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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #52       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications          July 2, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's Note
    *** Quotes and Provocations
          Laws That Are Made To Be Broken
          Wiring Our Schools: Here Comes the Backlash
          Toward the Great Singularity (Part 2)
          We Are Not Becoming a More Image-based Society
    *** Alice Outwater on Engineering Our Water Resources (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Should we leave it to beavers?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note

    I'll be mostly unavailable by email from now until after Labor Day, although I will eventually read all mail. I also expect to continue publishing NETFUTURE during the remainder of the summer -- perhaps at somewhat wider intervals.


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    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Laws That Are Made To Be Broken

    Referring to Moore's Law -- which says that computer chip density, and therefore processing power, will double every eighteen months -- Gary Chapman (L.A. Times Syndicate, June 24) wisely points out that
    This `law' ... is less a law than an expression of how chip manufacturers invest their money.
    And also, of course, how the rest of us spend our money. So we might better have called it "Moore's Resolve," which is at the same time an American Resolve. But it's always nice to believe that our resolves have the objective necessity of natural laws.

    Of course, even after careful reflection and weighing of societal priorities, we might still want to keep to this particular resolve. But the important thing is to grasp willingly and with both hands the implications of the fact that it is indeed our resolve rather than a dictate of physics or fate or economic necessity. Only in making our resolves fully conscious and in accepting responsibility for their many implications can we escape mastery by our multiplying technological servants.

    Wiring Our Schools: Here Comes the Backlash

    I suggested several months back that "1997 is very likely to see the first high-profile, tempest-causing note of sanity sounded against the cooption of primary and secondary education by the costs, the time drain, and the general irrelevance of computerized technology. Before long someone is going to step forward with an unexpected word of common sense."

    In fact, many will do so, it's begun, and the storm's preliminary breezes are already kicking up dust.

    You may have seen the cover article in the July Atlantic Monthly. Written by Todd Oppenheimer, it's called "The Computer Delusion," and is prefaced with these words:

    There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom" with credulous and costly enthusiasm.
    You may also have seen the little item from Edupage, drawn from the Washington Times (June 24), which sounded like it was taken verbatim from Lowell Monke's NETFUTURE pieces:
    More than 2,800 pieces of classroom computers, printers or terminals are broken or neglected in Fairfax County (VA) public schools. A school official says: "The focus of attention was on buying the equipment, and the support of that equipment was not taken into account. It was assumed the current support systems would be able to handle things and that has not proven to be the case." The school board's budget panel chief says the board's decision not to hire additional technicians for this fiscal year was influenced by its budget policy to hire administrators only when absolutely necessary.
    I've mentioned previously (NF #42) the high-profile conference scheduled for September at Penn State: "Education and Technology -- Asking the Right Questions." Another equally important event, about which I expect to have an announcement soon, will be held in December at Teachers College, Columbia University. These conferences will bring what is, to date, unprecedented critical firepower to bear upon the reigning mania. Given the first substantial notice of the problems by the mainstream press, and given the press's herd instinct for periodic (and profitable) reversals of direction, I expect these conferences will provoke a lot of coverage and controversy.

    Perhaps most important of all, there is reality. One gets the feeling in talking to at least some educators that they simply cannot restrain their questions any longer, no matter how stifling the surrounding bandwagon mentality. As one school principal recently remarked to me, "I don't want to sound like a Luddite to my board, but we've got to slow down long enough to figure out where these computers really belong in the education of the child."

    And if the backlash is intense, what then? That's almost the only question worth asking, and I don't see a lot of ground for optimism. As a society we've been complaining about television for many years -- we moan and groan about it to the point of tedium -- and yet television's penetration of society, its redefinition of politics, entertainment and culture, continues unabated.

    Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, the computer companies, the telephone companies, charitable foundations -- all will continue making gifts to schools of hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and software. Who will turn them down? Governments will not have the insight or the guts to change the course they've already set. And perhaps most perniciously: the drive to computerize education is the most convenient distraction imaginable from the persistent shortcomings of the educational process itself. These shortcomings were provoking a sense of national crisis just before the networked computer burst on the scene a few years ago; now that crisis has been forgotten as we indulge our recurrent wish that the right technology will kiss us and make everything okay.

    In the end, I don't know any other answer than to let families choose their schools in full freedom. We will then see, via a massive and tragic experiment, whether the attempt to cultivate nine-year-old geeks is preferable to the restoration of art, music, and shop classes, the pursuit of a hands-on science of the real world, and a wisely guided experience of the "classroom village."

    Toward the Great Singularity (Part 2)

    Much of the recent buzz about "the Singularity" goes back to 1993, when Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer and mathematics professor at San Diego State University, stood up at a NASA symposium and read a paper beginning with these lines:
    Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
    Once this event occurs, he told his audience, we will have to throw away all previous rules, "perhaps in the blink of an eye," because we will enter upon "an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control." The idea seems to be that these ultraintelligent machines will be able to create the next generation faster than we created them, the new generation will then produce its own, improved offspring even more quickly, and the whole thing will take off at nanosecond speeds, leaving flesh-based intelligence to amuse itself as best it can in the sandbox at the future's door.

    Vinge's prophetic vision is stunningly vague. He claims not to know or care much whether the Singularity results from our creation of a "superhumanly intelligent" computer, or from the sudden "waking up" of large computer networks, or from new and more intimate human-computer interfaces, or even from tinkering with the biological basis of intelligence. In some unexplained way these radically different contexts all hold promise of the same sort of unprecedented threshold event. Remarkably, Vinge is able to pinpoint its occurrence to the next thirty years despite such an open-ended and indefinite picture of its nature.

    But the main thing missing is any hint about what this intelligence is that eventually will be raised to such an exalted level. One would assume that we'd have to identify it fairly reliably in ourselves before we could be terribly confident of reproducing it in machines, but Vinge does not point us to any such identification. On what grounds might we claim to have more (or less) intelligence than people of, say, the 1920s, or people of the middle ages, or the ancient Egyptians, or the makers of the oldest known stone tools? Who knows? -- but Vinge is quite confident (with the smallest of caveats) that our machines, with or without us, have got the right stuff.

    To be sure, he is quick to associate the notion of intelligence casually with such things as speed of computation, the ability to "access information and communicate it to others," and the possibility of immortality -- none of which, as far as I can see, has much to do with any reasonable definition of intelligence. (I'll have more to say about this in subsequent commentaries.)

    Beyond that, Vinge foresees many wonders in the new era: it will be a time when self-awareness "can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration," when "pieces of ego can be copied and merged," and when the struggle between good and evil will have been transcended. Self-awareness? Ego? Good and evil? Don't bother asking. Whatever is meant by them, the Singularity will know.

    It's remarkable that, at a time when cognitive scientists studiously ignore self-awareness in order to deal solely with the products or "after-images" of consciousness -- ignore, that is, the productive activity of consciousness in order to manipulate its results at the most abstract level possible -- Vinge can picture computerized self-awareness growing or shrinking at will. (My natural urge -- necessarily repressed -- when faced with such a claim is to ask the speaker's spouse for a testimonial regarding his self-awareness at home and in their relationship. It's amazingly easy to imagine neatly programming what, in ourselves, happens to be unapproachable or unruly.)

    Vinge stands breathtakingly above all questions of substance. It is, for example, hard to imagine any sort of human-like intelligence that matters to the world (or that could even be defined) apart from such qualities as honesty, the ability to care and pay attention, devotion to one's subject matter, and commitment to objectivity (or, more destructively, their opposites). But such things receive no mention in Vinge's paper. Presumably, they are implementation details. And when Vinge sees in the rapid spread of ideas today a harbinger of the surpassing intelligence of the approaching Singularity, one wonders whether he has ever noticed the traditional, near-light-speed transmission of gossip, which is hardly a reliable signal of superior intelligence. But we verge on the absurd -- a sore temptation inherent in the subject matter.

    I don't begrudge a man the right to speculate. But that such an utterly empty speculation as this should have gotten considerable attention says something significant and troubling. After all, one really ought to offer some characterization of the main terms of so startling a prophecy. Apparently, a lot of people are prepared to accept absolutely empty terms as long as they vaguely conform to certain established patterns of expectancy.

    As I suggested in the first part of this series, there may actually be a basis for the expectancy, even if it has little to do with the blurred visions now dancing in our heads. I will have more to say about this.

    Go to part 1 of this series
    Go to part 3 of this series

    We Are Not Becoming a More Image-based Society

    You've no doubt heard that we are fast exchanging text-based sensibilities for image-based ones. Nonsense! In no past century have our forbears absorbed as much text -- from book, newspaper, comic strip, magazine, billboard, and breakfast cereal box -- as we do today. And the further back you look, the more you find that people lived in an image-rich environment. The entire world was experienced as image because nature was ensouled; all its exterior manifestations were seen as the expressive face of an interior with which man could feel a kinship.

    It is we who live in an image-deprived world -- a world of signs without signification, of surfaces without depth, a world of artificial, disconnected, rapidly changing, undigested, and mostly false, ugly imagery. The idea that an image should reveal something of the truth, that it should bring a higher and previously invisible reality to manifestation, is not one we spend a lot of time contemplating.

    An image -- the human face, for example -- can only be an image by expressing an interior reality behind the visible surface. Many of our images today are in fact anti-images, testifying to the conviction that there is no reality beneath the surface (the image is the image of nothing). Many more give expression to what is either mindless or grotesque. And uncounted billions of dollars every year go into the devising of images whose sole purpose is to coerce, unconsciously, the buying habits of the viewer.

    The images of past eras were largely given from the hand of nature. There was a certain protection in this, so far as truthfulness was concerned. Our own images increasingly result from artifice. This, I think, is good and necessary. Art is, or should be, one of the ways we begin to take creative responsibility for the world. We need to worry, not about the artificiality of images, but rather their emptiness and ugliness.

    As we gain the option to spend as much time as we wish in various "alternative worlds," the qualities of these worlds begin to carry huge significance for our future. There is a reason, for example, why medical healing has been found to take place more quickly in natural settings than in stark, institutional ones, and until we can master the detailed shape of those reasons -- no small task -- we don't stand much chance of constructing healthy places.

    It is sad to see so much purely technical energy put into the creation of virtual worlds, with scarcely a second thought given to the qualities, the revelatory or healing potentials, of whatever it is we create. Unless there is a world waiting and needing to be revealed, art scarcely matters. But if art does matter, it can only be because of the understanding it represents.

    One hopes that, with our widespread access to computer graphics, we will finally get "artifice for artifice's sake" out of our systems, freeing ourselves to seek, in our own creative way and with the tools of our own choosing, what is true and good and beautiful.


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    *** Alice Outwater on Engineering Our Water Resources
    From Stephen L. Talbott

    Notes concerning Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater (N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1996.) Hardcover, 212 pages plus preface. $23.

    Beavers, according to Alice Outwater, "do more to shape their landscape than any other mammal except for human beings." There were once perhaps 200 million beavers in the U.S., and if (estimating conservatively) each of these created one acre of wetlands, then one-third of the country consisted of beaver-built wetlands.

    The wetlands are now gone, and Outwater shows how much else has gone with them.

    When the beavers were removed, their old dams slowly collapsed, and the streams were released from the series of ponds and impoundments that had been built throughout the watershed .... The water that had once seeped quietly down to the aquifer now flowed to the sea, and flowed much more rapidly. Some of the springs and freshets that had bubbled throughout each watershed began to dwindle, while others disappeared entirely; in the undammed land, the water table soon dropped....

    Not only was there less water in the land but the water quality changed for the worse. In a land full of beaver, the stillness of ponds and wetlands had allowed sediment to settle, clearing the water and providing a large reserve of nutrients that stabilized the ecosystem. Over time, this collected sediment had formed rich bottomland valleys, building layers of topsoil. Without the dams and wetlands to slow the flow and allow the sediment to settle, the rivers became laden with silt.

    Without wetlands, the runoff from the high flow of storms and snowmelt was unimpeded, and storm or spring flooding could be two and three times higher than it was before. The swift-flowing water swept more soil into the stream -- soil that was more likely to stay suspended -- and muddy water blocked the sunlight from the algae. Without still warm ponds, the plankton were no longer as populous, and fewer minnows and insects found food. Without these tasty tidbits, the birds and animals that used to feast in the wetlands went hungry.

    With fewer beaver ponds, there were fewer places for black ducks, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes, and hooded mergansers to drop down to breed. Without the dams that maintained constant pond levels, muskrats and otters were either flooded or frozen out. Mink and raccoons, fond of eating the frogs, snakes, and suckers near ponds, found less food when the beavers were gone. The rabbits that had once nibbled safely among the brush and hidden among the felled logs were no longer so plentiful, and the red foxes found fewer to stalk. Moose and deer, which had browsed on the plants and waded in the cool water of the beaver colonies, lost their habitats. The beaver's wetlands had been home to a rich diversity of creatures of the air, land, and water, and without the beavers the fertility of vast areas was subtly reduced.

    Prairie Dogs

    In limited areas of the country the beaver has been allowed to make a comeback. The same cannot be said for the prairie dog. Maligned and poisoned by farmers and ranchers, a population that once numbered in the billions has now been reduced to scattered remnants. Formerly, "prairie dog towns extended for thousands of square miles, with about fifty holes per acre." These towns re-shaped the local environment.
    In the process of constructing their towns of tunnels, the prairie dogs once moved tons of subsoil above ground, where they mixed it with topsoil and organic matter, including clipped grass and roots, feces and urine, insect parts, and other by-products of life; they made loam in a sandy world. The greens between the holes were kept clipped to expose predators, creating a short-grass plant community. New growth was tender and higher in protein than the surrounding grasses, so buffalo and cattle grazed preferentially on prairie dog towns. Since the grass around their towns was kept short, fire often passed by colonies entirely, providing an oasis of unburned vegetation where the rabbits, mice, and other small creatures could eat until the prairie greened again.

    Snakes, cottontail rabbits, skunks, mice, box turtles, and burrowing owls live in abandoned prairie dog holes. Toads, lizards, and tiger salamanders use the burrows to escape from drying winds. Birds, too, are attracted to the towns, because the thin groundcover and sparse grasses make it easy to see insects. Even ground beetles sometimes congregate in large numbers outside prairie dog burrows, and presumably go underground to winter below the frost line.

    Like the beaver, the prairie dog played a large role in the water cycle of the relatively dry plains and prairies. The soils in prairie dog towns were moister than in the surrounding area, and the tunnels allowed rainfall that would otherwise never make it out of the root zone to percolate below, thereby feeding the region's streams and rivers.

    In 1920 massive chemical warfare was begun against the prairie dog. In that year alone "132,000 men festooned 32 million acres with poisoned grain to improve the grazing for cattle." The USDA yearbook for the same year claimed that the cost of these pests to ranchers was $300 million annually because they select "the most productive valleys and bench lands for their devastating activities." The Yearbook authors, as Outwater comments, did not inquire why these prairie dog-infested areas just happened to be so productive.

    More recently, "research has shown that prairie dogs and cattle have a mutually beneficial relationship." If cattle do not graze the towns, helping to keep the grass clipped, predators take advantage of the cover and overwhelm the prairie dogs. On the other hand, "cattle grazing in prairie dog habitat gain more weight than cattle grazing elsewhere on the Plains." Nevertheless, the poisoning continues.


    The buffalo (American bison) also played a role in the water economy of the Plains. They created innumerable wallows some twenty feet across and two feet deep. These became drinking holes for other animals, and provided moist ground for distinctive plant communities. Like the prairie dog towns, the wallows collected rain and run-off, allowing it to percolate down to the water table.

    Buffalo survived the harsh winters of the plains. Where "cattle have to be fed in winter, when they look around stupidly for hay on the surface of the snow," buffalo use their heavy heads and hooves to scrape away the snow and find their own forage. Drinking behaviors also differ, radically affecting the water economy:

    Buffalo, being wild, don't linger streamside: they come down to the water, drink, and then leave. Cattle, long domesticated, just lounge around by the water, churning the slender green riparian edge into a muddy wasteland.
    In one of the less attractive episodes of American history, the buffalo were decimated in a remarkably short time. Those who were privileged to witness the original herds inevitably marveled at their numbers, writing home about how these beasts darkened the plains as far as the eye could see. The same wonder was provoked by the slaughter, when a kind of insane bloodlust seems to have gripped the plainsmen. "No one owned the animals, so they were killed," writes Outwater. Along the Santa Fe railroad line, "it was said that one could walk one hundred miles on the bloated bodies of slaughtered buffalo." In an amazingly short time, the herds were gone.

    Some lessons have been learned:

    Grasslands need to be grazed, and cattle can be raised without degrading the land and water. Some Western ranchers are restoring riparian habitat by herding their cattle across the land to keep them from congregating streamside and by limiting foraging to specified parcels at particular times of the year. When sheepdogs protect a flock, predation drops sharply, and some ranchers are learning to live with more wildlife. Better still, buffalo are finally being raised for meat, and their populations are the highest they've been for a century. In 1993, a hundred and thirty thousand buffalo grazed, wallowed, and took good care of the water's edge; most of them lived on private ranchland, along with a hundred million cattle.

    Rationalizing Our River Systems

    Having largely ignored the wisdom to be gained from "nature's hydrologists," we have, during this century, attempted to re-engineer the nation's waterways. The Missouri River, with its major tributaries, boasts sixty dams, while the Tennessee River has twenty-five. "Why on earth," asks Outwater, "did we build so many?"
    Over a period of eighty-six years -- from 1905 to 1991 -- the Bureau of Reclamation and its predecessor built 339 reservoirs, 154 diversion dams, 7,670 miles of irrigation canals, 1,170 miles of pipelines, 270 miles of tunnels, 267 pumping plants, and 52 hydroelectric power plants. With the help of $18 billion in capital outlays, over 14,000 square miles of farmland received water, and the West bloomed and prospered. Water made much of this land intensely productive, and advocates of reclamation saw public irrigation as a miraculous font of free riches. There were, however, costs.
    A dam effects striking changes in a river ecosystem, among which are these:

    Then, of course, there are the salmon and other migrating species, whose tale is nearly as sad as that of the buffalo. One of the "engineered" solutions to the loss of these fish due to dams and the deterioration of stream quality involved the expensive development of hatcheries. But as ever more salmon were raised in hatcheries and released, the salmon runs continued to decline.

    In 1992, a study conducted by Terry DiVietti, a Central Washington University psychology professor, provided an explanation. When fish are raised in a hatchery, they learn far less than the tiny fingerlings that grow up in the riverbed. Hatchery fish in concrete tanks have no threats in their life; they flock to the surface for food, and swim in packs the rest of the time. By contrast, fish that grow up in a stream learn to survive dozens of predators, and will hide, dart out, and zip back under cover to eat. They swim alone. They know how to use rocks and logs to conserve energy, having honed their swimming technique in the variable, complex flows of a stream. Hatchery fish learn none of these lessons in their tank. Releasing hatchery fish to the wild may be the piscine equivalent of sending a well-fed adolescent who has watched a lot of television into the woods to survive on his wits.
    The Army Corps of Engineers has carried out its share of river rationalization also. For example, following the Flood Control Act of 1936, it modified 16,000 miles of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Whereas the natural course of a river is not fixed in time, but "writhes like a snake, throwing off oxbow lakes as meander loops slip downstream," the Mississippi, "dammed, channeled, and leveed, doesn't move much anymore. The rafts of logs and the alligators are confined to remote backwaters, the great fish that the river was once renowned for have slipped into legend, and the indigenous mussels, which once filtered the impurities from the water, are just about gone." The cost of the rationalization of our water systems, as Outwater points out, has been great:
    In a 1960s study of the Tippah River, the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission found before channelization a total standing crop of 877 fish per acre, weighing a total of 241 pounds. After channelization, 99 percent of the fish were darters, shiners, and minnows. The total standing crop had nearly doubled -- to 1,498 fish per acre -- but the total weight per acre was only 5 pounds. In studies across the country, stream productivity was seen to crash when the streams were channeled."
    Nothing seemed more natural to the engineers than to help the water along, removing obstacles and freeing it to move in an efficient straight line. Yet, left to its own devices, water has an oddly persistent way of raising such obstacles whenever they are not immediately found -- through its own direct action, and, for example, through the urgent reverberation of its murmurings in the water-attuned consciousness of the beaver -- as if the inefficient circulations through meander and swamp, through beaver pond and subsurface reservoir, through eddy and whirlpool, were somehow needed. And when artificially coerced into unnaturally straight lines, the river systems begin to die.

    Engineering Rivers and Social Systems

    One final note. We have learned a great deal about natural habitats since the days of the great buffalo extermination, and we have been putting our knowledge to use. For example, as hundreds of the dams built during this century come up for license renewal in the next decade, new conditions will be imposed. Among other things, the operators will be required to simulate some aspects of a more natural, seasonal stream flow.

    We are slowly getting in the habit of looking at the way in which our development projects interact with a complex weave of environmental processes. Our growing understanding of ecology is one of the major achievements of this century. Surely, however, human society is fully as complex as any other natural habitat, and it is interesting to note that we have blithely introduced computers into social contexts with our minds as free of second thoughts as were the minds of those dam builders of the 1930s.

    Where we now require comprehensive environmental impact statements in defense of salamanders and owls and rodents, we commit ourselves to the radical technological transformation of the classroom (or home or office) without bothering to explore ahead of time and on a manageable scale the ways in which "downstream" environmental factors are subtly or grossly changed by the new technology.

    It's an odd set of priorities that takes more forethought for salamanders than for our children.

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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 #52 :: July 2, 1997

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