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                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #62       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications      December 16 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          The Global Economic Crunch: Is More Efficiency What We Need?
          I Scrambled Your Genes (But Don't Blame Me -- I Just Work Here)
          Computers in the Classroom:  Where's the Beef?
    *** Disfigured Hope: Arthur Zajonc on Technology's Promise
          Technology connects to what is highest in us
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    The Global Economic Crunch: Is More Efficiency What We Need?

    As world leaders dance their defensive rituals at the precipice of what could be, finally and truly, the economic "event of the century," we've suddenly begun hearing endless rants against Asian cronyism, opportunism, corruption, inefficient markets, and the evils of mercantilism. Reforms are being demanded.

    That's all well and good. But why aren't we also hearing about the unintelligent western capital that has been fueling all the stupidity? And how did our capital get so unintelligent in the first place?

    When, with the aid of our computer programs and well-honed calculations, we send massive streams of capital around the world in search of efficient, purely numerical results, we seek disaster. Sooner or later the capital will find -- or create -- the disaster. Money whose first aim is to multiply itself rather than to do something worthwhile in the world is money that no longer has the discriminating power to promote what is healthy and enduring. It is merely opportunism, however elegantly quantified.

    As an analogy, consider all the communication that occurs in our society -- communication about family plans, political issues, gardening, visits with friends, children's fantasies, meals, hobbies, work projects, and the gazillion other things we discuss. And then imagine that we systematically lost interest in what the communication was about, and paid ever more attention to the "efficiency" of the communication. Suppose, in other words, that how many connections we had, the number of words we could transmit per minute, and the signal-to-noise ratio became the primary concern of our communication. The whole point was to come up with the best numbers.

    Well, the prospects for healthy children, gardens, friendships, and work in such a society would not be very good. Eventually, in fact, the inevitable breakdowns in communication would jeopardize even our proud, numerical achievements.

    That's an accurate picture of what's gone on in business and economic theory. We've forgotten that efficiency as an end in itself is an utterly empty notion. It gains content only in conjunction with the question, "Efficiency toward what end?" And yet, we've been cultivating for a long while the absurd idea that, if we just take care of the efficiency, all the worthwhile values we might dream of will somehow trickle out of it. That's like saying, "If, in communication, you maximize the bits-per-second, you'll automatically get harmonious human relations."

    Try to imagine efficiency-as-such, and you will lead your mind to a void -- in fact, you will lead it to the very precipice where the world economy now teeters, and in response to which the universal cry has gone out, "Let us have more efficiency!"

    By all means, let us have more efficiency. But until we recollect that concern for efficiency presupposes prior concern for the goals efficiency is to serve, we will continue to work all too efficiently toward goals we have neither fully intended nor understood. We will provide an ideal nurturing ground for greed and the lust for power. These in turn thrive upon the stimulation and satisfaction of false needs. And we will never find global economic stability in the cultivation of false needs.

    Historically, economic opportunism begins in the west. Now that we have perfected its mechanisms and are exercising them so enthusiastically, it is hardly honorable to go about pointing our fingers at those Asians who were willing to take our opportunistic capital and do opportunistic things with it.

    I Scrambled Your Genes (But Don't Blame Me -- I Just Work Here)

    A front-page New York Times article by Gina Kolata (December 2, 1997) documents "the enormous change in attitudes" just nine months after the world learned about Dolly, the first animal cloned from an adult cell. Kolata recalls how
    scientist after scientist and ethicist after ethicist declared that Dolly should not conjure up fears of a Brave New World. There would be no interest in using the technology to clone people.
    But now, she finds, the tune has changed. Dr. Steen Willadsen, a pioneer of cloning techniques, believes "it's just a matter of time" before the first human being is cloned. An unnamed doctor asserts that "if any of my relatives got cancer, I would clone them" to obtain a bone marrow donor. Others suggest that "grieving parents may want to reproduce a terminally ill child," and they note how cloning makes it possible to think seriously for the first time about "genetically enhancing" human beings.

    All of which becomes magically unproblematic when one retreats, as Willadsen does, to these propositions:

    America is not ruled by ethics. It is ruled by law.
    That was Eichmann's stance, too. And it leads Willadsen to a remarkable embrace of technology-as-moral-abdication:
    It is not for me, as a person who invents techniques, to say how we should use them.
    Or, as Tom Lehrer put it in "That Was the Year That Was":
    Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher Von Braun.
    Joseph Weizenbaum remarked to me recently that a scientist developing a new product or technique ought not to proceed until he has looked at all its foreseeable consequences and said "yes" to them. I don't think Weizenbaum meant that we should turn away from any product that might be mis-used, since this would mean never developing anything at all.

    Rather, the point is that one needs to accept responsibility for the consequences of one's actions (and inactions). This introduces a certain tragic element into human experience. But, crucially, when we accept responsibility, we take a very different approach to things than when we say "it has nothing to do with me." We set our activity within a context that requires us to work toward the good and combat the evil, and our technical achievement receives its coloring from this context and this struggle.

    To act morally is to accept responsibility for one's actions in all their discernible ramifications. One is altering the overall shape of society, and the alteration matters. There are many ways a singer might add his voice harmoniously to the choir; but we cannot assess his contribution as something distinct from the music as a whole. Every part gains a new quality through the added voice.

    The problem with genetic research today is not that its techniques are immoral. Declaring particular products or procedures intrinsically immoral never works, because counterexamples can always be produced. It is hard to find a musical phrase so ugly that it cannot be redeemed within some larger context.

    No, the problem with genetic research is precisely its denial and destruction of context, which eliminates the ground of morality. The denial follows all too naturally from the simplistic way genes are conceived in the first place: as tiny, informational mechanisms that physically determine the organism through a one-way chain of cause and effect. Derive the organism in this way from physical mechanisms, and you leave no room for morality. In fact, you leave no room for the organism, since organic wholeness -- unity in multiplicity -- cannot be achieved through any aggregation of physical parts. Such unity is necessarily immaterial and anterior to physical mechanisms.

    The reductionist view of the gene has prevailed as the guiding insight of research despite one discovery after another showing how the "music" of the organism shapes the expression of genes fully as much as the other way around -- exactly what you would expect if we are really dealing with organic unities. (For discussion of this fact, see Craig Holdrege's Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context, reviewed in NF #31.)

    In sum, the moral implications of Willadsen's work lie above all in the obliteration of the context necessary for morality -- an obliteration implicit in the entire research program he has supported, and explicit in his proclamation of detachment.

    One other thought. Despite all the post-Dolly rhetoric, there has been no great "turnaround" during the past nine months. What we now see is simply a reassertion of the fundamental stance that has guided the research and practice through each of its previous stages. Those who momentarily pretended otherwise were either lying through their teeth or else stunningly blind to the underlying character of genetic research today.

    Again Willadsen proves admirably frank:

    At present there is a large effort involved in sorting out the human genome. I don't think they are doing that just to have some nice charts to put on the wall.
    Not that we lack occasional ambivalence about the directions of research. The Times article cites the observation by two fertility experts thirty years ago that
    new reproductive arrangements pass through several predictable stages, from "horrified negation" to "negation without horror" to "slow and gradual curiosity, study, evaluation, and finally a very slow but steady acceptance."
    But, as the article goes on to say (quoting Professor Lori Andrews), today "the time ... from `horrified negation' to `let's do it' is so much shorter."

    Whatever the logic of disengagement from our own moral impulses, it's a logic we seem to be perfecting.

    (Thanks to Steve Baumgarten, who provided the Lehrer lines, and Steven Hodas.)

    Computers in the Classroom: Where's the Beef?

    In his recent talk at Columbia University (see "Disfigured Hope" below), Professor Arthur Zajonc assessed the current place of the computer in education. Here are some of his observations:

    Given the uncertain educational gains from computers, Zajonc asks, "Do you really have the right to spend that kind of money?" The question becomes all the more urgent when you realize that "we've been jettisoning music, theater, art, and foreign languages from the curriculum."

    Zajonc grants that "every student should learn how to use the Internet's resources just as he or she uses the local library. But this is not the revolution touted for the last three decades."

    Noting that he has never found a non-trivial use for computers before the sixth or seventh grade, Zajonc believes older students can profitably resort to the Net for information retrieval (which, if the information is to have much value, will cost considerably) and for email. Crucially, they should also learn about the technology itself, so that it is demystified for them.

    Finally, in an interview following the conference, Zajonc was asked by CyberTimes reporter, Pamela Mendels, about the Internet learning game, "Where in the World is Cynthia San Francisco?" The game, a mystery whose clues consist of meteorological data, is designed to get kids learning about weather. Zajonc emphasized how important it is to cultivate children's curiosity about their immediate environment. When his own children were young, he said, they could get excited about observing a sunset, say, or the moon.

    I think children, if given the opportunity to attend to small things, to quiet sounds, gentle wind, will do so. And that leads to a refinement of their senses, as opposed to a coarsening of them, which, frankly, I think the high drama of Hollywood cinema basically does.

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    *** Disfigured Hope: Arthur Zajonc on Technology's Promise
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Arthur Zajonc remembers programming a PDP-8 by manually setting registers to instruct the machine to read a paper tape. He has lived with computers ever since. An internationally reputed quantum physicist, professor at Amherst college, and enthusiast for Waldorf education, he gave the concluding talk at the recent Columbia University conference, "Education and Technology: Seeking the Human Essentials."

    His talk had two distinct parts: one dealing with the educational use of computers (see "Computers in the Classroom: Where's the Beef?" above) and the other focusing on the human promise of technology. What follows is my best effort to summarize this second part from my own notes. I draw also on the lecturer's notes and sources, which enables me to amplify some of his spoken remarks (while omitting others). Unfortunately, none of the special personal feeling of his talk has found its way into this cold summary.

    Sublime Nature, Sublime Machine

    "The Grand Canyon," writes David Nye in American Technological Sublime /1/, "opens up suddenly in the midst of a high plateau, and the Colorado River is so far away that it seems to be a small stream when it is in fact three hundred feet wide." He goes on,
    The canyon's sheer size is difficult to grasp. Its depth is so terrifying that many pull back in fear after their first glimpse. A late-nineteenth-century traveler reported one group's experience: "Our party were straggling up the hill: two or three had reached the edge. I looked up. The duchess threw up her arms and screamed. We were not fifteen paces behind, but we saw nothing. We took a few steps, and the whole magnificence broke upon us. No one could be prepared for it. The scene is one to strike dumb with awe, or to unstring the nerves; one might stand in silent astonishment, another would burst into tears .... It was a shock so novel that the mind, dazed, quite failed to comprehend it." (p. 10)
    Nye suggests that, with our Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Niagara Falls, and with our hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, we Americans would have had to invent a theory of the sublime if we did not already have one.

    But technology can also strike us as sublime. Nye traces exactly this potential. For example, the first great factories in the United States -- the water-driven textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts -- impressed many a visitor. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once remarked that "things are in the saddle and ride mankind," nevertheless marveled at the ranks of mill girls, "all wakeful and interested, all well-dressed and lady-like." The advance of technology did not frighten him:

    Readers of poetry see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these; for these works of art are not yet consecrated by their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive or the spider's geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own. (p. 61)
    Charles Dickens -- no great friend of the Industrial Revolution -- also visited the mills:
    [He] found Lowell a stunning contrast to English working towns; he declared that the young women were "healthy of appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women, not of degraded beasts of burden." Dickens went so far as to "solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression," not one that "I would have removed from those works if I had had the power." (pp. 112-13)
    President Andrew Jackson, after touring the mills, "spoke of the mechanical marvels and the well-dressed mill girls for the rest of the day." Part of the attraction for such visitors, Nye writes, was the "combination of complexity and order on a massive scale. But, of course, "from the point of view of a woman in a textile mill, the industrial sublime was something experienced only on the first days at work." (p. 116)

    The impact of the steam engine was, if anything, greater yet. Perhaps the most famous was the Corliss engine at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. Weighing six hundred tons and with a driveshaft more than three hundred feet long, this double engine drove a giant, geared flywheel, thirty feet in diameter, at thirty-six revolutions per minute. "This was just slow enough so that the eye could follow its rapid, silent, seemingly effortless and endless rotation." Many commentators spoke enthusiastically of the engine as if it were alive.

    Others took quiet counsel in their own hearts:

    The aged Walt Whitman "ordered his chair to be stopped before the great, great engine ... and there he sat looking at this colossal and mighty piece of machinery for half an hour in silence ... contemplating the ponderous motions of the greatest machinery man has built." (Nye, p. 122)
    Henry Adams, similarly impressed by the electric dynamo, wrote of it as a "moral force" in his essay on "The Dynamo and the Virgin."

    Nor do we lack the rhetoric of the technological sublime in our own day. Computers and the Internet, like the Virgin, will heal us and save us. In fact, there has always been a connection between technology and the sacred. Technology somehow touches us in our highest nature, where our hopes are most exalted; and yet its promise is always ambiguous and two-faced.

    The Greek god, Hephaistos, a smith "famed for inventions," contrived the great shield of Zeus, sculpting figures upon it that were renowned for their life-like qualities. He also fashioned from earth the automaton, Pandora, with her jar of woes.

    The other gods had a love/hate relation with the smith. They admired his craft, yet spoke derisively of him. Born misshapen, he was flung from the threshold of Olympus by Zeus, falling to earth on the island of Lemnos. After his readmission to heaven, his lame gait remained a source of amusement for the Olympians.

    The figure of Hephaistos has parallels in Africa, China, and Ireland, and in the Kalevala. Master of fire and earth, he brings to his craft the balance, grace, restraint, and proportion that are comically lacking in his own body.

    Danger and Saving Power

    Given the ambiguity of technology, we must understand its role before we can turn it to our own purposes. Albert Borgmann's important book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life /2/, provides one basis for such understanding. Borgmann points out that the technological device sharply divides a machinery from the commodity produced by the machinery. The machinery becomes more and more hidden, leaving us with the ready availability of decontextualized commodities.

    Borgmann contrasts such technological devices with "things," which are inseparable from their context. A wood stove, for example,

    used to furnish more than mere warmth. It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks. (p. 42)
    "Things" find their place within a world of skills and social relations. They encourage a refining and nuancing of our engagement with the world. Whether in dickering for wood with the woodsman, or surveying a grove of trees, or sitting down in front of the fire to read a story to a child, our world is enriched by the coherent pattern of skills, activities, and relations constituted around the stove.

    But as the stove evolves toward central heating, the machinery, along with its context, progressively disappears, and we are left with the ready availability of a commodity -- heat. The oil refinery is distant and anonymous, the delivery truck comes automatically, and thermostats now regulate the temperature.

    The immediate promise of technology is that it will disburden us. It will make things better, easier, cheaper, faster. Where this is true, it is a real gift. But we may still want to ask: how can we compensate for the context, the matrix of meaning, that is lost?

    For one thing, we can occasionally, by conscious intention, make life "hard" for ourselves. Go backpacking. Knit by hand. Cook a meal .... More generally, we must recognize that where context and meaning were once simply given to us in the circumstances of our lives, now we must provide the connecting threads out of our own, innermost selves.

    We cannot escape the challenge and threat of technology. But perhaps we can take courage from Hoelderlin's words: Where the danger is, there the saving power is also. It has been recognized since ancient times that technology is conjoined with a great hope, if only we can wrestle with and subdue its darker side. The wife of Hephaistos, for all his lameness, was Aphrodite, the most beautiful of goddesses.


    1. David Nye, American Technological
    Sublime (Cambridge, Mass.:  MIT Press, 1994).
    2. Albert Borgmann, Technology and the
    Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1997 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #62 :: December 16, 1997

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