NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #77 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications October 6, 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 Privacy and Prejudice Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 1) Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 2) Does the Computer Eliminate Boring Work? Emoticons DEPARTMENTS Correspondence Tips for Television Watchers? (Francois VanSteertegem) The Value of a Real Canadian Goose (Stuart Cohen) Yes, We Can Sing Through Email (Bryce Muir) Would Hemingway Use Emoticons? (John Mihelic) Documenting Paralinguistic Practices (Bob Parks) Who Said That? About this newsletter --------------------- ** What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE ** "I earn my living in the computer industry and I'm not sorry I do, but I recognize that technologies change our modes of perception and consciousness as well as social and economic context and behavior. I think these are the most critical issues of the next century. I am drawn to NETFUTURE by both my curiousity and my desire to make choices I won't regret." (For the identity of the speaker, see "Who Said That?" below.) ========================================================================== QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS Privacy and Prejudice --------------------- There's a puzzle on the Net, having to do with privacy and prejudice. Privacy, of course, is a hot issue today, and rightly so. Sitting at my terminal in my basement, I can probably find out more about you than you would care to divulge freely. In fact, the question playing itself out right now in courts and legislative chambers and corporate strategy meetings is whether we will all be wholly exposed on the Net. But this sits rather oddly with what many have proclaimed to be the Net's greatest achievement: it frees us from bias and bigotry. The idea is that I can't see your age, sex, race, or handicap, and therefore I will hold no prejudicial feelings against you. This, as I've pointed out before, is nonsense. We've always managed to discriminate against each other on the basis of intangibles such as belief fully as well as on the basis of external traits. In fact, as long as anything is left of the other person, we can find something to discriminate against. All of which suggests that our ease in getting rid of discrimination on the Net is simply our ease in getting rid of the other person. But, far from being an end to prejudice, this begins to sound uncomfortably like that euphemism for murder -- "termination with extreme prejudice". So the puzzle is this: are we finding ourselves wholly exposed on the Net, or are we disappearing into the darkness between the bits and bytes? The answer, I think, is that both are occurring, and they are fully consistent with each other. As we reduce ourselves to bodies of information, collections of data, and screensfull of text, we are less and less there. There isn't much of the individual left to discriminate against in any deeply personal sense. But at the same time it's difficult to feel any great respect for the impersonal precipitate of data that is all we have left. Our inappropriate exposure on the Net, in other words, is a direct consequence of our absence from the Net. The two belong together. An individual whose privacy is worth respecting is also an individual real enough to be discriminated against by those so inclined. And only a community whose life together is vivid and multi-dimensional enough to invite these qualitatively different responses will have any chance to shape institutions that encourage the respect and discourage the abuse. Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 1) ------------------------------------ In the short note, "Is Genetic Engineering `Natural'?" (NF #75), I commented on the wrongheaded notion that genetic engineering is just as natural as the seed selection and breeding that have gone on for millennia. One of my points was that a critical awareness of the risks inherent in current genetic manipulations does not imply that we must be uncritical about earlier practices, whether natural or not. From time immemorial we have been given the opportunity to carry out our earthly stewardship in irresponsible ways. Now Craig Holdrege (author of Genetics and the Manipulation of Life) brings to my attention a couple of highly questionable examples of conventional breeding: * There are hobbyist chicken breeders who -- to judge from the pictures in their magazines -- are more interested in bizarre effects that tickle our human fancies than in the integrity of the chickens themselves. (I'll have more to say about this idea of integrity in a subsequent issue.) * Belgian beef have been bred with such overgrown muscles that they cannot be delivered naturally; birth requires Caesarian section. The assumption that critics of today's technological imbalances must be enamored of older practices is oddly widespread. Anyone who often speaks publicly, as I do, about the risks of modern technologies is inevitably met by comments such as "Do you read books? They're a product of technology!" Or "Books can have undesirable effects, too!" -- as if this should blunt one's concern about where we're going with technology today. Certainly older technologies can have undesirable effects. (For a discussion of some of these effects, see "Every Tool is an Obstacle" in NF #12.) But who is denying this? It would be much more sensible to look for the problems in our use of earlier tools, and then to expect that these problems are becoming ever more acute as the tools become both more powerful and more definitive of our lives. So it is that the abuses in chicken and cattle breeding can now be performed much more quickly and more casually. The technician need scarcely be distracted by the animal itself. There's none of the Frankenstein drama and messiness. We can construct our monsters in a clean and well-lit place. We are, in general, less and less constrained by technical limitation. But if we abandon ourselves to the excitement of the technical breakthrough for its own sake, we will produce chaotic results. This is because the organism itself, respectfully understood in its wholeness and integrity, is our only guide not only for what is ethical, but also for what will work in any full and meaningful sense. The geneticist's sharp separation of ethical questions from practical ones signifies his inattention to the organism's wholeness, and therefore his inevitable clumsiness even in practical matters. Loosing Genetic Restraints (Scene 2) ------------------------------------ With the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in the environment, many observers worry about the transmission of the altered genes ("transgenes") to closely related, wild species through sexual reproduction. An immediate, practical concern, for example, is that genes for herbicide resistance in agricultural crops will spread to weeds, rendering the herbicides useless. Since most crop plants (and related weeds) are self-pollinating, this danger was thought to be minimal. But now a startling bit of research reported in Nature (Sep. 3, 1998) has upset this assumption. Working with mustard plants, Joy Bergelson and her colleagues at the University of Chicago have shown that transgenes can introduce unexpected pollination behavior. Most mustard plants are both mother and father of their own seeds, with pollen crossing from one plant to another only about three times out of every thousand pollinations. But transgenic mustard plants with an introduced gene for herbicide resistance were twenty times more likely to cross-pollinate. As a report at Nature's online website puts it, "Something had made the transgenic plants more promiscuous". Moreover, this difference holds even between the transgenic plants and other plants possessing the same herbicide resistance via a natural mutation and conventional breeding. Somehow the artificial process changes things. As the Nature article concludes, Whatever the reason, the effect is worrying, and deserves looking into further. Bergelson and colleagues point out that this particular gene has already been introduced into dozens of agricultural crops, so it is important to find out whether increased promiscuity is a common consequence of genetic modification. (http://helix.nature.com/nsu/980910/980910-1.html) Who knows -- someday we may even try to learn about the inevitable "side effects" of genetic alterations before loosing the organisms wholesale into the world. Does the Computer Eliminate Boring Work? ---------------------------------------- Back in the 1960s, Studs Terkel wrote his classic book, Working, based on interviews with hundreds of Chicagoans. The picture he sketched was not pretty. But in their Second Annual Big Issue (Dec., 1997) the editors of Forbes ASAP assured us that things are different today: Reading Terkel's Working now is like scanning an ancient text. If there is one common emotion that emerges from the Babel of voices in Terkel's book, it is boredom. Boredom is the leitmotiv of the Industrial Age. Almost everyone, from the spot-welder to the CEO, is deeply bored in Terkel's world. His people dream of a job that is meaningful, challenging, and so fulfilling that they would never want to leave it. They got their wish. Today, in the information age, the world of work is now so intellectually challenging, meaningful, and compelling that we are never bored. (http://www.forbes.com/asap/97/1201/index.htm) On the other hand, if our evident need for distraction is any measure, we may be just about the most bored people ever to walk the earth. Are data-entry workers never bored? Or the customer service employees whose official mission in life is to explain to anonymous callers how to plug in their new printers? Or the growing legions of programmers responsible for maintaining old code? And what about the armies of conscripts pressed into mind-numbing duty against the Year 2000 bug? As the Forbes ASAP editors see it, our salvation comes from the chip and the Net. Okay. Look at the financial service vocations that have so dramatically re-shaped themselves around the chip and the Net. How easy would it be for the employee of a typical investment firm to place his investments based on meaning and conviction -- on a sense of personal responsibility for what his funds do to the world -- as opposed to the dictates of number-crunching algorithms? Admittedly, making money for its own sake can be a pleasurable distraction, assuming you don't think too much about the nations or villages whose economy you could just as easily be destroying as helping. But this empty mathematical exercise hardly counts as an advance in the meaningfulness of work. Then there's the farmer, enclosed in the cab of his huge tractor, traversing thousands of acres while a computer tuned in to a Global Positioning Satellite allocates varying doses of fertilizer to each small sector of the farm's grid. The most likely result is that a concern for abstract "total inputs and outputs" replaces meaningful contact with the land. The farmer no longer feels directly responsible for the processes of life, death, and resurrection going on in the soil. He no longer experiences himself as intimately woven together with them. And, in any case, these processes are most likely being rendered sterile by his current fertilization practices. Does he really find this kind of work more meaningful? You pick a vocation, and I'll give you another example. The fact is that the computer is an engine of abstraction, removing us -- so far as we give it free rein -- from direct engagement with the sources of meaning in the world. Certainly we can reach across the barriers of abstraction: the investor can seek out real value behind the mathematical value, and the farmer can take the time and trouble to know his land intimately and care for it in a deeply satisfying manner. But it requires an effort that runs across the grain of all those efficiently operating chips celebrated in Forbes ASAP. If the editors of that publication are convinced we've entered a new era of meaningful work, it's because, as they put it, command and control are dead. The chip and the Net have killed it. But this misses the whole point. The issue is not centralization (with its need for command and control) versus decentralization (with its distributed intelligence). No, the real question has to do with the overall balance between computation and the non-computational. That is, it has to do with the balance between syntax and meaning -- between frozen forms of intelligence on the one hand, and our own fluid expressive potentials on the other. It hardly matters whether the patterns of frozen intelligence are centralized or not. As every spider knows, you can immobilize your prey with a delicate web just as well as with a stinger. This is an important issue, having a great deal to do with our seemingly inevitable drive toward ever greater standardization. I'll have more to say about it in the future. Emoticons --------- Since the early days of the Net, "smiley faces" and their kin -- so-called emoticons, or emotional icons -- have attracted huge interest. And they still do, if the response to "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF #76) is any indication. (See Correspondence below.) I don't mean to denigrate this interest when I profess my own long-time difficulty in connecting to the huge mass of commentary about emoticons and other paralinguistic devices. For example, when one reader talks about the "revolutionary implications" of email usages such as this:
don't we wish it were trueI can only wonder what new principle is introduced here. After all, we always had the option of saying I feel a bit wistful. But my high school English teacher's emphatic advice is perhaps more to the point: a good character sketch doesn't tell the reader what a person is feeling, but rather shows the feelings. That is, the feelings are exhibited at work, coloring the dialog, action, and imagery. As John Mihelic puts it in his letter: Does Gore Vidal need smilacons to convey sarcasm? Would the King James Version have been improved with them? Hemingway? Orwell? C'mon! Email is a written medium, just like writing on paper. If something is well-written it will show through. Not that email conversation has to be high literature. I suppose my general take on emoticons -- admittedly not the result of a lot of thought -- is that they readily substitute a reduced, highly stereotyped vocabulary for the infinite range of expressive possibilities found in the language as a whole. There may well be an honored place for such a reduced vocabulary, but if there is a revolution in communication going on here, I hope someone will point it out to me. What really troubles me about many discussions of online communication is the odd reluctance to grant any differences at all between modes of expression. Since writing can have its "imagery" and its "musicality", there must not be any significant difference between writing on the one hand and a painting or sonata on the other. But this just seems obtuse, and prompts me to reiterate the point of my original article: it is important for us to enter with great sensitivity into the differing qualities of the various modes of communication. Otherwise, we cannot know with any fullness what it is we are saying. I am not, however, suggesting the existence of absolute barriers between different types of expression. No expressive medium can exhibit such barriers. It is the essential nature of meaningful expressions to shade into each other, to interpenetrate and color each other in a way that purely logical constructs must not. You can see this by recognizing the metaphorical potential of all meaningful language, verbal or otherwise. Metaphor leaps across barriers, enabling us to grasp what lies beyond the "given" possibilities of the language. Only a dead, literal language, stripped of expressive qualities (for example, a computer language) disallows metaphor. If a medium lends itself to any expression at all, then there are no intrinsic limits to what one can express through it. I always remember in this regard the remarkably significant communication achieved by some of our Vietnam prisoners of war, who could engage in nothing more than occasional tapping on the walls that separated them. And it occurs to me now that, instead of saying "sonata" above, I could have said "Beethoven's ninth symphony". Yet Beethoven in his deafness never heard the symphony. Or did he? How could he have composed it without hearing it? Was the written notation on the page, for him, the same as a performance after all? All one can say, again, is that there are no absolute, inherent limits upon what we can give or receive through any type of human expression -- even if we are blind and deaf, like Helen Keller. Yet we shouldn't forget how daunting Helen Keller's struggle was. Moreover, we all face the reality of our own current limits, and if there are lessons suggested by Beethoven and those prisoners, we could put them this way: * It requires a lifetime of incredibly disciplined and single-minded effort to deepen one's mastery of a particular field of expression, as Beethoven did. * There is nothing like being thrown together in a real place, both incommodious and life-threatening, to encourage the discipline that leads to deeply felt, profoundly meaningful expression. It's a long way, of course, from the prison cell and composer's study to the routine exchange of emoticon-strewn email. But if, as a society, we recognized not only the unlimited potential of the written symbol but also the blood and sweat between us and the realization of that potential, then I would feel much better about the prospects for new, electronic forms of communication whose main advertisement to date has been how "easy" they are. SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== CORRESPONDENCE Tips for Television Watchers? ----------------------------- Response to: "America Screws Up" (NF-76) From: Francois VanSteertegem (email@example.com) Sir: I was much impressed by your suggested tips for America Links Up sponsors -- a bona fide attack of common-sense if I ever saw one. But did you notice? Most of the net-related hazards to which your tips refer are the same hazards that lurk in TV-land. There's even the low signal-to-noise ratio that you cite in "Is E-trash Necessary..." Hmmm. Regards Francois VanSteertegem The Value of a Real Canadian Goose ---------------------------------- Response to: "Following Up" (NF-75) From: Stuart Cohen (firstname.lastname@example.org) Steve: I also quote the story about the boy and his father seeing the rattlesnake, and the impression it made. A few weeks ago we were visiting my mother in the Berkshires. My daughters swam in the lake, as usual, but what excited my 7-yr old was a moment when a couple of Canada geese -- a very common bird hereabouts -- swam a few feet in front of her. That night we watched a number of true-life-nature shows on the TV. One was a remarkable effort by a dedicated team showing wolves hunting wild bison in the remotest regions of northern Canada. I was impressed, but my daughter barely budged. There is no substitute for direct experience. In other words: virtual reality isn't. I continue to appreciate your efforts. Stuart Cohen, Photographer/Writer Creator of Marblehead 2000 Photo series documenting life in a small town at the coming of the new Millennium Yes, We Can Sing Through Email ------------------------------ Response to: "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76) From: Bryce Muir (email@example.com) > Can We Sing through Email? Sure. We do it all the time in written correspondence. My "vocal" styling changes to suit the person I'm writing to. If it's someone I've related to face-to-face, that certainly informs my diction, but I respond to cues in text I read, even from "strangers", and couch my responses in similar tones. Don't we all? I'm not convinced that written language is so divorced from aural language that we don't mimic tonality in a textual dialogue. What's jargon, if not a cult singing, or dialect, if not folksong? Granted, some writing is tone deaf, but then some face-to-face conversation is as flat as Kansas. I once sat on a teletype pony loop (I was a radioman in the Navy), where every keystroke on each machine was mimicked on all the others. The nature of the circuits were such that you had to keep typing to maintain the connection, and this was accomplished by rhythmically hitting the figures and letters keys (analogous to the shift key) while you were thinking what to spell out next. It turns out that everyone had his own rhythm, and you could tell who was talking by listening to the beat. Invariably you would pick up that beat when you started to respond, and the "music" was hilarious. I'm convinced that audial mimicry is endemic to the beast, and we read with our ears, and write in tune, more often than we might think. I often write more than I think. Bryce Would Hemingway Use Emoticons? ------------------------------ Response to: "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76) From: John Mihelic (firstname.lastname@example.org) Dear Mr. Talbott: Can we sing through email?!! Am I missing something? Whenever I hear people noting the lack of verbal inflection or of body language in email prose, I wonder what happened to good writing. Writing is writing. Writing that is flat or uninflected or dull is simply that -- writing that is flat or uninflected or dull. There's no need to blame personal writing inadequacies on the computer, any more than you'd blame it on the pencil and the sheet of paper. I have noticed a tendency for computer jocks to think they invented the world, and to mistakenly conclude that because they never heard of something that it must not exist. It appears that good writing is one of these things. And those little smilacons are certainly part of that phenomenon. Does Gore Vidal need smilacons to convey sarcasm? Would the King James Version have been improved with them? Hemingway? Orwell? C'mon! Email is a written medium, just like writing on paper. If something is well-written it will show through. John Mihelic, a longtime subscriber. Documenting Paralinguistic Practices ------------------------------------ Response to: "Can We Sing through Email?" (NF-76) From: Bob Parks (email@example.com) Steve, I have followed with interest the development of "emoticons" (smiley faces, etc.) in chat room and email communication. This development is related, but somewhat independent of the structures developed for MOO communication - such as ":::setting down my coffee cup:::" and ":::smiling faintly:::". Recently I have been noticing a new sort of paralinguistic marking structure that may have revolutionary implications for electronic communication. I have a dictionary that I am planning to convert to XML, and on the XML-dev email list I began to notice the informal use of XML-like tags to indicate complex rhetorical intent. For example, one author said something like "although <ironic> others may have said this before </ironic>". And another said something like "<wistful> don't we wish it were true </wistful>. I think these sorts of XML markup could then be linked with XSL style sheets that would give us great creative latitude in rendering communicative intent. One author could render these statements with distinctive fonts, or colors, or icons (similar to Chinese characters?) or other representative modes .... And when the text is accompanied by a text-to-speech rendering program, the intonation could be made appropriate. In any case, I'd like to ask if you would solicit from your readers other examples of the way such paralinguistic features are now rendered, and ideas on how they might be rendered. I'm doing a collection of email quotations and paralinguistic features, and will acknowledge all assistance. Thanks, Bob Parks Associate Professor Elmira College Goto table of contents ========================================================================== WHO SAID THAT? Working in the heart of the geographic information systems business, Lance McKee is Vice President, Corporate Communications, for the Open GIS Consortium (OGC). OGC envisions "the full integration of geospatial data and geoprocessing resources into mainstream computing". To achieve this, it brings users and providers of geographic information systems together to create software interfaces to facilitate the exchange of complex geographic data. (See http://www.opengis.org.) McKee sees OGC offering a rough model for participatory steering of technology. It is, he believes, an embryonic form of a kind of institution that will have increasing importance as traditional governments realize their inability to govern technology, which now arguably affects citizens' lives more than religion, labor movements, or local or national politics. Mentioning his interest in "simple" things such as gardening, sculpting, and boat building, McKee goes on to ask, "Why don't I retire, or radically simplify, immediately?" Because, despite the revulsion for an "unjust economy" I felt when I was in my twenties, working in day care centers, I now want to participate actively in the economy, for these reasons: to promote my family's and relatives' welfare; to travel and meet interesting people and not feel stuck in local and home doldrums; to experience first-hand some of the changes (some good, some bad) that are taking place in the world, with an eye toward how we direct change toward the good; and to be able to name the terms of my life now and in my retirement. Balancing one's life doesn't always mean moving immediately in the direction of utmost simplicity. SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 1998 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. 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To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #77 :: October 6, 1998 Goto table of contents