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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #110     A Publication of The Nature Institute       August 31, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Death and the Single Cause (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Must we find dead bodies to fight environmental abuse?
       Technology Is Useful (John Wilson)
    About this newsletter
                            DEATH AND THE SINGLE CAUSE
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    I don't know how to say what I'm going to say without it being grotesquely
    misinterpreted.  But let me begin by offering two truths I think we need
    to hold together:
       "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
       his friends".
       Today we must expect that some of the greatest abuses of man and nature
       will be justified in the name of saving lives.
    The following meditation, very much a work in progress, was prompted by a
    couple of things:  first, continuing news about the West Nile virus in New
    York City and surroundings, where public fear (and consequent wholesale
    spraying of insecticides aimed at mosquitoes) has not always been
    proportional to the danger; and, second, the widespread justification of
    even the most questionable biotech procedures whenever a life is at risk.
    For example, one recent commentator opposes human germline experimentation
    as hazardous, ill-advised, and unethical, yet suggests that the risks and
    wrongs "may be counterbalanced when a life is at stake".
    In the West Nile case, you've got fearful citizens on the one side,
    worried that they or a loved one will be bitten by a mosquito and die.  On
    the other side, environmentalists fret about the accumulative results of
    the thousands of novel poisons we are releasing into the environment at an
    accelerating rate.  In any debate framed by these two fears, the
    environmentalists are almost certain to lose, because a single death
    attributable to a single, identifiable agent carries vastly more weight
    with the public than debatable statistics about theoretically increased
    mortality due to unspecifiable combinations of unseen chemicals at barely
    detectable concentrations in the air, water, and soil.  As Peter Montague
    put the problem in a recent issue of Rachel's Environment and Health
       The truth is, scientists can never figure out whether pesticides on a
       child's cornflakes (for example) are "safe" or "insignificant" because
       (a) there are dozens or hundreds of adverse effects to consider, and --
       if history is any guide -- new ones will be discovered tomorrow; (b)
       the pesticide effects will be added on top of whatever other stresses
       the child may be experiencing (medical drugs, auto exhaust, paint
       fumes, second-hand cigarette smoke, divorced parents, chronic ailments,
       excessive ultraviolet radiation from the sun because of a depleted
       ozone layer, and so on); (c) children (like all organisms) have
       differing abilities to cope, and a unique history of exposure to
       hazards; and (d) all organisms, like all ecosystems, are simply too
       complex for science to understand sufficiently to allow reliable
       prediction of effects.
    All this notwithstanding, we love precise causes for our problems -- they
    seem the scientific thing to have.  That's why the environmental movement
    tries, wherever possible, to tie down a death to a particular pollutant.
    And, for PR purposes, the tying down is almost as good as having a
    malevolent mosquito for an enemy; you can trigger fear and mobilize the
    public.  But my suspicion is that an overly zealous crying of "death!" and
    an overly confident fingering of its supposedly definitive causes will
    bring us more trouble than gain.
    Quite apart from the near-certainty that, with further investigation, our
    alleged causes will tend to deflate under the weight of multiplying
    caveats, there's also this:  When we make the avoidance of death and the
    eradication of its "cause" an absolute imperative, we provide a handy
    rationale for whatever remedy may present itself, however extreme
    and destructive.  In the end, those who would commit atrocities will
    benefit from absolute, unbending imperatives far more than those who seek
    true healing.  Healing is always primarily a matter of restoring balances,
    not destroying enemy causes.
    Is Death a Consequence or a Cause?
    When an octagenarian gets the flu and dies in his sleep, did the flu
    "cause" his death?  Perhaps you could say so in a shallow and partial
    sense.  But it's worth remembering that death comes to all of us in the
    normal course of events.  The man may have been ready to die simply
    because that's the natural conclusion his entire organism had reached, and
    his susceptibility to the flu may have merely testified to this fact.  It
    may be truer to say that his death "caused" the flu than that the flu
    "caused" his death.
    I am currently sharing in the care for an 83-year-old woman who lives in
    my home and is suffering Alzheimer's-like dementia.  Despite my own acute
    failings as a caregiver, and despite my wife's and my uncertainty about
    whether we can manage this responsibility, I do feel that, so long as it
    is entrusted to us, her care is a sacred charge.  True, this woman is
    mostly "not here".  But the same is true of a small child, and in both
    cases it is by ministering to what is here that we reach what has not yet
    arrived or has already departed.
    You may or may not find meaning in this particular conviction; I mention
    it only in order to make clear that I do not think a life is meaningless
    or wasted simply because its earthly manifestation is severely
    constrained.  This, I hope, will prevent misinterpretation of the
    following question:
    When, about two years ago -- and after showing the first signs of mental
    deterioration -- this same woman suffered a near-fatal case of spinal
    meningitis, only to be brought back from the edge by antibiotics, was this
    a worthy or unworthy defeat of death?  Was she ready for death when
    the meningitis came, so that this current phase of her life in our home
    was not really "intended"?
    I don't know.  But my fear of misinterpretation is all the greater because
    I realize how eagerly the question -- and one particular answer to it --
    will be embraced by the supporters of euthanasia.  Be assured:  I will be
    much happier than I ever ought to be if Jack Kevorkian spends the rest of
    his life stewing in jail.  But I also believe that if good and evil are
    opposites, they are deeply entangled opposites, so that a virtuous stance
    can easily look like a diabolical one, and vice versa.  The difference
    between a Nazi experimenter on human flesh and the most saintly surgeon
    may, at certain moments and in outward, logical terms, seem to require
    splitting the finest of hairs.
    Endings Are As Important As Beginnings
    Those "outward, logical terms" are a good part of the problem.  By
    inclining us toward the search for sharp-edged, univocal causes and
    effects, they blind us to the subtle qualities of the larger picture.
    After all, when we look at life as a whole -- when we look qualitatively,
    rather than with the binary gaze that says a person is either dead or not,
    and the former state should be avoided at all costs -- we discover that
    life and death belong together.  Our living and our dying require each
    Our dying begins at an early age, and at a certain mid-point of life one
    begins to realize that the whole positive meaning of his existence lies in
    the effort to do that dying well.  Personally, fear-ridden as I am, I
    expect to deal with the ultimate event very badly indeed.  But I can
    testify to the liberating effect -- the enrichment of life -- that
    comes from even the barest hint of a reconciliation with death.  To
    make an absolute of life and to view death as something to be avoided at
    all costs is to deprive life of its savor and meaning, and to guarantee
    that it is lived badly.  We have to die a bit every day in order to live
    Look at it this way.  If the statement about laying down one's life for a
    friend suggests that an earthly life is worth saving at an extreme cost,
    it also suggests that letting go of a life can be a supreme achievement.
    Without treasuring both sides of this truth, we will lose even the sense
    that life is valuable, since there is value only in what can be given
    What is required of us, I think, is to begin learning to read our lives
    organically, integrally, with a sense for their direction, form, and
    meaning.  Then we will recognize that endings are as natural and important
    as beginnings.  And then, when we read about several deaths "caused" by
    the normally mild West Nile virus, we will be deeply concerned and moved
    to action, but our action will be tempered by a certain perspective, so
    that we will not easily be stampeded in panic.
    If I have read the news reports correctly, the West Nile virus is not much
    more likely to bring death than the flu, and, like the flu, it primarily
    threatens the elderly.  When we do hear of a death, it seems to me that we
    should require the truth of the epidemiologist and coroner to confront the
    truth of the eulogist, until we have one harmonious story.  Perhaps our
    first question ought to be a respectful one about the life that has
    passed.  Who was this?  What was the shape and gesture of his life?  And
    how did his passing round off that shape -- or leave it incomplete?
    Without such understanding, how can we possibly know whether the passing
    occasioned the illness or the illness the passing?
    No, I don't think there are many people on earth today with the wisdom to
    make such judgments -- the wisdom to judge, for example, whether a
    deceased child's destiny was fulfilled or an octagenarian's cut tragically
    short.  I myself most certainly lack the necessary insight, and all
    prospects for it seem distressingly remote.
    Nor could we conceivably enshrine this line of thought in public policy.
    But then, while much of what is highest in the human being must be
    excluded from public policy in any direct sense, it remains true that
    wise public policy depends upon our pursuing the highest things.  And it
    is hardly quixotic to suggest we must strive toward the kind of insight I
    have characterized here, given that we are already forced to make these
    fateful judgments all the time, as when we must decide whether to inject
    an 81-year-old meningitis sufferer with antibiotics.  We might as well
    work at learning to make them well.
    No Call to Tolerate Pollutants
    It is the same with our efforts creatively to sustain the biosphere.  How
    can we heal a natural setting when the ecological complexities are so far
    beyond our understanding?  Yet we have no choice but to act and learn as
    best we can, since our current presence is damaging the biosphere
    Here, as in the consideration of our own lives, we need a growing capacity
    to grasp the expressive qualities of organic wholes.  Only when we
    recognize the higher-level unity manifesting itself through all the parts
    and determining those parts can we make sense of the overwhelming
    Such an approach will lead us, I am convinced, to be rather less inclined
    toward the search for dead bodies and smoking guns when it comes to
    environmental pollutants.  Certainly illnesses and deaths will always be a
    major cause for concern and a clue for further research, but they should
    not be absolutized as unqualified evils or as simplistic pointers to
    culprit causes.  In assessing an organic setting, we always have to do
    with the interpenetrating qualities of a picture, not a one-dimensional
    sequence of causes and effects.
    Unfortunately, all of this will sound to many like a call for greater
    tolerance of environmentally destructive pollutants, as long as they are
    kept in some sort of balance.  As you will see in a moment, this is not
    quite the case.  But first we need to acknowledge that it does
    appear distressingly inconsistent to be tolerant of death when it comes to
    mosquitoes, and absolutist about avoiding death when it comes to
    environmental pollutants.  The solution, I think, is to be ecologically
    minded in both cases.
    It is wholly consistent with what I said above about personal acceptance
    of death to say also:  As long as we are at risk of a single death from
    mosquito-borne West Nile virus, we are bound to work against the disease.
    But we must work with the ecological balances of nature rather than
    against them, simply because that is the only way to work without
    defeating ourselves in unforeseen ways.
    It is within this ecological context that a certain acceptance of death
    is forced upon us even as a matter of public policy (where we must accept
    limits to what we can reasonably do while always working to push those
    limits outward).  But the same concern for essential ecological balances
    that leads to a (provisional) acceptance of a certain mortality rate
    associated with mosquitoes will also prevent us from countenancing
    the unhealthy disruption of the biosphere by pollutants.  To refuse
    to absolutize death -- to recognize its essential place in life -- is not
    to condone any activity we can recognize as unhealthy or destructive.
    A sensitivity to the essential presence of death in our lives should make
    us more alert to what kills gratuitously, not less.  Ecological realities
    may place limits upon the control of mosquitoes, but no ecological
    reality requires dumping many of the damaging chemicals we unload into
    our environment.
    In other words, the flipside of everything I said above is that we should
    not feel obligated to find dead bodies and smoking guns before we take
    action against abuses of the environment.  In many cases we will learn to
    recognize that this or that substance just doesn't belong in our
    fields or forests or oceans; it is a jarring and contradictory element in
    the picture, regardless of whether we can link particular disasters to it.
    The besmirching of the beauty and integrity of nature will itself be an
    outrage to us, because it will show Death escaping its proper bounds.
    I am not suggesting it will be easy for us to become worthy sculptors of
    our own lives, from beginning to end, or of nature's wholeness, from
    growth to decay.  It seems nearly impossible.  But there is no escaping
    the demand upon us.  Humility in the face of the demand is probably the
    first virtue, and a devotion to Nature as our teacher the second.  And the
    third, perhaps, is a willingness to loosen our rigid, unbalancing grip
    upon transient life.
    As to the engineers' decidedly unhumble depredations upon the genome, to
    which I alluded at the outset:  I doubt that any proper limits can be
    recognized or defended until we find it within ourselves to say, "My
    deliverance from this disease -- my life itself -- is not that important".
    Technology and Death
    When I remarked above that death requires an acceptance on our part even
    as we are bound to work against it, some of you may have been reminded of
    a theme I have pursued in the past:
       The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our
       friend it will destroy us.
    More generally:  technology is a kind of death principle in human society
    today.  We must often embrace it and use it, but can safely do so only
    while working against it.  We must continually become more alive and awake
    as human beings in order to preserve our humanity in the presence of the
    machine's powerful inducement toward sleepwalking and automatism, which is
    Unfortunately, the flexibility required for this creative adaptation --
    the ability to move in apparently contrary directions and to make a higher
    unity of them -- is exactly what our experience with machines (and
    especially with intelligent machines) tends to discourage.  It may be
    trite, but it is also true, to say that machines train us in rigidly
    logical thinking much more than in expressive, artistic thinking.  The
    dancer or composer or painter can take opposite movements and harmonize
    them in a way that the logician must not.
    But if the machine drags us downward and nothing much at all pulls us
    upward ... well, that is the whole point.  This asymmetry is exactly what
    we need, however grave the risk of a disastrous outcome.  For we can
    become more alive and wakeful only from within ourselves.  A noble choice
    "pulled" out of us would not be a noble choice, and would not be
    our choice.
    A society driven by a kind of death-like technological necessity, but with
    nothing "commanding" us to counter this necessity, is what allows us to
    waken more fully as selves.  After all, what makes a self is the ability
    to act out of oneself rather than out of an external and mechanical
    Our relationship with the environment, with death, and with technology
    needs to be much more like a dance than a mechanism, much more the
    expressive pursuit of a guiding image than the assertion of causes and
    effects.  This is the way every organism moves in an ecological context,
    its own gestures both reflecting and responding to everything else that is
    going on -- but in a way that expresses its own unique being.  Only with
    such grace can we accept death (or technology) and in that very act
    transcend it.
    Related article:
    ** "The Distorting Potentials of Technical Capability" in NF #95.
    Goto table of contents
    Technology Is Useful
    Response to:  "Of Vision Quests, Gender, and Boredom" (NF-109)
    From:  John Wilson (JWilson@OIR.Arizona.Edu)
    In your comment and list of reasons for "the public's infatuation with
    digital technologies," you missed two key points:
    First, the Borsook example is about "people working in high tech...  grunt
    programmers". They are doing what they do because it is the job, not
    because of infatuation. So the Borsook is irrelevant to questions about
    the public.
    Second, you omitted the most obvious reason: People find high tech useful.
    I first bought a CPM machine when I had my own business and needed help I
    could afford (less than a secretary), to prepare mailings, letters and
    proposals. (At university student computer labs, word processing is still
    the most common use for computers.) Then I discovered the wonders of
    Visicalc and budgets and comparisons, and then next year's budgets and
    comparisons, became so much easier.
    Today my guess is that the number one motivation is still the ability to
    do something faster (word processing) or more reliably and consistently
    (spreadsheets) or something you can't do at all any other way (email with
    flexible address lists).
    For other types of technology, CAT scans are to see inside in ways that x-
    rays can't, e.g., less harmfully. Digital thermometers are less breakable
    and don't include mercury. My digital watch is far more reliable than a
    mechanical one that I could get for the same Sears price.
    My daily reality, partly because I have a Mac rather than a PC so don't
    have to do as much grunt programming, is that my favorite digital
    technologies keep track of my book and movie lists, help with taxes,
    conduct an amount of business that I would find impossible with phones,
    and look things up. I don't think of myself as infatuated but I would sure
    miss it, like my garage door opener, if I didn't have it.
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #110 :: August 31, 2000
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