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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #93      A Publication of The Nature Institute       August 19, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Quotes and Provocations
       Fear of Healing
       Is High School Dispensable?
       Bhutan and Fiji: The Elusive Influences of Television
    The Columbine Shootings (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Why television violence matters
    Announcements and Resources
       Waldorf Education Goes High-Profile
       Information Appliances May Prove More Frustrating Than You Think
       A Down Home Newsletter from Maine
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Fear of Healing
    Just as I was publishing my commentary on alternative medicine and the
    placebo effect in NF #88, an article appeared in Science magazine (April
    9, 1999) entitled "Can the Placebo Be the Cure?"  The author, Martin
    Enserink, tells how the placebo effect "bedevils" antidepressant drug
    trials, posing, for drug developers, "an occupational hazard that masks
    the effects of potentially useful compounds".  "But", the article goes on,
    "there's more to it than that":
       Some psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are fascinated by the
       power of the placebo effect, viewing it not as a problem but as a
       source of insight into mental health.  And a few ... go further,
       challenging the scientific basis of much of the multibillion-dollar
       market for antidepressant drugs:  They argue that many compounds, even
       those with good scientific pedigrees, may be little more than
       sophisticated placebos themselves".
    Enserink cites a study suggesting that 75% of the effectiveness of
    antidepressants is owing to the placebo effect.  Moreover, the researchers
    who conducted the study, Irving Kirsch and Guy Saperstein, argue that even
    the remaining 25% may be little more than a disguised placebo effect.
    This is because as many as 80% of the participants in a "double-blind"
    study can guess correctly whether they're taking the "real" drug or the
    placebo, based on the presence or absence of side effects.  So the
    expectation of improvement is greater among the drug group, accentuating
    the placebo effect in that group.  (This is presumably why Prozac, a drug
    advertised as having few side effects, has proven most effective where the
    side effects are greatest.)
    The May 7 issue of Science contained a number of follow-up letters, none
    of which disputed the substantial role of the placebo effect.  One writer
    remarked that "it is difficult to find such a reliable phenomenon that has
    lacked scientific attention", while another opined that "clearly,
    traditional views of drug action need to be revised.  Neither shooting the
    messenger nor denial is the answer".  And a third wrote:
       The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Placebo
       disparagement has been going on for decades.  I see no reason to
       believe that mere data should cause it to change.
    It's a strange situation:  There's this bothersome effect that has the
    unwelcome tendency to make people well, so the medical research
    establishment struggles harder and harder to prevent the effect from
    "contaminating" its rigorous investigations.  What is wrong with this
    What the placebo data shows us, I think, is that even a medicine that
    imagines its patients to be collections of complex technical mechanisms,
    and that does its best to erase every contrary assumption from the medical
    transaction, fails to succeed entirely in the erasing -- and can thank
    this failure for much of the efficacy of its treatments.
    Is High School Dispensable?
    Sensible words can show up in strange places -- in this case, People
    Magazine.  Bard College President Leon Botstein is interviewed in the
    July 12, 1999 issue, and he says bluntly that we should get rid of high
    schools.  After tenth grade, students should move on to higher education,
    job training, or some form of national service.
    This makes eminent sense if the only alternative is high school as we now
    have it -- a ghetto walled off from the larger society and from the world
    of adult work, and, all too often, with no meaningful family life for the
    student to fall back on.  Isolate kids from the grounding potentials of a
    stable community embedded in a real landscape and pursuing real work, and
    they will create their own society with its own, very likely warped
    After the Columbine shootings, Botstein met with Bard students:
       I was struck by how many of my students recognized the sort of sports-
       dominated, clique-driven atmosphere of the high school as described by
       the press.  They said they had felt like outsiders, ostracized and
       taunted by the others.
    Describing high school as "an artificial world, a world of puerile notions
    of beauty and what is masculine or feminine", Botstein points out that
    universities and businesses give respectable place to what is despised in
    that juvenile world.
       Who's running Microsoft?  The popular jocks?  No.  Probably the nerds.
       People in college begin to take their lives seriously.  If they are
       interested in business, they start to admire Bill Gates, or if it's
       science, then they admire Watson and Crick.  They join the real
       conversation of life.
    This is perhaps to look too casually past the distortions also at work in
    university, business, and science, which, after all, reflect the same
    society that comes to expression in high schools.  And you can't just take
    kids of any arbitrary age, put them in college, and expect them to "take
    life seriously".  But, still, Botstein has a point.
    Why not take the matter a step further?  If we know why college is, at
    least in some respects, healthier for young people than high school, then
    we also know how to improve high school.  Botstein mentions one of the
    crucial factors when he says,
       Today teachers are trained in pedagogy, not in their subject matter.
       You don't have science taught by a scientist or history taught by a
       historian.  And adolescents have an unerring sense for authenticity.
       They really understand very well if you know what you are talking
    This vital experience of a grounded and well-earned personal authority, I
    would add, is not exactly what students are most likely to gain when they
    are turned loose on the Net to pursue their education.  The kind of
    authority that changes lives is not often a distant authority.
    Of course, today's students don't often find a respect-worthy authority
    they can relate to nearby either.  If we could figure out how to take just
    this one challenge to heart, I imagine we'd be driven to redesign high
    schools from the ground up.  We'd have no choice but to bring students
    into the real world -- or to bring the real world to them -- because
    authoritative, real-world engagement is what most readily earns their
    Young people feel the powerful urge to take hold of the world in their own
    right.  Without worthy models, mentors, and guides, what will they do?
    As an aside:  This illustrates how all social issues are intertwined.
    There's no way we're going to be able to redesign high schools without
    radically changing the structure and values of the larger society.  In
    particular, we won't find it easy to bring students into an educationally
    fruitful engagement with mentors and real-world challenges until we have
    greatly strengthened local economies and local communities.
    In such local contexts students are readily seen as assets.  (As I write,
    students at the Waldorf school down the street are helping to build an
    addition to the kindergarten building.)  To "society at large", on the
    other hand, students are simply a problem -- and a seemingly insoluble one
    at that.
    Bhutan and Fiji: The Elusive Influences of Television
    At the beginning of June the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan officially
    introduced television.  The programming began with broadcast of the
    celebration surrounding the twenty-fifth anniversary of the king's
    Bhutan has long defended its culture against outside influence.  For
    example, a tourist tax limited the number of tourists last year to six
    thousand.  With an overall population of seven hundred thousand, Bhutan
    has only nine thousand phone lines.  It has no traffic lights.  It is, the
    Boston Globe says, "a place with negligible crime, no lawyers, and five
    thousand underemployed soldiers".
    According to the first Bhutanese news anchor, the country is "trying to
    take the best from the West and also the cream of Bhutan culture -- the
    middle path".  Despite worries about the severity of television's
    challenge, many people are optimistic.  In a local governor's words, "we
    are so deeply rooted in our culture and religion that I think what is bad
    or good can easily be seen by any humble person".  And a farmer remarks
       it would be good to have this television.  People should have a
       positive attitude to whatever they see.  Forget what's bad and just
       take the good.  Even if someone doesn't know how to steal and sees it
       on television, that doesn't mean they will pick up that habit.
    True enough, and important to keep in mind.  But television and the
    associated communication infrastructure take their place within a whole
    pattern of societal development, and they tend to nudge this pattern in
    certain directions.  The question, then, is whether this overall shift
    contributes to the various forms of social breakdown that lead to stealing
    -- and whether there's any effective way to work against such a
    Meanwhile, a widely reported study by researchers at the Harvard Medical
    School documents some changes in Fiji associated with the 1995
    introduction of television.  These changes have to do with young women's
    eating habits and ideals of beauty.
    It is traditional in Fiji to compliment someone by saying "you've gained
    weight".  As a New York Times story puts it:
       "Skinny legs" is a major insult.  And "going thin", the Fijian term for
       losing a noticeable amount of weight, is considered a worrisome
    But in just the three years from 1995 to 1998, according to the Harvard
    study, the number of secondary school girls reporting that they had
    induced vomiting to control weight rose from three percent to twenty-nine
    percent.  In a country where dieting was hardly known and calories were a
    foreign concept, it now appears that more teenage girls go on diets than
    in America.  "Young girls", writes the Times reporter, Erica Goode, "dream
    of looking not like their mothers and aunts, but like the wasp-waisted
    stars of `Melrose Place' and `Beverly Hills 90210'".
       One girl said that her friends "change their mood, their hairstyles, so
       that they can be like those characters".  "So in order to be like them,
       I have to work on myself, exercising, and my eating habits should
    In a comment the Bhutanese might want to reflect upon, one of the Harvard
    researchers remembered that
       What we noticed in 1995 is that people had a sort of curiosity, but it
       was a dismissive curiosity, like watching something that seemed
       ridiculous.  But over the years they have come to accept it as a form
       of entertainment.
    Our pervasive forms of entertainment change the picture, the overall
    cultural pattern, of our lives.  It could hardly be otherwise.
    (Bhutan news report from Boston Globe Online, June 3, 1999.  Fiji report
    from New York Times, May 20, 1999.)
    Goto table of contents
                             THE COLUMBINE SHOOTINGS
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    The public discussion of the Littleton shootings is remarkable in two
    ways.  The first has to do with its focus on the utterly silly question
    whether television "causes" kids to go out and shoot other kids -- as if
    any social phenomenon could be the result of a simple chain of causes and
    We live within a semantic field.  Everything around us means something.
    If you want to know how one thing "causes" another in human experience,
    then consider how adding a word to a text "causes" all the other words to
    shift their meanings in an infinitely subtle pattern.  This finely nuanced
    shifting of everything is a far different matter from making someone go
    out and commit a particular radical act.
    This is not to say that the shift in meaning caused by the new word can't
    be radical.  It certainly can.  But every element in the new pattern of
    meaning remains something we can only assess in the context of the whole.
    And in human affairs all the texts we produce, all the images, gestures,
    and acts, have this word-like in character.  They say things, and what
    they say counts, coloring everything else that has been said.
    This leads us to the second striking aspect of the public discussion --
    namely, the still widespread refusal to see that television is
    implicated in shootings such as those in Littleton.
    You only have to observe television directly to see that it's an
    inseparable part of the same picture that includes Littleton.  It's not
    just the violent images as such.  (It never pays to be too literal-minded
    in matters of social influence.)  The greatest violence, I suspect, is the
    wrenching apart of the concrete human contexts within which images of
    violence can find their rightful and healthy place.
    This is easier to see when you consider the inevitable objection by those
    whose defense of television takes the form of an appeal to "all that
    violence" in fairy tales.  But this ploy doesn't work any better now than
    on the thousands of other occasions when it has been tried.
    The child who hears about Hansel and Gretel on his mother's or father's
    lap is worlds removed from the child watching the usual mayhem
    on television.  Here's one way to put it:  the violence the child
    experiences when listening to the fairy tale is much more real than the
    violence of television.  The child knows, however implicitly, that what he
    is hearing really matters, that he is facing the moral mysteries at the
    heart of the universe.
    And don't forget:  this heart now beats within inches of his ear.  The
    frightful story has come to him upon the familiar current of his mother's
    voice -- the same mother whose arms now envelop him, guaranteed to keep evil
    at bay and make everything come out all right.  (How easily we ignore
    context in all our analyses!)  The evil of the tale is an evil these two
    concoct between them, bringing it alive with the power of their
    imaginations -- and thereby also setting proper bounds to it, containing
    it, learning what it means to stand above it.  This is the experience that
    television so readily destroys.
    The problem with television is that its violence isn't real enough.  The
    contrived, contextless, and artificial nature of most television content
    works against a healthy reckoning with it, while at the same time
    saturating the child with now-senseless images of violence and leaving him
    naked before the greatest evil in the whole situation -- namely, the
    unbounded evil of producers who know nothing of a mother's enveloping
    love, but only of sensation, profit, and the disgusting appeal to the
    necessities of their "art" and the protection of the first amendment.
    This loss of context, which means loss of reality, characterizes the
    entire life of the child, who is cut off not only from any coherent family
    life (thanks in part to television) but also from any grounding in the
    world of adult work.  It is worth recalling here the boy who, when taken
    to an aquarium, looked at the fish and asked, "Is this virtual reality or
    real reality?" (NF #70).  The question is all too natural because the
    images making up the child's world are increasingly arbitrary,
    disconnected, and pathological.
    When the images assaulting the child lack context, when they become
    dizzying and skewed -- when they are sick without offering a context for
    coming to terms with the sickness -- then the child's responses to life risk
    becoming equally arbitrary, disconnected, and pathological.  And, at the
    extreme, murderous.  As David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous,
    recently remarked to me, the shadow of society can become so intense, so
    vividly presented and re-presented, that eventually some few benighted
    souls  will feel compelled to become its bearers.  All the more when the
    distinction between light and shadow seems more virtual than real.
    I well recognize that "we're all guilty" often amounts to an effective
    denial of guilt.  But I think one can reasonably say that all of us, so
    far as we contribute to the darkening of the shadow and the confusions of
    virtuality, do share a degree of responsibility for the actions of the
    Some of those who defend television point out, rightly, that isolated
    images drawn from the screen and presented to horrified Congressional
    investigators almost inevitably falsify the meaning of the images in their
    original context.  Such an empty exercise also obliterates the context
    provided by the teenage viewer.  Is he viewing actively or passively?
    Does he possess a critical awareness of the media?  Does he have a healthy
    home environment?
    This concern for context is very much what I am urging.  But when we
    actually look around ourselves, what we see everywhere is:  television
    corroding context.  Television may, in fact, be the most potent destroyer
    of context we have, next to the Internet.  It is, after all, what has
    given us that Congressional hearing room in the first place, with all
    its empty posturing.  Our elected representatives prance around in the
    Nowhere space between camera and screen, a space of poll-data, spin
    control, image management, and political positioning.  There's nobody
    there you could talk to.
    This, of course, is as much a truth of society as of television, and
    that's part of my point.  The victims at Columbine High were not killed by
    television.  They were killed by a society capable of watching television
    and then convincing itself that what it has experienced is essentially
    harmless and neutral.  This is a society that has lost its ability to
    envelop the child within loving contexts, and that does not even remember
    any longer the difference between a fairy godmother and "The Godfather".
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Waldorf Education Goes High-Profile
    I have often mentioned Waldorf education in this venue.  It's the only
    major educational movement that has resisted the classroom-wiring
    bandwagon out of principle.  Now Todd Oppenheimer (who wrote one of the
    first highly visible articles questioning the way computers were being
    used in education:  "The Computer Delusion", Atlantic Monthly, July, 1997)
    has written a feature piece on Waldorf education in the September, 1999
    issue of that publication.  Called "Schooling the Imagination" the article
    is described this way:
       Waldorf schools, which began in the esoteric mind of the Austrian
       philosopher Rudolf Steiner, have forged a unique blend of progressive
       and traditional teaching methods that seem to achieve impressive
       results---intellectual, social, even moral.
    I'll try to report further in a future issue.
    Information Appliances May Prove More Frustrating Than You Think
    NETFUTURE reader and AT&T researcher Andrew Odlyzko has written a paper on
    information appliances.  From his abstract:
       The future is said to belong to information appliances, specialized and
       easy to use devices that will have the car tell the coffee pot to brew
       a cup of coffee just in time for our arrival home.  These gadgets are
       supposed to eliminate the complexity and resulting frustration of the
       PC.  The thesis of this essay is that while information appliances will
       proliferate, they will not lessen the perception of an exasperating
       electronic environment.  The interaction of the coffee pot, the car,
       the smart fridge, and the networked camera will create a new layer of
       complexity.  In the rush towards the digital era, we will continue to
       live right on the edge of intolerable frustration.
    You can read the paper at www.research.att.com/~amo/doc/networks.html.
    Incidentally, Odlyzko's argument provides some good illustration for what
    I have called the "fundamental deceit of technology".  See that heading in
    NETFUTURE's topical index at:
    However, Odlyzko does not draw out the "deceit" as strongly as he might
    have.  His is a good discussion, though -- one that helps to
    counterbalance all we're hearing about information appliances these days.
    A Down Home Newsletter from Maine
    Starting Point, edited by NETFUTURE reader Ellen LaConte, is a hardcopy
    newsletter that appears bi-monthly.  It grows out of LaConte's close
    association with the work of Helen and Scott Nearing.  (She was president
    of the Nearings' Social Science Institute from 1983 to 1995.)
    The newsletter is a comfortable mix of social commentary, reviews,
    environmental notes, advice about living close to the earth, and brief
    quotations from other sources.  Subscription price for the twelve-page
    publication is $15.  Send your subscription check or request for a sample
    copy to:  Starting Point, Loose Leaf Press, P.O. Box 509, Stockton Springs
    ME 04981.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
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    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
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    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #93 :: August 19, 1999
    Goto table of contents

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