• Goto NETFUTURE main page
  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #57       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications       October 7, 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
          Keats is Not Cool
          You Look **Very** Nice Today
          Fuzzy Lines Can Be Explosive
          Neural Nets, Stethoscopes, and Patients
    *** Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 1) (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Is there life after communism?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Quotes and Provocations

    Keats is Not Cool

    David Gelernter (Yale University computer scientist):
    The information highway is going to be planned and built by obsessive software builders who are tremendously valuable in their productivity. But I'm suspicious of them as a group. Their push is to build software. I have a push to read Keats and I don't think they read Keats. I think schools today are so lousy that people can graduate from high school and graduate from college and never have heard of Keats, and I think those are the wrong individuals to build public works.
    New York Times:
    Amid all his earnest patter about personal computers being tools of empowerment, Bill Gates, the billionaire chairman of Microsoft, offered CNN's Larry King three words last week that finally touched on what all the fuss over software programs was really about.

    "Software is cool," Mr. Gates said.

    (Quotes from Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club, edited by Bill Henderson.)

    You Look **Very** Nice Today

    Lowell Monke has drawn my attention to "Silicon Sycophants: The Effects of Computers That Flatter" (International Journal of Human-computer Studies, May, 1997). The study purports to show that
    praise from a computer is extremely powerful .... Surprisingly, these beneficial effects occur even when users know that the computer's positive feedback has no bearing on their actual work; as this study shows, the beneficial effects of sincere praise and flattery from a computer were identical.
    The authors, B. J. Fogg and Clifford Nass, go on to suggest that, since computer flattery has the same general result as human flattery, we should recognize computers as bona fide social actors. The alternative -- that maybe we should bring a little more self-awareness to our experience of both flattery and machines -- doesn't seem to have occurred to them. Have you noticed how often this rather peculiar blockage of the obvious thought seems to afflict social researchers who turn their attention to the computer?

    In any case, Fogg and Nass find "important implications for design" in all this:

    Simply put, computers should praise people frequently -- even when there may be little basis for the evaluation.
    So much for ethics and sincerity.

    On the bright side, Lowell remarks that true artificial intelligence must be possible after all. Can there be any more reliable sign of machine intelligence than cynicism?

    One slight problem does arise, however. When this bona fide social actor becomes just a little too insistent and personal with its flattery, how do you slap it in the face?

    Fuzzy Lines Can Be Explosive

    David Gelernter, the computer scientist quoted above, was severely injured by a mail bomb in 1983. In his new book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (of which I have so far only read reviews), he asks,
    What makes us blur the line between good and evil and, in so doing, invite criminals to attack us and terrorists to kill our children?
    In answering this question he is said to finger the sort of soggy, intellectualized tolerance that cripples our ability to form clear judgments about right and wrong.

    Some few days after reading this I came across an investment analyst's comment about the tabloids' new-found restraint in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death:

    If it were to become chronic and they kept holding to a higher and higher standard ... it would be negative. (Business Week, September 15, 1997)
    Heaven forbid that higher standards should become a chronic affliction, or that investors should have to suffer the negative consequences of living in a healthier world -- or that the blurred line between investment practice and social reality should ever come into clear focus and reveal our moral choices for what they are.

    Neural Nets, Stethoscopes, and Patients

    "Artificial intelligence," according to a recent news item, "can be smarter than the real thing."
    In a study at University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, so-called artificial neural networks did a better job of reading electrocardiograms than doctors, according to a report published by the American Heart Association. (Business Week, September 29, 1997)
    Long-time readers of this newsletter will have heard me ask: How much of our apparent success in creating machine intelligence demonstrates the machine's genuine ascent toward humanity, and how much of it merely reflects our own reduction toward the mechanical? In the case of the electrocardiogram-reading computer, that question was rather dramatically reinforced by a second news item. This one concerned the declining ability of physicians to employ their stethoscopes with skill:
    The Journal of the American Medical Association reported last week that 453 doctors in their residencies could identify only 20 percent of irregular heartbeats and other common heart ills -- a "disturbingly low rate" far below that of their early 1970s counterparts. (U.S. News & World Report, September 15, 1997)
    Why the degeneration of skills? According to one of the study's authors, medical students spend so much time dealing with CAT scans and other high-tech tools that "time to master basic stethoscope skills gets lost." He urges more attention to hands-on healing.

    Well, of course the stethoscope was itself already a step away from hands-on healing. Not that stethoscopes should be shunned. The real question is whether, as we adapt ourselves more and more to the precise, reduced, and increasingly statistical data returned by our technical devices, we will lose sight of the individual standing before us. A doctor today need scarcely notice his patient; the tests upon tissue samples, the magnetic resonance images, the statistical profiles -- these are enough to say, "You have this illness."

    It is rather as if we said of two paintings by different artists, "They both `have' the same building in them" -- a fact perhaps verifiable by the number and configuration of windows, and of doors, and of various geometrical surfaces. And, yet, the significance of the building, its treatment and meaning -- what it expresses -- will likely be altogether different in the two pictures.

    The human organism, through which art finds its infinitely varying expressions, must itself be at least as complex an expression as what it produces. Two persons cannot simply have the same illness any more than two paintings can simply have the same building. We are always doing something -- expressing something -- with our illnesses. And what we are expressing is never the same from one person to the next. The medical treatment, so far as it relates to underlying health, cannot prove useful unless it comes to terms with these deeply rooted, individual, expressive tendencies.

    But you can only discover what is expressing itself by actually seeing the patient, whole and individual, in all his immediate, qualitative presence. This is exactly what the technologies encourage us to ignore. It is not that the statistical profiles and the other technical data is of no use. They can be of very great use -- but only as we bring them into relation with the living person.

    If, instead of our two paintings, we were given two tables of numerical pixel values, we could doubtless arrive at some highly sophisticated mathematical correlations. But these would not tell us anything reliable about the relation between the paintings as significant expressions of the painters. We would not know what anything in the pictures said. For that, we would have to see the pictures.

    Seeing the patient with an artist's perceptiveness is not what many doctors are taught to do today. Nor are the consequences surprising. As someone once said, "If you begin by attending to things only so far as they are quantifiable, you will end by having only quantities before your attention." And at that game the self-executing, mechanical traces of our intelligence that we lend to machines can far outperform the more encumbered intelligence that remains qualitatively bound to all the particulars of the world.


    Goto table of contents

    *** Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Part 1)
    From Stephen L. Talbott

    All right, dear readers, get a grip on yourselves! Some of you lost it altogether in response to Marjorie Kelly's piece, "Why All the Fuss About Stockholders?" (NF #56). In particular, David Rose went over the top with this blast:

    I look forward to each issue of NETFUTURE for its rarely-heard, sensible points-of-view.

    I strenuously object, however, to the sentiments expressed in the article "Why All the Fuss about Stockholders?" It is difficult to believe that you would give credence and publicity to the sorts of long-discredited notions that now find acceptance only in Cuba, North Korea and in meetings of the Redundant COMECON Economic Ministers' Society.

    Well, come to think of it, maybe the article does make sense. Yeah, that's the ticket. Tell Tim O'Reilly that I like his publications, but that the idea of paying $30- or $40- for a paperback book is repugnant. I demand that he instantly reduce prices to, say, $.99. Yeah! O'Reilly's rights, interests, and wishes as a stockholder mean nothing to me, see? I've read the article!...

    As a "stakeholder", my opinions and dicta, clearly, must take precedence over those of the idiots who merely own the company. People power! Down with George Herbert Walker Bush! Kill all Mensheviks! We will bury you! We invent baseball-ski and hotdog-ski! Bring on the Albanian lethal umbrella! Let's all drive Ladas and Moskvitches! Viva Carlos the Jackal! Encourage your kids to apply to Patrice Lumumba University (but caution them not to give attendance to white girls)! Enter ORA's new contest: 1st prize, a week on the Mir space station; 2nd prize, two weeks.

    Sheesh! Don't get me started.

    Yours sincerely,

    David M. Rose

    Well, I don't mean to pick on one reader, but where does that come from? Does it have anything at all to do with Kelly's article? Or is it hopelessly stuck in the now-stale debates of several decades ago? Before I answer that, let me tell you where I'm coming from.

    I was educated as a William F. Buckley / Russell Kirk conservative, and I continue to value that education highly. One of the first political and economic texts I read and re-read -- deeply formative in its influence upon me -- was Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. A high point of my young adulthood was seeing Buckley roll over John Kenneth Galbraith in an economics debate before a prestigious British debating society. (Galbraith had the best joke, however, which saved him in my estimation.) All this, incidentally, was in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and I don't mind saying that I was quite ahead of most of my generation; during those years many of you were tripping around in a drugged stupor, muttering canned slogans about the evils of capitalism.

    If I have moved away from my early convictions, it is not so much to deny them as to take up a position at right angles to the conventional terms of the debate. Those terms, after all, are now hopelessly anachronistic, inherited directly from the struggle between socialism and capitalism. The first thing many conservatives need reminding of today is that (as people liked to say after the Cold War): WE WON! Already in 1985 Peter Drucker could put it this way:

    For better or worse, that period has come to an end ... We do not yet know what the next wave of `progressivism' will be. But we do know that anyone who still preaches the `liberal' or `progressive' gospel of 1930 -- or even of 1960, of the Kennedy and Johnson years -- is not a `progressive' but a `reactionary' .... No non-Communist developed country will move further toward nationalization and governmental control out of hope, expectation, and belief in the traditional promises. It will do so only out of frustration and with a sense of failure. /1/
    I should hope so. The question today is not so much whether we'll ever be tempted again by socialism's central planning as whether those on the winning side will ever escape imprisonment by the remembered glories of old battles. Somehow we have an awfully hard time slipping free of the established ruts. For us, it's either unrestricted, private ownership of the "means of production" (as defined by the particular laws and corporate structures that have evolved over the past century or two), or else centralized planning and government control. To which the best response is: Good grief!

    I realize that old ruts can be comforting, but how can we imagine there are no alternatives when at least one alternative is staring us in the face -- nay, shouting at us? I mean the example provided by the nation's largest employer -- a massive collection of organizations employing 90 million Americans who perform some 7.5 million full-time work years annually. /2/ These are the non-profits, operating in what Drucker calls the "third sector."

    Non-profit organizations run hospitals and rehabilitate prisoners. They provide job training and sustain symphony orchestras. They teach practical and outdoor skills to young "scouts," run colleges and universities, and administer disaster relief. Publishers, management consultancies, food coops, financial lending institutions -- and, in fact, almost any business you run into -- might turn out to be non-profit. Often, as Drucker notes, the employees of a hospital don't even know whether their employer is a non-profit or commercial institution.

    Moreover, Drucker reported (in 1989) that the third sector was the fastest-growing part of American society -- and its growth was owing, not to increased charitable giving by Americans, but to rapidly increasing productivity.

    Here is my point. The assets of these non-profit organizations are not centrally or publicly controlled, but neither do any individuals have unlimited claim upon the assets. The workers and managers are stewards of the assets, serving purposes they deem worthwhile. Does this fact by itself necessarily stifle the free market? Look around yourselves. Do we lack diversity and creative energy -- do we lack competition -- within the arena of political organizations? Or religious organizations? Or non-profit, health-related organizations?

    Where you are most likely to find a loss of leanness, free choice, diversity, and creative energy is precisely where, through the influence of government, organizations achieve monopoly control of a particular sphere of life. Look, for example, at the American Medical Association or the National Education Association and their consequences for alternative medicine and education. Add an element of economic self-interest to the monopoly, exercisable through the political connection, and the situation becomes distinctly unhealthy.

    But if you want to cut schools free from the oppressive hand of government, the answer is not to "privatize" them in the current sense of the term. The very notion is grotesque, making as it does a profit center of children's minds and hearts. Rather you need to begin by removing the state-sponsored monopoly over education and granting free choice of schools -- whether through vouchers or some other system -- all within the context of non-profit functioning. (None of this, incidentally, compromises the government's ability to play its rightful role, for example, in prohibiting racial discrimination.)

    In sum: The antidote for central planning is indeed to give full rein to individual initiative and choice -- but this is not the same as driving the process with dreams of avarice. Those who see the essence of the free marketplace in the gleaming eye and the lure of cash rather than in the free pursuit of human interests and aspirations, are simply blind to the possibilities all around them. They refuse to look at what happens when you put people in the position of trustees within a context of private initiative and free choice. They assume that, unless the trustee is invited to raid the till without restraint, he will invest no real energy in his task. But this is not true.

    Have you noticed the strange thing that happens when you put twelve people into a jury room? It is the same thing that happens when you put them on the board of a trust -- say, to plan the charitable distribution of an estate according to the instructions of the deceased owner. What is remarkable in these cases is how often everyone in the group bends his will in a selfless, constructive, and well-intentioned way toward fulfillment of the charge. Many report that such a common effort for a worthy cause yields deep satisfactions.

    Compare, on the other hand, the likely result when you introduce a divisive principle of self-interest. Can even brothers and sisters resolve their parents' poorly executed will harmoniously?

    To provide instruments that encourage individually and freely chosen stewardship is at the same time to connect to the most pressing social problems of our time. There has been a lot of misdirected talk about regaining community through technology, but it would be much better to look toward the third sector, where participation is a universally acknowledged strength. This sector offers forms of community in which individual responsibility and decision-making are all-important. It replaces lost community ties. As Drucker writes,

    In the political culture of mainstream society, individuals, no matter how well educated, how successful, how achieving, or how wealthy, can only vote and pay taxes. They can only react, can only be passive. In the counterculture of the third sector, they are active citizens. This may be the most important contribution of the third sector.
    Crucially, this activity is much less likely to be subordinated to, and distorted by, hopes for personal financial gain. In the third sector I can ask what is good for society without feeling guilty of disloyalty to my company or its financial backers. Rather, I am fulfilling their mandate.

    It is interesting, in this regard, to see what Drucker hits upon when he tries to grasp what is distinctive about non-profits. They are all, he concludes, "human change institutions." They work to change human beings -- to cure them, heal them, enrich them. But this is just to say that these organizations strive toward some worthwhile purpose, which always amounts, in the end, to a quest for human change. So Drucker might just as well have said: the distinction of non-profits lies in the fact that they are free to seek a worthwhile end rather than be driven by the blind pursuit of profit for its own sake.

    There is no reason why we should not encourage this restoration of balance across the entire field of commerce.

    Because there is so much room for misunderstanding in such a brief essay, let me mention a few things I am not saying:

    ** I am not saying we should abandon economic discipline. When schools have to compete for students on the strength of their educational programs, economic realities will remain quite capable of making themselves felt! Just ask the educational establishment, which senses all too well the competitive pressures it will face in a free educational environment.

    ** I am not saying, and Marjorie Kelly was not saying, that the enjoyment of profit is a bad thing. In an economic enterprise (as opposed to a cultural undertaking such as a school), one should be able to expect a return on one's investment. But the leap from such earnings to the current idea of ownership conflicts with the central notions of capitalism. I will address this question in a later essay.

    ** Lastly, I am not saying that the current forms of non-profit corporation are the right ones for all of commerce. I am only suggesting that we have a huge alternative arena -- based neither on central planning nor on the historical accidents underlying the prevalent notion of private ownership -- within which a vigorous capitalism can seek to find itself.

    A long, historical development has led to the particular body of law now governing corporate structure. Nothing like the modern corporation even existed a couple of centuries ago. In a culture that almost worships the dizzying change brought by technology, are we really bound to regard the corporate structures of the moment as somehow embodying the divinely inspired requirements of capitalism and a free market? Why not experiment with a range of variations that lean more toward stewardship and less toward the venal? After all, experiment and variation are themselves essential to the capitalist idea.

    We have plenty of room to experiment. But whatever the best forms turn out to be, they will not give any group of people an unlimited claim upon the profits of a large enterprise, nor will they give any group of people the right to own a community of workers and managers in quite the current sense, or to dispose of them like chattels.

    This does not for a moment imply central planning or any diminution of free, individual choice in the disposition of resources. Just the opposite. It seeks to curb the right of some, acting from a position of unearned economic power, to plan the lives of many others whose private initiative and participation in the planning is disallowed.

    A footnote.  As I was writing these words I came across the following
    items from Bill Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength:
    In Oakland, Calif., the Chevron Corporation has given the use of a gas station to the N.A.A.C.P., which operates it and uses the profits to support its programs.

    In Seattle, the Boeing Company helped Pioneer Human Services develop a factory that makes plane parts that meet industry standards. The proceeds from the sales provide financing for the agency's social service programs.

    And Minneapolis Diversified Industries, a non-profit organization, can afford to train and employ 1400 mentally and physically disabled individuals because of several joint ventures with the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company -- 3M -- to manufacture shoes and various other products. (New York Times, September 27, 1997)

    This illustrates just one path within the world of possibilities to which I have been pointing. When the gas station's profits are mandated for use by a non-profit organization, the gas station itself becomes a kind of non-profit business. Yet it still has to compete for customers with other gas stations, and the livelihoods of its employees and beneficiaries depend on its success. In this dependence there is at least as much stimulus for private initiative as any profit-minded investor can feel.

    As to Chevron and Boeing, their donations were not coerced by some federal five-year plan. And if their stockholders were not given the right to plunder profits even beyond their own capital contribution to the companies' performance, then they would be considerably freer of any conflict of interest regarding the additional profits. As stewards, they and the other principals of the company would be much more inclined to ask, "What worthwhile societal ends should we strive toward with these funds and with our business as a whole?"

    The answer would be their choice; the funds would be at their disposal -- yet not for personal gain alone. Private initiative would be given a much more direct chance of linking up with human welfare in a conscious manner. The meaning of the business would begin to count for something.

    If you look at the world around you, I think you will recognize that this opportunity is what many people in business today long for. But our imaginations quail before the ghosts lingering over old battlefields.

    Please bear with me.  So many confusions are piled together in the common
    understanding of capitalism and free markets that it will take a sustained
    effort to unravel them.  In succeeding essays I will tackle the key
    notions of ownership and the "Invisible Hand."

    And what does this have to do with technology? That, actually, is my real interest. As I will try to show, the perverse undermining of the meaning of capitalism is a result of our abstract, reductive, and computational habits of mind. The recasting of business and economics as no more than an exercise in computation long preceded the development of the computer. The computer, in fact, is in many respects simply a late-coming embodiment of the already existent "economic computer" into which we have been transforming society.


    1. Innovation and Entrepreneurship:
    Practice and Principles (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).
    2. As reported by Drucker in The New
    Realities (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).

    Go to part 2 of "Beyond the Dreams of Avarice"

    Goto table of contents

    *** 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.

    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #57 :: October 7, 1997

    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NETFUTURE main page