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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #104     A Publication of The Nature Institute        March 21, 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.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Bill Joy's Warning from on High
       Education by Acronym
       The New, Soulless University?
       Why Do We Celebrate Change While Refusing It?
       Email Is Not a Solitary Activity (Jiri Baum)
       Response to Jiri Baum (Langdon Winner)
       Against Electronic Voting (Steve Baumgarten)
    Announcements and Resources
       Loka Institute Conference
       Adbusters and TV Turnoff Week
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    In the forthcoming Whole Earth (Spring, 2000), Howard Rheingold offers a
    nice compliment to NetFuture:  "an important critical voice in the age of
    hype".  His brief note cites NetFuture alongside Phil Agre's Red Rock
    Eater News Service (http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/rre.html) --
    excellent company to find oneself in!  Whole Earth, by the way, is as
    stimulating and useful a magazine as you will ever find.
    At the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference (CFP 2000) in Toronto,
    I'll deliver an April 5 luncheon address entitled "How Technology Can
    Enslave Us".  For information about the conference, which runs from April
    4 - 7, see http://www.cfp2000.org/ .
    Incidentally, I keep full details of my speaking schedule at
    http://www.praxagora.com/~stevet/personal/schedule.html .  I'm usually game
    to combine one event with another in the same geographic area.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Bill Joy's Warning from on High
    It is wonderful to see Bill Joy's warning about high-tech risks (Wired,
    April, 2000) producing such an impressive media splash.  The warning's
    origin in the high-tech engineering pantheon, together with its appearance
    in a publication wedded to exciting images of the high-tech future, seems
    to have guaranteed maximum notoriety.  We can hope that Joy's effectively
    written piece will pry open the media a little further for public
    discussion of technology's risks -- even after the sensation of the moment
    fades into the next curiosity.
    In one of the first counters to Joy, Microsoft's chief technology officer,
    Nathan Myhrvold, was quoted in the New York Times saying,
       People have made apocalyptic predictions about technology constantly
       for as long as there has been technology.  I think it is because change
       frightens them.  What is more, the most common form these dire
       predictions take is "this next generation of stuff -- wow! that is
       really different and scary"
    This is about as know-nothing and childish as you can get.  Does Myhrvold
    really think that "people have always said X" is grounds for dismissing X?
    The question is not whether "change frightens people"; it's whether the
    changes currently in question should frighten people, which happens
    to be the entire burden of Joy's essay.
    The refrain heard so often that "people have always feared new
    technologies" contains an implicit companion claim that this fear has
    never been justified.  How did Myhrvold manage to miss the twentieth
    Education by Acronym
    The Department of Defense's Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) committee
    has released the Shareable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM),
    which specifies a Web-based Learning Management System (LMS), including an
    XML-based Course Structure Format (CSF).  It's all intended to encourage
    the re-use of instructional content -- rather, I suppose, as acronyms
    enable the convenient re-use of ugly phrases.
    SCORM requires content to be independent of context-specific, run-time
    constraints.  That's the whole point.  You could call it context-free
    education -- education that does not arise out of the moment, out of the
    teacher's encounter with these students who have just had their own
    particular life experience in this setting.  Anyone preparing SCORM
    material must eliminate precisely the elements that make an encounter most
    engagingly personal and alive.
    As a simple condemnation, however, this is most unfair.  Anyone preparing
    a print-based curriculum (or any other form of curriculum intended for use
    by a large number of people) must also aim for context-free presentation.
    And -- as long as there remains a teacher to re-enliven the material in a
    genuine engagement with students -- there is hope for true education.
    The comparison with books is the right one, I think.  It should remind us
    of the abuses of the book -- of the way book learning so easily substitutes
    for learning.  In fact, it seems to me that the long decline of mainstream
    educational institutions, leading to all the contemporary expectations for
    their demise, is owing most of all to our failure to resist successfully
    the downward pull of the book.  A static, container model of education (as
    if wisdom were in the book, in the compilation of words) reduced our
    attention to the inner dynamics of understanding.
    This is why I am not sanguine about the immediate prospects for SCORM and
    all the other computer-based visions of a new education.  Having done so
    poorly with the challenge of the book, how will we resist the vastly more
    efficient "containerization" of knowledge offered by the computer?  After
    all, it is the computer that has made terms like "information" and
    "database" -- the one to be shoveled into the other -- triumphal landmarks
    on the modern cultural landscape.
    Related articles:
    ** "Can Open Standards Suffocate Us?" in NF #82.  Discusses the growing risks
       of the general drive within technology to standardize everything.
    The New, Soulless University?
    True education is, at heart, a matter of seeing with new eyes what one
    previously "knew".  This seeing with new eyes always requires a kind of
    metaphorical stretch.  And nothing enables the metaphorical stretch more
    effectively than an opportunity to see through the different eyes --
    through all the expressive presence -- of another human being, a teacher.
    What the student learns above all else is the teacher -- that is, he
    learns a set of inner, cognitive gestures.  We are most inclined to forget
    this wherever our subject matter has degenerated into a body of technical
    and largely meaningless information.  Here the student can let go the
    strenuous labor of shaping his mind to the tensions, paradoxes, and
    gymnastic grace of any profound truth.  A collection of shoveled facts is
    all he needs.  Once he's reconciled himself to this, he's ready to be
    taught by Arthur Levine.
    Levine is president of Teacher's College, Colombia University, and author
    of a New York Times op-ed piece, "The Soul of a New University" (March 13,
    2000).  Referring repeatedly to the education "industry", Levine cites his
    biggest fear:  some company will come along and hire the world's best
    teachers and then offer a high-quality, cut-rate education.  "A top-notch
    professor on our campus touches a couple of hundred students a year.  The
    lower-paid online professor may touch thousands.  The economics is not in
    our favor."
    (It happens that a couple of days after Levine's essay appeared,
    entrepreneur Michael Saylor announced the gift of $100 million as a down
    payment on an electronic, "Ivy League-quality" university offering
    everyone in the world a free education based on lectures by the "geniuses
    and leaders" of our time.  Levine's economics is looking more desperate by
    the day.)
    How does one professor "touch" thousands of students a year?  Wasn't this
    precisely the promised benefit of television?  Buying the advertisements
    for distance education with all the uncritical enthusiasm of a grade
    schooler surfing the Web for goodies, Levine asks, "Why do we need the
    physical plant called the college?"  Then he cites with approval the
    corporate entrepreneur who told him,
       You know, you're in an industry which is worth hundreds of billions of
       dollars, and you have a reputation for low productivity, high cost, bad
       management and no use of technology.  You're going to be the next
       health care:  a poorly managed nonprofit industry which was overtaken
       by the profit-making sector.
    So Levine stands among the increasing number of education prophets who
    seem incapable of distinguishing between two propositions:  first, that
    education (like virtually everything) has an economic dimension; and
    second, that education is an economic matter pure and simple.  As
    obviously false as this latter proposition is (what price do you put on a
    well-placed metaphor, or a mind's moment of insight, or a student's
    cognitive maturation?) it seems to be taking ever wider root.
    That Levine has reconceived educational content as a shovelable commodity
    is also evident when he says,
       It's possible for all of us to feel we're sitting in the same
       classroom.  It's possible for me to nudge (via e-mail) the student from
       Tokyo and say, "I missed the professor's last comment.  What was it?";
       have my question translated into Japanese; have the answer back in
       English in seconds.
    This fantasy of adequate machine translation carries a degree of validity
    only in those mostly technical disciplines where a living, metaphorical
    language capable of conjuring the often-reticent truth has decayed into a
    predictable, univocal language fit only for transmitting facts in terms
    that carry no surprise.  Language, in other words, that needs no
    expressive teacher and that has been drained of its ability to help us see
    with new eyes.  Language fit for training, but not education.
    Once you've accepted the idea that the educator trades in commodities, it
    no longer seems grotesque to restrict your students to the level of
    machine communication.  Arthur Levine has erected an entire vision of
    educational renewal upon this economic presupposition.  In reality, he's
    asking for the reduction of education to those impersonal and insipid
    elements that have already led many institutions like his own into
    decline.  Hearing him speak is almost to wish these institutions good
    Levine and his kin should look around themselves and tremble.  Yes,
    corporate-style, online training programs are booming -- but only because
    the current, distorted economic system is demanding them, not because the
    content is deeply meaningful or students love the programs.  If you really
    want to see what's new -- if you want to see where students are being led
    by their own desires and sense of need -- look at the thriving holistic
    education centers like the New York Open Center, the Omega Institute in
    Rhinebeck, New York, Esalen in Big Sur, California, or Hollyhock in
    British Columbia.  Or the small, low-profile, nature-centered outdoor
    schools and camps springing up everywhere.  Or the innumerable, mission-
    oriented, mostly nonprofit organizations that offer intense, focused
    educational experiences (like The Nature Institute where I work; two
    students are currently resident here, because they desired to learn about
    Goethean science from Craig Holdrege, one of the few people in the country
    qualified to oversee their work).  Or just the local extension education
    centers at high schools, community colleges, and universities.
    At many of these places you find teachers (often itinerant) and students
    joining together for a few hours or weeks or months in pursuit of a
    practice and an understanding.  Some of the organizations mentioned above
    began as New Agey, crystal-gazing, feel-good escapes from sober life --
    and my personal distaste for the touchy-feely aspects of their programs
    remains (perhaps rather too) extreme.  But there is no doubt that they are
    now broadening out and tapping into a huge vein of educational need in our
    society.  It is the same vein that the really good teachers in traditional
    schools have always managed to work, where education means the self-
    transformation of both student and teacher in their mutual encounter.
    It all suggests to me that the decisive challenge today is almost the
    opposite of what we are hearing.  How can we bring teachers closer to
    students?  And if that's what students really want, then anyone who turns
    green with envy at the thought of one teacher reaching thousands of
    students through a glass screen has lost touch not only with the students'
    educational needs, but also with their pocketbooks.
    Related articles:
    ** "Who's Killing Higher Education?" in NF #78.
    Why Do We Celebrate Change While Refusing It?
    In "Can't Get That Extinction Crisis Out of My Mind" (Orion,
    Winter, 2000), Stephanie Mills reminds us that, as late as the beginning
    of the twentieth century in Europe and America, a reasonable subsistence
    living was still known.  "Many of our great-grandparents provided their
    own food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and entertainment."  But now
       we're consumers, not gatherers or producers.  We're at the mercy of
       dimly understood industrial processes and long lines of supply.
       Because the sources of our goods are so widely scattered, it's nearly
       impossible for us to comprehend the effects of our way of life on the
       biotic community.
    The challenge here is not to find our way back to subsistence living, but
    rather to live knowingly and wisely within the increasingly complex
    earthly context that sustains us.  Despite her pessimism about our gaining
    the knowledge to act wisely, Mills is not altogether without hope:
       I do bear moral responsibility for the consequences of my consumption,
       but we consumers didn't originate the lifestyle.  It has taken
       relentless, well-crafted persuasion -- and occasional coercion -- to
       override the common values of frugality and sharing.  Over the course
       of the twentieth century, by means of mass production and global
       transportation, an ersatz version of the gluttony of nineteenth-century
       financiers has been democratized.  The process feeds itself:  as
       commerce reduces the beauty, abundance, and complexity of the land,
       nature compares ever less favorably with the bazaar.  But even Muzak
       and designer athletic shoes can't make up for ecosystem collapse.  As
       earth's wildness and human cultural diversity are rendered down to feed
       stock for the global economy, we do begin to notice.  We cannot buy our
       way out of this situation, and the market will not lead us.  To arrest
       the final consumption of the earth, nothing short of epochal,
       devolutionary change of the political economy is called for .... The
       cure for our ravening estrangement from, and destruction of, the rest
       of the biotic community is reinhabitation.
    This got me to thinking along a tangent.  Mills' invitation for "epochal
    change" will, of course, be widely dismissed as unrealistic.  I myself run
    into this charge whenever I cite the need to make choices about
    technology, or to wrest control of the automatic processes so powerfully
    at work in the globalizing high-tech sphere.
    But there's a strange conjunction of attitudes here.  Today epochal change
    is so widely embraced and celebrated as to be trivialized.  The new
    millennium, new economy, emergent global consciousness, evolutionary leap,
    end of science, post-human development -- such phrases continually invite
    us to embrace radical change, and we scarcely blink.  So what is the
    stumbling block in Mills' call for epochal change?
    The problem, I think, is not so much that people consciously disagree with
    her values or aims; it is that she is calling for change rather than
    announcing it.  She is asking us to take responsibility for change.  This,
    apparently, just seems preposterous.  Sometimes it appears that the only
    change fully believed in or fully welcome in our current rush toward
    globalization is the kind delivered automatically by technological
    "advance" -- the kind that happens to us instead of the kind we consciously
    and responsibly choose.
    All of which suggests that Bill Joy's worry about automatisms (robots)
    eventually displacing humans should be rephrased in terms of the
    technological realities today.  Somehow our machines are already
    managing to subvert human choice.  (A lot more needs saying, of course.
    As it happens, this will be the theme of my address at next month's
    Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Toronto.)
    Goto table of contents
    Email Is Not a Solitary Activity
    Response to:  "Results of a New Technology Poll" (NF-103)
    From:  Jiri Baum (jiri@baum.com.au)
    [Langdon Winner wrote:]
       Let's face it:  Large numbers of Americans are finding satisfaction in
       computer games, email, chat rooms, and Web browsing and are perfectly
       happy doing these things in more or less solitary ways.
    I'd be interested to know how you imagine doing e-mail (or chat rooms) in
    a solitary way.  Isn't the usual use of e-mail to interact with another
    person?  Do you consider me a non-person, a purely computer construct?
    One of the complaints the `advocates of virtual community' have with many
    of these surveys is that talking on the telephone is considered social
    while sending an e-mail is considered solitary.  Why?  What is the
    essential ingredient that makes a phone conversation social and e-mail
    not?  What distinction can one make between a presumably-social TTY (deaf)
    phone call and an Internet discussion?
    Like most people, I haven't seen the raw data, so I can't comment on what
    difference removing this distinction would make to the conclusions.  Maybe
    lots, maybe little, I don't know.  Maybe the data collected doesn't admit
    such analysis.  But it is very annoying to see people, some of whom really
    ought to know better, make such flawed arguments.
    Jiri Baum 
    Response to Jiri Baum
    From:  Langdon Winner (winner@rpi.edu)
    Many computer boosters seem troubled by recurring findings in social
    scientific studies that people increasingly experience isolation from
    friends and family as a result of computer use.  In my view the research
    is correct and the doubters clearly in denial.  The first line of attack
    was to criticize the studies conducted at Carnegie Mellon in 1998 and more
    recently at Stanford University for what some folks claimed were flaws in
    methodology.  But the NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll is absolutely
    impeccable in that regard and its results echo the disturbing conclusions
    of the earlier research.  All three studies have one thing in common:
    Their evidence about computers and rising loneliness comes from what large
    samples of computers users actually report.
    Comparisons to the telephone are worth pondering.  In American culture
    telephone use began as a means of business communication, but it
    eventually became a crucial part of everyday, social conversation.  Social
    historians note that the driving forces behind this shift of emphasis were
    urban and rural women who insisted that the phone be made available to
    them so they could talk to family and friends who lived some distance
    away.  Thus, telephone use became a means for extending discussions,
    activities and relationships rooted in personal history.
    Computers can also enhance sociability and often do.  But what the social
    scientific studies reveal is that digital devices often become a
    substitute for social relationships rather than a complement to them.  My
    own guess is that this tendency is mainly driven by the predilections of
    young and middle-aged American males, although their motives for choosing
    electronic isolation over direct human contact remain unexplained.  It's
    apparently a "guy thing" -- a challenge for further research.
    It is true that email and Internet chat are to some extent more sociable
    than playing video games and browsing the web.  But it does not stretch
    the term "solitary" to encompass the increasing numbers of guys who sit in
    their chairs, stare into tubes and click their mice hour after hour rather
    than interact with living, breathing persons nearby.  Denying that this is
    a disturbing social problem reminds me of the tobacco company executives
    who once refused to admit that cigarettes cause cancer.
    Against Electronic Voting
    From:  Steve Baumgarten (sbb@panix.com)
    I'm putting aside for a moment my disgust at the fact that the people
    involved in pushing e-voting in the Arizona Democratic primary obviously
    care not a fig about security issues; privacy issues; even race-related
    issues (the so-called "digital divide").
    In the context of NetFuture, though, there's another issue, and one
    perhaps even more important:  voting is one of the few things we do with
    other members of our community in a public place.  (Jury duty is another.)
    It's not really that hard or inconvenient to vote; for the times that
    voting can't be accomplished in person, an absentee ballot can be used.
    So what problem does e-voting solve?  And more to the point, what problems
    does it make worse?
    People who don't vote don't ever realize what a small but special thrill
    you get from voting -- from going to a public place with other members of
    your community and exercising, together, your right to choose the people
    who will represent you in government.  (People who have served on a jury
    report the same feeling.)  Regardless of your ethnicity, your religious
    beliefs, your background -- regardless of all of this, you realize that
    you have one thing in common with all of the other people you encounter at
    the polls: you're all part of a community, and you're all -- at least in
    this way -- equal.
    The last thing we need to do is encourage people to stay home, alone, and
    forget that there's more to life than just work and home.
    So put aside all of the myriad security issues, privacy issues, and the
    infamous "digital divide".  But doesn't anyone in Arizona realize how
    fragile our sense of community already is, and how the last thing we need
    is something else to further erode it?
    Steve Baumgarten
    Goto table of contents
                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Loka Institute Conference
    The Loka Institute's third annual Community Research Network conference
    will be held June 16 - 18, 2000, at Morehouse College in Atlanta.  One of
    Loka's main efforts has to do with "community-based research" -- a concept
    they've pretty much pioneered in this country, and brilliantly so.  "Once
    described as junk science, [community-based research] has now become an
    important element in government and private research.  The conference will
    explore new strategies for leveraging this enhanced status.  The `how-
    to's' -- in building partnerships, seeking funding, and using research to
    affect change -- will be tackled."
    For further information, see http://www.Loka.org/ .
    Adbusters and TV Turnoff Week
    If you're not already familiar with Adbusters, please go to
    http://www.adbusters.org/ and check them out.  They call themselves the
    "Culture Jammers Headquarters", and they are full of wonderful and wacky
    ideas about resisting the excesses of commercialism in contemporary
    culture.  If nothing else, join them in supporting TV Turnoff Week, during
    which millions of viewers will disengage from their televisions.  The week
    is April 22 - 28.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2000 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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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #104 :: March 21, 2000
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