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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #85      A Publication of The Nature Institute     February 25, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       A Recipe for Calamity
       Consumer Manipulation Made Easy
       Finding Ourselves in Silence
       The Blessings of a Hurricane
    I'm Glad the Net `Corrodes' My Culture (Marcelo Rinesi)
       I prefer cyberspace to Corrientes
    Who Are We Without Our Technologies? (Muktha Jost)
       Culture connects us with timeless questions
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    NETFUTURE will soon move from its current listserver.  Unfortunately, this
    means that any subscription instructions you have posted on a web site or
    elsewhere will soon be obsolete.  I'll post updated instructions in the
    next issue.
    To prevent my being deluged with questions about why:  The International
    Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) has been hosting the list for
    the past year, but it seems that some of the administrators at IFLA have
    found the newsletter discomfitting and irrelevant to librarians from the
    very start.  (Oddly enough, library organizations have sponsored many of
    my speaking engagements).  So I was recently asked to take leave of IFLA
    by March 1.  Pending a final decision on a new host, I may spend a little
    time sending the newsletter from my own email account.  But, in any case,
    subscription requests directed to the old server will continue to be
    honored for a good while through a forwarding mechanism.
    On a happier front, next issue I'll report on the response to the request
    (see http://netfuture.org/support.html) for voluntary "subscription"
    contributions to NETFUTURE.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    A Recipe for Calamity
    By next year Monsanto reportedly expects 100% of the U.S. soybean crop to
    be genetically engineered (and, incidentally, produced by a 100% monopoly
    -- Monsanto).  Other crops such as cotton, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes
    are rapidly headed in the same transgenic direction.
    Which raises an interesting question.  Remember how the Mad Cow scare
    resulted in the slaughter of the United Kingdom's cattle?  But those
    cattle were nothing compared to all the food products resulting from
    genetically engineered crops.  (You'll find yourself hard put to identify
    many foods in your kitchen without soybean derivatives or soy oil, corn,
    corn syrup or corn oil, tomatoes .... )
    So what happens when the first really big (and inevitable) public health
    scare about genetically engineered foods hits the front pages?  When
    Monsanto and its biotech siblings are producing most of the world's
    soybean seed, and when that seed has been genetically engineered, there
    won't even be any other seed for the next year's crop.  And the value of
    all the engineered products already on the shelves, in the distribution
    networks, and growing in the fields ... well, it boggles the mind.
    One thing we can be sure of:  when the time comes, corporate spokesmen and
    regulatory agencies will be under extreme pressure to understate or
    falsify the facts.  Fortunately, they've been getting good practice at
    this ever since the first transgenic organisms appeared on the scene.
    (Monsanto's plans are outlined in a book by Marc Lappe and Britt Baily,
    Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food.
    For some notes drawn from this book, see Rachel's Environmental and Health
    Weekly #637 and 638, available at www.rachel.org.)
    Consumer Manipulation Made Easy
    A British correspondent recently sent me a newspaper column entitled "Big
    Brother is Watching Your Purse" by Jeffrey Robinson (unfortunately with
    neither source nor date attached).  Robinson is the author of The
    Manipulators: A Conspiracy to Make Us Buy, and that's what the column
    is about.  Here's an excerpt that gives the feel of it:
       Methods include redesigning stores to separate a wife and husband
       because alone they will each buy more than they would if they stayed
       together; reorganizing stores to ensure that children accompanying
       their parents stay with their fathers, because they are easier to win
       round than mothers when it comes to children's whims.  An understanding
       of how and where to place items can increase the number of impulse
       purchases -- now a staggering sixty percent.  Other strategies include
       knowing how to package high-margin items so that we choose them instead
       of less profitable ones; creating fashions that play directly to our
       egos; sneaking products into films and advertising that we have paid to
       see; and commercially brainwashing children because, once trapped, they
       will be customers for life.
    Robinson talks about digital technologies and how ever smaller target
    markets -- right down to the individual consumer -- can be profiled,
    hounded, and duped.  The consumer, he argues, scarcely has "a chance", and
    he concludes this way:
       Early in the next century, we consumers will have become the product.
       Customers with buying power will be sold by one group of manipulators
       to other businesses, who will only survive through the sorcery and
       science of their own hired manipulators.
    I'm not familiar with Robinson's book, but on the face of it I'd place his
    newspaper column pretty much in the same category as the manipulative
    activities he presumably deplores.  I don't see much difference between
    trying to manipulate people and encouraging them to see themselves as
    subject to manipulation.  To see yourself as subject to manipulation is
    already to have made yourself a candidate for manipulation.  It is to
    accept that others have coercive power over you.
    Robinson, with his "us" versus "them" rhetoric, makes no mention of a
    crucial fact:  many of us are also them.  Huge armies of employees devise
    and execute and profit from all these diabolical marketing strategies.  In
    reality, you will find the forces of manipulation at work in every human
    being, including the most disempowered.  Actually, I'm convinced that
    being manipulated is, in good part, simply the flip side of manipulating
    others.  Anyone who has truly learned how to refrain from manipulating
    others will himself be immune to manipulation.  And anyone who has learned
    how not to be coerced will be incapable of coercing others.
    I fully agree that many of those marketing strategies are diabolical.  But
    nothing can change until we wake up to our complicity in the arrangement
    -- whether on the giving or receiving end -- and accept responsibility for
    our choices.
    Finding Ourselves in Silence
    There are some things you can only learn through experience.  In fact,
    maybe the only way we ever truly learn anything is through experience.
    However that may be, I have certainly found it nearly impossible to
    convince anyone of the lightness and grace and freedom and fullness and
    vigorous health of a life without television who has not first made a year
    or two's experiment of it.  And the person who has made such an experiment
    hardly needs any convincing.
    But my concern at the moment has less to do with video images than with
    sound.  I have for some time been at least tending toward the same kind of
    experiment with heavily mediated sound as the one I have previously made
    with television.  Of the various nascent revelations this has brought, I
    would like to mention just one.
    Imagine yourself in an environment without cars, trains, planes, radios,
    televisions, and the various other mechanisms that can transmit sound over
    great distances.  And imagine to begin with that it's a quiet, natural
    environment.  What do you hear?
    Doubtless there are many possibilities, but at least some of the sounds
    are your own:  the sound of your breathing and footfall, the sharp report
    of a bite into a carrot, the slice of a knife through a twig, the rustle
    of clothing, the tapping of a finger.  It can be a striking experience to
    live primarily with the sounds of your own making -- an experience
    difficult to come by in many modern contexts.
    This accounts, I think, for some of the "magic" one experiences when
    transplanted more or less quickly from city to wilderness.  The little
    things you do suddenly "stand out" against a radically subdued background.
    That is, you yourself stand out.  You can no longer lose yourself within
    the chaos of stimuli.  You have little choice but to hear the aural
    texture -- and with it some of the significance -- of your own activities.
    As a result, you seem more real and present to yourself.
    But there is a second class of sounds you will hear -- namely, those
    approaching you from your environment.  And the remarkable thing here is
    that nearly everything you hear addresses you in some way, whether it is
    the breeze that threatens a chill or the disturbance of an unseen animal
    in the brush or the sudden clattering of hail against a cabin window.  The
    sounds are close; they bear a message you will likely want to attend to.
    I hope you can sense the difference between this situation and the one
    most of us find ourselves in day after day.  In the one case:  we address
    our environment and it addresses us.  It's a highly personal engagement,
    an intimate conversation grounded in a coherent yet endlessly changing and
    expressive reality.
    And in the other case?  We are immersed in a sea of sound having no
    obvious connection to ourselves.  It does not address us, and we may
    switch it off (where that is possible) without the guilt of inflicting a
    personal slight or missing an essential communication -- because there was
    nothing personal or essential there in the first place.  Yet we become so
    dependent upon this background of disconnected noise that we cannot even
    sit down to eat a sandwich without switching on some noise-making device.
    Even when we want to hear a specific thing -- a song, for example -- the
    audition is a fragment, a momentary visitation from nowhere.  Unlike the
    sound in the brush, which the entire environment has richly conspired to
    produce at precisely this moment, the song could just as well have been a
    different one, from the opposite side of the earth.  There isn't much
    reason to say that it belongs here, at this moment.  I can reasonably
    begin the task of understanding and relating to the sound in the brush by
    paying attention to almost any part of my environment, for it is all
    interlinked; but as to the song, I will most likely find its explanation
    in a passing whim.
    Largely removed from a meaningful and coherent conversation with our
    environment, we are now accustomed to drift passively upon a sea of
    flotsam and jetsam, our momentary attention randomly commandeered by one
    piece of debris or another.  We learn to take it for granted:  what
    approaches us has nothing particularly to do with us -- which is to say
    that the world we live in has nothing to do with us.
    It appears, then, that we are called to produce out of ourselves the
    coherence that is no longer so readily given to us by the outward terms of
    our lives.  A degenerated conversation requires special focus and great
    inner resolve on the part of anyone who would raise it to a higher level.
    He must learn to hear significances he previously ignored, and to offer
    his own speech in a more considered way.
    But this is by no means an arbitrary project, since what approaches us
    from the world actually does mean something, even if at times the meaning
    has mostly to do with our own tendencies toward distraction.  When we have
    been addressed by that meaning, there are many replies we might offer.
    One of the most useful would be to seek a few moments of quiet.
    The Blessings of a Hurricane
    For most of our existence on earth, David Abram reminds us in The Spell
    of the Sensuous, we humans have
       negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous
       surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with
       each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus
       upon.  All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle and sigh a
       shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or inhaled through
       our nostrils or focused with our listening ears, and to which we
       replied -- whether with sounds, or through movements, or minute shifts
       of mood.
    Today most of our relations are mediated by technology.  Yet, Abram says,
    we still need "that which is other than ourselves and our own creations",
    if only to keep ourselves from becoming like those creations.
    Abram tells of being a student on Long Island in the fall of 1989 when a
    strong hurricane raked across the place, leaving power lines down and
    debris everywhere.  Without electricity or passable roads, people took to
    the streets on foot, where they encountered their surroundings in a new
       In the absence of automobiles and their loud engines, the rhythms of
       crickets and bird song became clearly audible.  Flocks were migrating
       south for the winter, and many of us found ourselves simply listening,
       with new and childlike curiosity, to the ripples of song in the still-
       standing trees and the fields.  And at night the sky was studded with
       stars!  Many children, their eyes no longer blocked by the glare of
       houselights and streetlamps, saw the Milky Way for the first time, and
       were astonished.  For those few days and nights our town became a
       community aware of its place in an encompassing cosmos.  Even our noses
       seemed to come awake, the fresh smells from the ocean somehow more
       vibrant and salty.  The breakdown of our technologies had forced a
       return to our senses, and hence to the natural landscape in which those
       senses are so profoundly embedded.  We suddenly found ourselves
       inhabiting a sensuous world that had been waiting, for years, at the
       very fringe of our awareness, an intimate terrain infused by birdsong,
       salt spray, and the light of stars.
    A world, I might add, in which we are at home.  One wonders how much our
    modern sense that the human being is a kind of accident of the universe
    owes to our having overlaid the natural world with a technological
    apparatus that (barring our ability to rise above the apparatus) truly
    does reduce our lives mostly to chance and accident.
    (Quotations from David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books,
    1997, pp. ix-x, 62-63.)
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                      I'M GLAD THE NET `CORRODES' MY CULTURE
                                  Marcelo Rinesi
    [In this and the following article you will find striking statements by an
    Argentinian youth eager to escape his own culture via the Net, and an
    (East) Indian immigrant to the U.S. who has had little choice but to leave
    her culture behind.  When Marcelo Rinesi sent me his brash and likable
    assault, full of youthful energy, I immediately thought of Muktha Jost.
    As part of a project with an Iowa State University class that NETFUTURE's
    Lowell Monke was teaching, Muktha had entered into a little correspondence
    with me, and I was impressed by the rather more nuanced and anguished
    accommodation she had been trying to reach with her adopted culture.
    Hers, I now thought, was very likely the kind of place to which Marcelo's
    mostly healthy explorations would eventually lead him.  So I asked Muktha
    to write some comments in response to Marcelo -- a "letter from his
    future", if my surmise is correct.
    For reasons that should be clear, I opted not to impose on Marcelo, a
    non-native English speaker, the usual editorial criteria for NETFUTURE
    articles.  His piece is reproduced essentially just as received.  The
    essays he refers to can be found at http://netfuture.org/meditations/.
    I imagine it would be well to hear further from both these readers as time
    goes by.  SLT]
    I've enjoyed and learned from your intelligent writing; your arguments
    even forced me to accept that the Net is a corrosive cultural force,
    against my previous opinions.  Thanks for that.  But, with all due
    respect, I'd like to ask:  so what?
    I have spent my whole life in Corrientes, Argentina.  Even as it is a
    state-capital and my family is relatively well-off, there are tons of
    cultural treasures that I couldn't have known if it wasn't for the Net,
    and not only knowledge or information, but whole mental frames:  a
    passionate, whole-hearted love for science and philosophy, self-respect as
    a computer geek, excellent non-contemporary thinking (like Chesterton's,
    Voltaire's or Shaw's), non-hispanoameric poetry, enlightenment values and,
    yes, all kinds of erotic information and art (OK, pornography, too :),
    along with lots of other things.
    Those things, althought mostly intellectual in nature, have, as you have
    pointed, corroded my "native" culture, to the point that I feel more at
    ease with Scientific American, the Need to Know e-zine, the Linux scene or
    the Discordian(-like) humor|philosophy.  I still have my friends, my
    girlfriend and my family here, but I don't think I share my culture with
    them anymore (not that this started wholly with the Net; I have read
    Asimov from age 6, programmed from age 7, &c., but the richness of the Net
    has deepened it to the point of making myself councious of it).
    It has its social and psychological side effects, but I wouldn't go back
    for all the group status of the world.  I like this culture a lot more
    than my "native" one, for sheer deepness, meaning and beauty.  And values,
    too.  It verges on the pathetic, but while my school was trying to teach
    me low-profile traditionalism, conservadurism and respect for authority
    (no matter how wrong), I was learning curiosity, respect for differences,
    admiration of talent well used, a hate of war, injustice and stupidity,
    and emotional and intellectual honestity from .... Star Trek, the hacker
    mythology (the traditional one ---Minsky, Paper, Knuth, Von Neumann--- not
    the current criminal clowns) and good Sci-Fi.  How could I swap a culture
    that cheers intelligence, curiosity, talent, debate, humour and weirdness
    for a culture that enforces traditionalism, blatant media manipulation,
    economical profit by cheating and plain non-thinking?  Sure, not all ---or
    most--- of the Net's material is any good, but the mere existence of good
    things is enough.  And I don't think the culture I describe is unique to
    my city....
    Again, I want to thank you for your essay, because it was reading it that
    I finally understood how the Net is culturally corrosive.  But what you
    seemed to find negative, is exactly what I love about it.  Maybe there is
    a non-zero amount of adolescent bashing on all this ---I am 19 :)---;
    probably a lot of young people love or would love the chance of choosing
    and, in a certain degree, if they are not too brainwahsed, engineering
    their own culture.  The Net simply gives us a huge amount of raw material
    to do it, and a certain freedom from geographical and chronological
    constraints (not only nobody knows you are a dog: nobody knows you are
    "too young to understand it"...a saying that I heard WAY too often during
    my childhood).
    Warm regards,
    PS: While this was waiting in my "Unsent Messages" box, I read your essay
    about Tinkerers.  Again, I agree with you (althought this time I was
    already aware of it), but I have to oppose my statistically insignificant
    but personally relevant own experience.  I have what I think are
    meaningful goals: I want a peaceful, prosper world, where physical well-
    being is an effective rigth and checking the govs and corps the global
    hobby.  I want to state and answer as many good questions as I can, about
    everything, everywhere.  I want space colonies and exploration.  I want
    informed, intelligent democracies.  I want the religious and
    nacionalistic fanatics universally mocked about.  I want to live for
    centuries, healthy, sexy and working.  I want access to every book ever
    written, every poem and every painting.  I want to do six impossible
    things before breakfast, and then ... , sorry, I couldn't resist :).  And
    none of those goals came from the ---traditional, socially cohesive, and
    personal contact-oriented, mind you--- culture around me (motto of the
    country: "Get a job.  Any.  And don't get caught").  I developed them
    before getting on-line, but it has been a lot of help for me to find out
    whole lots of other people that share my dreams and work towards them.
    Marcelo Rinesi  
    Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto
    Episkopos of the Discordian Society
    [I asked Marcelo to send just a little more information about his
    immediate context and occupations.  He replied with the following note.
    For the factual data, I am just finishing my summer holidays and resuming
    my struggle for a maths degree at the Universidad Nacional del Nordeste.
    The rest is either too personal, too nasty or too intermitent to be worth
    publishing.  In any case, I'm still struggling with the old problem of
    growing and finding who I am, what is this place, and what the hell I am
    doing here [(c) Vonnegut, kind of] so between this letter and the last
    one, you know as much as anybody about me, including yours truly :).
    But don't despair. Discordianism is far more interesting than myself, and
    far more interesting than anything I can tell you about it.  If you will
    ever trust anything I say, trust this:  go to Yahoo, search for
    Discordianism, or search as you prefer for a text called "Principia
    Discordia".  If you find it less than amusing, weird and almost thought-
    provoking, tell me, and I'll print and eat my words (isn't it wonderful
    the way the Net sometimes makes literal what was once rethorical?
    eat that, Negroponte!)  BTW, maybe you already knew it, it didn't
    strinke you as interesting, or both, but if you have to put anything at
    all about me, put at least that I love and belive the latin phrase in my
    something like that (can't be sure, my latin amounting to nihil, and my
    english being one of the WaReZ I got from the Net :)
    Thanks again for your interest, but also thanks for all the thinking I had
    to do about what I am doing now to answer your questions. Hope you gain
    from this as much as I.
    Best wishes,
    Goto table of contents
                                   Muktha Jost
    I can think of many answers to your rhetorical "So what?" if the Net is a
    corrosive cultural force, but the most compelling one is about you and
    just you.  Don't you care to find out who you are, after you've peeled
    away layers and layers of conditioning that both the native and
    technological cultures have wrapped you in?
    I was born and raised in India for a full 24 years, and nothing I say can
    fully explain the richness of that life.  As a young adult, however, and
    quite naturally so, I had nothing but resentment toward that culture.  My
    first experiences here in the U.S. seemed to soothe all those angry
    tremors -- no living in the mercy of the bureaucracy, no long lines, no
    bribes, no "Eve teasing," no dust, no controlling patriarchs, no fighting
    the traffic for hours, no human waste to duck in the sidewalks, no beggar
    children to remind you of the pain and embarrassment of hunger, no
    voluptuous movie stars and dogma-spewing politicians staring down from
    billboards and seducing those poor of currency, imagination, and values.
    But it didn't take long for that same critical outlook that tipped the
    scales against my native culture to begin to see the glaring flaws in this
    culture too.
    My field is instructional technology, mostly computers in education,
    especially kindergarten through grade 12.  The image that is most common
    today in my field is this: the camera from behind and above the computer
    focusing on the face of a child, maybe two, with an almost ethereal glow
    as they fix their gaze on the computer monitor.  A couple of teachers
    stand behind them beaming with pride as their prodigies contemplate and
    "learn" from their "cognitive partner", the computer.  This reminds me of
    the scene in a Hindu temple.  As the priest offers your prayers and
    worldly gifts to the idol in the dark sanctum to the sound of bells and
    mantras and to the smell of Jasmine flowers, followers bow in long gender
    lines and pray most publicly with a reverence that matches our belief and
    faith today in the power of computers to educate our children.
    You know what, Marcelo, as my friend says, the power of the computer to
    educate the child is as vacuous as the powers of the Wizard in the "Wizard
    of Oz" to get Dorothy and her friends back to Kansas.  Neither my
    intuition, nor my insights through observations or the numerous research
    findings that I have to read ever lead me to conclude that computers can
    significantly help children learn, with the exception of children with
    special needs.  On the other hand, my observations point me to all the
    vested interests of the software and hardware manufacturers who influence
    educational technology policy (toward more computers in schools) at all
    I was once in a classroom where a professor announced to a group of 150
    undergraduates that she did not believe in the educational value of
    "Morph" software until she witnessed this in a second grade classroom.
    She then proceeded to show the work of a second grader who morphed herself
    into Barbie!
    So, Marcelo, if you ask me SO WHAT? This is why.  It robs you of your
    thinking, especially your critical thinking ability.  I am convinced that
    young people have to learn this crucial skill from a community of real --
    not virtual -- people.
    There is no image that is crystal clear, no truth that is indisputable, no
    face that is totally beautiful (except my mother's), and no detail that is
    completely descriptive of the social milieu that I grew up in.  It was all
    pretty much a tangled mass of chaos much too complex and bewildering for
    me as a child, but I learned much from that.  I didn't know it then, but I
    had a great childhood.  Lots of bright moments, lots of dark ones, lots of
    life, lots of death, lots of laughter, lots of pain.  In all, a decent
    exposure, somewhat like the combination we look for to develop the image
    in a photograph.  I learned much from the warm Hindu home that I grew up
    in and the strong bonds it nurtured with my siblings, the Catholic school
    with the strict nuns, my Muslim, Sikh, and Parsee friends, and the
    contradictions in my culture and in myself.
    I learned from long summers of not having much to do.  My siblings and I
    spent hours on the floor trailing ants to their "home," rerouting their
    path, and often getting bitten by them.  Our "ant farms" and "bug palaces"
    were born out of our boredom and imagination, not out of a toy designer's
    day at work.  Every month, on "Full Moon's Day" we sat on our terraces
    with a huge crowd of friends and family eating the very special dishes
    that were prepared for that occasion.  After that, we would stretch out on
    colorful 'Jamukalams' and gaze at the star-filled sky as my Dad pointed
    out the major constellations.  I preferred to stare at the awesome
    tropical moon and never learned as much as my siblings from that astronomy
    lesson.  There was something so distant, so remote, and so tremendously
    overwhelming to be staring into space, but there was always some warm
    adult or child nearby to reach to -- and feel connected.
    I learned from the people, and there were all kinds.  The cousins were my
    favorite.  There was no telling when they would show up, or when they
    would leave.  A carload would descend unannounced and invade our space,
    our beds, our food, and our routine.  To call it a din would be putting it
    mildly.  They wore our clothes, called us names, broke our toys, but we
    generally had a good time and cried when they left.  The carloads of
    caring hearts came especially in times of tragedy and need, and gave us
    numerous strengths to understand our sorrow.  One set of those cousins
    visited us recently in Iowa.  As, after all these years, we reminisced of
    the most childish tales, our children wondered at the bonds that were so
    evident and so swiftly revived.
    Not always were our lives touched with kindness and love, not always were
    the punishments just.  And when the chaos and contradictions and the
    controls got too much for me, I had only nature to run to, not a bright TV
    or computer monitor.  Now, I am thankful for that because I learned
    immensely from the places and things.  The guava, mango, neem and lemon
    trees in our backyard were my playmates many times.  And the ocean.  When
    I couldn't find an answer to my confusion from books or from people, or
    any acceptance to my weirdness, it was to the ocean that I went, and it
    never failed me.  As I sat huddled by that huge blue reality that was
    sometimes foaming and sometimes calm, it felt like it could reach to me,
    and I sensed that the sea had some of the same emotions and restlessness
    that I did.  It was there I learned that I don't have to understand
    everything, that to honor the mystery is to honor ourselves.
    It was at home that I learned that real community is ridden with conflict,
    with the urgency of having to face and confront, with unexpected love,
    with unexpected values and with numerous possibilities.  I know now that I
    must protect my children from all of the wonderful trappings of technology
    so they may look at each other and the moon; so they may fight with each
    other and learn how to resolve conflicts rather than be a passive sponge
    of violence and consumerism; so they don't fall into the well of safe
    'online' communities that let us hear and understand only what we want to
    hear and understand.  I hope instead they will be awed by a sea of human
    possibilities and struggles.
    I am well aware that a lot of this is based on a very personal and
    subjective view of what education and life are all about.  Your
    philosophical slant and love for peace, respect, curiosity, depth, and
    meaning caught my interest, but oddly enough, these are exactly the things
    that I find the Net snatching from me.  Most of the time, though, this
    thieving is clandestine.  For instance, this whole facade of equality on
    the Web.  I am convinced it simply bypasses our differences and drugs us
    into thinking that there can be a world without racism, sexism, bigotry,
    discrimination, and oppression.  All those are alive and well in every
    part of our lives, and in every part of the world, and unless we stop
    hiding behind those computer and TV monitors and face others, naked in our
    anger, frustrations, hurt, and sadness, we will do nothing to reduce the
    suffering caused by the inhuman acts of humans.  The Net gives you the
    hope that there's a place you can go to where everyone is equal.  When you
    need a haircut, though, you have to get off that highway to the cybermall
    and find your way out into the real world for a hairdresser.  And when
    that hairdresser charges your white friend $17 for her haircut and $28 for
    yours so you won't come back (this really happened to me), how is the Net
    going to help you soothe your anger and hurt?  Are you going to feel at
    peace with the world?
    As for your laments about the traditional cultures, I think they are most
    valid.  There is much in these cultures that restrains and chokes us, that
    mocks our youthful hopes and cheats our idealistic desires.  There is a
    lot in history that can help us understand the idiosyncracies about our
    cultures, and maybe even come to terms with them, but history is last in
    the prioritized curriculum through which we learn.  Math and science drive
    a global curriculum that has our children racing for the most lucrative
    jobs while leaders claim that history is "bunk."  It is all too easy to
    feel choked by the postmodern problems of old cultures when we don't
    really know our own "stories." Understanding has to come before
    I would argue with you, however, about where you can find depth, meaning,
    understanding, and perhaps some peace.  Remember, too, that only three
    percent of the world's population owns computers and fewer are connected
    to the Net.  An understanding of the world and our place in it can only
    come from a struggle with a human context, not some technology-mediated
    half-reality.  Here, I'll resort to the life of Leo Tolstoy who was
    regarded in the late nineteenth century as the greatest living writer.
    The superlatives that fill the writings about him come because of his
    struggles with a human context -- his own wealth, appearance, the poverty
    of his tenants, the merits of his enemies, the longing to educate children
    without dogma and theory, philosophical differences with his wife, and his
    well-meaning generosity that only led his tenants to the bottle.
    Yet, you know what touches and inspires me the most about his life?  At a
    point when he could have just gone on with life, he stopped and asked
    himself, "Who am I without all of this that is mine?  This wealth, this
    conditioning, this way of thinking, this upbringing, who am I and what is
    my contribution to this world without all that?"  It was only long after
    that pain and anguish that he embraced the teachings of Christ even though
    his interpretation bears little semblance to those of the TV preachers and
    pulpit-thumpers today.
    I think there comes a time in our lives to ask ourselves "Who are we
    without all of this technology?  Who are we without our corporate jobs,
    fast cars, stiff suits, fast food, designer sports clothes, answering
    machines, caller-ID, caller ID blocking, multiple e-mail accounts, lives
    on credit, mega malls, take-outs, buy-in, takeovers, cool stuff, f-words,
    Superbowls and flavored iMacs.
    All those legendary philosophers that you mention are "with us" today
    because they asked the timeless soul question.  In fact, that is where
    philosophy started -- with a yearning for the soul questions -- before
    science and technology gave us so many distractions.  Yes, we need humor,
    but first to laugh at ourselves and how dependent we are on these toys of
    technology.  Yes, we need peace, but mostly with ourselves and those we
    love.  There is nothing global about the spiritual intimacy between two
    beings.  It is local, contextual, and real.  It cannot be captured in
    bits.  You have to struggle to explain your culture to those who don't
    understand you.  We have to dance in each other's shoes before we give up.
    We have to fight, argue, and talk.  And most of all, try to understand.
    We can only love what we understand.  When we give up on those around us
    in our own context, we lose a part of ourselves.  We have no ties -- to
    ourselves, to those we could love and let love, or to a culture, any
    I am convinced that synthetic perfection without soul is possible on the
    Net and that is why it appeals to so many.  Life itself isn't perfect; it
    never can be.  It is our striving and struggle that can be perfect, but we
    are too much in denial to realize that.  We'd much rather choose a semi-
    perfection than adopt lifestyle changes, or face others and ourselves.  A
    cold mouse does not offer the warmth and affirmation of a human hand.
    Ten years before he died, Tolstoy wrote in his journal:
       I think of all the people I have loved, yet none can offer me the
       sympathy I need ... if only I could be little again and snuggle up to
       my mother as I imagine her ... she is my highest image of love, not
       cold divine love, but earthly, warm, motherly ... it is that for which
       my battered, weary soul is longing.
    His mother died when he was two years old.
    Muktha Jost
    Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching
    College of Education
    Iowa State University
    N131 Lagomarcino
    Ames, IA 50011
    (515) 294-3724
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #85 :: February 25, 1999
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