those values. They cease to matter. Whether the skill resulting in our profits was skill in serving a particular human need or skill in undermining the welfare of others is now lost from view. We have reduced money -- which has fairly been described as a kind of condensation of the human spirit -- to nothingness, however precisely measured.
We would not tolerate this sort of nothingness in other domains. For example:
If the chief of your local police department were to announce today that "activity" on the city streets had increased by 15 percent, people would not be impressed .... They would demand specifics. Exactly what increased? Tree planting or burglaries? Volunteerism or muggings? Car wrecks or neighborly acts of kindness? /15/But when the chiefs of our economy report that economic activity is headed up, we quiz them no further. Instead we call our brokers.
Try to scan your radio dial without stumbling across a financial-advice program; but how often do you find such a program whose focus is the health of society rather than maximization of return? Or listen to the discussion of your company's 401K plan around the water cooler. Or just look at the kind of mania that now drives the stock markets and the currency exchanges.
The message in all this is that the human being has become invisible. The market, instead of becoming the place where we conduct our business, has evicted us, allowing us only to pull the mechanism's various levers in hope of triggering a jackpot.
As with all gambling, there are those who are better and worse at it, but it remains a risky business. Harvard researchers recently examined the conventional view that trading on the $2 trillion-per-day currency exchanges improves market efficiency and dampens volatility. Their conclusion?
The big currency players trade on "noise" rather than economic fundamentals. As a result, they tend to boost market volatility rather than dampen it -- and often lose money in the process. /16/Speaking of those same currency exchanges, U.S. News & World Report suggests that they "may be the ultimate free market, a totally unregulated financial system operating twenty-four hours a day with an apparent madness balanced by fundamental economic and strategic methodologies" /17/.
But surely the ultimate free market is the market in which free human beings operate. And free human beings are those capable of exercising responsibility, of choosing their own future, of placing their own qualitative, value-laden imprint upon the world. They do not simply stick coins in slots based on the likelihood of a jackpot.
Little or nothing I've said here is original. Almost everyone complains at one time or another about the perverse way numbers can run away with us, and about the one-sided concern for bottom lines. (For one of the best characterizations of the way economic abstractions distort the world, see the chapters on the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness" in Daly and Cobb's book.) That's why the persistence of number mysticism -- the belief that certain kinds of numbers are inherently bearers of good -- is so significant. The mysticism seems to grab us in a deep place, and to all appearances we are, despite our complaints, nearly helpless in its grip.
The grip, moreover, extends to many other departments of contemporary thought and activity, including the one where we worship info. I will pursue the matter further in an article promised a good while back: "There Is No Such Thing as Information".
Go to part 1 of "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"
Go to part 2 of "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"
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Steven Hodas is Vice President for Online Services at Princeton Review Publishing. He is extensively experienced in developing interactive communities for schools, businesses, governments, and non-profits. His own consultancy, intriguingly named "Horse Horse Lion Lion, Inc.", has led him to work for such diverse agencies as NASA, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (with whom he developed an HIV/AIDS curriculum for at-risk youth), and the city of Seattle (where he designed the citizen-participation component of the municipal public access network.
Hodas wrote the influential essay, "Technology Refusal and the Organizational Culture of Schools", which you will find at http://www.review.com/steven/techrefusal/refuse23.html. (It is also available in the second edition of Computerization and Controversy, edited by R. Kling.) One of the things he says in that essay is that
When parents or others speak with disapproval of the "values" that are or are not being transmitted to children in schools they largely miss the point. For the values that predominate most of all, that indeed must always predominate, are less the set of moral and social precepts which the critics have in mind than the institutional and organizational values of knowing, being, and acting on which the school itself is founded: respect for hierarchy, competitive individualization, a receptivity to being ranked and judged, and the division of the world of knowledge into discreet units and categories susceptible to mastery ... There is a tight coupling between these values and schools-as-a-technology....SLT
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #68 :: March 31, 1998
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