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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #109     A Publication of The Nature Institute        August 3, 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.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Of Vision Quests, Gender, and Boredom
       Image Ascendent, or Descendent?
    Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
       Hot Property in Leedsville: The Mumford House Up for Sale
       Golden Genes Article Proves Too Much (Peter Shapiro)
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Of Vision Quests, Gender, and Boredom
    In her recently released Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the
    Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, Paulina Borsook takes up,
    among other things, the John Perry Barlow / George Gilder view of
    "cyberspace and hightechlandia" as the place "where the buffalo roam and
    dogs run free":
       Never mind that many people working in high tech are most likely grunt
       programmers doing stuff like maintaining inventory-tracking modules for
       construction-management accounting software, or working at ghastly huge
       man-in-the-gray-easy-care-twills places such as Ross Perot's own data
       processing feudal kingdom, Perot Systems, or at former defense-
       aerospace contractors such as Lockheed-Martin.  Manning their computers
       like Kiowa braves on vision quests, most high tech droids ain't.
    In an idle moment I tried to jot down some of the most basic reasons I
    could come up with for the public's infatuation with digital technologies
    despite the kind of daily reality Borsook points to.  There's nothing
    original about my list (and you will doubtless want to add to it).  But
    it's useful to take a moment every so often and glance over the large
    picture.  So here's what I have so far:
    ** Mystery:  people don't understand what's inside the box.
    ** Eliza effect:  the technology seems intelligent.
    ** Reverse-Eliza effect:  we often find ourselves struggling helplessly
       with these machines, so obviously we're dumber than they are.
    ** The illusion of precise control (and who doesn't want to be in
       control?).  Closely related to this:  the sense of power and capability
       associated with carrying all these sleek, miniaturized gadgets around.
    ** Fashion:  with every newspaper and magazine now having a consumer-goods
       "news" section promoting digital gadgets, the fashion quotient of this
       stuff has become irresistible.
    ** Sense of progress and destiny in the inevitable march from one
       generation of technology to the next, more sophisticated generation.
       How can these devices keep getting better if there isn't a fundamental
       evolutionary imperative at work?
    ** Distraction and escape.
    ** Computers are "solutions" -- the favorite word of high-tech ad
       copywriters.  Computers do provide solutions to problems in an
       extremely narrow sense, and it is much easier to glorify the narrow
       accomplishments than to realize how the very narrowness tends to
       subvert the larger picture.  (See "The Trouble with Ubiquitous
       Technology Pushers" in NF #100, 101.)
    Image Ascendent, or Descendent?
    Am I the only one whose eyes glaze over at this kind of rhetoric? --
       The real world of digital reality has always been post-alphabetic.
       Probably because the letters of the alphabet were too slow to keep up
       with the light-time and light-speed of electronics, the alphabet long
       ago shuddered at the speed of light, burned up and crashed to earth.
       Writing can't keep up to the speed of electronic society.  The result
       has been the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the beginning of the Image
       Millennium.  Images moving at the speed of light.  Images moving faster
       than the time it takes to record their passing.  Iconic images.
       Special-Effect Images.  Images of life past, present and future as
       culture is fast-forwarded into the electronic nervous system.  Images
       that circulate so quickly and shine with such intensity that they begin
       to alter the ratio of the human sensorium. (Arthur and Marilouise
       Kroker, CTHEORY, vol. 23, no. 1-2)
    The best I can figure is that the authors wanted to submit their own
    illustration of an alphabet that has crashed and burned.
    But I do seriously wonder how long we are going to keep hearing this
    strange mix of sense and nonsense about images.  Did we take in fewer
    visual stimuli before now?  From morning till night we've always been
    confronted with a visual world -- one that didn't need to travel through
    digital channels at "light speed" to reach us because it was already here,
    minute by minute, hour by hour, incessantly, as long as our eyes were
    open.  If we didn't consider it particularly noteworthy, it was because it
    held together in a natural way, so that our attention was focused on what
    our surroundings meant for our lives.
    Yes, something is changing, but it's not that we are increasingly exposed
    to images.  What's changing is the kind of images we are exposed to.  They
    are ever more arbitrary, incoherent, removed from the meaningful contexts
    of our lives, manufactured by a machinery of abstraction, scientifically
    calculated to subvert conscious intention, and designed to serve the
    narrowest commercial interests.  What they mean for us in any serious
    sense is often not much at all.
    If all this has an impact on the role of print in our culture, again it's
    not because we have so much imagery to cope with.  The problem is with the
    features of imagery I've just cited -- and, in particular, the
    arbitrariness, incoherence, and subversion of conscious intention.  It's
    hard to attend deeply to a page (or screen) of print if you have been
    reduced to a bundle of reflex reactions produced by meaningless
    distractions.  But the alphabet is not the only thing that crashes and
    burns in the presence of this reduction; so does thinking.
    (Thanks to Ron Purser for forwarding the CTHEORY article.)
    Goto table of contents
                                  Langdon Winner
                                                          TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE
                                                          2.2   August 3, 2000
    It was about a year ago that I learned the old place had been put on the
    market.  The realtor's listing described its features in terms meant to
    attract upscale home buyers:  "charming side hall colonial farmhouse ...
    restored to preserve its historical integrity ... wideboard floors ...
    living room with exposed beams ... New Country Kitchen with working
    fireplace and brick oven; Pantry; Dining Room and Family Room with
    fireplace.  French doors leading to private landscaped garden; Full bath;
    Master Bedroom; 3 bedrooms ... ideal as a horse property."
    Located on tree-lined Leedsville Road just outside the village of Amenia,
    New York, the dwelling is just an hour-and-a-half's drive north of
    Manhattan -- a perfect spot for a young couple who've made money from Wall
    Street or Tech Valley to establish a weekend retreat or even a wired
    cottage for telecommuting.  When compared to big-city rents, the asking
    price is an absolute steal:  $375,000 dollars, including house and 13.58
    A House of Realities
    What makes this particular piece of property notable is that for six
    decades it was the home of Lewis Mumford, historian, social philosopher,
    public intellectual, and visionary of an era of social renewal yet
    unachieved.  It was here that Lewis sought refuge from the noise,
    pollution and stress of New York City, arriving first in 1929 for a series
    of summer vacations, and moving to the house as permanent resident several
    years later.  It was here that Mumford wrote most of his great books on
    architecture, the city, war, art, science, technology, and the dilemmas of
    the human condition.  It was here that he and his wife Sophia raised two
    children, entertained visitors from all over the world, and reflected on
    both the promise and deep-seated ills of modern civilization.  And it was
    here that Mumford died in 1990 at ninety-five, leaving behind a body of
    work in cultural history and social criticism as significant as any
    produced in the twentieth century.
    I had known Lewis and Sophia since the middle 1970s, but had never made
    the journey to their Leedsville home.  When I learned from a friend that
    the house was being renovated and prepared for sale, we decided to drive
    there, hoping to walk the grounds and see the rooms before they became
    someone's private property.
    We were met on the front lawn by Shane Strauss, a local carpenter who had
    bought it from the Mumford estate following Sophia's death in 1997.  He'd
    spent months fixing it up "on spec", putting up sheet rock, repairing
    stairs, refinishing floors, and painting all the rooms.  He was more than
    happy to show us around.  Although the house was in fairly good condition
    for a structure built in the 1830s, it was clearly not equipped in ways
    that would make it comfortable by today's middle-class standards.
    "The rooms were wall-to-wall bookshelves just nailed together from simple
    boards," he explained.  "It took me days to tear them down and haul away
    the wood."  I cringed.  The bookshelves in Mumford's study carted off to
    the dump?  Indeed, the refurbished house gives no sign that Mumford's
    study ever existed.  "The kitchen," he continued, "was old fashioned, a
    pantry, sink, and stove.  I took nine layers of linoleum off the kitchen
    floor.  When one layer wore out, they just put down another."
    There is certainly nothing ostentatious about the dwelling, just an old
    farm house that became a literary workplace.  Although, in his studies,
    Mumford surveyed the most exotic achievements of modern architecture, his
    personal preference was to live simply.  In his last published work, the
    autobiographical Sketches from Life, Mumford affectionately
    describes the Leedsville house, stressing its connection to its environs,
    and noting how the building had subtly infused and enriched the life of
    his family:
       The transformation of the ramshackle house and our first weedy acre
       into a densely cultivated tract constitutes a vital part of the story
       of our marriage .... Without any set intention on our part our acres
       became, at the climax of cultivation a small cross-section of the
       potential environment, with a woodlot, a swath of cleared meadow, a
       vegetable garden, two asparagus beds, encircled by a miniature woodland
       walk -- a Philosophenweg, as our German friends call it -- that leads
       to what was once an open view across the valley to the exposed flanks
       of Oblong Mountain, some twelve hundred feet high .... we gradually
       fell in love with our shabby house as a young man might fall in love
       with a homely girl whose voice and smile were irresistible.  As with
       faces -- Abe Lincoln bears witness -- character is more ingratiating
       and enduring than mere good looks.  No rise in our income has ever
       tempted us to look elsewhere for another house, still less to build a
       more commodious or fashionable one.  In no sense was this the house of
       our dreams.  But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something
       better, the house of our realities.  In all its year-by-year changes,
       under the batterings of age and the bludgeonings of chance, this dear
       house has enfolded and remolded our family character -- exposing our
       limitations as well as our virtues.
    A Place for Ideas and Personal Interaction
    Unfortunately, the carpenter's admirable effort to retain much of the
    historic character of the house has made it more difficult to sell.  As
    the realtor who handles the listing told me recently, "It's not attractive
    to our customers because it lacks many of the features people expect in a
    home these days."  I suppose she means that well-to-do house hunters are
    looking for a Jacuzzi, microwave oven, satellite dish, swimming pool,
    broadband DSL connection, and all the amenities of Martha Stewart
    consumerism.  After all, a "country kitchen" these days is more than just
    a kitchen in the country; it takes dozens of sophisticated appliances to
    cook those strawberry rhubarb muffins.
    As I wandered through the rambling structure, it struck me as odd and more
    than a little offensive that a house of such historical significance
    should be up for sale at all, just another land deal in the booming
    Dutchess County real estate market.  In light of Mumford's accomplishment
    and in recognition of the living presence of his ideas, shouldn't his
    house be preserved as a place of spiritual retreat, a center where people
    could gather to reflect upon the intellectual, spiritual and practical
    issues of our times?  Why haven't those of us moved by his writing and his
    example stepped forward to secure the grounds that Lewis and Sophia
    carefully tended for so many years?
    By comparison, about an hour's drive farther north is Arrowhead Farm just
    outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the home of Herman Melville where
    most of Moby Dick was written.  Today the house is fully restored, tended
    by a devoted crew of curators and tour guides.  On the second floor one
    finds a recreation of Melville's writing desk and its view of the humps of
    Mt. Greylock, which (especially in the winter snows) resembles the form of
    a great white whale. Museum exhibits and the bookshop remind visitors of
    Melville's work and vision.  In my case, a visit to Arrowhead Farm got me
    reading Melville again, one of the most rewarding experiences of the past
    several years.
    Of course, Mumford never achieved the prominence of Herman Melville
    (although neither did Melville himself during his own tragic lifetime).
    But how much acclaim does it take to merit having one's home become a
    place of lasting memory?  Is there a Richter Scale for literary and
    philosophical impact that determines what is kept and what is discarded
    and forgotten?
    I am not suggesting that the Mumford house become a museum.  Lewis and
    Sophia would have hated the idea; their home was a place for lively ideas,
    intense personal interactions, and ambitious projects.  At the same time,
    wouldn't it make sense to preserve the place in ways that make that
    vitality available to visitors, especially to writers, artists,
    architects, activists, and everyday citizens who wish to keep Mumford's
    spirit alive?
    Focusing Energies of Remembrance
    Walking through the house and gardens, I was haunted by the way things
    that have great meaning eventually shed their meaning to become dumb,
    senseless objects.  Unless we find a coherent way to remember a
    significant artifact or place, it slowly moves toward oblivion.  The
    ancient Greeks realized much more clearly than we how the meaning of our
    existence is threatened by the same fate, a ghastly futility that envelops
    a person's life and deeds unless they can somehow be recalled in a story.
    At a certain point in our tour, Mr. Strauss mentioned that while he was
    cleaning out the barn next to the house he'd come upon a jar of snakes
    preserved in formaldehyde.  "It was evidently something that Mumford's son
    Geddes collected when he was a boy."  The comment hit me with a certain
    sting.  Geddes was Lewis and Sophia's only son, killed on the battlefields
    of Europe during World War II.  As a way to come terms with his grief,
    Mumford wrote of Geddes' childhood in Green Memories, a book that
    describes the boy running through the fields, fishing in the stream out
    back, climbing nearby mountains, and collecting specimens.  Geddes' death
    was doubly tragic for Mumford because he had urged America to actively
    resist fascism and the threat it posed to world civilization.
    But for the carpenter, an old bottle of snakes was just an old bottle of
    snakes, something to throw out, not a lens to focus energies of
    remembrance.  Who's to blame him for thinking so?  And perhaps an old
    house is just an old house, regardless of who lived there or what meaning
    the place had for them, their friends, and American letters.
    In important ways, of course, Lewis Mumford is already well remembered.
    His personal papers are archived at the University of Pennsylvania; his
    personal library is on display at the University of Monmouth.  The Lewis
    Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State
    University of New York in Albany, keeps alive his way of thinking about
    the city and environment. The Leedsville house has been placed on the
    National Register of Historic Places and now bears a commemorative plaque.
    Most importantly, of course, many of Mumford's books are still in print,
    widely read and discussed throughout the world.
    Toward a High-minded Embrace of Technology
    But something is missing in our remembrance of the man and his life's
    work.  Among Mumford's key concerns was to provide a systematic, useful
    understanding of technology and the human prospect, a vision of the future
    illuminated by a thorough grasp of world history.  From the early 1920s
    until his last days Mumford sought to elucidate the potential for genuine
    well-being in a variety of technical, scientific, cultural and economic
    developments, a potential he believed was often overlooked in the rush to
    develop military and commercial applications.
    Equally important to him was the need to describe the darker side of
    technological systems, their origins in power fantasies that have recurred
    from the kings of ancient Mesopotamia to today's global corporations,
    their consequences in crippling society and destroying ecosystems wherever
    these fantasies and their agents have achieved dominance.  One of
    Mumford's enduring accomplishments was to offer an ambitious, coherent
    vision of a technological civilization in which the best human impulses
    could be realized and the worst tendencies recognized and restrained.
    Mumford's approach addresses one of the more vexing problems of our time.
    For although we live amid dynamic, rapid-fire technological innovation,
    the thinking that surrounds this innovation is now shockingly small-
    minded.  Profound discoveries and inventions are pressed into service by
    people inspired by little more than gadget-lust or the hope of a fast
    buck.  Among leading writers on the new economy, what passes for a
    brilliant insight is seldom much more than the banal suggestion that high
    tech labs, entrepreneurs, and capital markets be brought into more
    intimate connection.  Journalists writing commentaries on technology and
    social choice are reduced to agonizing about whether children of the dot-
    com wealthy are stressed out by having too much money to spend on cars,
    drugs, and electronic toys.  Although everyone recognizes that world-
    altering changes are involved in electronics, digital communications,
    genomics and the like, the prevailing modes of reflection on these matters
    struggle to rise to the level of triviality.
    At the heart of Mumford's writing is the idea that practical, material
    means are always more than that; they involve deep-seated cultural and
    spiritual commitments that tend to be forgotten.  His best known example
    is the demonstration that the clock was first developed as a way to
    structure the hours of work and religious devotion within the medieval
    monastery, and only centuries later spread to offices, factories, and
    society as a whole.
    Countless revelations of this kind inform Mumford's research.  He
    identifies the spiritual sources of risk-taking, invention, engineering,
    investment, social regimentation, advertising, consumerism, and other
    economic and technical practices that have shaped modern life.  In
    contrast, today's tendency is to disregard origins, to discount choices
    made in the past, to forget where the bodies are buried, and to ignore the
    consequences of taking one path rather than others possibly more fruitful.
    A thoroughly impoverished view of innovation prevails in our time:  the
    belief that new things flow from nothing more than ingenious teamwork in
    corporate and university laboratories and are then delivered to a grateful
    public by the workings of a free market.  This explanation of
    technological and social change carries our social amnesia, the mentality
    of "born yesterday," to breathtaking extremes.
    Preserving the Freedom to Change
    Mumford's hope was that by reclaiming the history of how things came to be
    and what alternatives exist, each generation would be able to change
    direction in fundamental ways, creating a better future than the one
    always (mistakenly) proclaimed as "inevitable."  It is that part of his
    vision that needs to be remembered and refocused for our time.  But no
    current institution even comes close to doing it.
    In no part of the world is the lack of an intellectually resourceful
    vision of the future more noticeable than in Mumford's own home, the
    Hudson Valley.  During the past year leaders in business and government
    have proposed a program of reckless reindustrialization, supporting the
    rapid construction of megaplants in electricity generation, cement
    manufacturing, chip fabrication, and other forms of intensely polluting
    production.  This is precisely the kind of short-sighted "economic
    development" that the valley and its residents do not need and many
    communities are rising up to resist.  So desperate is the situation that
    the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently listed the Hudson
    Valley as one of America's "Eleven Most Endangered Historic Sites." At
    issue here is a rebirth of the environmentally and socially destructive
    systems characteristic of an earlier period of high-testosterone
    entrepreneurialism -- the "Brown Decades" Mumford decried in his portrait
    of the last half of the nineteenth century.  The amnesia deepens.
    Mumford offered a hopeful vision of an advanced technological society in
    which wholeness, balance, and respect for multiple sources of creativity
    were central to building sociotechnical patterns.  His criticisms of the
    dominant paths of the twentieth century were never "anti-technology" (as
    some detractors have claimed), but predicated on the quest to create
    technically sophisticated means that were just, sustainable, democratic,
    ecologically sound, and nourishing to the human spirit.
    This outcome, he believed, would require sweeping reform in material
    culture and people's sense of personal fulfillment.  The mission of a sane
    civilization, he argued, was to "unite the scattered fragments of the
    human personality, turning artificially dismembered men -- bureaucrats,
    specialists, `experts,' depersonalized agents -- into complete human
    beings, repairing the damage that has been done by social segregation, by
    over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalism, by
    the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes."
    At this writing the property in Leedsville is still for sale.  The hour is
    late, but isn't it worth trying to preserve the house as a gathering place
    for study, reflection and debate in Lewis Mumford's tradition?  Welcome to
    the Center for Technology and the Human Prospect.  It has a nice ring to
    it.  I wonder what could make it happen.
    Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study,
    339 Bashford Road, North Chatham, NY 12132.  Langdon Winner can be reached
    at:  winner@rpi.edu and at his Web page:  http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
    Copyright Langdon Winner 2000.  Distributed as part of NetFuture:
    http://www.netfuture.org/ .  You may redistribute this
    article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
    Goto table of contents
    Golden Genes Article Proves Too Much
    Response to:  "Golden Genes and World Hunger" (NF-108)
    From:  Peter Shapiro (jpshapiro@home.com)
    This is an interesting and worthwile article.  But in some ways, it proves
    too much.  It is impossible for humankind to rationalize the ultimate
    outcome of its efforts.  Industrial revolution raises "standards of
    living" but = greenhouse gas.  Smallpox vaccines = AIDS.   "Conquering
    disease" = "overpopulation."    So what to do?  Stop trying?  Or try the
    best we can?
    Peter Shapiro --
    Of course we should try the best we can.  No one is asking for perfect
    knowledge before we act.  The point is only that we should not act in
    ignorance of the knowledge we have.  When we approach problems that are
    deeply contextual as if they were not, then we prepare the way for
    unnecessary disasters.  When we manipulate organisms based on our habits
    in manipulating machines, we can be sure that the organisms will turn
    around and bite us.
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