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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #132                                                    May 21, 2002
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Sex, the Internet, and Educational Reform
       Requiem for Distant Educators
       High Noon at the DB Corral
       On Giving Rats a Virtual Life
    Announcements and Resources
       Genetic Engineering and the Intrinsic Value of Organisms
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    A series of news items this month have brought the primary thrust of
    digital technologies into uncommonly clear perspective.  We're seeing some
    vivid pictures of the fruition of it all.  See how well your own
    interpretations agree with mine.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Sex, the Internet, and Educational Reform
    "One of the most thorough reports ever produced on protecting children
    from Internet pornography has concluded that neither tougher laws nor new
    technology alone can solve the problem" — so the New York
    Times led off a story headlined, "No Easy Fixes Are Seen to Curb Sex-
    Site Access" (May 3, 2002).  The mentioned report, "Youth, Pornography,
    and the Internet", was issued this month by the National Research Council.
    Former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, chair of the committee that
    wrote the report, owned up to the obvious:
       It's not nearly as easy for an adult to supervise children who might
       seek or be inadvertently exposed to sexually explicit materials online
       as it is when such images are available in books or on the family
       television set.
    In many respects, the authors of the report have simply thrown in the
    towel, while trying to sound helpful.  They offer this analogy:
       Swimming pools can be dangerous for children.  To protect them, one can
       install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms.  All of these
       measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can
       do for one's children is to teach them to swim.
    Sounds healthy, doesn't it?  The only problem is that the analogy doesn't
    carry over to the Internet very well.  Here, by the authors' admission,
    the locks, fences, and alarms can't be made to work in a reliable and
    socially acceptable way, and the remaining advice ("teach them to swim")
    amounts to this:  force these children to become like adults as fast as
    possible.  (Well, presumably not like all those adults who keep the
    massive online pornography industry in business.)  In other words, accept
    a solution that doesn't apply to the people you were initially concerned
    about — namely, children suffering the lamentable backwardness and
    misfortune of still being children.
    The problem with the Internet as a classroom tool is that it has been
    conceived as a universally accessible, public medium.  Very little about
    it conduces to the organic emergence of a local, intentional environment
    with the sort of character that an intimate, place-based community can
    nurture and protect.  When a Virginia law made it illegal to send
    pornography to children over the Internet, a U.S. District judge threw the
    law out on the ground that you cannot effectively deny this material to
    children without in practice also denying it to adults.
    Why not draw the obvious conclusion instead of walking around in circles
    with our hands in our pockets, whistling innocently, and gazing vaguely
    skyward as if to way, "Gee, isn't this a terrible puzzle?  I wonder where
    we'll find an answer?"  The real puzzle is why we have so resolutely
    turned away from the simple answer that is being shouted at us:  the
    Internet just doesn't seem to be a good candidate for mediating a child's
    Even if this conclusion were not dictated from many other sides, it would
    be suggested by the dead end our society seems to have reached regarding
    the control of Internet content.  Anyone whose ideas about education can
    be taken seriously realizes that the child's educational environment needs
    to be "child-shaped" — that is, it needs to be family- and community-
    based, secure, and specially designed to serve children.  A medium that
    can override all such design aims in unpredictable ways, including the
    extreme of pornographic invasion, hardly seems a natural candidate for
    classroom use.
    All of which brings me to this.  Aren't we about due for a new, multi-
    billion-dollar educational fad?  Well, I happen to have a program in mind
    that is neither faddish nor costly.  In fact, it would reduce
    educational spending by many billions of dollars, simplify the classroom,
    remove from teachers the crushing burden and distraction of special
    training unrelated to their educational interests, give students much more
    time to occupy themselves with educational content, increase teacher pay,
    allow for higher teacher-student ratios, and, incidentally, put an end to
    the absurdity whereby parents are asked to sign off on legal immunity for
    schools that deliberately put children in harm's way.
    Think about it.  Educators can breathe again.  If anyone had realistically
    offered such an array of benefits ten years ago — before the Internet
    hit the educational scene with full force — it would have been
    considered an unparalleled gift from heaven.  Of course, the gift couldn't
    have been offered ten years ago.  We needed a decade of collective
    insanity first.  But now the gift can be offered, it is perfectly
    realistic, and it requires only the simplest imaginable reform: take all
    those computers out of the classroom and send them back to the
    manufacturers for recycling.
    Requiem for Distant Educators
    Katie Hafner has written what looks like the official obituary for the
    distance education bubble ("Lessons Learned at Dot-Com U", New York Times,
    May 3).  Among other things, she notes that "since the mid-1990's, most of
    the purely virtual universities that sprang up — from Hungry Minds to
    California Virtual University — have been sold or scaled back or have
    disappeared altogether".
    Much the same holds for the spin-offs from established universities.  Most
    recently, Columbia University's senate urged the school to cut spending on
    its Fathom venture.  The Fathom Consortium, led by Columbia in partnership
    with the University of Chicago, London School of Economics, and others,
    has yet to generate significant revenue, let alone turn a profit,
    according to the executive vice provost at Columbia.  The tale is similar
    for Western Governors' University, New York University online, the online
    masters program at SUNY Buffalo College of Business, and numerous other
    Hafner points to a fundamental problem that has been underscored in
    NetFuture from the very beginning:
       Some critics say that university administrators confused tools with
       education.  "We figured a quick wave of the magic wand and we'd
       reinvent how people learned after 900 years of a traditional university
       mode of instruction," Dr. [Lev A.] Gonick [of Case Western Reserve
       University] said.
    The one success story Hafner offers is the technically oriented University
    of Phoenix, with an online enrollment exceeding 37,000.  This illustrates
    the self-referential aspect of much of the Net's progress.  If there's one
    place computers ought to be essential, it's in learning about computers.
    And if there's one place the web ought to be essential, it's in learning
    about web programming, website management, and all the rest.  From the
    earliest days of its ascendancy, a great deal of the clamor and enthusiasm
    for the Net as a public good came from those who were making it their
    private good — namely, programmers and other technical types, writers
    excited to be on the Net in order to write about it, anthropologists and
    sociologists excited to be on the Net in order to study its culture,
    educators excited to be on the Net in order to promote its use in the
    classroom, policy-makers excited to be on the Net in order to formulate
    information-infrastructure policy — all the way down to the self-
    serving entrepreneurs whose mutually supporting energies gave us the
    Internet bubble and a national recession.
    It's perfectly fine to be excited about your work as a programmer or
    student of cyberculture.  The problem occurs only when the broader society
    loses its ability to retain perspective in the presence of its more
    technology-obsessed sectors — and in particular when it extrapolates
    from the Net's value for promoting the Net to the Net's value for doing
    other things.  This loss of perspective seems to have occurred with a
    vengeance.  The question now is whether the sobering news from Dot-com
    University and various other high-tech domains will encourage the rest of
    us to begin getting a life — a life that we don't automatically feel
    must be piggybacked upon the latest technological craze.
    Related article:
    "The New, Soulless University", in NF #104
    High Noon at the DB Corral
    According to Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, the problem in
    fighting terrorists isn't that we have too few databases.  It's that we
    have too many.  "The single thing we could do to make life tougher for
    terrorists would be to ensure that all the information in myriad
    government databases was integrated into a single national file".
    Ellison, whose company develops database software, has offered to donate
    the tools for that single national file to the government.  He explains
       We already have this large centralized database to keep track of where
       you work, how much you earn, where your kids go to school, were you
       late on your last mortgage payment, when's the last time you got a
       raise .... Well, my God, there are hundreds of places we have to
       look to see if you're a security risk.
    As for privacy issues, "I really don't understand.  Central databases
    already exist.  Privacy is already gone".
    Ellison was asked whether the legal restrictions preventing government
    agencies from sharing data should be relaxed.  "Oh, absolutely.  I mean
    absolutely.  The prohibitions are absurd.  It's this fear of an
    all-too-powerful government rising up and snatching away our liberties".
    Since September 11, after all, "it's our lives that are at stake,
    not our liberties".  When pressed about the possibility of government
    abuse of personal information, Ellison replied:
       I feel like Alice has fallen through the looking glass .... Does this
       other database bother you here?  We can't touch that
       database because I won't be able to use my credit card.  Like, I won't
       be able to go to the mall!  Like that's really disturbing.
       Like, don't mess with my mall experience.  O.K., so people have to die
       over here without this, but that's not going to affect my experience
       going to the mall .... I mean, what the hell is going on?
    Finally, Ellison was asked whether there were differences between
    centralized databases at the Oracle Corporation and centralized government
       From the information-science standpoint, there's no difference at all.
       These central databases are cheaper and better and they solve all these
       problems.  We can manage credit risks that way.  We should be managing
       security risks in exactly the same way.
    Security experts point out that credit profiles can be drawn up using
    well-known, standardized, and readily available data, whereas there are no
    known or foreseeable standards for identifying security risks in today's
    world.  Everything is potentially relevant.  That makes for one
    helluvan unwieldy database.
    But, for some reason, Ellison's remarks sent me off in an entirely
    different direction — to the early comparisons of the Internet with
    the Old West.  As John Perry Barlow put it in 1990:
       Cyberspace ... has a lot in common with the 19th century West.  It is
       vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse ....
       hard to get around in, and up for grabs.  Large institutions already
       claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and
       independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy.  It is, of course, a
       perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.
    Well, I guess you could say cyberspace now has a sheriff, and his name is
    Larry Ellison.
    But, actually, it never made much sense to take the Old West as your
    guiding metaphor for understanding the culture of the Net.  Clearly the
    primary thing to look at was our own contemporary culture, and the most
    relevant aspect of this culture was precisely its remarkable degree of
    abstraction from all particular places.
    The only way to make the Old West comparison work is to realize that our
    abstraction from place was already well advanced in the nineteenth
    century, accounting for our destructive attitude toward the land, its
    inhabitants, and their culture — so that in this regard we definitely
    do have something in common with that earlier time.  But our detachment
    from place didn't pass away with the end of the frontier.  It continued to
    increase, and the cultural corrosiveness of the Net is therefore very much
    an expression of the reigning forces of our own time.
    Our progressive detachment from place can be traced through the past
    several centuries until, during the twentieth century, it was met by a
    counter-movement.  This counter-movement comprised environmentalism, the
    formation of land trusts and intentional communities, the preservation of
    wilderness, the development of a science of ecology, the pursuit of
    localism and voluntary simplicity as new ideals, and much else.
    So in our day we see two opposite movements, represented by the extreme,
    placeless abstraction of the online world, on the one hand, and these
    nascent efforts to rediscover the significance of place on the other.  A
    great deal depends on our ability to find a fitting balance between the
    Don't however, look to Larry Ellison for this balance.  His remarks are
    the unambiguous testimony of a pure citizen of cyberspace — one for
    whom the human being has become simple in the way that only an abstraction
    can be simple.  He has, in his mind, reduced us to data, so that managing
    complex social issues becomes primarily a matter of managing databases.
    To conflate western heroes:  he is Wyatt Earp, with every bullet a silver
    one.  Perhaps not coincidentally, he also has a huge personal investment
    in the bullet factory.
    (Quotations are from "Silicon Valley's Spy Game" by Jeffrey Rosen, New
    York Times Magazine, April 14, 2002.)
    Related articles:
    "Privacy in an Age of Data", parts 1 - 3, in NF #28, #29, 30
       http://www.netfuture.org/1996/Sep2596_28.html (part 1)
       http://www.netfuture.org/1996/Oct1796_29.html (part 2)
       http://www.netfuture.org/1996/Oct2496_30.html (part 3)
    On Giving Rats a Virtual Life
    After implanting remote-controlled electrodes in a rat's brain, scientists
    have used a laptop computer to "accurately steer the animal, in real time,
    over any arbitrarily specified three-dimensional route and over a range of
    real-world terrains".  Writing in Nature (May 2, 2002), they inform
    us that "a guided rat can be developed into an effective 'robot' that will
    possess several natural advantages over current mobile robots".
    Rats navigate in part based on sensations received through their sensitive
    whiskers.  So the scientists placed two of the electrodes in sites of the
    brain associated with left and right whisker sensations.  By stimulating
    one or another of these sites, they were able to steer the rat.  Moreover,
    stimulation of a different site in the brain can act as a cue or reward
    for scientifically correct behavior.
    So now you have a way to train rats that does not depend on a particular
    mechanical or environmental set-up, and you can deliver rewards that are
    (in the scientists' words) "relatively non-satiating" — rewards that
    do not require the rat to "initiate consummatory behavior" (that is, the
    rat needn't interrupt its activities by eating real rewards).  As a result
    of all this, the scientists at their laptops had rats "running forwards
    and turning instantaneously on cue" — and even navigating areas they
    would normally avoid, such as open, brightly lit spaces.
    Naturally, the technical report comes with a reminder of how useful these
    rats might be.  Due to their ability to explore "large, collapsed piles of
    concrete rubble", they could be used for "search and rescue in areas of
    urban destruction".  You hear the intended resonance, of course.  We are
    supposed to imagine robo-rats along with firemen and police as the heroes
    of our terrorized future.  (Will there be salesmen for anything
    over the next few years who do not employ this resonance in their
    advertising slogans?)
    I have stared at this report for a couple of weeks, at a loss for words.
    I try not to write pieces that do little more than point at shameful
    things and say, "Oh, how terrible!"  Yet, what else is there to say?  I'm
    quite sure that some people will respond to this story with utter
    abhorrence, while others will not have a clue as to why anyone should be
    disturbed — and neither group (one very small and the other enormous,
    to judge from the lack of response to the story) will have anything
    meaningful to say to the other.  We really do seem to be coming to a great
    For what it's worth, however, here are a few brief observations:
    ** These scientists are engaged in a kind of practical Cartesianism:  the
    animal organism is not only conceived as a machine, but treated as one and
    even partially reduced to one.  From the very beginning, such practice has
    been an essential support for the more philosophic Cartesianism.
    ** The rat research gives us a vivid picture of the direction and
    significance of digital technologies.  Nothing within the technological
    juggernaut itself seems capable of raising any ethical question about this
    technical accomplishment, whether it be applied to rats or humans.  We
    find ourselves staring at the practical relation between technology and
    the living organism, as this relation is seen from the side of technology.
    The problem is that by the time we gain a picture of such crystalline
    clarity, most of us have already become so accustomed to many of its
    features that we hardly notice it.
    ** A rat lives in a world that comes to it in part through its whiskers.
    The researchers have removed it from this world, substituting a ghastly
    nightmare spun out by technicians at keyboards.  Behold the virtual life!
    My colleague, Craig Holdrege, remarked on the irony that we have not only
    made these rats more like machines, but by doing so we have also made them
    more like humans.  That is, now we can disconnect rats from their natural
    environment as thoroughly as we have disconnected ourselves.
    ** A massive portion of our lives is spent watching television.  This
    means that a substantial amount of our sensory input — while still
    mediated by our sense organs (unlike the virtual whisker sensations of the
    rats) — is almost as radically disconnected from all the rest of our
    lives as those experiences of the rats.  We lose ourselves in sense
    experience without meaning or significance, in sensations designed to be
    high-impact, but without any coherent relation to the meanings and
    purposes we pursue, or once pursued, apart from the magical screen.  We
    sit there passively sucked up into the disconnected, chaotic dreams spun
    out by, yes, technicians at keyboards.  Except that these technicians
    happen to reside, not in scientific laboratories, but on Madison Avenue,
    in Hollywood, and in the high-tech industry.  With our concurrence, they
    steal our senses from us.
    ** This was not a good day for me to receive, in a charitable mood, a book
    advertisement from MIT Press announcing Cynthia L. Breazeal's Designing
    Sociable Robots.  The sociable robot of the future, I learned from the
    announcement, will be "a synthetic creature and not merely a sophisticated
    tool .... Eventually sociable robots will assist us in our daily lives, as
    collaborators and companions".  The lifelike quality of a robot Breazeal
    developed encourages us to treat it "as a social creature rather than just
    a machine".
    Why in the world would we want to engage in the ditzy exercise of
    pretending a robot is a living being, when we're also engaged in the dead-
    earnest exercise of converting living beings into robots?  But I guess the
    real meaning of both exercises is the same:  to train ourselves in losing
    awareness of any distinction between robots and living beings.  Most of
    the "great philosophical issues" in cognitive science today come down
    mainly to the question whether we are training ourselves toward greater
    awareness of such distinctions, or toward reduced awareness.  Our
    philosophical perspective naturally follows from, and is "proven" by, the
    limitations of our awareness.
    ** There was a time when this work on rats would have been universally
    condemned as unnatural — against nature.  If we can no longer condemn
    anything at all as unnatural, it is because we have no clear notion of the
    nature of things.  And if we have no clear notion of the nature of things,
    it is because, in our pursuit of a purely quantitative ideal of science,
    we have progressively been losing awareness of qualities.  It is only the
    qualitative character of an organism that expresses its way of being in
    the world, and we cannot say what is fitting or not fitting in our
    treatment of the organism without some sense for this character and this
    way of being.  Scientists willfully ignoring the qualities of things have
    no basis for responding one way or another to the charge that they are
    committing unnatural acts.  If they were true to their intellectual
    commitments, they would simply hold silent in the face of the charge — or
    acknowledge their inability to respond meaningfully to it.  But as things
    look now, it appears unlikely they will even have to hear the charge.
    Related articles:
    "Toward a 'Final Theory' of the Sloth?" in In Context #3
    "The Trouble with Qualities" in In Context #6:
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Genetic Engineering and the Intrinsic Value of Organisms
    The International Forum for Genetic Engineering will hold a workshop
    September 18 - 21, 2002, in Edinburgh, Scotland, entitled "Genetic
    Engineering and the Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Animals and Plants".
    Presenters at the workshop will include Harry Griffin, assistant director
    of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh (where Dolly was cloned), Craig
    Holdrege, director of The Nature Institute (publisher of NetFuture), and
    Holmes Rolston III, professor of philosophy at Colorado State University.
    The workshop's title already indicates something of its unusual nature, as
    scientific conferences on genetics go.  The aim is to bring together the
    variety of viewpoints necessary in order to go beyond extremely one-sided
    and purely technical considerations.  So the disciplines represented at
    the workshop will include, beside molecular biology:  farming and animal
    husbandry, plant and animal breeding, ethics, law, economics, and
    phenomenological science.
    The Nature Institute's affiliate researcher, Johannes Wirz, was one of the
    group of Europeans who founded Ifgene in 1995.  The organization aims "to
    promote a deeper dialogue about genetic engineering by giving special
    attention to:
    ** the worldviews out of which people approach science and its application
       to genetic engineering (biotechnology)
    ** the moral and spiritual implications of genetic engineering."
    For more information about the workshop, which will be held at Edinburgh's
    Royal Botanic Garden, contact David Heaf (101622.2773@compuserve.com) or
    go to http://www.anth.org/ifgene/2002.htm.
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #132 :: May 21, 2002
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