• Goto NetFuture main page
  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #124                                                October 30, 2001
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
                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
       A Lot of Unease about Email
    Quotes and Provocations
       Technology and the Larger Picture
       An Entomologist's Killing Fields
       Double-edged Technologies
       Readers Strike Back
       More on Email
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    A Lot of Unease about Email
    NetFuture reader and New York Times staffer, Lisa Guernsey, had a nice
    story in the Sept. 26 Times about the various ways people are coping with
    email overload ("Why E-Mail Is Creating Multiple E-Personalities").  The
    variety of experimentation going on among the famous and not-so-famous is
    encouraging to see.
    Unfortunately, there has been widespread misunderstanding about my own
    stance toward email — misunderstanding I doubtless encouraged by heading an
    announcement "Why I have Disconnected from Email".  The Times article was
    actually incorrect when it said that I no longer check my email account.
    My aim — very successfully achieved — has been to reduce my time engaging
    in email correspondence to less than five percent of what it had been.
    But I do still take care of essential business that cannot conveniently be
    handled by other means, and I actually encourage people to send me
    relevant, polite, and well-considered email.  Here is an excerpt from my
    auto-reply message:
       If your intent is merely to send something to me (or to NetFuture),
       thank you.  I will see your message eventually and I, or an assistant,
       will take care of any necessary business.  But if you require
       interaction with me (and I would welcome this), it will have to be via
       one of these channels:
          Phone:  518-672-5049 (9am-1pm EST); 518-672-0116 (3pm-5:30pm EST)
          Postal service:  101 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075
       Or, if I am to contact you, I will need your phone number or postal
       If you are outside the U.S., I may try to respond via email.  If you
       are in the U.S. and your message can be answered in a line or two, I
       may also try to respond via email.  But my computer time will be
       extremely limited, so I am unable to make any promises.
    I expect this message to evolve with time, and if you are ever curious
    about it, feel free to "ping" my account (stevet@netfuture.org).  For
    further comments, see "More on Email" below.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Technology and the Larger Picture
    A while back Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was widely quoted as saying,
       If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of
       nuclear [energy] is really very good.
    It's true, if not profound:  set aside the main safety failures of any
    technology, and its safety record begins to look a lot better.  O'Neill
    came in for a lot of well-deserved ridicule for his empty observation.
    But its emptiness has an additional aspect not so often noted.  Even if
    you discount in this way the very incidents that are decisive for your
    claim, how do you cite the "record" of a novel, several-thousand-year
    process that has so far run a few decades, with the crucial, long-term
    storage phases not even begun?  Leaving aside the terrorism potentials
    that are so much on our minds today, nothing penetrates, corrodes, leaks,
    and threatens unrecoverable harm like radioactive waste.  O'Neill might
    just as well have said of a bullet that has as yet barely cleared the
    gun's muzzle:  "So far, its safety record looks pretty good".
    Artificially separating what cannot in fact be separated — and
    especially separating long-term consequences from immediate benefits
    — has always been the besetting temptation of the technological mind.
    This narrowing of vision might seem odd in the age of systems theory,
    globalization, and universal connectivity.  But, actually, these are the
    very features of our era that make the fragmentation of our thought
    processes almost inevitable.  Our understanding of global systems and the
    connections of things has been formulated primarily in terms of our
    experience with machines, and the whole idea of the machine is to abstract
    a precise, well-defined process from the continuum of life so as to
    perfect its productivity in splendid isolation.  This encourages us to
    ignore all the machine's "inessential" and unproductive interactions with
    its environment.
    Machines, as we conceptualize them today, give us an easy and
    aesthetically satisfying way to reduce our thought to the most precise
    and quantitative terms possible.  Their operation gains the clarity
    and automatic character of a chain of logic — quite explicitly so in the
    case of the computer.  In analyzing a logical and mechanical activity,
    we can let our thought processes coast.  The logic flows along by itself.
    It is hard to give up the easy satisfaction we gain from analyzing such
    well-behaved processes for the muddy complications of the real contexts
    in which we employ the machines.
    But when we coast along, resting content with convenient simplification,
    we bump into unpleasant surprises.  For in reality the machine does not
    merely perform its narrow, clearly defined task; it remains embedded
    within the larger contexts of life.  We discover this, for example, when
    we incur occupational ailments such as tendonitis or black lung disease,
    or suffer the loss of meaning and elevated levels of psychic stress, or
    find ourselves increasingly distant from family and community, or try to
    cope with waste products that cannot be reconciled with the environment.
    Our main challenge in a technological age is to free the precise but
    constricted vision that is technology's most fateful gift.
    An Entomologist's Killing Fields
    Jeffrey Lockwood makes his living by plotting the death of grasshoppers
    — countless grasshoppers, whose Biblical-scale plagues would
    otherwise devastate the rangelands of the American west:
       I flatter myself that I make substantial contributions to science by
       refining the use of insecticides.  But the bottom line is that I am an
       assassin:  my job is to extinguish life.  I am expected to do it well
       — efficiently and professionally.  This year I will direct the
       killing of no fewer than 200 million grasshoppers and more than a
       billion other creatures, mostly insects.  Their accumulated bodies will
       weigh over 200 tons and fill twenty dump trucks.  That's a lot of
       killing, and each year it gets harder.
    An entomologist at the University of Wyoming, Lockwood has made
    substantial contributions to science.  Insecticide applications, he points
    out, have been reduced by more than ninety-nine percent compared to ten
    years ago.  But the aim is still to kill, and Lockwood's problem is that
    he has learned to love grasshoppers.  Unlike most entomologists, he has
    spent a great deal of time getting to know the insects one-on-one by
    observing them in their natural habitat.  This does not make it easy to
    watch millions of sprayed grasshoppers molt into "deformed monsters" whose
    hind legs fall off, leaving them to stagger around in a daze until they
    die days or weeks later.  "Each summer", writes Lockwood, "I walk the
    prairie after spraying to see the gruesome results of a control program,
    so that I never forget what I have made possible".
    Lockwood, whose essay, "To Be Honest", is in the summer, 2001 issue of
    Orion, cites the practice by indigenous peoples of asking
    forgiveness from the animals they hunt.  In the same spirit he says that
       I justify killing grasshoppers because my intentions are purified by
       love for them.
    The statement is either outrageous or sublime, depending on the innermost
    truth and ongoing restless search of the person who utters it.  I am
    reminded of the comment by a friend who is a Vietnam veteran (not,
    incidentally, the veteran I cited in NF #122):  it is at least possible,
    he said, to look at an enemy soldier through the sights of a rifle and
    then to squeeze the trigger — all while loving him.
    Even more outrageous.  Or, perhaps, more sublime?.  I am not sure how true
    the claims of love and purification really can be.  But, given the
    inescapable fact of life — given, that is, what Lockwood calls "the
    universal dilemma that we must kill to live" — then whatever truth
    may be achievable in these claims is of transcendent importance.  It is
    important because the inner resources being striven for by the one who
    speaks this way are the very resources — the only possible resources
    — capable of redeeming the conditions that produced the conflict
    (between persons or between species) in the first place.
    Lockwood is by no means complacent about his attempted self-justification.
    It does not give him rest.  He finds a home neither in Earth First! nor in
    the Chemical Manufacturer's Association.
       I sometimes wish I could throw myself at one of the extremes —
       environmentalism or anthropocentrism, mysticism or rationalism,
       religion or science.  But to do so is to become truncated, half human.
       Some people can choose one or the other, but living and working with
       grasshoppers, knowing their beauty and innocence while being deeply
       responsible for their deaths, has shown me that both of these ways of
       knowing must be honored for our agriculture and our civilization to
       For me, the data of "percent mortality" has given rise to the knowledge
       of how to control grasshoppers with minimal harm.  My wisdom, however
       nascent, comes from seeing the death of grasshoppers and the integrity
       of their biotic communities (including the human elements), and
       realizing that we are all one, that we are diminished by their deaths
       and uplifted by their lives.
    Lockwood suspects that many scientists retreat into the "illusion of
    objectivity" in order to spare themselves "the unsettling whisper of
    spiritual insight" that so easily confuses rational analysis.  Scientists
    could nevertheless cultivate "a respectful, caring, even loving
    relationship with the creatures they study":
       But they would end up like me — attached to the creatures I kill,
       with all of the unrest that this entails.
    Lockwood is, in part, talking about technology — the technology of
    insect control — and the unrest he speaks of should, I think, be
    allowed to disturb all our technological endeavors.  For there is almost
    always a death-like element in these endeavors.  At each step we find
    ourselves removed a little further from the life matrix that nurtured us.
    We subject ourselves to the artificiality of a life support system.  We
    risk becoming, like the sprayed grasshoppers, deformed, unable to function
    in the manner for which we were made.
    But if death is inseparable from life, this death, too, may be
    essential.  There is at least the possibility that it will lead us, not to
    the destruction of the nurturing matrix of life (and of ourselves with
    it), but to our own re-birth in wisdom through which we will be able to
    accept a higher responsibility for all life.  And facing squarely our
    responsibility for death — without flinching and without shallow
    excuse, struggling to bear the full weight of the unbearable — may be
    the first step toward this re-birth.
    I wouldn't expect to find much of this struggle in the Chemical
    Manufacturer's Association.  But I'm not sure we would find much of it in
    Earth First! either.
    Orion magazine continues to be one of the best things around.  You
    can check it out at http://www.orionsociety.org.  Incidentally, the
    companion publication, Orion Afield (which subscribers to
    Orion automatically receive) ran a cartoon in the summer, 2001
    issue relevant to my comments above.  It shows a father reprimanding a
    recalcitrant child at the dinner table:  "Have you any idea, young man,
    how much water was polluted, energy consumed, top-soil eroded, and
    pesticides pumped into the atmosphere in order for those beans to be on
    your plate?"
    Double-edged Technologies
    Recent events have highlighted the usefulness of cell phones, elevating
    them to a rather more dignified stratum within the public consciousness.
    And quite apart from their value during crises, cell phones can be seen as
    sharing the virtues of other communication technologies.  If they were
    properly integrated with these other technologies, they could (in Phil
    Agre's words) help us to "maintain awareness of the many people and
    institutions with which we have ongoing relations:  the kids at day care,
    the public personae of our professional acquaintances, the ball scores,
    the bus we hope to board, the discussion groups we monitor, and so on"
    (RRE News, Oct. 7, 2001).
    All this is unexceptionable.  Yet the balancing thought — often
    voiced in this newsletter — is still almost completely absent from
    the public discussion.  Yes, these communication technologies help us to
    bridge distances and keep in touch — but for this very reason they
    contribute crucially to the centrifugal tendencies of society.  For
    example, the tools enabling distributed work groups to coordinate their
    efforts are the same tools that made the far-flung distribution of work
    possible in the first place and that will encourage its further dispersion
    in the future.  When Grandma rejoices in the email connecting her with her
    offspring on the other side of the world, she is employing a suite of
    technologies that make it ever more likely her offspring will be on
    the other side of the world instead of in her own town.  As a result,
    narrower channels of social interaction with her loved ones replace richer
    This is not an argument against cell phones and their kin.  We need to be
    on the other side of the world more often today, and Grandma does well to
    rejoice in her email account.  The problem arises only from our failure to
    recognize the truth about the technological forces we are dealing with,
    a failure that prevents us from bending them more effectively to our
    own ends.  The very simple point still awaits widespread acknowledgment:
    our commitment to distance-collapsing technologies is substantially
    responsible for the ever greater distances we must cope with.
    I do not doubt that some of the centrifugal movement is necessary.
    But if we came to terms with the double significance of our technologies,
    a lot would be different.  We would not so routinely speak of cell phones,
    email, and the like in terms of the single virtue of connectivity.  We
    would recognize that the underlying forces of disconnection at work in
    these tools are fully as powerful as the forces bringing us together.
    Actually, the balance favors disconnection unless we remain keenly
    aware of the double potential and consciously resolve to strengthen those
    inner powers through which we can overcome distance.  After all, the
    relations between distributed work groups will tend to be thinner and more
    one-dimensional than those between individuals working within a complex
    social microcosm under one roof.  But, if we recognize and accept the
    challenge, we can, where we choose, recoup from within ourselves
    the depth and intensity of connection that otherwise the technology takes
    Practically speaking, I think society would be healthier if we all carried
    at least a minimal bias against adopting the newest gadgets.  Then,
    only when a certain threshold of need was exceeded would we go ahead and
    buy.  (I am very glad, for example, to see airport guards well wired.)  In
    the breathing space below the threshold we would find ourselves encouraged
    by a certain creative tension to consider exactly those social and
    technological trade-offs that need considering.  This more wakeful
    relation to technology would be a wonderful thing for society.
    The idea of a bias is hardly novel.  We already have a bias; it just
    happens to push us in the wrong direction.  It says:  if you can't think
    of a strong reason not to buy the gadget, then go ahead and buy it.  This
    aggressive stance depends on the one-sided misunderstanding of
    technology's benefits I mentioned at the beginning.
    The events of September 11 made it more difficult for us to watch a low-
    flying airliner without imagining how it could be a destructive
    weapon.  But this imagination exemplifies a truth about nearly all
    technologies.  It's a truth we can reasonably hold in mind not only as we
    climb aboard our next flight (thereby making the flight a little safer),
    but also when we use our cell phones and other conveniences of the day.
    Readers Strike Back
    Several readers responded to "Terror on Film" in NF #122
    (http://www.netfuture.org/2001/Sep1801_122.html).  In that piece I doubted
    whether video images of the World Trade Center attacks added much of value
    to the widely available print images.  But, counters Andy Hook, "There is
    something compelling about the moving image".  And Herb Safford
       Since my wife and I have not had a television set for about ten years
       now, and make every effort to avoid television's incursion when we are
       forced into circumstances such as "waiting rooms" where the assumption
       is that watching ANYTHING is preferable to reading or talking, I would
       have expected to agree with you that moving images could not add to the
       still photos of the WTC disaster I had been seeing over the past week.
       However,  just yesterday I watched, on the CNN Internet site,  the
       "video" of the second aircraft flying into one of the World Trade
       Center towers.  For me, at least, this provided a different perspective
       on the act of suicidal terrorism than any still picture had,
       heretofore, done.  The motion of the plane across the frame toward its
       destiny brought home to me the sheer intensity of intent of those
       "flying" into the tower.
    My remark that I had not seen any moving images of the attack brought this
    from Bob Gaughan:
       It sounds like your approach to a subject may be one of purposely not
       gathering available information on that subject.  I can see how in some
       cases this may be helpful, but to ignore a relatively objective view of
       an occurrence and then come to conclusions about that occurrence, does
       seem to tread on ground that might lead one off to "la-la" land.
    I chuckled upon realizing how my comments about the video images I hadn't
    seen must have sounded, on their face, rather like the classic know-
    nothing stance:  "This book is despicable!  I haven't read it and I never
    will!"  Yet the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
    In the first place, the suggestion that I made it a policy to avoid
    television exposure after the terrorist attack is incorrect.  Human nature
    being what it is, I'd probably have jumped at the opportunity to sate my
    morbid curiosity upon video images.  It just happens that I live in a
    community where televisions are hard to find.  (Offhand, I can't think of
    any friends who have one.)  Nor have I been traveling during the past
    couple of months, so I've been spared the usual video assaults in public
    places.  I'd have had to go out of my way to find a television, and, with
    my time greatly pressured these days, it never seemed quite worth the
    bother.  In fact, I still haven't seen those moving images.  As time
    passes, the loss feels slighter and slighter.
    But don't think that I therefore had no basis for saying what I did!  I
    knew all too exactly and well what the coverage was like.  You can hardly
    live in our society without gaining a head for television.  Long before
    September 11 I had seen virtually the same images the rest of you saw on
    that day.  There's a reason, after all, why everyone reported "it was like
    watching a movie".  (And how about video games?)  What gave the pictures
    more impact than a routine movie or video game was the knowledge of the
    reality of the attack — and I was certainly not deprived of this
    knowledge either.  (For what it's worth, I also spent some time
    listening to network television coverage on my FM radio, and I can
    assure you that I had no difficulty "filling in" the missing images —
    something I was quite happy to be left free to do for myself.)
    Certainly, as readers point out above, you can gain new and forceful
    experiences when you look at moving images — just as when you look at
    unfamiliar still shots or listen to eyewitness accounts or do most
    anything at all.  But my point was that I saw nothing particularly
    important (in a positive sense) about what the omnipresent televised
    footage could add to the public consciousness.
    Moreover, all those compelling experiences that viewers have reported
    easily become my own experiences simply by being reported.  The
    unsettling, vaguely sinister quality of a jetliner flying too low and too
    fast; the deadly, determined grace of the smoothly banking final turn in
    the sky; the earth-shakingly fateful finality of a collapsing monument of
    civilization — does anyone really doubt that, aided by a few
    photographs and my own store of experience, I have these images as vividly
    as any others who were not there in person?
    Perhaps I have them more vividly.  Every event is fully "given"
    only through an infinite number of mutually complementary, revelatory
    perspectives, and video images all too easily narrow these down to a
    handful of rigidly fixed perspectives that tend to overpower and abort the
    imagination.  That's why, for example, I will not go to watch the
    forthcoming cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien's
    work is too deep and valuable for me to want to see it impoverished in
    this way.  Moving images are a much poorer representation of the world
    — a narrower and less open-ended communication channel — than
    the printed page refracted through an adequate imagination.
    It's worth mentioning that even eyewitness experiences can be unhealthily
    constraining if we do not bring a lively, inner mobility to them,
    always working to transcend the limitations of our private vantage
    points.  I wonder whether traumatic stress syndrome is related to the
    (understandable) inability to escape the single vantage point that is
    centered on oneself.  Other, more healing perspectives on the traumatic
    event are shut out.
    Anyway, another reader, Bob Fox, offered this:
       Allow me to share with you one of the realisations I came to as I
       watched the endless repeats of the events of September 11th:
       You see the nearer tower burning, you see the plane approach from the
       right and hit the other tower, and you see the ensuing fireball, and
       you find yourself thinking, "That's not a good camera angle..."
       Then, later, there is more footage, this time taken from the other
       side, and you get a wonderful view of the plane approaching from the
       left and hitting the building, and you think, "Ah, that's better...".
       Then they show it to you again, this time with the point of impact in
    And, finally, Jeff Dieffenbach drew my attention to a Washington
    Post story about ABC News deciding to cut back on its repeating film
    footage because "some small kids believe each showing represents a new
    attack".  That exceptional little news item is just one small reminder of
    our society's overall criminal inattention to the child's distinctive
    world.  The ubiquitous TV is, of course, a prime instrument of our attack
    upon childhood....
     ... which brings up my remark about people becoming angry and defensive
    when they hear you do not have a television in your home.  This prompted
    Mark Schumann to write:
       Heck, I've gotten that response from people who find out I just don't
       have cable TV.
       But wait until someone finds out you're a vegetarian, or (in my case)
       someone who just doesn't eat very much meat.
       Or that you live in an old city neighborhood by choice.
       Some of the shock and guilt is related to technology, to be sure; but
       some of it is just plain old conformity.
    More on Email
    On the topic of my "disconnection" from email, Mathew Gregson expressed
       I do not understand what life situation could bring one to a state
       where email, of all things, could be a major negative influence in
       one's life!
    Well, I don't know what to say except that I in turn find the
    incomprehension incomprehensible.  Can't anything become a negative
    influence, if it is out of place, out of harmony, out of balance with
    one's particular circumstances?  I've taken to disconnecting my phone at
    times lately, because of a serious illness in the household.  Should I
    feel guilty for that?
    Gregson goes on to suggest nicely that readers may be insulted
       because you, a man whose thoughts they have learned to respect, imply
       you wish less contact with the very people you attempt to get
       communicating in a more meaningful way each NetFuture issue.
    But look at it this way:  my replacing email with phone and letter is my
    own way of encouraging more meaningful communication, not less.
    There's one truth that people accustomed to email seem reluctant to
    accept:  in the most important respects, networking technologies do not
    increase our capacity to communicate.  We increase this capacity only
    through the inner disciplines leading to stronger concentration, deepened
    interest in others, strengthened verbal skills, and so on.  There are
    maybe sixteen hours in the day I could spend communicating.  Suppose I use
    all of them today to interact with my wife or a close friend.  Then, by
    contrast, suppose I work tomorrow at engaging every possible person all
    around the globe via email.  Will I have achieved greater depth or meaning
    or importance in my outreach on this second day?  Will I have done more
    communicating?  Not at all.  In fact, I will very likely have done less.
    In reality, one looks for a balance in one's social intercourse, giving
    proper emphasis to the deep challenges presented by those nearest and
    dearest, while remaining open to a larger world of acquaintances and
    strangers.  But email does not give us more time.  And if its net effect
    is to tilt the balance badly away from the most significant relationships
    to the more casual ones, then, for me at least, this is the point where
    I've allowed it to become a negative influence in my life.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2001 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 #124 :: October 30, 2001
    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NetFuture main page