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                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #42      Copyright 1997 O'Reilly & Associates          March 6, 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
          You Can Fire the Teachers, But You Still Need the Technicians
          The New Money: Anonymous But Countable
          What Lies Beyond Multiculturalism?
    *** Seeking Balance (Stephen L. Talbott)
    The hope of computerized dissonance
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    You Can Fire the Teachers, But You Still Need the Technicians

    I've been thinking for a few months now 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 and jar society with an unexpected word of common sense.

    We're at least a step closer to that happening with the announcement of what looks to be a dramatic conference at Penn State University in September. It's called "Education and Technology: Asking the Right Questions," and will include such featured speakers as Neil Postman, Ivan Illich, and Langdon Winner. Not your usual, sheep-minded, "isn't technology cool" education crowd. For more information, call 814-863-5110 or write to ConferenceInfo@cde.psu.edu.

    Meanwhile, the few educators in the trenches with their eyes open find themselves appalled by the scale of the folly, if only in economic terms, quite apart from the educational issues. Lowell Monke, who teaches computer technology in the Des Moines public schools, and who also participates in the district's technology planning efforts, writes:

    I just talked to the head of the technicians in the district and his take is even more bleak than mine. We currently have about 2000 computers in the district and 5 technicians. He claims that businesses generally maintain a ratio of computers to techs well under 100 to 1. That means we are at least 15 short right now. The number of computers will double in the district in the next 5 years according to current plans. That means we should go from 5 to 40 tech positions to adequately support our computer operations. We also now only have 3, not 4, tech staff development people. That number is woefully inadequate now so one would suspect that within 5 years we will need at least a total of 10 staff development people working just on tech stuff.
    Keep in mind that none of these include the 10 people being proposed
    [for] curriculum tech support.  It also doesn't include any personnel
    needed in the high or middle schools -- that part is scheduled for action
    next year.  So add another 5 support people there, minimum.  That's 65-70
    tech staff needed within the next 5 years to adequately support the
    computers we are installing in the district at a time when there is no
    money available to add classroom personnel.  And of course with that many
    new hires in one department we can expect an additional 2 administrators
    minimum to supervise them.
    For a view from the student side, here's a comment from Jay Snyder, responding to NF #33:
    I'm a high school student in a public school in suburban Maryland, and I truly agree with your views that the school systems aren't attacking the issue of computers in schools the correct way. Immediately when you started talking about the unexpected support costs involved, I began thinking about my computer & information processing class. I would estimate that there are at least ten printers in the room, and it's a miracle if more than one of them is functioning on any given day. One printer wasn't even designed to work with these computers (why the school purchased it is beyond me), and the rest have all been overworked or mistreated to the point of inoperability. And the teacher's response to questions about the situation is always "I'm waiting for the repairman." For a while, the repairman was a regular fixture in my classroom, but now, either the money's run out, or they've given up, because nothing gets fixed.
    And next door, there's a brand new computer lab of Pentiums with laser
    printers, but it isn't being used until next semester because it would be
    "too hard to teach the new software"....
    Meanwhile, it still remains true that no one has bothered to explain why these crippling expenses and support requirements are necessary to the education of the student. If you know of such an explanation, please let me in on the secret.

    The New Money: Anonymous But Countable

    There was a fascinating story in the February 18 NY Times about the "Secaucus Corridor" -- the corner of New Jersey that is emerging as a "nerve center in the melding of computers and capitalism." When an automatic mortgage or bill payment is deducted from your checking account, and when you buy something with an A.T.M. card, the transaction will very likely pass through this "world hub" of the money-transferring business.

    Not that it will linger there. According to the article,

    it takes an average of ten seconds, half of what it did a few years ago, for an A.T.M. transaction to complete the circle of seven electronic steps from request to sign-off: from the A.T.M. to the bank that owns the A.T.M., to NYCE [New York Clearinghouse Association], to the bank where the customer has the account, back to NYCE, back to the bank that owns the A.T.M....and then to the A.T.M. itself.
    The banks use some three seconds of this time to figure out whether to approve the transaction. The less decisive period inside NYCE's Tandem mainframe computers "is less than the average heartbeat, about a half-second per switch." We've come a long way from the money-changers in the temple. Well, at least in some regards.

    If the Secaucus Corridor is not widely known, it's partly because of the low profile it tries to keep. "Where there is no customer contact except through the digital Web, anonymity becomes its own security-conscious value." Citibank asked the Times not to print its address, and an NYCE official said, "We don't want anybody to find us." The reporter, Kirk Johnson, commented,

    A cultural shift is evident in that kind of talk. If this is indeed an emerging center of postmodern money, it will have its own style. Old money capitals graced themselves with symbols of power, stability and might. But where cash is merely a few flashing lines on a computer screen, edifice is irrelevant.
    Dependability is measured by the quality of encryption codes and backup
    generators and the infrequency of bugs and crashes.  The hallmark of
    success is invisibility.
    A heading in the article reads, "Cash distilled to its essence: the realm of pure numbers." But number is not the essence of money; it is merely the endpoint of the lengthy process of abstraction to which money has been subjected. At least some of that abstraction has been necessary. But we shouldn't forget what becomes visible in the other direction: we can recognize in money the results of human labor and of the inventive genius of the human spirit, as well as the expression of human generosity. This money is a resource for which we bear a responsibility that cannot be managed mathematically.

    That, in fact, is what the money-changers in the temple forgot. And it is what the A.T.M. software never knew. The question is how, given the numerical abstraction money is becoming, we can preserve a sense for the meaning and value of money. What has true value cannot be sent off in whatever direction an equation or bit of silicon logic might dictate; it requires a fit, an appropriate context of meaning. It requires, in particular, an act of giving met by an act of receiving.

    The quality of these acts, more than anything else, determines the enduring consequences of the transaction.

    What Lies Beyond Multiculturalism?

    A postscript to the notes in NF #41 about Paul Edwards' book, The Closed World.

    In his Epilogue, Edwards briefly inquires into the post-Cold War shape of the closed world. He describes how the single frame within which the two superpowers struggled for supremacy has given way to multiplying nationalistic and ethnic flashpoints. "Despite their often global scale, 1990s politics as World Wide Web remain fragmented, beyond the reach of the Cold War obsession with centralized control."

    At the same time, the Cold War's end "marked the ultimate achievement of world closure: the realization of a global market economy." It also brought the Gulf War, where much of the power of the Cold War arsenal was demonstrated for the first time. Referring to the endless television replay of laser-guided bombs destroying targets in Baghdad, he writes:

    In those moments a worldwide television audience experienced the joining of cyborg subjectivity with closed-world politics. As we rode the eye of the laser-guided bomb to the white flash of impact in the eerie virtual reality of the TV image, we experienced at once the elation of technological power, the impotence and voyeurism of a passive audience, and the blurring of boundaries between "intelligent" weapons and political will.
    In general, the popular perception of artificial intelligences in the 1990s has shifted focus from the "threat of disembodied, panoptic power" to the much friendlier, embodied, "pseudo-biological" machine. "The paradigmatic cyborg of the 1990s was not HAL but Commander Data."

    This helps lead Edwards toward the provocative conclusion that "intelligent machines are being integrated into contemporary culture under the all-inclusive rubric of multiculturalism." He sees problems in this "co-optation" of cyborg politics:

    This simplistic doctrine flattens all cultural difference into two categories. Exotic differences function as the "interesting" resources for a Believe-It-Or-Not pseudo-anthropology. These can be trotted out as the trophies of cultural explorers (as on Star Trek: The Next Generation), as existence proofs for incommensurable understandings of reality, and as arguments for preserving cultural diversity. But in a world brought to us by the Discovery Channel, the exotic has paradoxically become familiar. It is all too easily transformed into the utterly mundane, and anthropology gives way to Disney World. As commonplaces of everyday life, mundane cultural differences form the basis for an easy relativism. This antimorality avoids hard ethical and epistemological questions by rotating all hierarchies -- whether of value, of knowledge, or of power -- sideways by ninety degrees, turning them into spectrums of difference rather than scales of worth. Terminator 2 demonstrates how cyborg politics can be co-opted by this oversimple multiculturalism, where cyborgs represent little more than a set of mundane differences between sentient creatures whose technology matters no more than their biology.
    And, finally, Edwards leaves the reader with a powerful set of questions:
    How do we find sources of integrity and authenticity in a world where the enormous pressures of global capitalism inexorably hew all forms of worth to fit the Procrustean bed of money value? How can we preserve cultural diversity at all when technologies of communication (including computer networks) and transportation are eliminating the very basis of cultural difference in embodied situations, locations, and language? How do we locate a basis for politically expensive judgments of value in the face of the political cheapness of moral relativism? How do we face global-scale problems with the only resources we have, namely our increasingly divided, anxious, angry, yet increasingly fragile, inauthentic, and vanishing local cultures? How do we even conceive of a "we" in an America where the master categories of gender, ethnicity, class, and even race have become, for many, little more than mix'n'match cultural fashions? The postmodern embrace of cultural chaos seems no answer, yet the old secular authorities -- science, Western liberalism, Marxism -- have collapsed. In their place, increasingly, reign nationalism, fundamentalist religions, and global trade. The center has not held. Yet the technologies originally built for cold war have bound the globe, perhaps permanently, into one single world.

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    *** Seeking Balance
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    If you've been through a four-year, on-campus higher education, you can probably remember how, by their senior year, most students can't wait to get out of the ivory tower and into "the real world." But, at the same time, many in the streetwise world of business and commerce long for the kind of camaraderie, serious inquiry, and devotion to high principle they remember from school.

    Similarly, I have had occasion to observe the inhabitants of a small, close-knit community come to feel an unhealthy inbreeding, an isolation from the larger society, a kind of self-centeredness sapping the effectiveness of their life together. Meanwhile, suburban types end up wishing for a place more rooted, where neighbors care about each other and are bound together by common enterprises.

    Perhaps these examples suggest only that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But I think they lead us to a much more profound truth -- one having to do with balance. And this theme of balance, when brought to the computer, enables us to see more clearly the problems and opportunities associated with this machine, while avoiding the tendency to demonize or worship it.

    In general, a healthy life thrives upon balance. We breathe in and we breathe out. We fall asleep and then awaken. We need balance between intellectual activity on the one hand, and artistic and practical activities on the other; between cultivating a warm, centered community and braving the broader social currents; between seeking help from others and offering help to those in need; between commitment to friends and openness to strangers; between the risky exposure of a vigorous public life and the protection of a secure private life. I am convinced that any prolonged and extreme one-sidedness in these matters takes a serious toll upon both individual and society.

    A living balance is not a matter of precise, mathematical division, but of proportion and rhythm. It is not a matter of stasis, but of artful movement. No two people will exhibit the same complex rhythm, with the same emphatic beats. But in all cases the apparent opposites must come into creative play. The opposites are thus overcome: the strong individual contributes most to the community, and the strong community contributes most to the development of the individual.

    It is easy to see that the computer figures in some widespread imbalances in our society. A few that come quickly to mind:

    It is a worthwhile exercise to think further -- from your own experience -- about the various balances bringing life and health. The nice thing about this line of thought is that none of the distorting influences of the computer just described is an inevitable influence. We can learn to blink and rest our eyes, and to type "pianistically," just as we can refuse to slight our families and the natural world. The quest for balance never allows us to reject one side of a dynamic altogether, but only to seek a counter to it that raises it into the sphere of health.

    It is the essence of human life, I suspect, to struggle with imbalance -- to pursue wholeness, productive rhythm, and harmony. The computer is perhaps the most pronounced disrupter of wholeness, the most radical expression of one-sidedness, mankind has yet known. For that reason, it may conceivably prove in the end to be our servant in achieving the most profoundly integrated and harmonious life mankind has known.

    Without dissonance, there can be no music.

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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 #42 :: March 6, 1997

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