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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #107     A Publication of The Nature Institute          June 1, 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
       Mark Pesce's Earth Toy
       How to Put Distance between Your Child and School
    An Education That Transcends Information (Carol Cole)
       An interview with the founder of the Sophia Project
    Brief Comments on the Carol Cole Interview (Stephen L. Talbott)
       We can understand technology only by attending to other things
       Free Trade and Ethics (John Pierce)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    Due to speaking engagements, a death in the family, and some other serious
    complications, I have accumulated about a month's backlog of unanswered
    email.  For the duration of the summer I expect to be mostly unresponsive
    to email.  For important business, call me during the afternoons (eastern
    time) at 518-672-0116 or send a fax to 518-672-4270.
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                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Mark Pesce's Earth Toy
    At the "PlaNetwork: Global Ecology and Information Technology" conference
    in San Francisco last month, I was dismayed to hear Mark Pesce offer a
    downright noxious vision of the future of education.
    Pesce, who was co-developer of the Virtual Reality Markup Language, wants
    to raise little children with an "earth toy" -- an educational globe that
    he referred to as an e-Arth.  This large sphere would be a kind of display
    terminal connected to "millions of possible global data sets".  By
    touching the sphere and manipulating a few simple controls, the child
    would be able to zoom in on any location he chose, gaining information
    about weather, peoples, geography, botany, zoology, economic activity,
    languages, and so on.
       With such a toy, a child would be able to absection [sic] the dense
       reality of the world into sensual, tangible forms, investing them with
       an immediacy and reality that would make explicit the implicit
       relations of culture, nature and ecology.  This is the kind of
       experiential learning which will result in changed patterns of
    Pesce headlined his talk with the statements,
       Change the minds of children.
       Get them while they're young.
    He then presented a picture of an infant, who, he said, knows almost
    nothing about the surrounding world.  How will this infant grow up to be a
    knowledgeable and responsible citizen of a global society?  By exploring
    the earth toy.  This, Pesce indicated, offers great benefits.  "If you can
    expose someone to the wonders of the world, that should make them more
    interested in it".  And "the better you know someone, the harder it is to
    kill him".
    What is noxious about this vision isn't the earth toy itself.  As with any
    tool we might conceive, we can easily imagine reasonable uses for it.  No,
    what threatens our future is the ease of Pesce's leap from the imagined
    toy to the imagined benefits.  In his own words:
       To change the behavior of the next generation, give them toys which
       reflect a new worldview.  It's that simple.
    This is someone who shows every sign of having detached his thinking from
    the real-world contexts of real children who get real educations.
    But the simplistic mindset is still not the worst of it.  The core problem
    is the grotesque mismatch between the toy and Pesce's laudable aims.  The
    truth, after all, is nearly the opposite of what he suggests.  You can see
    this as soon as you reflect that the way to prepare yourself to kill
    someone is first to reduce him to an abstraction.  It is no accident that,
    in all great persecutions, the individual victims are hidden behind
    stereotypes and generalities -- convenient labels of the sort that make up
    "data sets".
    Actually, the printing press has already carried us a good distance toward
    this kind of abstraction.  As I have pointed out before, it is impossible
    to imagine the tragic, ideologically motivated destructions of the past
    century apart from the existence of the printed pamphlet.  The word on the
    page, detached from speaker and concrete context, made it easy to think of
    humanity in the abstract.  This is what enables the zealot to begin
    enacting the slogan, "I love mankind; it's just people I can't stand".
    The slogan's intended message, of course, is that we can't really love
    mankind in the abstract.  The only people we can love are particular
    individuals, like those around us.  The best illustration of the slogan I
    have heard is the one Lowell Monke provided in NetFuture #51:  he noticed
    that the high schoolers he had put into communication with e-pals around
    the globe never bothered to say so much as "hello" to the English-as-a-
    second-language students whose hallway lockers were next to their own:
       Here we had been exchanging ideas about cultures with students on the
       other side of the planet for months, and it had never dawned on these
       students to merely turn their heads 90 degrees and talk to students
       from Bosnia, Somalia, the Sudan, Russia, Mexico, the Czech Republic,
       and half a dozen other nations.
    A similar truth holds for the environment:  children cannot learn to love
    nature in the abstract.  They cannot love the rainforest or Antarctica or
    the wildlife of Africa if they have not first learned to love the blades
    of grass, beetles, robins, and maple trees of their own neighborhoods and
    parks.  And here, too, it is impossible to imagine the environmental
    devastation of the past few centuries except as a correlate of that
    alienation from nature encouraged by our retreat into the virtual worlds
    of the printed page.
    Someone from the audience questioned Pesce about the value of virtual
    reality compared to the child's direct experience of the surrounding
    world.  He responded by noting that many people raised the same question
    about the value of books, which also remove the child from direct
    engagement with the world.
    I am continually amazed at how often people mention books this way in
    order to defuse worries about digital technologies.  They seem quite
    unaware that they are actually confirming the worries.  We haven't done
    well at all with the challenge of the book; how will we manage with the
    vastly greater challenge of these perfected engines of abstraction we call
    I am not suggesting that we get rid of books and computers.  But I am
    suggesting that we need to rise to their challenge, which first requires
    that we become aware of it.  I could not detect even a glimmer of such
    awareness in Pesce's fascination with the technology of toy globes and
    databases.  Certainly he gave no hint that the decisive educational
    problem today is not a lack of data about the world.  Rather, it is a lack
    of meaningful personal connection to the world.
    There happens to be a much more congenial way to illustrate the truth that
    the better you know someone the harder it is to kill him.  The
    illustration comes from a school for juvenile offenders -- the Thomas E.
    Matthews Community School in Yuba County, California.  It's as tough a
    place as you will find anywhere.  But some years ago Waldorf educators
    were invited to teach at the school.  Waldorf education -- which
    emphasizes such things as craft work, music, and storytelling -- may not
    have been the most immediately obvious choice.  Yet, to judge from the
    stories I have heard, the results have been extraordinary.
    Only one of those stories, however, is relevant at the moment.  Once
    during the tense, earlier days of the school, the teacher was waiting for
    the students to return to the classroom.  They were late, and she began to
    worry that they'd gotten into a fight somewhere out in the yard.  But
    eventually they started to filter into the classroom, and she learned that
    they had been preoccupied with playing their recorders together.  Later,
    she wrote in her diary:  It's hard to fight someone with whom you've
    played a Mozart duet.
    The earth toy will doubtless become yet another expensive, high-tech
    component of the wired classroom, displacing yet more art and music and
    craft classes, and cutting further into the budget for field trips.  Pesce
    is looking for three million dollars to fund development of his virtual
    earth.  I can't help wondering how many recorders three million would buy.
    Related articles:
    ** "Multiculturalism without People", by Lowell Monke in NF #51.
    ** "Why Information is Not Enough: Tales from a High School Computer Lab",
       by Lowell Monke in NF #79.
    ** "The Most Powerful Tools Are Unbearably Simple", in NF #71.
    How to Put Distance between Your Child and School
    As determined as our nation has been to waste its money technologizing
    education, we are not altogether without positive developments on the
    educational front.  One of these is the upsurge in home schooling,
    variously referred to as unschooling, deschooling, eclectic schooling, and
    organic schooling.  A feature article in the May 24 New York Times
    reviewed this movement -- which, it seems to me, embodies the hopeful
    meaning of the phrase "school's out" much more fully than all the fervor
    about online education.
    Some of the points made in the Times article:
    ** According to the National Home Education Research Institute, 1.3
    million to 1.7 million children attend school at home -- about 3 percent
    of the school-age population.  The number is growing at a strong 7 percent
    to 15 percent annual rate.
    ** While religious motivations figured heavily in the earlier movement
    toward home schooling, the more recent growth reflects the "unschooling"
    trend.  The aim is to let children be children -- and let them learn along
    the way (which happens to be something children naturally excel at).  As a
    home-schooled boy told his mother, "Mom, I got to go outside and crush
    some rocks".  Says the mother,
       So we had to stop our academics and get a hammer and break some rocks
       so he could look at what was inside.  We're trying to bring [him] into
       the world, not a building.
    Similarly, another set of parents "made up games to help [their children]
    start reading, and built treehouses and forts, providing the children with
    lessons in measuring that helped steer them into math".
    ** The article mentions a boy named Kevin, who didn't learn to read until
    he was ten -- a "tardy" development that, in most schools, would send
    parents and teachers into a frenzy of "remedial" activity.  But Kevin
    didn't know he needed special help.  Although his parents did encourage
    him to play some letter and word games, he simply showed no inclination
    toward reading until he was ten.  "Then all of a sudden", his mother said,
    "it all came together for him".  As Kevin himself observed,
       I picked up "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe".  That's by C.S.
       Lewis.  I was surprised.  I could read a page.  Within three months I
       went from 50-page books to 400-page books.
    The idea that earlier is better is one of the strangest notions ever to
    seize hold of parents.  Why not assume that later is better?  Certainly it
    can be easier, with much less stress and alienation on the child's part.
    Children all have their own rates of development, and it is impossible to
    comprehend all the suffering that results from forcibly subjecting them to
    the standardized schemas of school and labeling them accordingly.
    ** In an award-deserving exhibition of boneheadedness, the nation's
    largest teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA) "adopted
    a resolution saying that home schools cannot provide a comprehensive
    education and urging that only licensed teachers be permitted to run home
    schools".  They're doing their best to prove the maxim that every
    profession is a conspiracy against the public.
    Study after study has concluded that home-schooled students perform better
    than conventionally taught students on tests such as college boards.  They
    get into the very best colleges and universities.
    Of course, standardized tests are hardly the best way to judge the matter,
    and there's plenty of room to refine these assessments.  (For example,
    families that home-school their children have slightly higher-than-average
    incomes, which could skew the data.)  But if the NEA is really concerned
    about the quality of home schooling, it could support the kind of approach
    Oregon takes, where schools open their facilities and resources to home-
    schooling families.  The families can take advantage of these resources to
    whatever degree they wish, letting their kids participate selectively in
    band, gym, physics classes, or the debating society.
    The NEA's hardened position is clearly a last-gasp expression of a regime
    that is passing away -- and deserves to.  Those who are preoccupied with
    the "revolution in education" today would do well to give at least as much
    attention to the home-schooling movement as to the advertisements of Bill
    Gates and associates.  Home schooling, after all, has grown up solely by
    popular demand, with little institutional encouragement and a great deal
    of opposition.  The move toward online classrooms, on the other hand, has
    been promoted by every high-tech company with products to sell and
    employees to train, as well as by journalists seeking trendy stories.
    Which movement is likely to give us a truer indication of today's most
    urgent educational needs?
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                                    Carol Cole
    Carol Cole is a "social entrepreneur" and founder of the Sophia Project in
    San Francisco.  Offering a model for inner-city child care, the Sophia
    Project nurtures young children while training women on welfare to become
    child-care providers.  Currently the Sophia Project is operating within
    the early childhood program at the Raphael House homeless shelter, where
    Ms. Cole is the Children's Program director.
    The following interview with Ms. Cole, conducted by John Bloom, was
    published in the December 31, 1999 issue of the Rudolf Steiner Foundation
    Quarterly News.  The foundation is a financial institution supporting
    Waldorf education, organic farming, Camphill Villages for the
    developmentally disabled, alternative medicine, and various other
    movements expressing a sense of social responsibility.  (The Nature
    Institute, publisher of NetFuture, has received a small grant from the
    Foundation.) For more information, see the end of the interview.  We
    reprint the interview here in an abridged version by kind permission of
    the Rudolf Steiner Foundation.
    I suggest you read this while holding in mind the reigning images of a
    glamorous, computer-based education.  Ask yourself how well those images
    fit the realities Carol Cole is wrestling with.
    John Bloom:  How did the vision for the Sophia Project get started?
    Carol Cole:  It has been building for a long time.  I began working with
    young children about twenty-five years ago.  I started in special
    education, then moved on to working with children in elementary school who
    were in the category that books called "socially disadvantaged".  The
    difficulties these students had were rooted in early childhood, so I got
    back into early childhood work to see if I could make a difference.
    I took Montessori training.  A colleague and I started Sparrow Creek
    School in Sausalito.  We ran it for seven years (it is still going) for
    children who lived in Sausalito, Marin City, and also for families that
    lived on the waterfront.  It was mostly Montessori-oriented.
    By this time, I had taken special education training and had state
    elementary certification.  I'd worked with Hmong and Mein refugee
    children, and had worked in Saudi Arabia.  I had tried many different
    educational practices and I thought Montessori would work well.  But,
    something was still missing for me.  Then, I learned about Waldorf
    education and took that training.  I taught at the San Francisco Waldorf
    school for three years to understand Waldorf education.  Then I had an
    opportunity to work with that education with a different group in
    Hermanus, South Africa.  In that Camphill Community [a community for
    developmentally disabled children and adults], we established a
    multiracial nursery-kindergarten for children from Camphill, the
    townships, and local farms.
    While I was in South Africa, I realized that it was necessary to continue
    to be a resource for these families for the long term.  To provide early
    education was wonderful, essential in fact, but it was equally important
    to be there three years later when a problem might develop.  Because I
    couldn't live my whole life in South Africa, I came back with the
    intention of seeing how I could create a similar program here in San
    Francisco where I knew I could establish a community for the long term.
    Based on this, I began working at Raphael House, a San Francisco homeless
    J.B.:  To serve whom?
    C.C.:  To serve young children and their families who are having
    difficulty with their social situation.  Both homelessness and poor
    education contribute to that difficulty.
    J.B.:  Do you think it's fair to say that the long-term solution for these
    social issues actually starts with early education?  How would you define
    C.C.:  If I'm talking to a group of public educators and start with life
    skills, such as trust and cooperation, they won't hear it.  The place I
    start that gets people's attention is literacy in all its stages.  Then,
    what is literacy?  What makes it possible to be literate?  Some of the
    contributing factors that studies agree on as the basis of literacy are
    oral language, conversation, and social skills.  Those things are
    essential and connected to each other.
    In a Waldorf-based or Waldorf-inspired program, there can be an emphasis
    on the great richness of language.  The children speak a lot as they play.
    It is important to say that there's quite a difference between the
    children I work with at the shelter and the children who may be in a
    Waldorf kindergarten classroom, who are coming from well-educated,
    sophisticated families.  The Waldorf children may not need so much
    guidance for their speaking.
    So much of education depends upon the context in which it happens.
    Waldorf education and teaching is about looking at the child in ways
    informed by a profound image of the human being.  With this detailed
    knowledge, this wisdom, we can help a particular child unfold her or his
    capacities.  It's different for different children, of course.
    [Waldorf founder] Rudolf Steiner's work on the development of the senses,
    such as touch and balance, or the development of language, is a tremendous
    help with these children.  When they first come in, most of these children
    have had some serious disruptions in their development.  They have
    suffered the consequences of homelessness, poverty, and, in many cases,
    A Waldorf-inspired nursery-kindergarten is home-like in its protection and
    pace, a quality that is very important to the development of two, three,
    and four-year-olds.  Children who have been or are homeless really have a
    great need for a home-like environment for their development -- not only
    so they feel safe, but also for their actual cognitive, physical,
    emotional, and social development.  Researchers studying pre-literacy find
    that, along with the development of oral language and self-esteem, a child
    needs warmth, respect, freedom, and challenge.  These are the
    prerequisites to true literacy!
    For small children to become fully-developed human beings, they really
    need fully developed healthy human beings around them.  Our children at
    the shelter often have no books at home.  In fact, they have no
    relationship to books.  As part of our literacy program, we do lots of
    reading and involve the mothers and, if they are around, the fathers.  We
    have the mothers, when possible, stay in the program with their children
    at least one day a week.  All this is by way of helping to develop
    nurturing qualities.
    An important part of the work in the early childhood classroom is to build
    connections to the plant and animal worlds, to the stars, to color, to
    sound, to music -- building all of these relationships that one has just
    by being a human being.  It doesn't have to do with how much money you
    have, or if you have a home or not, or what and where you come from in the
    world.  The mother is there, too.  After a while working with their child
    on this or that, they say, "You know, actually, I have all these
    relationships, too".  They experience themselves as intact in some very
    important ways that they are just now beginning to value.  Suddenly, the
    world expands.  They do not have to see themselves only through the focus
    of their economic status.
    J.B.:  One of the points that you are making is that a positive inner life
    stays intact a lot longer than one would expect, even though it is often
    attacked by what is reflected to it from social life.
    C.C.:  It is like working with a child with a disability.  It is not a
    blind child, but a child who is blind.  Mothers grow through the work we
    do together, they become healed by this healing education.  With the
    children, the small children particularly, it's much more possible to
    bring healing to those hurts that came at a tender age.
    We can see the healing as the children learn to play.  When they first
    come to our program they do not play at all.  About a third of the
    children have been sexually abused, and these children are under five.  It
    is very scary.  Many of them have been terribly physically abused in
    addition to being moved from place to place -- having no place to call
    home.  They have strained relationships with their mothers, because the
    mothers are themselves under a tremendous strain.  That is why having the
    mother in there, too, is really important.  They can leave all of that at
    the door for a while.
    J.B.:  This gives them an opportunity to build shared experience, which is
    a building block of community.
    C.C.:  Yes, and this is why I would not be particularly interested in
    opening a pre-school that didn't have a community life around it.  I know
    that for these groups of children and their mothers, it's essential.  One
    of the most healing experiences for the mothers is to see the two staff
    members working together in the program.  What is useful is that these two
    have this same image of the human being -- this expanded, wonderful view
    of the dignity of the human being.  It is the way that it is lived by the
    teaching staff that allows the mothers to experience it as real, not just
    an idea.
    It is also important for them to experience two people working in
    cooperation and trust.  They have not experienced much of this in their
    lives.  These women are not old.  They are usually 19-to-22-year-old young
    J.B.:  Is their single greatest need to experience trust?
    C.C.:  I think it is.  And, it is vital for the children that their
    mothers learn to trust so that they can grow without so much fear.  At
    first, they experience trust very subtly with the painting, the beeswax,
    and the plants.  As they spend time in this environment where we hold this
    inspiring vision of the human being, they can begin to live with it, too.
    When the mothers see their own paintings, they ask if it could really be
    theirs.  It is a quiet recognition of a connection to something and a
    reflection of the reality of their own existence.  It's actually
    heartbreaking, to tell the truth, and it's also really life-giving.
    What I do know is the importance of every moment, because the recognition
    and connection can happen any moment.  It is both a teaching and learning
    for me.  I am constantly making sure that what I am doing is trustworthy,
    or that I see the mothers, that I feel their importance, that I treat them
    with respect and dignity.  I have to be so mindful.  What they interpret
    as disrespectful is huge and unpredictable.  This takes constant
    attentiveness.  This incredibly fragile state tends to go away when
    they've had the recognition I described.  They understand then that
    disrespect is not what is happening.  Instead they may see that I am
    tired, or in a hurry.  In time they see this in others, too.
    Some of the moms are becoming assistant daycare providers, and our
    training program is recognized by Calworks, California's welfare-to-work
    program.  It was an interesting process for them to accept what we do.
    When I presented the program with all the artistic and biographical work
    that we do, Calworks wasn't convinced in the beginning.  They wanted to
    know how this would help the trainees get a job.  However, the mothers are
    so healed from all of the work in the program and have also received a
    basis for renewing their own lives, that they may do something other than
    child care.
    The children, meanwhile, do fine with their next school.  They feel much
    better about themselves.  They are quite skilled by the time they leave
    because they have learned a lot.  Above all they've learned how to learn.
    Everything that early childhood education wants to have happen, happens in
    this Waldorf-based group.  It is in a different "language" than might be
    found in traditional Waldorf schools, but we keep translating.
    J.B.:  By nurturing their souls, they are freer to do the other stuff --
    it's not quite survival mode any more.
    That's really true.  An important part of it is the meals we share, the
    festivals that we celebrate together.  But we need much more of this
    community life to bring a deeper healing.  Much more is possible when we
    are doing it in early childhood because the children still live in that
    very universal space.
    We can work from this unity when we celebrate festivals.  We already have
    a base, which is our common humanity and dignity regardless of which
    festival we share.  Community building is so much easier to do with early
    childhood, because we can hold in common a universal healing impulse that
    is still familiar to most parents.
    [A few additional excerpts from the interview:]  We know, for example, the
    connection between the potential for addiction and the development of the
    senses in the young child.  The care for the senses is a kind of
    prevention.  Our children are so at risk for drugs, and at least half the
    mothers have been addicted to a drug sometime in their still-very-young
    lives.  Out of their struggling with it, the mothers are very interested
    in what will help stop it.  After they've worked in a Waldorf-based
    program, they can develop a sense for what is healthy in the human, and
    appreciate the value and fragility of the developing senses in the young
    There is a very big need for an after-school program.  The older siblings
    of the children I have show up at the program because they are eager to
    participate.  Another significant need is respite care, which is for
    mothers who need a short break.  For example, they're worried about
    becoming child abusers if they don't have a break from their children.
    So, they leave their children somewhere, and just have a break....
    In some parts of the shelter programs, we do not have the families long-
    term, as one might in a Waldorf school.  We have them for a couple of
    days.  One thing I have learned is how experience with painting, or a
    story, is something that can inspire a child.  A whole world opens up to
    them.  They don't then have total access to that world, but they have a
    key to it, a passport to it.  There is a quality of grace in those
    We will certainly request support from foundations and corporations.  Yet,
    I feel strongly that the support that comes in from individuals, although
    it may not be a big number, is very important to this work.  Both
    spiritually and on a soul level, the mothers and the children know from
    this that a wide group of people also hold them in this wonderful image of
    the human being, and care about them.  That's very, very important.
    You can learn more about the Sophia Project by contacting Carol Cole at
    sophiaproj@aol.com.  To contribute toward the project's support -- or to
    learn about other ventures worth supporting, or to set up a savings
    account (actually called a "lending account") -- contact the Rudolf
    Steiner Foundation (email: mail@rsfoundation.org; tel.: 415-561-3900; fax:
    415-561-3919; web: www.rsfoundation.org).
    Goto table of contents
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    The preceding interview with Carol Cole is part of my ongoing effort to
    summon positive images against which -- and only against which -- critiques of
    technology can gain force.  To debate technology in a vacuum is to
    guarantee an unbalanced result.  You can project virtuous uses for any
    technology, and such imagined uses, vivid, particular, and exciting as
    they are, will almost always outweigh in our minds the dimly understood
    risks.  Who would prefer not having some new capacity over having it?
    The fact is that no reasonable decisions can be made about technology as
    such.  Reasonable decisions arise when we are fully embedded in real-world
    contexts, wrestling with their challenges.  We can assess a technology
    only when we have mastered the context where it will be used, so that we
    can ask ourselves what the context requires rather than what, in an
    abstract and general way, the technology can do.
    Carol Cole clearly has sunk herself into a particular context, and she has
    done so in a creative, compassionate, and practically effective way.  It
    happens that in this interview she says nothing about computers.  Yet it
    is precisely her immersion in the concrete challenges of a particular work
    that would qualify her to decide wisely about how, if at all, to employ
    Actually, her words already speak loudly in an indirect sort of way.  For
    example, her emphasis on the deeply contextual aspects of literacy -- the
    child needs to participate in the richest possible conversational and
    social environment -- is worlds removed from the one-dimensional
    experience of a student looking at a screen and interacting with a reading
    Then, too, there is this:
       I would not be particularly interested in opening a pre-school that
       didn't have a community life around it.  I know that for these groups
       of children and their mothers, it's essential.  One of the most healing
       experiences for the mothers is to see the two staff members working
       together in the program.  What is useful is that these two have this
       same image of the human being -- this expanded, wonderful view of the
       dignity of the human being.  It is the way that it is lived by the
       teaching staff that allows the mothers to experience it as real, not
       just an idea.
       It is also important for them to experience two people working in
       cooperation and trust.  They have not experienced much of this in their
    It is impossible to read these words without being reminded that the most
    critical problems in our society have to do with the loss of the most
    intimate forms of communal support -- a loss that the computer much more
    easily accentuates than ameliorates.
    In sum, if I were charged with assessing the role of technology in
    education, I'd be far more inclined to look at the work of Carol Cole than
    to listen to those with a vested interest in promoting earth toys (see
    lead article in this issue), Jumpstart Toddler software, or wired
    Goto table of contents
    Free Trade and Ethics
    Response to:  "The WTO: Economics as Technology" (NF-106)
    From:  John Pierce (jlp@cadence.com)
    I've enjoyed NetFuture for many years.  I appreciate your points about the
    decontextualization that economists and the WTO practice in their urge for
    a free market.  But, if I understand some of the WTO's policies correctly,
    you may be getting a bit off the track in the section titled "A Market in
    Choices vs. a Market Mechanism." I expect that you feel like I do, that it
    is important to genuinely understand the motives and philosophies
    underlying the actions of the political entities that affect our world and
    our lives.
    I don't think the WTO wants to outlaw "free, individual choice."  In the
    case of sea turtle-friendly shrimp harvesting or hormone tainted meat,
    they seem to really be promoting a "free market" if perhaps not a good-
    for-your-health or ethical market.  The WTO policy does not outlaw (as far
    as I know) the sale of shrimp caught with turtle-friendly nets.  They
    don't outlaw the sale of meat from animals grown without artificial
    hormones.  They do forbid the imposition of barriers to the sale of shrimp
    and meat that you and I might object to.
    So, their policy is more "free" than, say, mine would be.  This is where
    their philosophy is more subtly challenging to those of us who believe in
    a contextualized system of values and choices.  The WTO, et al., believe
    in a decontextualized freedom, an abstract freedom.  They believe, I
    think, in a libertarian economic system.  The conservative or libertarian
    position is that hormone-treated meat may be bad for you, and sea turtles
    are fine creatures, but the cure is worse than the disease.  Or as Lord
    Salisbury opined: anything a government does is likely to go awry, so it
    is best to do as little as possible.
    Finding an answer to the cynicism that underlies conservative thinking --
    and the free-marketeers' policies -- is the challenge for those of us who
    believe in, as you say, "culturally enforced restraining bonds."  The
    problem in my mind is to find the necessary balance between freedom and
    tyranny.  In addition we need to find consensus based on shared values.
    Given the ineffective and misleading ways we tend to get and think about
    our information in the Information Age, we've got a difficult job ahead.
    NetFuture helps me to keep technology in context.
    John Pierce
    John --
    Thanks for the helpful and well-stated letter.  I'm not sure we have any
    substantive disagreement.  But I am sure that, by conflating questions of
    individual choice and cultural choice -- and not bothering to distinguish
    clearly between the two -- I created some confusion.
    Globally, we have what one might (dangerously, I suspect) call a "market
    of cultures", and we need to allow these cultures to choose their own way.
    This is part of what I was speaking of as freedom of choice, and it is
    gravely threatened by the WTO.  Such freedom could involve the setting of
    tariffs so that the price of a product more truly reflected the various
    costs of the product that the culture takes note of.  These latter might
    include costs to the environment and social costs that can only be
    assessed within a particular cultural context.
    Obviously, within a given culture we exercise one kind of individual
    choice through our participation in the decision-making processes that
    shape the culture.  But there are also the individual choices you refer to
    when you cite the libertarian take on free markets.  These are the choices
    we make with our pocketbooks -- choices between products whose production
    is supposed to be unconstrained -- or, rather constrained only by market
    Individual choice is, as I've often argued, decisively important.  But
    three things need saying here.  First, you do not really have free market
    choice when the choices you are offered have been falsified.  Libertarians
    have recognized this falseness, for example, in the case of many
    government subsidies.  But falseness can be introduced in other ways, as
    when farmers are encouraged to produce larger harvests by consuming the
    capital of the soil.  (The "subsidy" in this case comes from the earth's
    bank of slowly accumulated riches.)  And in some of these cases,
    government policy can help to remove the falseness.
    Second, it is proper to concern oneself with the balance between freedom
    and tyranny, but it seems to me that the libertarians are hopelessly too
    simplistic in this.  After all, my "free" choice to buy a product that
    poisons the atmosphere is at the same time my "tyrannizing" over everyone
    else by denying them the freedom to breathe clean air.  The same applies
    if my choices help to deprive you of a world that includes sea turtles.
    Third, many free-trade and corporate interests show themselves hostile to
    the idea of product labeling, which is one of the primary vehicles
    enabling free choice.
    Finally, and for what it's worth, I don't think "freedom vs. tyranny" can
    be mapped in any simple way to "individual vs. government".  It's true
    that the individual is, in a sense, the sole agent of freedom.  But the
    individual is also, in a sense, the sole agent of tyranny.  And, at the
    same time, the potentials for both freedom and tyranny are woven
    throughout the collective body, expressing themselves in every institution
    and cultural practice.  This suggests that the way to maximize the room
    for individual choice within a culture involves complex adjustments across
    the entire culture and all its institutions.  I don't see libertarians
    doing much justice to this complexity.
    All of which is about as incomplete and unsatisfactory a response as I've
    ever offered a reader!  But it's the best I can do at the moment.  Thanks
    for writing.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #107 :: June 1, 2000
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