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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #82      A Publication of The Nature Institute       January 5, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Aggressive Agriculture
       Milk That's Good for Tumors
    Can Open Standards Suffocate Us? (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Some unsystematic notes on standardization
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Aggressive Agriculture
    Vandana Shiva of the Research Centre for Science and Ecology in India is
    struck by the "war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture".
    Here, for example, are some of the herbicides produced by Monsanto and
    American Home Products:  "Roundup", "Machete", "Lasso", "Pentagon",
    "Prowl", "Scepter", "Squadron", "Cadre", "Lightning", "Assert", "Avenge".
    It is an inescapable fact that we think as we speak, and this is not
    exactly the language of stewardship and sustainability.
    (Vandana Shiva's remarks occur in The Ecologist, Sep./Oct., 1998.)
    Milk That's Good for Tumors
    Have you drunk your milk today?  If so, it likely came from cows injected
    with rBGH, a genetically diddled version of bovine growth hormone.  Among
    many other changes resulting from the hormone injection, it is undisputed
    that the milk contains elevated levels of the naturally occurring hormone,
    insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).  The IGF-1 in the milk of injected
    cows is up to ten times more potent than in normal cows, and its
    concentration in the milk is also up to ten times greater.
    Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., a professor of environmental medicine at the
    University of Illinois School of Public Health, cites recent findings on
    the effects of heightened levels of IGF-1 in humans.  For example,
       As reported in a January 23, 1998 article in Science, men with
       high blood-levels of ... IGF-1 are over four times more likely to
       develop full-blown prostate cancer than are men with lower levels.  The
       report emphasized that high IGF-1 blood-levels are the strongest known
       risk factor for prostate cancer, even exceeding that for a family
       history of the disease, and that reducing IGF-1 levels is likely to
       prevent this cancer.  It was further noted that IGF-1 markedly
       stimulates the division and proliferation of normal and cancerous
       prostate cells and that it blocks the programmed self-destruction of
       cancer cells, thus enhancing the growth and invasiveness of latent
       prostate cancer.
    Then there's a May 7 article in The Lancet:
       Women with a relatively small increase in blood-levels of [IGF-1] are
       up to seven times more likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer
       than women with lower levels.  Based on those results, the report
       concluded that the risks of elevated IGF-1 blood-levels are among the
       leading known risk factors for breast cancer, and are exceeded only by
       a strong family history of the disease or unusual mammographic
       abnormalities.  Apart from breast cancer, an accompanying editorial
       warned that elevated IGF-1 levels are also associated with greater-
       than-any-known risk factors for other major cancers, particularly colon
       and prostate.
    Neither report, Epstein observes, makes any reference to "the fact that
    the entire U.S. population is now exposed to high levels of IGF-1 in dairy
    (Epstein's comments were carried in The Ecologist, Sep./Oct., 1998.)
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                         CAN OPEN STANDARDS SUFFOCATE US?
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    Amid all the passion and rhetoric about Microsoft's monopoly and the
    dangers of dominant, proprietary standards for software, it's worth
    pausing to look at some of the underlying issues.  These have to do with
    the seemingly inevitable march of standardization as such, whether
    proprietary or open.
    The virtues of standardization are evident enough to everyone -- so much
    so that even the proprietary sort has its defenders.  In a story about
    Microsoft, the New York Times quotes Mike Campbell, CEO of Campbell
    Software in Chicago, about the difficulty of supporting his software on
    sixteen different operating systems.  "I hate it!" he says.
       So what's Campbell doing?  Helping the monopoly.  He tries to persuade
       retailers to go with Windows and make it a common platform.  "I'm
       begging for it", he says.  (Mar. 5, 1998)
    Of course, truly open standards might further Campbell's cause even more
    than a proprietary standard.  But what most needs recognizing today is the
    way standardized software in general constrains us.  The most crucial
    antagonism is not between monopolistic, proprietary standards and open
    standards -- important as that tension may be.  Rather, it is between what
    you might call frozen intelligence -- the kind we embed in fixed standards
    of any sort -- and the fluid, re-visioning intelligence that is required
    in order to avoid being imprisoned by those standards.  Yes, we need
    standards, but the more thoroughly standardized our lives, the greater the
    re-visioning and standard-escaping powers we require if we are to retain a
    degree of expressive freedom.
    Incidentally, I see no vivid distinction between software standards and
    software itself.  Every piece of software is already a kind of standard,
    providing a set of procedures designed to be executed over and over.  More
    generally, such standards are continuous with the entire range of
    specifiable forms and structures that shape our activity, from
    organizational procedures to legal statutes to fixed mental habits.
    Software lends a definite logical structure to our activities, however
    finely articulated and multi-layered that structure may be.  The strands
    of this logical web, like Lilliputian threads, can bind us equally well
    regardless of whether they are spun by proprietary or open committees.
    But within a healthy context where imaginative re-visioning is active, the
    threads can play their part in liberating us.
    When the Renaissance painters discovered the precise, mathematical methods
    of linear perspective, there was an unleashing of tremendous creativity.
    The rules of perspective were, at first, inseparable from a new way of
    seeing the world -- a way that inspired artists like Piero della Francesca
    and Leonardo da Vinci to lay the observational foundations for modern
    Over time, however, the fixed algorithms of linear perspective began to
    feel mechanical and inhibiting, inadequate to the new visions that were
    stirring artists.  (This was true of the greatest artists almost from the
    start.  Michelangelo scorned the standard, geometric methods, preferring
    the "compasses in the eye".)
    New structures, new forms into which we can pour our personal expressions,
    often do provoke a surge of creative energies.  But these forms
    always become straitjackets with time.  Such is the essential
    movement of the human spirit.  One generation's wildly unexpected
    expression is the next generation's staid and stifling form -- until we
    somehow manage to break out of the form.  That's why the fame of great
    poets is so often posthumous:
       They have, as Shelley said, to create the taste by which they are
       appreciated; and by the time they have done so, the choice of words,
       the new meaning and manner of speech which they have brought in
       must, by the nature of things, be itself growing heavier and
       heavier, hanging like a millstone of authority round the neck of free
       expression.  We have but to substitute dogma for literature, and we
       find the same endless antagonism between prophet and priest.  How shall
       the hard rind not hate and detest the unembodied life that is cracking
       it from within?  How shall the mother not feel pain?  (Owen Barfield,
       "Archaism", in Poetic Diction)
    The worrisome question today is whether the rind of silicon and logic we
    are now secreting at such a furious pace will, in the end, allow any life
    at all to crack it from within.  The Renaissance artists never became
    unalterably dependent upon tools embodying the algorithms of linear
    perspective.  As their needs changed, they did not have to layer new
    software upon the old, or go in and revise millions of lines of code in
    order to pry open a few degrees of freedom for themselves.  They could
    simply discard the entire apparatus of perspective and go on to other
    things -- such as, eventually, impressionism and abstract art.  At least,
    they could do so if their own ability to re-vision the world was strong
    But in many spheres of life today, realizing a new vision of the world is
    not so easy.  Even if we have the necessary inner powers, we immediately
    find ourselves confronting the entrenched silicon logic that so many
    people liken to an external nervous system.  Objective and enduring,
    ramifying with remarkable ease, penetrating every corner of society like
    the filaments of a fungus in rotting fruit, this global syntax extends
    itself automatically.  Not only that, but there is always strong pressure
    to keep the extensions consistent with the previously established logic.
    "Previously established" -- this conservatism needs reckoning with.  The
    more we build upon a standard -- for example, the more software we erect
    upon it -- the more entrenched and immovable the standard becomes.  We enjoy
    our new efficiency and freedom above the standard only by reducing our
    freedom in the lower domain embodied by the standard.  So as we layer one
    standard vertically upon another, codifying ever higher levels of human
    activity, the question arises:  how do we preserve a balance between form
    and freedom, between the crystalline clarity and fixity of ice and the
    dissolving fires of the imagination?
    It is vastly simpler to impress algorithms upon silicon than upon the
    living dynamism of human institutions.  But the more the institutions have
    already adapted to the silicon, the greater the pressure to yield still
    further.  We have already learned how the relatively fixed network of
    roads and highways becomes a constraining factor in the evolution of
    communities.  But if the highway system becomes a brute given, limiting
    future choice, we have hardly begun to reckon with the infinitely more
    far-reaching ways computerization can hedge in and close off our
    potentials for social expression.
    Look at the world of modern finance.  Once the computational structures
    have been elaborated to a certain point -- with trillion-dollar money
    flows traversing those structures -- it is not so easy to toss them
    blithely aside and take up other forms of financial expression.  We are
    already finding that as "simple" a matter as changing the New York Stock
    Exchange from an "eighths" system to a decimal system can turn out to be a
    major headache.
    Or look at the cockpit of a jet airliner.  As the plane becomes more
    software-driven and as the standard operating procedures followed by the
    pilot and air traffic controller specify the pilot's actions more
    minutely, the plane begins to "fly itself".  The pilot becomes more and
    more superfluous.
    In other words, the plane's flight increasingly becomes a strictly
    technical matter.  This is possible because the pilot and passengers are
    not engaged in some sort of Lewis and Clark expedition, exploring a new
    landscape.  There is no need for conferring, for re-evaluating priorities
    and purposes, for assessing the progress and value of the trip to date.
    The pilot will not even ask the passengers whether they would like to
    swoop down for a closer look at this or that sight.  All of which is just
    as well, since most passengers, with their tightly structured lives, would
    object to such unscheduled adventures anyway.
    Just as well, yes -- although we may occasionally want to ask ourselves
    whether too much of our passage through this world is taking on such a
    purely technical character.  We may want to ask, that is, whether the
    tight structuring of our lives has encouraged us to forget what it means
    to explore, or to seek those dimensions where exploration is so
    We may be thankful for the rule-based, predictable, and instrument-bound
    flight of commercial airliners, but when we see, for example, the
    classroom becoming a highly structured, merely technical undertaking --
    one that can "fly by itself", without the teacher -- surely we have cause
    to worry.  And here I'm referring not just to the growing role of the
    computer in the classroom, but also to the close specification of the
    curriculum by bureaucrats.
    If there's any place where the spirit of exploration and the spirit of
    re-visioning should reign, it's in the classroom.  Teacher and students
    should encounter what for both of them holds something of the unknown -- on
    the teacher's part because he is engaging the subject matter "live", right
    there before the students, rather than presenting what has already been
    completely structured by bureaucrats, textbook authors, software, or his
    own memory.
    Knowledge that we've already given a definite form to -- knowledge that
    can be stored and routinely transferred from one place to another --
    scarcely matters in education.  Far the most important thing the students
    learn from the teacher is the art of re-visioning itself (which happens to
    be the one lesson it is most difficult to harness the computer to).  The
    most essential act of understanding, scientific or otherwise, is the
    metaphoric leap -- the "liquefaction" and unexpected re-crystallization of
    the structures of knowledge, rather than the recapitulation of existing
    Or, again, look at the visual arts.  I suppose most artists are working in
    such fields as advertising and marketing, magazine design, and film.  It
    is nearly impossible to pursue this work today without using powerful
    computer software, and anyone who spends five minutes looking at magazine
    ads or the graphics on the evening news can see how the tools have
    directed and hemmed in the artist.
    This narrowing has to do with the peculiar "vision" of the software:  a
    work of art becomes a set of pixels and mathematically defined geometric
    constructs, which can then be subjected to various logical
    transformations.  The computer is remarkably facile at performing these
    transformations, and so the most image-saturated generation in history is
    endlessly assaulted by every possible visual distortion, every possible
    permutation of pixels, simply because it can be done.  Little thought is
    given to the intrinsic lawfulness or meaning of the image in its own
    imaginal terms.
    Certainly the true artist can still try to live into the qualities, say,
    of the color green, and can seek the essential expressive gesture of a
    plant or rock or tool.  And certainly schoolchildren can learn something
    artistically deeper than the manipulation and weird deformation of clip
    art.  But, meanwhile, there's a massive graphics industry, with a huge
    investment in computer equipment, software, and professional training, and
    there's a popular culture hooked on the ever increasing shock value of the
    latest graphic sensations.  How can we gain the inner strength to flee the
    torrential output of the entrenched computational algorithms?  Where can
    we find the repose that would enable us to rediscover the image as a
    source of fresh revelation rather than arbitrary manipulation?
    An aside:  the graphic artist's pixel is a close analog of the scientist's
    atom.  Both serve in practice as a prison for the imagination,
    discouraging us from attending to the irreducible and always non-discrete,
    non-atomistic qualities of things.  These qualities are the only possible
    basis for a true science and a true art, because they are the only way the
    world we explore scientifically and artistically is given to us.
    I mentioned highways as a constraining factor in the evolution of
    communities, and then suggested that the constraints of software may prove
    still more onerous.  I'd guess many readers immediately reacted with "No,
    software gives us much more flexibility.  It is easier to change bits than
    to re-shape concrete."
    There's a misunderstanding here.  Software does afford us greater
    flexibility in the sense that, given a particular vision of some task, we
    can reduce the vision with wonderful fineness of detail to a set of formal
    structures in software.  But what I've been talking about is how we grow,
    how we change, how we re-vision things.  On this score, it is exactly the
    thoroughness and fineness of detail that is the problem.
    Think of the difference between an extremely crude and bulky set of body
    armor, on the one hand, and the most finely wrought, close-fitting suit of
    chain mail on the other.  An elegant software package may be more like the
    chain mail.  It's certainly nice to have such naturally fitting armament,
    and I am in no way arguing against acquiring it.  But then we need to ask
    ourselves what happens when the person inside the suit begins to grow?
    The crude armor might actually allow more room for growth than the (once)
    perfectly fitting mail.
    However it may be with an isolated, first-try piece of software (which we
    can readily discard in favor of a new try), the steady accumulation of one
    software layer upon another, millions of lines upon millions of lines, is
    bound to make us think twice before saying, "Gee, maybe our original
    analysis wasn't the best and we need to rethink matters."  It may prove
    easier to cramp our own growth in order to accommodate the billion-linked
    suit of mail we have already forged for ourselves.
    In many domains, I realize, it may seem forced to set software and
    standard procedures against the possibilities of human growth.  Just think
    of that airliner's cockpit.  Who (beside pilots) would complain about the
    pilot's life being reduced to boring routine?  But it's well to remember,
    at least, that the places where we've reduced something to strict
    technique are the places where we've excluded the human being.
    I think it's easy to overlook the significance of these ever widening
    domains where everything functions mechanically, without any apparent
    human implications.  The packet-switching architecture of the Net, for
    example, might seem to be another such domain.  And yet, I can hardly
    believe that this architecture is wholly disconnected from our increasing
    willingness to conceive all human exchange as essentially a matter of
    information transfer -- the movement of discrete, objective packets of
    data from one place to another.  It stands to reason that the more we
    become conscious of a mechanical and meaningless flow of symbols through
    the world (as given in our technical visions), the more readily we
    conceive our own communication in the same terms.  The influence doubtless
    flows both ways:  our habits of mind take on objective form in technical
    artifacts, and the artifacts in turn reinforce our habits of mind.
    What is often not realized is that the possibility of genuinely new vision
    always hinges upon our ability to let the old logic of our thinking and
    seeing "go fluid".  If, having written a sentence, I decide that it
    doesn't express quite the right shade of meaning, then -- no matter how
    slight the shift of nuance I am after -- I may well end up having to
    restructure the entire sentence.  And if my meaning is genuinely new, I
    will have to rely in part on metaphor to suggest it.  But metaphor is,
    among other things, the employment of words in violation of the previous
    rules of use.  The old words and their syntax dissolve, reconstituting
    themselves as a new reality.
    That's just the way it always is between the living and the frozen --
    between my current effort to grasp meaning, and the structures into which
    I have previously poured my meanings.  Even if I use many of the same
    words in my new phrasing, they will actually be different words, with
    their meanings subtly altered by the new context.
    This tension between logic and the play of meaning, between the syntax of
    our existing vision and our powers of re-visioning, is fundamental to
    human activity and thought.  And it is part of the essence of this tension
    that every seeing with new eyes puts all existing syntactic structures of
    understanding at risk.  We do not just juggle fixed parts on an existing
    latticework of logic; rather, the parts themselves are re-imagined along
    with the latticework, and reality no longer submits to analysis according
    to the old scheme.
    One of the symptoms that re-visioning is losing out to frozen intelligence
    in the computer age is the widespread attempt to conceive change as the
    mere rearrangement of existing elements.  In all true change the elements
    themselves are transformed.  Merely to rearrange what already exists -- a
    task the computer performs so well -- is to accept an underlying logical
    structure as unalterably given.  It is to remain imprisoned within one
    particular way of viewing things.  By contrast, re-visioning may well
    leave no underlying level of form or logic completely as it was.
    A computer program, considered strictly from a technical standpoint --
    that is, from the computer's standpoint -- is syntax pure and simple.
    There is a bedrock level of logic that just is what it is, without
    possibility of re-visioning itself and the world.
    To reach a place where you can talk about re-visioning, you have to widen
    your view to embrace the human context:  first, there are the programmers
    who develop and successively revise the program, based (possibly) on new
    ways of seeing the world; second, there's the society of users, who may
    (within greater or narrower limits) alter the way they relate to the
    program; third, there are the non-users who nevertheless must decide how
    to adapt themselves to the various ways the program shapes society.
    If there's a single, dramatic fact about this human context, it's that,
    within the high-tech corporation, new generations of software get cranked
    out with almost no attempt at re-visioning society in any deep sense.
    Technical feasibility and the extension of existing technical logic are
    the overwhelmingly dominant considerations.  The next generation emerges
    automatically -- the fulfillment of the dead imperative laid down by the
    previous generation.
    The ramification of logical structures and standards can proceed in this
    automatic fashion.  Re-visioning cannot.
    And, of course, it's easy to understand why re-visioning is de-emphasized.
    As we've just seen, to re-vision is to let a standard syntax "go fluid".
    But when that standard syntax is as expensive and as intricately
    articulated as a major system of software, how can one even think of
    "morphing" its bedrock structure?  By the very nature of things, there can
    be no algorithm for this.  Often the only realistic alternative would be
    to start from scratch.  Far easier to take the existing structure as given
    and build on it.
    Our tendency to call software "user-friendly" (or not) indicates, I think,
    an unhealthy confusion.  At least it does if we take user-friendliness to
    imply more breathing room for the human being -- more room to grow and
    re-vision our shared world.  As we've seen, software and standards by
    themselves always become something of an oppressive element, something
    we must learn how to transcend.  Their very nature -- especially when they
    are thought to be intrinsically valuable -- is to constrain us.
    To discover user-friendliness in any deep sense -- to discover the place
    of software and standards in a truly liberating context -- we have to look
    at that context.  That is, if we want to see a healthier balance between
    frozen intelligence and fluid, re-visioning, expressive intelligence --
    then we must find it within the broader field upon which the software is
    evolving.  Are we teaching programmers to engage in serious re-visioning
    of the world when they modify their programs -- or are they just fixing
    bugs and extending the logic of the original in an ever more fine-grained
    and broadly reaching way?  Are we teaching users to re-vision the tasks
    structured by the software -- or are they just hoping to rid themselves of
    the awkwardnesses in the previous versions of the programs?
    J. William Gurley asks,
       How do you differentiate your product if your core mission is to ensure
       that your product operates exactly as your competition?  The bottom
       line is that you don't .... Theoretically, you could have a better
       sales force or better service and support .... Yet these are the assets
       of the larger, entrenched companies.  Open standards allow large
       entrenched companies to mitigate the innovation and market share leads
       of hot young start-ups and easily move into their markets.  (Above
       the Crowd Dispatch, May 26, 1998)
    The usual response is that companies standardize at one level and
    differentiate ("innovate") above it.  This is true.  But if the same logic
    drives the successive stages of competition, we will see the level of
    standardization continually rise.  Ever higher levels of human functioning
    will be frozen in syntax.  Either we will counter this development with
    ever higher powers of re-visioning and re-structuring, or else we will
    find our creative impulses progressively immobilized.
    That Gurley's problem exists -- that entire industries find themselves
    struggling to articulate meaningful grounds for competition -- is
    profoundly symptomatic.  It suggests that these companies have reduced
    their activities to a syntactically perfected meaninglessness.  Their
    operations have become like those of the cockpit:  there's less and less
    room for human expression.
    You can see this in their products.  Look at finance again.  This may be
    the field most thoroughly in the grip of software.  It is also a field
    where the expression of value is extremely difficult.  Any investor who
    wants his investment to mean something, anyone who believes that
    every financial transaction is an expressive gesture helping to sculpt the
    kind of family, community, and society he lives in, and who wants at least
    some of his transactions to be part of a responsible and enduring
    connection to the party on the other end -- such a person may well
    conclude that the only reasonable course is to abandon the current, global
    network of millisecond cash flows in favor of the various small,
    alternative institutions.  The prevailing structures are too straitening,
    too reduced to a pure syntax of number, to become a vehicle for anyone's
    qualitative, personal vision of social welfare.
    Much the same could be said about the production of goods lacking in
    qualitative distinction and artistic quality.  But that's a topic for
    another essay.
    Whether we will allow new visions -- new expressions -- of the human
    spirit may be the decisive question as we set chink after chink of our
    global information structures in place.  The virtues of open standards are
    real -- and I strongly support them.  But with another part of ourselves,
    we must fight against all standards, struggling to preserve the potentials
    for meaningful change in the future.  This requires us to cultivate the
    kind of mental flexibility that allows us, first in our imaginations and
    then in reality, to change everything, however subtly.
    I suspect that only in the impassioned defense of such living, imaginative
    powers will we find the resources to limit the siliconification of our
    lives and leave a few cracks for whatever tender shoots the next
    generation, beyond all prediction, sends toward the light.
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #82 :: January 5, 1999
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