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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #103     A Publication of The Nature Institute     February 29, 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
    Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
       Enthusiasm and Concern: Results of a New Technology Poll
       We Need More Than Shocked Indignation (Miles Nordin)
       I'm Not Sure I'm Ready to Trade in My `Defective' Body (Russell Lear)
       Recognizing the Limits of Our Understanding (Joshua Yeidel)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    NetFuture is not exactly known for its preoccupation with late-breaking
    news.  After all, only an infinitesimal percentage of the news that needs
    attending to is today's news.  The current issue of NetFuture, however, is
    an exception.  There's a major survey being announced today, sponsored by
    National Public Radio, The Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Kennedy
    School of Government at Harvard.  The survey was released in advance to
    NetFuture columnist Langdon Winner so that he could offer commentary for
    National Public Radio.
    Check out NPR's "Talk of the Nation" today, where Langdon will be the
    special guest for an hour.  He's also provided a few verbal nuggets for
    "All Things Considered" later in the day.  And, taking advantage of the
    occasion, he offers us below a full report on the survey results, along
    with some of his own trenchant observations.
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                                  Langdon Winner
                                                          TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE
                                                       2.1   February 29, 2000
    Everywhere one looks these days there's giddy excitement about technology,
    a sentiment so common it often verges on mass ecstasy.  In the media as
    well as in conversations of everyday folks, "technology" is praised as the
    fount of everything that is new and promising in the world, a cornucopia
    of fabulous jobs, higher incomes, better health, longer lives, and more
    satisfying ways of living.  Improvements that people once attributed to
    modern civilization or perhaps to science, are now widely believed to flow
    from "technology," especially the realm of digital electronics and
    computer networks.
    But does the insistent buzz of news stories and personal anecdotes reflect
    what the great majority of people are actually thinking?  Is the ardor for
    computers, cyberspace, and dot com enterprise displayed in tacky Super
    Bowl ads also common in the populace at large?  A poll released this week
    strongly suggests the answer is "yes."
    The survey was designed and sponsored by National Public Radio, The Kaiser
    Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
    University and was conducted last November and December by International
    Communications Research (ICR) of Media, Pa.  Pollsters tapped a nationally
    representative sample of 1,506 adults 18 years and older, asking a long
    list of questions about technology, especially their views of the computer
    and Internet.  The same survey also asked 625 children, 10-17, for their
    views on the matter.  Results from this research are extensive, worth
    lengthy analysis and interpretation.  My comments here offer some initial,
    highly personal impressions, looking mainly at opinions from the sample of
    adults 60 years and younger.
    Positive Feelings
    The survey confirms that computer use is indeed widespread: 92% of adults,
    18-60, have used a computer; 53% use a computer at work.  Perhaps more
    surprisingly, 69% of those polled reported having a computer at home; of
    these 70% said they had just one computer, not more.  For most people,
    having a computer at home is a fairly new experience; more than half the
    sample said they'd gotten their first computer just within the past five
    The Internet is now widely available to Americans: 75% of adults have used
    it at one time or another; 53% have access to the Internet or email at
    home while 27% use the Internet at work.  For those who log on to the
    Internet on the job, 63% said it was "essential" for their work.
    The data suggests that people use the Internet at home primarily for
    information gathering and leisure activities -- current events (43%),
    entertainment, sports and hobbies (44%), travel (38%), and health (31%).
    But the more practical, business-like uses are much less common:  paying
    bills (11%); investments (10%); and shopping (28%).  Can it be that people
    are dragging their feet when it comes to exploiting the economic functions
    of networked computing in the home?  For now, the data suggests as much.
    Seeking a larger context to situate its findings, the poll asked people to
    list the one or two technological developments of the twentieth century
    they found most significant.  The computer received far and away the
    highest ranking with 65%.  Next came the automobile with 33%.  Far down
    the list were older technologies, ones heavily promoted in their heydays
    decades back, but now evidently fading in the public's esteem.
    Remember the saving power of nuclear energy and the "revolution" it
    promised in the 1950s?  Only 11% of those polled now place it among the
    most significant technologies.  Similarly, the halo that once surrounded
    space flight seems to have lost its shine; only 14% placed rocketry in the
    top rank.  Even television scored rather low in the pantheon of technical
    systems, coming in at a mere 19%.  Given the prominence of TV in people's
    lives, it is fascinating to see it pale in significance when compared to
    the computer.  Rankings of other notable contenders include the airplane
    (15%); broadcast radio (12%) and genetic engineering (14%).
    Several questions in the poll tried to discover how people feel about
    changes in their lives brought about by technological transformation.
    Adults were asked to respond to the assertion, "Science and technology
    make our way of life change too fast."  Those who agreed "strongly" or "to
    some extent" totaled 56%.  Asked how well they were adapting to computers,
    56% said they were "keeping up", 43% "being left behind."
    Answers to the lifestyle questions produced what is probably the most
    important headline to emerge from the study, namely, that most people of
    all ages and income levels now have very positive feelings about the
    computer.  Those who have a computer at home were asked whether "a
    computer at home has made your life better or worse, or hasn't it made
    much difference?" A large majority, 64%, said the computer had made life
    better while 2% answered "worse" and 34% indicated not much difference.
    The children sampled were even more positive; 91% said they thought the
    computer made life better for Americans.  By comparison, only 42% of
    adults and 35% of youngsters thought television made their lives better.
    In fact, computer use seems to be cutting into American's TV watching; 28%
    of adults and 45% of children say they have watched less TV since the
    computer entered the home, although the exact amount of time was not
    Toward a Solitary Life
    But the findings about computers and the better life come with a stunning
    paradox.  Of those who have computers at home 57% report they now spend
    less time with families and friends.  This mirrors controversial results
    in other surveys of our emerging computer culture.  A 1998 survey at
    Carnegie Mellon University found astonishing levels of loneliness among
    first-time computer users.  Another poll just released by political
    scientist Norman Nie of Stanford University also finds computer users
    spending less time with friends and attending fewer social events.
    Stories in the New York Times have dubbed this phenomenon the "Newer,
    Lonelier Crowd," recalling studies from sociologists of the 1950s that
    described the collapse of community life in America and the rise of an
    isolated individualism.
    Today's advocates of virtual community howl in disbelief whenever results
    of this kind are released; they prefer colorful anecdotes about all the
    people they've seen energetically connecting online.  But when substantial
    numbers of people in scientifically selected random samples tell you they
    are disconnecting from those closest to them, all those lovely stories
    about close community in cyberspace seem like wishful thinking.
    Let's face it:  Large numbers of Americans are finding satisfaction in
    computer games, email, chat rooms, and Web browsing and are perfectly
    happy doing these things in more or less solitary ways.  Is this news
    really all that surprising?  Unlike television viewing that at least
    provides families a semblance of social interaction as they watch shows
    together, computer use is typically a one-person, one-tube affair.
    Perhaps the computer finally offers ways to resolve a problem identified
    by Jean-Paul Sartre:  "Hell is other people."
    Another favorite theme among proponents of computerized social life --
    that the Internet will be a tonic for democracy -- also finds scant
    support in the poll.  The computer and Internet, you'll recall, were
    supposed to revitalize politics by making it easier and more attractive
    for citizens to participate.  I wait by my window each day looking for
    signs that this is actually happening.  Alas, very little political
    activity is reflected in the NPR/Kaiser Foundation/Kennedy School data.
    Only 12% of adult computer users had ever visited a political candidate's
    site on the Internet and only 2% had contributed money to a political
    candidate or charity online.  By comparison, 31% of children with
    computers in the home said they had visited a pornography Web site (if
    only by accident).
    Of course, the political findings do not begin to measure the kinds of
    high-speed, online mobilization and lobbying one sees among activists
    nowadays, a phenomenon that Bruce Bimber has termed "accelerated
    pluralism".  But if one's talking about engagement of the populace as a
    whole in public affairs (and isn't that what democracy is all about?) then
    the widely predicted reinvigoration of political life does not seem to
    have reached some 88% of us who are currently asleep at the mouse.
    Race, Income, and Jobs
    Today's worries about the "digital divide" are to some extent confirmed by
    the study, although the inequalities are not as drastic as the worst-case
    scenarios have suggested.  Among persons with low income ($30,000 per year
    or less) 35% use a computer at work and 48% at home; among the less
    educated (high school or less) 38% at work, 57% at home.  The gap between
    income levels is most prominent when it comes to Internet use at home
    where 72% of families with incomes of $50,000 or more are connected while
    only 31%, of low income families have Internet links.  Among blacks and
    whites there was a relatively small gap in computer use at work, 28% vs.
    36%, but much larger signs of inequality at home: 35% vs. 52% in computer
    use and 19% vs. 34% in the availability of the Internet or email.
    The specific ways people use the Internet is more greatly influenced by
    income and education than by race.  Both high-income blacks (27%) and
    whites (38%) reported doing some shopping on line.  But this figure drops
    to 6% of low-income blacks and 10% of whites.  Thus far the poor have not
    caught the bug of E-Commerce.  (Once again social science does a wonderful
    job of revealing the obvious:  Those with lower incomes tend to shop less
    About half of those polled (46%) said they believe that differences in
    access to computing have widened gaps in income and opportunity in our
    society.  Apparently more generous than their elected leaders or today's
    talk show hosts, 61% of the sample affirmed that government should help
    low-income people gain access to computers and the Internet.
    How realistic are the popular views reflected in the poll?  In my reading,
    people seem to have a fairly well-balanced understanding of what computers
    can do and also know of their drawbacks and dangers.  Hence, while there
    was overwhelming enthusiasm for the Internet, more than half of adults
    polled said they trusted the information found on the Net just a little or
    not at all.  Given my own experience, that seems about right.  The data
    also revealed folks to be profoundly wary of a host of troubles linked to
    computer use -- loss of privacy, smut on the Web, dangerous strangers
    online, and other ills.
    Interestingly enough, large majorities of those who recognized problems in
    the online world -- pornography, information on building bombs, gun
    purchasing, hate speech, false advertising, etc. -- believe that
    "government should do something about" these matters, a conclusion that
    candidates running for office this year might well notice.  As reflected
    in the survey, the general public seems worried about the darker side of
    cyberspace, far more so than the digital cognoscenti in Silicon Valley or
    our free-market-happy political leaders.
    Whether people are realistic about computers, jobs and income is a
    fascinating question as well.  An astonishing 87% of those polled said
    they are not concerned that computers might eliminate their jobs.  In
    addition, some 40% believe that computers in the workplace will increase
    wages, while 39% think it will make no difference.  While these views
    reflect the glowing economic optimism of the Clinton years, they seem at
    odds with some longer-term historical trends.  In recent decades the
    introduction of computers has eliminated whole categories of jobs formerly
    held by ordinary folks -- telephone operators, bank clerks, and the like.
    Networked computing makes it extremely easy to get rid of the middle man,
    the person who stands between the information or product desired and its
    ultimate consumer.  But these middle-level jobs are exactly the ones most
    people still hold, the very ones targeted by "innovators" who hope to reap
    profits by "cutting costs."  While the booming economy of the past decade
    may continue to create new kinds of work and keep unemployment rates down,
    the belief that computers do not pose a threat to a great many existing
    jobs seems bizarre.  Perhaps Americans have gotten used to having their
    lives shaken up by upheavals in "The New Economy."  And perhaps they have
    come to accept wage levels that have remained essentially flat for several
    decades.  A key message from the poll: Computers are fun and I'm still
    working.  What, me worry?
    Another contradiction revealed in the survey is a tension between the
    overwhelmingly positive feelings expressed about computers and the
    deteriorating estimate people have of television.  Only about 4 people in
    10 said that television had made life better; even beepers (of all things)
    received a higher score, 50% on the "makes life better" scale.  With a 64%
    positive rating, computers and the Internet seem well situated to pull
    society toward Nirvana.
    But perhaps the public is unaware that in the next several years the two
    boxes -- computer and TV -- are destined to merge into a single entity,
    one that will (if its corporate planners have anything to say about it)
    bring a torrent of advertising, entertainment and commercial messages into
    the home, crowding out many of the charming features of the Internet that
    folks now find so appealing -- its flexibility, openness and way of
    putting ordinary people in control.  The survey gives no indication folks
    realize that there's likely to be trouble ahead as today's romance with
    the computer encounters pungent economic forces.
    Unasked Questions
    The IRC research gives us much to ponder.  It is certainly a relief to
    have some solid numbers to help test the various claims and counter claims
    advanced as Americans flock to the online world.  At the same time, it is
    worth noting some serious limitations of polls like these, especially
    their unwillingness to move beyond conventional assumptions about society
    and politics.
    For example, the poll did not ask people for their opinions about
    improvement or decline in the communities in which they reside.  An
    excellent question would have been:  "Is online commerce making your
    neighborhood, town, or city a better or worse place to live?"  But nothing
    remotely like that question was asked of the hundreds surveyed.  The
    underlying worldview of the survey and its sponsors projects a society of
    individuals who move back and forth between the workplace and family, but
    encounter nothing in between.  Thus, the poll sheds no light on crucial
    issues about computers and the vitality of present and future communities,
    issues hotly debated in writings about cyberspace and society.
    In a similar way, the survey did nothing to encourage people to share
    their opinions on emerging concentrations of economic and political power,
    developments obviously connected to the development of digital electronics
    and widely recognized as such.  Perhaps the pollsters found opinions on
    these matters too volatile to explore, too difficult to measure.  But the
    gaping absence of such topics lends an air of eerie unreality to otherwise
    valuable research.
    Most Americans are perfectly aware that the new millionaires,
    billionaires, and media conglomerates are bringing substantial and rapid
    change to our ways of living.  All of us know at least a little about Bill
    Gates, the antitrust suit, mega-mergers between AOL and Time Warner, and
    the like.  Why not ask our opinions about wealth, power and conflict?
    Those who designed the poll evidently decided to err on the side of
    politeness, not bothering to inquire about public issues that only make
    people unhappy.
    One last gem popped out at me from the reams of data and analysis.  Buried
    in the sample was a small but not insignificant minority of persons who
    don't have a computer and evidently don't plan to get one.  Of all the
    people queried, this group seemed consistently most contented.  Although
    almost unimaginable in the year 2000, these rugged souls claim they're
    actually able to do their jobs, communicate with friends, obtain
    information, and even go shopping, all without the power of digital
    equipment.  Simply amazing!  Asked if they feel "left out" of the world
    taking shape around them, three quarters answered "no."  Obviously, they
    don't know what they're missing.
    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
    We Need More Than Shocked Indignation
    Response to:  "On the New Eugenics" (NF-102)
    From:  Miles Nordin (carton@Ivy.NET)
    I'm in the MCD biology program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, so
    perhaps I have some vested interest in what you're saying.  I would like
    to reserve blunt agreement or disagreement and make a very simple point.
    Many of the scientists you quoted were not attempting to make a statement
    about morality.  Many of my professors here are uncomfortable discussing
    morality, perhaps because they realize they cannot do a good job of it,
    and they are better off contributing other ideas to those who can.  This
    relative lack of philosophical moral skill may be bad, or it may be
    unavoidable -- I leave it as a separate issue for the moment.  The
    important thing is, that's the way things are.
    If they're not discussing morality, then what are they discussing?
    Several of them are telling you what they believe, as scientists, will
    happen.  Not what they want to happen.  Not what should happen.  Rather,
    what will happen.  They may be wrong, but that's not the point.  The point
    is, they never intended to answer your philosophical questions.  They are
    not talking about what they, or anyone, wants to happen, much less what
    should happen.  They are telling you with the sort of blunt honesty that
    only an incredibly strong individual can deliver, what they truly believe
    is going to happen.
    These people will do what they say they can do.  They won't do it to spite
    you, or because they are morally foolish -- they'll do it because they
    know that no one is in any position to stop it from happening -- not you,
    not them, not any coalition of interested people likely to spring into
    existence soon enough to matter.  Not even another World War could stop
    this from happening.  It is an immense amount of work, but the work will
    be done.  They know who does the work.  And they know who pays for the
    work.  They know the work is going to get done.  And, Genius is not
    required.  It will happen, because it is trivial work.  That is why they
    are so certain.  That certainty is the information these statements were
    meant to convey.
    I suggest that you take them seriously, and no matter how awful their
    future vision might be, try to react with something more effective than
    shocked indignation.
    Miles Nordin / v:+1 720 841-8308 fax:+1 530 579-8680
    555 Bryant Street PMB 182 / Palo Alto, CA 94301-1700 / US
    Miles --
    You say that achieving the radical vision of the genetic engineers is
    trivial work.  It is also trivial work to walk up to someone and thrust a
    knife in his chest.  But, as a society, we've learned to discourage that.
    Likewise, it's reasonable to believe that, when we become aware of the
    tremendous destruction and suffering implied by some of the current
    genetic work, we will find ourselves discouraged from pursuing it in
    anything like the current manner.
    My essay was an attempt to move toward an understanding of the problems
    inherent in those various statements about genetic engineering.  Why in
    the world do you describe it as mere "shocked indignation"?  Do you simply
    assume, without really reading, that anyone not sufficiently tough-minded
    to accept the inevitability of the engineers' brave new world must only be
    capable of emoting?  I do wonder, though, why I should worry about
    conveying anything more "effective" than indignation if in fact we're all
    helpless before the inevitability of events.
    I don't see how to read those various quotations without recognizing that
    the speakers are content to side with the developments they describe.  You
    yourself suggest that of course they side with these developments,
    since the developments are inevitable.  That is a rather shocking
    view, since it denies choice where obviously each one of us does have
    choice, and it denies our responsibility for the future.  It is exactly
    this attempt to separate the practice of science from ethics -- as if
    there were any practice that could possibly be isolated from its ethical
    dimensions -- that is the root of all the dangers presented by both
    science and technology.
    I'm Not Sure I'm Ready to Trade in My `Defective' Body
    Response to:  "On the New Eugenics" (NF-102)
    From:  Russell Lear (lear@cp10.es.xerox.com)
    I have cerebral palsey, so your occasional thread on how technologists
    seek to help or prevent less than perfect humans is particularly
    interesting to me.  (Basically, my muscles are spastic and tend to work
    against one another, making it difficult to get around or, at times, to
    talk clearly.)
    I think that many technologists would do well to talk to some of the
    people they're seeking to help; they'd find much more ambivalance than
    they might have expected.
    For instance, when you had the article on Spiritual Machines, I took an
    informal poll of people I know with CP, asking what they thought of the
    prospect of trading in their "defective" body for an industrial strength,
    computer enhanced model.  There weren't any takers.
    It isn't that these people are against technology (computers and the
    internet have done a lot to help with communication), but after years of
    being guinea pigs for the latest technologies and theories, people are
    much more aggressive about discussing the side-effects & the pains vs the
    benefits.  And if the benefits are primarily or solely cosmetic, there
    tends to be real skepticism.
    To be sure, I'm not going to win any races (but then neither are some of
    my couch-potato co-workers), climb a mountain (ditto) or dance with the
    grace of Fred Astaire (ditto), but I can enjoy and take delight in the
    races, the exploits and the grace of others.  And I believe I and my
    couch-potato co-workers contribute through our efforts to work with others
    to create a safe, loving and interesting community.
    I don't know that I can say I'm totally at peace with my body and its
    appearance or (mal)functioning, but I do believe that a pre-occupation
    with refining the body's appearance and function will lead to endless
    tweaking and improving.
    I'm all for using technology to improve our lives, but I'm with you (I
    think) in hoping we'll pay attention to what we're doing and ensure that
    our actions reflect what we really value.
    Recognizing the Limits of Our Understanding
    Response to:  "On the New Eugenics" (NF-102)
    From:  Joshua Yeidel (yeidel@wsu.edu)
    You wrote:
       The range of our moral responsibility, however, is determined not only
       by the range of our power to act, but also by the extent of our
       understanding.  Our first responsibility is to recognize the limits of
       our understanding and the true springs of our actions.
    I believe this is the most profound pair of sentences I have understood of
    what you have written (some things you have written I don't understand
    yet, so I can't say how profound they might be).  You are right to compare
    the impact of Martha Beck's story with that of Jacques Lusseyran's story.
    Both stories reinforce my conviction that, no matter what techno-power
    humans accrete, there are other and greater powers which give this world
    its soul, and which are trying to give us our souls back, too.  (You might
    use the term "meaning" instead of "soul", and perhaps you might prefer
    "laws" or "relationships" to "powers"....in the cultural cross-wash
    between reaction against hyper-religion and reaction against hyper-
    science, we probably need to keep both barrels of our verbal shotguns
    Thinking about the sentences I quote above in the context of my work in
    "Higher Education", it's clear to me that our first educational
    responsibility is to help our students meet their first moral
    responsibility -- "to recognize the limits of our understanding and the
    true springs of our actions."  No one will be surprised that I don't find
    this often in the curricula I encounter.
    One more point:  You say
       my own surmise about the new, materialistic mysticism that speaks
       glibly of Metaman and spiritual machines and digital immortality is
       that it arises from fear.  I mean the fear that we may not be just our
       molecules, or just the patterns of organization imposed on our
    I see it just the other way .... that the fear that animates the
    techo-power juggernaut is the fear that we may be "just our molecules",
    that no soul-power (or law of meaning) exists to lift us above the best
    that we poor pitiful humans can do, and so we must grasp at everything
    with our own hands.  Even so, it comes out just as you say, a flight into
    doing from the responsibility of becoming.
    Thank you so much for your efforts.  I hope you are bearing up well.
    Goto table of contents
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