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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #105     A Publication of The Nature Institute        April 18, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Genome Hackers
       What Happens When You Medicalize Childbirth
       Banning Teenagers to Furtive Little Holes
    Automobiles on the Road to Nowhere (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Is the digital economy repeating yesterday's mistakes?
       Education Includes the Transmission of Attitudes (Klaus Rieckhoff)
       The Book's Weakness Is Also Its Strength (Wendell Piez)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    The feature article in this issue looks at some remarkable parallels
    between the automobile's conquering of the American landscape and the
    current land rush in cyberspace.  The essay draws heavily from James
    Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere.
    The conference, "PlaNetwork: Global Ecology and Information Technology"
    will bring an impressive array of geeks and activists to San Francisco,
    May 12-14.  For the most part, the participants seem to have few
    misgivings about how their embrace of computer technologies will play into
    their environmental concerns, but I was asked specifically to address
    "shadow-side" considerations.  Guess I've typecast myself.  Playing the
    role to the hilt, I've entitled my talk, "Information Technology is the
    Root Cause of Environmental Destruction.  Why Should We Look to It for
    Healing?"  Here's the abstract:
       The threats to our environment are an expression of our longstanding
       alienation from the natural world.  With its aggressive disinterest in
       the qualities of things (which are the things), science has led
       us in a several-hundred-years' abandonment of nature.  A key feature of
       this drive is the reduction of nature to information.  A companion
       feature is replacement of the desire to experience and know by the
       desire to manipulate and control.
       Technology is the effective instrument of this devilish substitution,
       and has aptly been described as the knack of so arranging the world
       that we don't have to experience it.  By embracing technology without
       enough respect for its alienating and destructive potentials,
       environmental activists are helping to worsen the very disease they
       want to heal.  But if we can muster that respect, then
       technology can indeed serve the healing process.
    For information about the conference, see http://www.planetworkers.org/ .
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Genome Hackers
    Last month a 17-year-old girl won first place in the Intel Science Talent
    Search for an impressive bit of cryptographic work using DNA sequences.
    Many would be surprised to learn how common it has become for secondary
    school students to work with DNA.  In what passes for high school biology
    these days, students are often given sophisticated, highly automated kits
    enabling them to carry out various recipe-like manipulations of isolated
    Of course, this training as lab technicians has little to do with
    understanding the world of plants and animals -- and a good deal to do
    with the cultivation of false and one-sided notions about living
    organisms.  But there's no denying the glamor in those kits.  And while
    such abstractions as the students employ may reveal almost nothing of the
    world's biological richness, there is nevertheless power in them -- a
    power that is all the more fearsome for the fact that it is mostly blind.
    If there's one thing hackers understand, it is the appeal of blind power,
    which might be described as throwing a wrench into the works and seeing
    what happens.  This  brings to mind a recent comment by Donella Meadows,
    who teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth:  "It is only a matter of
    time before [biological] hackers appear who think it might be fun, as
    computer hackers do, to create and release their own viruses".
    If and when this happens, we'll get a fresh perspective on the shallow
    characterization of computer viruses (and their hosts) as living things.
    The real danger is not in the fanciful prospect of raising our machines to
    life, but rather in the already entrenched practice of treating living
    things as if they were machines.  In this game, it is not only Intel prize
    winners, but also hackers, who will feel quite at home.
    (Donella Meadows' brief, excellent article is available at
    What Happens When You Medicalize Childbirth
    One symptom of our society's unhealthy and almost worshipful relation to
    technology is the medicalization of more and more aspects of our lives --
    lives typically framed by sterile and ugly hospitalizations at birth and
    death.  Concerning the longstanding and highly strange American
    medicalization of childbirth, here are a few statements reproduced
    verbatim from a flyer put out by the Citizens for Midwifery:
       ** The U.S. ranks twenty-fifth internationally in infant mortality
          (National Center for Health Statistics, 1993).
       ** All the European countries with perinatal and infant mortality rates
          lower than those of the United States use midwives as the sole birth
          attendant for at least seventy percent of all births (Suarez, S.H.,
          "Midwifery Is Not the Practice of Medicine", Yale Journal of Law
          and Feminism 5, 2 1993).
       ** From $13 billion to $20 billion a year could be saved in health care
          costs by developing midwifery care, demedicalizing childbirth, and
          encouraging breastfeeding (Frank A. Oski, M.D., Professor and
          Director, Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School
          of Medicine).
       ** Today, only six percent of U.S. births are attended by midwives
          (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995).
    Many states, like my own state of New York, have outlawed traditional
    midwives.  Happily, these laws are routinely flouted by a corps of
    dedicated midwives, often at great risk to themselves.  I know a number of
    them, and can only wish that the larger, technology-enthralled medical
    profession showed half the dedication to patients that these women
    Related articles:
    ** "Notes on Health and Medicine" in NF #88.  A discussion of midwives,
       placebos, and treatment of the whole person.
    ** Citizens for Midwifery:  http://www.cfmidwifery.org/.
    Banning Teenagers to Furtive Little Holes
    James Howard Kunstler, in The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and
    Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, has this to say about
       As a teenager I visited my old suburban chums back on Long Island from
       time to time and I did not envy their lot in life.  By puberty, they
       had entered a kind of coma.  There was so little for them to do in
       Northwood, and hardly any worthwhile destination reachable by bike or
       foot, for now all the surrounding territory was composed of similar
       one-dimensional housing developments punctuated at intervals by equally
       boring shopping plazas.  Since they had no public gathering places,
       teens congregated in furtive little holes -- bedrooms and basements --
       to smoke pot and imitate the rock and roll bands who played on the
       radio.  Otherwise, teen life there was reduced to waiting for the
       transforming moment of becoming a licensed driver.
    Of course, the Net is seen by many today as at least a partial remedy for
    this loss of communal places.  But Kunstler's book suggests -- to this
    reader, at least -- that the principles underlying the automobile's
    devastation of the civic landscape continue to work in our society's
    furious development of online real estate.  For some notes on The
    Geography of Nowhere, see the following article.
    Goto table of contents
                       AUTOMOBILES: ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    Notes concerning The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of
    America's Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler (New York:
    Simon & Schuster, 1994).  Paperback, 303 pages, $13.
    Our society appears to be following the same strategy with its computer
    and digital networking policies that it followed earlier with its
    automobile and asphalt networking policies:  First, and at all costs,
    build the infrastructure and put the new devices in the hands of the
    consumer; then, a few decades later, check out what this has done to
    society.  If it has hollowed out our institutions -- well, that's for
    historians and sociologists to quibble over; there will always be plenty
    of new technologies promising a bold and bright future.
    If today's digital policymakers would read up on the history of the
    automobile, they could scarcely avoid some grave self-doubts.  A good
    place for them to start would be a couple of the chapters in James Howard
    Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere.
    Birth of the Suburb
    Americans, Kunstler notes, developed the peculiar idea that "neither the
    city nor the country was really a suitable place to live".  This idea
    found expression in the suburbs that sprang up along the new railroad
    lines in the mid-1800s.  Perhaps the first such development was Llewellyn
    Park in the heights of Orange, New Jersey, built in 1858 within easy
    commuting distance of Manhattan.
    Llwewllyn Park, situated around a "600-foot-high rocky outcropping crowned
    by looming pines and hemlocks", was a place of extraordinary, wild beauty.
    Ravines with streams cut through the property, flowering shrubs and rustic
    pavillions (with benches for walkers) were added at considerable expense,
    and ten miles of carriage road circled a fifty-acre, wooded common.
       Everything was deformalized:  the streets were crooked and winding,
       gardens rambled, asymmetrical houses sprouted towers like fairy-tale
       castles to create a fanciful sense of timeless historicity -- where, in
       reality, there would dwell just so many widget manufacturers who
       depended for their fortunes on the implacable routines of business
       conducted in the gridded streets of Manhattan.
    It was in many respects a wonderful setting, one that could number the
    likes of Thomas Edison among its residents.  And yet, Kunstler adds, it
    was also artificial, lacking nearly all the elements of an organic
    community:  productive work, markets, cultural institutions, different
    classes of people.
    In 1869 the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of New York's Central
    Park) was hired by a Chicago real estate business to turn sixteen hundred
    swampy acres along the Des Plaines River into a railroad suburb.  While
    Riverside, as it was called, became in many ways a template for the later
    automobile suburbs, it did preserve some attractive features:  an
    extensive park along both banks of the river; woodsy squares at the
    terminus of some roads; planted street meridians; separation of vehicular
    and pedestrian paths at different grade levels; and "the sequencing of
    views so that a trip to the park flowed uninterruptedly from open green
    lawn, to riverbank, to mysterious wooden glade".  There was ample public
    space conducive to walking.
    All this compares favorably to modern residential subdivisions where
       the streets have no other official function except to funnel the cars
       to and fro.  One of the problems with cars is that all drivers are not
       highly skilled -- often they are even drunk -- and accidents happen.
       So to remove some of the danger that drivers pose, highway engineers
       have developed a standard perfect modern suburban street.  It is at
       least thirty-six feet wide -- same as a county highway -- with generous
       turning radii.  This makes it easy to drive well in excess of thirty
       miles an hour, a speed at which fatal accidents begin to happen.  The
       perfect modern suburban street has no trees planted along the edge that
       might pose a hazard to the motorist incapable of keeping his Buick
       within the thirty-six-foot-wide street.  The street does not terminate
       in any fixed objective that might be pleasant to look at or offer a
       visual sense of destination -- no statues, fountains, or groves of
       trees.  Such decorative focal points might invite automotive
       catastrophe, not to mention the inconvenience of driving around them.
       With no trees arching over the excessively wide streets, and no focal
       points to direct the eye, and cars whizzing by at potentially lethal
       speeds, the modern suburban street is a bleak, inhospitable, and
       hazardous environment for the pedestrian.
    The insecurity of the pedestrian in an environment thoughtlessly
    engineered for cars reminds me of the web surfer's plight in an
    environment whose "streets" are being engineered for rootless commerce.
    Just as principles of safety (for cars) were built into the asphalt
    streets and highways, so also there is a desperate search on the Net today
    for mechanisms of security and trust.  Of course, as others have noted,
    trust in this case is at least as ambiguous as the safety of roads.  We
    enable "trusted transactions" online by implementing protective measures
    that are necessary precisely because real trust is lacking.  Little
    thought has been given to the consequences of such a massive shift of
    society's business from contexts of trust to contexts of distrust.
    But back to Kunstler's story.  If Riverside and its kin never developed
    proper civic centers, it was because
       they were not properly speaking civic places.  That is, they were not
       towns.  They were real estate ventures lent an aura of permanence by
       way of historical architecture and picturesque landscaping.  They had
       not developed organically over time, and they lacked many civic
       institutions that can only develop over time.  They were a rapid
       response to a closely linked chain of industrial innovations:  steam
       power, railroads, and the factory system.  More, these suburbs were a
       refuge from the evil consequences of those innovations -- from the
       smoke, the filth, the noise, the crowding, the human misery -- built
       for those who benefited from industrial activities.
    For all that, many suburbs were, before the coming of the auto, "lovely
    places to live:  green, tranquil, spacious" -- and only a short train ride
    from the city.  "Teenagers' access to the city was as easy as the adults'
    and a driver's license was not required to get there".
    Kunstler summarizes the early, nineteenth-century suburbs this way:
       In places like Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Brookline, Massachusetts ...
       the fortunate few could enjoy the dream of an achieved Arcadia
       completely insulated from the industrial economy that made it possible.
       It was an artificial way of life in an inorganic community that
       pretended above all other virtues to be "natural".  It drew wealth out
       of the cities and dedicated that wealth to private pleasure-seeking,
       returning little in the way of civic amenity.  It was nice while it
       lasted, but it didn't last long in its classic form.  Its own
       popularity killed it.
       When successive waves of land developers came along and gobbled up the
       surrounding countryside, they destroyed the rural setting that had
       provided all the charm.  When the automobile entered the scene it
       became, in Leo Marx's apt phrase, "the machine in the garden", and made
       a mockery of the suburban ideal.  Afterward, all the elements that had
       gone into creating an illusion of dreamy timelessness -- the rambling
       wooded streets, the fanciful houses with their storybook turrets and
       towers, the deep lawns and elaborate gardens -- were unmasked as mere
       stagecraft.  They had stopped time for little more than half a century.
       Pretending to be places of enduring value, the American suburbs had
       proved to be made of nothing more lasting than parcels of real estate.
    New zoning regulations were designed to protect real estate values in such
    suburbs.  In conjunction with the automobile's arrival, they would help to
    create socially one-dimensional communities.  "Never had the upper class
    so systematically separated itself from the rest of society" (a phenomenon
    we see repeating itself on a still grander scale in Silicon Valley, with
    its astronomical real estate prices).  While the house itself "became a
    kind of factory for the production of comfort", there was little room for
    tradespeople because suburbs had no economies of their own.  "This was
    intrinsic to their charm.  Economic activity remained behind in the city
    and workers stayed there with it, near their work."
       Segregation by income would become a permanent feature of suburbia,
       long after servants were replaced by household appliances.  Factory
       workers would eventually get suburbs of their own, but only after the
       rural character of the countryside was destroyed.  The vast housing
       tracts that were laid down for them had all the monotony of the
       industrial city they were trying to flee and none of the city's
       benefits, nor any of the countryside's real charms.
    Selling the Automobile
    The automobile's contribution to this development makes a fascinating and
    instructive story.  The electric streetcar ("trolley") and the auto
    appeared on the scene at roughly the same time, between 1890 and 1915.
    But whereas Americans' infatuation with the auto was immediate and long-
    lasting, the streetcar fell victim to aggressive public policies that left
    it unable to compete.  It was the auto that captured the aura of the "new
    With the Detroit assembly lines manufacturing over a million vehicles per
    year, "politicians and planners soon began a massive restructuring of
    American cities to accommodate the growing ranks of middle-class
    motorists".  As is the case today with information technologies, many
    vested interests were at work in this restructuring.  Land developers --
    poised to lay down suburb after suburb around every American city as the
    new roads radiated outward -- joined gasoline dealers, tire makers,
    realtors, and car dealers in dominating local planning boards and lobbying
    for the auto.
    The lobbying wasn't always subtle.  Between 1925 and 1950 General Motors
    used its financial muscle to buy up and then dismantle more than one
    hundred trolley lines across the country.  When, eventually, a federal
    grand jury indicted the company for criminal conspiracy in its destruction
    of Los Angeles streetcar lines, the fine of $5000 equaled the net profit
    on the sale of five Chevrolets.  (Don't look for even token fines when it
    comes to the way high-tech corporations are gutting the nation's
    educational system in favor of consumer conditioning for their future
    customers and vocational training for their future employees.)
    Corporate chicanery aside, the automobile's triumph was achieved at
    tremendous public cost.  Already under President Hoover, a commission
    concluded that the rise of local taxes between 1913 and 1930 was primarily
    owing to the automobile.  Huge sums of money were required to build new
    roads and re-pave old cobbled city streets.
       Chicago spent $340 million on street-widening alone between 1910 and
       1940.  The new low-density auto suburbs required expensive sewer and
       water lines to be laid before the new homes were sold -- meaning
       that the carless urban working class had to pay for the new
       infrastructure that the car-owning middle class would enjoy.  Police
       forces were motorized and many new officers hired specifically to
       control increased traffic.  Stoplights by the thousands had to be
       installed.  But perhaps the greatest cost to the public was one that
       can't be quantified in dollars:  the degradation of urban life caused
       by enticing the middle class to make their homes outside of town.  It
       began an insidious process that ultimately cost America its cities.
    Given this historical tale, it is dumbfounding to see the urgent resolve
    of government agencies today to grow the Internet as an end in itself.
    "We've got to make the Internet faster", the chairman of the Federal
    Communications Commission recently remarked, echoing the earlier and
    equally blindered imperative to build faster roads.  If those roads sucked
    life out of cities and led to the "geography of nowhere", what will be the
    consequences of our own, much more radical attempt to transfer the entire
    range of social institutions into the nowhere of cyberspace?
    It's not that we can't find positive potentials in the new information
    technologies.  The problem, rather, is that we have devoted vast, heavily
    subsidized, and purely technical resources to throwing up the
    infrastructure as an end in itself.  "Let the institutions adapt to the
    new landscape or else die out", we say with smug confidence in the gospel
    of technological progress.  But the only healthy approach is the reverse
    of this:  our loving attention to the evolutionary necessities of this or
    that institution should be what determines the technical landscape.
    VA Mortgages and Interstate Highways
    The automobile and the associated development of suburbs helped to power
    the economic boom of the 1920s.  But eventually a cycle of overproduction
    of consumer products set in, fueled by paper profits from the inflated
    stocks of companies that could no longer rationally grow, and exacerbated
    by an increasing income disparity between blue collar workers -- few of
    whom could afford a new house in the suburbs and a car to drive there --
    and the wealthy classes awash in capital from the economic boom.
    The Great Depression brought most of the economy to a standstill.  But not
    highway building.  As part of the effort to put people back to work,
    federal relief agencies spent four billion dollars on road building.
    Comments Kunstler, "Back East, where most Americans still lived, the car
    was regarded as a means of `recovery'.  The 1920s boom had cemented the
    idea in the American psyche that the best economy was an explosive
    technocentric economy."
    While it was urgently building and repairing roads, the federal government
    also tackled the housing problem.  The new Federal Housing Administration
    (FHA) revolutionized home-buying by making credit terms easy.  At the same
    time, it set the rules for qualification, favoring new houses -- "the ones
    being built by those construction workers called back on the payroll".
       These new houses tended to be located outside the dense cities, because
       during the Depression vacant land on the periphery was very cheap.  The
       kinds of houses that the FHA frowned upon were those in the cities:
       old houses with leaky plumbing, jammed into narrow lots on crowded
       streets, inhabited in some cases by immigrants or, increasingly,
       African-Americans.  Houses like these were losers from the FHA point of
       view and the agency wouldn't guarantee mortgages on them
    Despite these federal programs, the problem of excess capacity kept the
    economy suffering until the Second World War finally pulled it out of the
    doldrums.  After the war, the cycle of subsidies was repeated, with the
    new Veterans Administration joining forces with the FHA to make the
    mortgage payments on suburban houses lower than the rent on a typical city
    apartment.  Under new federal tax rules, mortgage interest became
    deductible.  Given such subsidies, "the American Dream of a cottage on its
    own sacred plot of earth was finally the only economically rational
       Whatever its shortcomings as a place to live, the suburban subdivision
       was unquestionably a successful product.  For many, it was a vast
       improvement over what they were used to.  The houses were spacious
       compared to city dwellings, and they contained modern conveniences.
       Air, light, and a modicum of greenery came with the package.  The main
       problem with it was that it dispensed with all the traditional
       connections and continuities of community life, and replaced them with
       little more than cars and television.
    And so the automobile industry "boomed like never before", entering what
    Kunstler refers to as its high Baroque age.
       I'll pass over the questions of styling and merchandising that
       adumbrate the American-Love-Affair-with-the-Car myth, except to suggest
       that if Americans loved their cars, perhaps it was because the machines
       allowed them to escape from reality -- which raises the more
       interesting question: Why did America build a reality of terrible
       places from which people longed to escape?
       By the mid-fifties, the Great Enterprise of suburban expansion began to
       run up against apparent limits to its growth.  Existing highways could
       not accept ever-greater volumes of traffic if the build-out continued
       apace.  But if the build-out stopped, the whole economy would nose-dive
       again, since it now was the economy.  Using public works as an
       economic pump-primer was no longer a partisan political issue ... for
       now both parties understood the stakes.  The solution to the looming
       crisis was the interstate highway system.
    The plan called for 41,000 miles of new expressways.  It would become the
    largest public works project in the history of the world, devouring as
    much steel and concrete each year as a hundred cities.  One of the major
    political justifications:  "The new expressways would ease the evacuation
    of cities during a nuclear attack".
    Here, at some length, are Kunstler's summarizing remarks:
       The new superhighways created tremendous opportunities for land
       development in the remote hinterlands of big cities.  An unthinkably
       long commute on old country roads now seemed reasonable on the freeway.
       So up went more raised ranches and the new split-levels.  Each of the
       thousands of new highway interchanges begged for commercial
       exploitation.  Up went shopping strips and the new "convenience"
       stores.  Businesses of all descriptions fled the decaying urban cores
       and relocated on the fringe, as close to the on/off ramps as they could
       The cities, of course, went completely to hell.  The superhighways not
       only drained them of their few remaining taxpaying residents, but in
       many cases the new beltways became physical barriers, "Chinese walls"
       sealing off the disintegrating cities from their dynamic outlands.
       Those left behind inside the wall would develop, in their physical
       isolation from the suburban economy, a pathological ghetto culture.
       The distinction between the booming economy and what that boom yielded
       can't be stressed enough [a distinction we might well make in today's
       booming economy -- SLT].  The great suburban build-out generated huge
       volumes of business.  The farther apart things spread, the more cars
       were needed to link up the separate things, the more asphalt and cement
       were needed for roads, bridges, and parking lots, the more copper for
       electric cables, et cetera.  Each individual suburban house required
       its own washing machine, lawnmower, water meter, several television
       sets, telephones, air conditioners, swimming pools, you name it.
       Certainly, many Americans became wealthy selling these things, while
       many more enjoyed good steady pay manufacturing them.  In a culture
       with no other values, this could easily be construed as a good thing.
       Indeed, the relentless expansion of consumer goodies became
       increasingly identified with our national character as the American Way
       of Life.  Yet not everyone failed to notice that the end product of all
       this furious commerce-for-its-own-sake was a trashy and preposterous
       human habitat with no future.
    Kunstler, whose book was published in 1993, expected a worsening economic
    crunch because of the unsustainability of the great American build-out.
    "The joyride is over", he said.  He thus failed to foresee the long boom
    of the Nineties, with high-tech's heavily subsidized penetration of
    society leading the way.
    Losing Sight of Contexts
    Many of the parallels between the age of the automobile and the age of the
    Net are evident on the face of Kunstler's narrative.  But here are a few
    additional comments of my own:
    ** In today's "new economy", it is right to point to heavy government
    subsidies and to the way business interests have been allowed to play into
    society.  But it is unhealthy to forget that we are the people who do the
    allowing, run the government, and carry out the work of the businesses.
    As large and unconsidered as government subsidies of technology may be,
    they are hardly more important than the support we all offer through our
    infatuation with new gadgetry.
    ** Recall Kunstler's remark that suburbs begin as real estate ventures,
    not civic places.  Today one can say much the same of the Net, where
    government-subsidized commerce has been given carte blanche to hollow out
    existing institutions and produce whatever new cultural landscape happens
    to follow.  At this point we scarcely have a civic sector sufficiently
    powerful to incubate the organic development of new institutions; the only
    two recognized players on the stage are business and government.
    Of course, many of the very early users of the Net did hold high hopes for
    a new civic society of cyberspace.  But these hopes -- cast in the wildly
    improbable terms of the settling of the Old West, encouraged by the
    assumption that governments would dissolve, and nourished by faith in the
    power of the ubiquitous digital Word to conjure "emergent" evolutionary
    miracles -- were hopes such as could inspire only rootless engineers,
    isolated from sentient society and quarantined in their gray cubicles.
    The growth of the "third sector" -- non-governmental organizations,
    nonprofits in general, and volunteer activities -- is a promising
    development.  For the most part, however, these organizations still seem
    more enchanted by technology than mindful of its potentials for
    undermining their own agendas.  But that's another article.
    ** One can imagine a rough parallel to the complaints today about the
    "digital divide".  It's as if an early automobile activist, concerned
    about protecting the lives of the urban poor, campaigned for universal
    access to cars.  There might have been a healthy impulse in this, but it
    could only have worsened things if the impulse were not radically modified
    by an awareness of the ways the automobile was re-shaping society.  After
    all, instead of subsidies to make driving easier for the poor, it might
    have been better to penalize the use of the automobile by the wealthy, if
    only to reflect its actual costs to society.  In a similar vein, Richard
    Sclove, founder of the Loka Institute, has proposed discriminatory taxes
    on e-commerce to help counter its damage to civil society.
    ** The core problem brought out by Kunstler's narrative -- and even more
    by the surging power of high tech today -- is the reversal alluded to
    above:  We are a culture obsessed by new technical capabilities for their
    own sake, rather than the worthwhile activities and institutions that all
    technical capabilities presumably exist to support.  Our own activities
    are conceived by the technician as mere "applications" that help to
    establish the new technology, which is more and more developed as an end
    in itself by people for whom this strictly technical working out of
    possibilities is their life's work.
    This, of course, is how it can happen that young kids just out of college
    (if that) end up writing software that redefines the daily routine in one
    field of work after another.  The redefinition rarely grows out of the
    deepest wisdom at work in the practice being redefined -- the kid in the
    cubicle most likely knows almost nothing about the practice, and certainly
    has not spent a lifetime working in that field to discover its potentials
    and problems.  It's true, however, that with every new generation of
    software he does know more about the field, because it is progressively
    being reduced to the terms of his own computer programs -- much as the
    social landscape has progressively been reduced to the terms of the
    Somehow, we've got to find a way to situate ourselves in meaningful,
    rooted, stable contexts -- at least rooted and stable enough for us to work
    on them.  Then we can begin to develop the art of assessing technological
    possibilities within these contexts.  One way to know when we've let go of
    this challenge is to note the point where we find ourselves thinking
    narrowly of problems to be solved rather than paths to walk or vocations
    to live.  The engineering genius behind the automobile and highway system
    solved innumerable problems along the way, but did not necessarily give us
    places to live.
    Related articles:
    ** "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" in NF #100.
    ** "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 3)" in NF #68.  This article looks
       at the reduction of commerce to a numbers game, devoid of any connection
       to the kind of civic value Kunstler speaks about here.
    Goto table of contents
    Education Includes the Transmission of Attitudes
    Response to:  "The New, Soulless University?" (NF-104)
    From:  Klaus Rieckhoff (k_rieckhoff@sfu.ca)
    In reading about "The New, Soulless University?" I was reminded of my
    lifelong concern about the neglected if not completely forgotten dimension
    of education:  the transmission of attitudes.  While the educational
    literature about the transmission of content is extensive, I rarely find
    mention of the importance of passing on attitudes, i.e. modes of behaviour
    related to the acquisition and use of knowledge.
    While it is easy to pass on content by various media, the only effective
    mechanisms for the transmission of attitudes in my experience is for
    better or worse through role models and that is where direct human contact
    is irreplaceable:  parents, neighbours, peers, and, of course, teachers.
    They are the only "real" role models, whereas TV and other media only
    provide essentially "phony" role models that can nonetheless be also
    effective in molding minds and characters, more often in undesirable ways
    rather than otherwise.  The examples abound and everybody will be able to
    relate stories about the good and the bad cases from their own life
    experiences.  Yet we rarely, if ever, discuss the importance of this
    dimension of learning and teaching.
    Klaus E. Rieckhoff, Ph.D.,Ll.D.h.c.,
    Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics,
    Simon Fraser University
    Burnaby, B.C. V5A 1S6
    The Book's Weakness Is Also Its Strength
    Response to:  "Education by Acronym" (NF-104)
    From:  Wendell Piez (wapiez@mulberrytech.com)
    Dear Steve,
    In criticizing current initiatives to use electronic text encoding
    ("SCORM", "LMS", "CSF") to create a portable and context-free, packaged
    "education", you remark on the technology of the book,
       A static, container model of education (as if wisdom were in the book,
       in the compilation of words) reduced our attention to the inner
       dynamics of understanding.
    Although book-technology undeniably brings with it, in my experience, just
    the perils you identify, nonetheless it remains a critical element in a
    true, vital education that is engaged with the contemporary world.  The
    weakness of the book is also its strength:  ironically and necessarily, it
    has always been the function and capacity of art to aspire to a condition
    of universality, by creating an internal self-consistency and self-
    awareness that can lift it out of immediate context.
    This is, of course, a fiction at a deep level:  no art work, great or
    mediocre, really works without a context.  But by imagining a world unto
    itself, art also creates its own context, a world within a world -- so the
    Sistine Chapel continues to astonish, and to proclaim a vision of humanity
    that survives the world of its creation, even when we have forgotten the
    references in the Sybillene figures painted on its surfaces.  If it
    weren't for this capacity, works of art, including books and poems, would
    never be able to sustain the myth that their external form ("the
    compilation of words") is what's powerful, even isolated from the relation
    between book, reader and world that (as you know) is the real ground and
    source of their energy.  It should also be stressed that such works are
    always products of an intense engagement with the greater world -- never
    the results of mere book-knowledge.
    Great educators know this, and are careful to assemble the best works
    available to students, relevant to those students, capable of providing a
    shared context for students to share insights among themselves, of evoking
    passions while engaging reason.  A context is created and sustained,
    enriching and illuminating the "real-world" concerns that students
    inevitably face in their own lives.
    In principle, I see no reason why electronic media formats cannot contain
    the same "charge."  In fact, I think occasional passages and issues of
    NetFuture evidence this -- and I have seen issues of NetFuture making the
    e-mail rounds months and even years after their original composition.
    Yet my experience also suggests that the isolating tendency of digital
    electronic media (also a topic of NF #104) tend to mitigate against this
    context-creating and sustaining power.  (And I don't need to argue this
    particular point -- I've been around the track and had to assimilate both
    positive and negative aspects of on-line experience.)  Again, it's nothing
    about the technologies in themselves, so much as it is in the way they are
    designed, deployed and put to use, the intentions and expectations they
    express and cultivate.
    So if I were teaching from NetFuture, I'd want to print out copies, have
    the students read the issue (out loud and together if possible), and talk
    about it in a group discussion.  If I couldn't do this -- maybe I was
    designing an on-line curriculum -- I'd focus, as you do, on making my
    presentation both self-contained and open-ended enough so that the student
    would be freely able to discover a meaningful context for her or himself.
    I am in complete agreement that without that, online "education" is doomed
    to be nothing but technical instruction -- leaving students to learn
    harder lessons a harder way.
    Best regards,
    Wendell Piez
    (PS: FWIW, and for full disclosure -- I'm writing this while sitting on a
    bed in a hotel room in the heart of Silicon Valley, where I'm teaching XML
    to employees of a major high-technology company.  It's the right thing to
    be doing, I believe -- but it's walking the razor's edge.)
    Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
    Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
    17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
    Suite 207                                          Phone: 301/315-9631
    Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
    individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
    paragraph are attached.
    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
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    http://netfuture.org/support.html .
    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #105 :: April 18, 2000
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