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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #130                                                   April 2, 2002
                     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.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
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    What Are Technology's Gifts? (Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott)
        ... and its risks
    Announcements and Resources
       New York conference: Education and Technological Consciousness
    About this newsletter
                           WHAT ARE TECHNOLOGY'S GIFTS?
                        Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott
                        (kk@kk.org; stevet@netfuture.org)
    Following is a continuation of the dialog begun in NF #126.  Kevin Kelly
    was the editor and publisher of Whole Earth Catalog, founding editor of
    Wired Magazine, and author of Out of Control and New Rules for the
    New Economy.  His website is http://www.kk.org.  Stephen L. Talbott is
    editor of this newsletter.
    STEPHEN L. TALBOTT (to Kevin Kelly): You asked me to "unleash my respect for
    technology", and went on to point out that I emphasize the price of
    technology's gifts much more than the gifts themselves.
    You're probably right about the emphasis.  But the key point here is that
    I don't want to assign value (good or bad in any primary sense) to what we
    usually think of as "objective devices".  Moral value is always a feature
    of volitional consciousness, not of inert things:
       The nineteenth century thought that machinery was a moral force and
       would make men better.  How could the steam-engine make men better?
       (Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle, p. 74)
    Value always has to be assessed in terms of what someone is doing.
    That's why, in the formulation I offered, the hope associated with
    technology is really vested in our stance toward technology:
       Technology is our hope if we can accept it as an enemy; as our friend,
       it will destroy us.
    The negative emphasis you refer to results from the fact that our culture
    tends to regard technology as an objective presence that is good in
    itself.  This stance, by turning attention away from the real source of
    good and evil in men and women — that is, by displacing our moral
    responsibility onto machines — guarantees that the machines will work
    destructively upon us.  In such a context the negative emphasis is
    required by the facts themselves.
    But this emphasis should, I think, always be accompanied by a calling of
    people back to themselves, where the hope of technology can be
    realized -- realized in the very act of our overcoming the machine's
    invitation toward moral passivity.  This overcoming itself, which leads to
    a fuller development of our higher capacities, is technology's gift, if we
    will only avail ourselves of it.  Insofar as I do not always stress this
    hope, your criticism may be justified.
    But I am curious:  What do you see as the hope or gift of
    KEVIN KELLY:  The word technology suggests steam locomotives, iron works,
    telephones, computers, chemicals, silicon chips and a swelling mass of
    cold stuff.  The emphasis is on stuff.  While the term has its root in the
    Greek techne — of art, of artifice — the word really came to
    mean something concrete during the industrial revolution when human
    capabilities to invent and manufacture stuff quickly transformed our
    surroundings.  Hard gray metal filled our once stone/wood/fiber-made
    world.  While we recall the industrial revolution as a material
    revolution, the great change it brought was really due to a new ability to
    wield energy on command, in either small amounts on cue, or in large,
    unfathomable bursts on demand.  The stuff that held, transmitted, and
    displayed this energy loomed large as technology.  And because of its
    almost magical power, this stuff was alien, scary.  Since then, this stuff
    has been the bogeyman we love and hate.
    As we refined these inventions, they lost some of their mass.  We began to
    see them less as stuff, and more as actions.  Today technology suggests
    software, genetic engineering, virtual realities, bandwidth, surveillance
    agents, and artificial intelligence.  You wouldn't hurt your toe if you
    dropped any of this.  Technology became a force.  A verb not a noun.  A
    vital something that throws us forward, or pushes against us, and against
    the biological world which we perceive is our natural mode.  It is now a
    super alien power, the thing to blame when things go wrong.
    In reality technology is both stuff and force and more.  Technology is, in
    fact, anything we create.  Writing, painting, music are all technologies.
    Libraries are technologies, as are double-entry bookkeeping, civil law,
    calendars and clocks, institutions, all of science, as well as the plow,
    clothes, sanitation systems, medical tests, personal names, and the safety
    pin.  What isn't technology then?  Nothing that doesn't come from our
    That is probably going too far for many people.  How can a Shakespeare
    sonnet, or a Bach fugue be cast in the same mold as a nuclear bomb or a
    Walkman?  Easy.  If a thousand lines of letters is a technology (the code
    for an HTML page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet)
    must be as well.  We can't separate out the technology in the Lord of the
    Rings movie.  The literary rendering of the original novel is as
    technological in the strict sense as the digital rendering of its
    fantastical creatures and places.  Both are works of the human
    imagination.  Both affect audiences powerfully.
    Technology is a type of thinking.  A technology is a thought expressed.
    One could view the elaborate system of law running Western societies as a
    variety of software.  It's a complex set of code that runs on paper
    instead of in a computer, which slowly calculates fairness and order
    (ideally).  Both law and software code are manifestations of human thought
    and thus both are technologies.  When Wendell Berry asks: "How could the
    steam-engine make men better?" the answer is "compared to what?"  Are
    there any manifestations of human thought that can make men better?
    There probably are.  While a Star-Wars' laser and Ghandi's act of civil
    disobedience are both works of human imagination, and thus both
    technological, there is a difference between the two.  Not all thoughts
    are equal.  Some thoughts are better thoughts.  More importantly some
    thoughts by themselves are silly, or misguided, but as part of something
    larger make sense, or are even needed to get to a better thought.
    Thoughts have different values, in context.
    I believe the same is true of technology.
    An answer which Wendell Berry might agree with for his own question is
    that the technology of law makes men better.  A system of laws keeps men
    responsible, urges them to fairness, restrains undesirable impulses,
    breeds trust, and so on.  Yet, there are good laws and bad ones, and some
    systems of law (technologies of law) are better than others.  The proper
    response to a bad law is not no law; it's a better law.  The proper
    response to a bad idea is not to stop thinking; it's a better idea.  The
    proper response to a bad technology is not to stop technology; it's better
    The logical next question is, how do we improve (create) a method for
    evaluating the worth of specific technologies?  How will technology help
    us to be better people?  Indeed, how do we make better technology?  If by
    technology we mean what Wendell suggests — steam-engines, chemicals,
    and hardware — then I'm not sure this question will get us far
    because it is not big enough.  By my calculation the total summation of
    technology tidily equals civilization.  Civilization is technology.  It's
    a collective and accumulative work of human imagination and invention.  So
    Wendell's question becomes, "How can civilization/technology help to make
    people better?"  Or, to put it in Steve Talbott's terms, "What is the gift
    that technology delivers?"
    Every thought can be subverted.  Every technology can be abused.  With
    every solution a technology brings, it also brings new problems.  The more
    powerful the thought and technology, the more disruptive.  If that is what
    technology brings — an even wash of good and bad — then the gift
    is a meager one.  What technology ultimately offers, though, is far
    greater.  It offers possibilities and choices.  And this is why we
    gravitate to it so.
    In general, a technology presents humans another way of thinking about
    something, another view of life, another choice, an alternative state of
    being.  Each additional media invented offers the world another way to
    express our hearts and souls.  As more possible ways to express the human
    condition are devised it enlarges the pool of people who can find their
    unique place.  Imagine if Charlie Chaplin was born 500 years ago, before
    the age of film, or Mozart 2,000 years ago before a piano and orchestra.
    What a loss to the world!  The possibilities opened up by the invention of
    piano technology opened up Mozart and Beethoven.  The invention of cheap
    oil-paint technology opened up Van Gogh.  How many geniuses at the level
    of Beethoven and Van Gogh will die soon without ever having encountered
    the technological possibilities that they would have excelled in?
    We value diversity for its own good.  Diversity — possible species,
    possible races, possible view points — is an end in itself that we
    crave.  It is what we want (among other things) for our children — to
    have choices.  More than anything else, this is what technology brings:
    choices.  More than anything else, it is technology (the human
    imagination made real) which creates choices.
    Without a doubt there are some possibilities which constrain previous
    choices, and there are some possibilities which seem to promise more
    opportunities but don't.  While new technologies in general don't
    eliminate old ones, occasionally a particular technology will diminish
    previous choices.  Sometimes, too, a technology will not yield as many
    options as it promised.  This is the challenge of technology, to select
    these out.
    The gifts of technology are possibilities, opportunities, diversity of
    ideas.  Without technology we have very little of those.  Our collective
    job is to replace technologies that constrain real choice, with those that
    open it up.  The telephone, for instance, is a technology that continually
    widens opportunities and possibilities, while closing off very little.
    DDT is a technology that unlocks some important possibilities but
    restricts too many others.  Genetic engineering opens up vast terrains of
    choices, but its potential to constrict many others is both vast and
    How can technology make a person better?  Only in this way: by providing
    them with chances.  A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents
    they were born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a
    chance to be different than their parents, a chance to create something
    their own.
    I will be the first to add that by themselves — without anything
    around them — these possibilities are insufficient for human
    happiness, let alone betterment.  Choice works best when it has values to
    guide it.  But if one has spiritual values, do you even need technology to
    be happy?  Or in other words, is technology necessary at all for human
    betterment?  The same question: Is civilization necessary?  I say yes.  A
    special subset of humans will find that the constrained set of choices
    found in, say, a monastery cell, the tiny opportunities in a hermit's
    cave, or in the deliberately restricted choices of a wandering guru are
    the path to betterment.  But most humans most times in history see the
    accumulating pile of possibilities in a rich civilization as something
    that makes them better people.  That's why we make
    civilization/technology.  Choices without values yield little, but values
    without choices are equally dry.
    The gift of technology is possibility — possibilities in ever
    increasing mountains of diversity.  Like biological life itself (despite
    its many horrors), and diversity itself, I find greater possibility to be
    an unequivocal good.
    ST:  "Technology is anything we create".  "Civilization is technology".
    "Technology creates choices".  But if "technology" can be almost anything,
    then the term means almost nothing, and our conversation won't illuminate
    much in particular.
    Is the field of human creativity really coextensive with technology?
    Personally, I think we are closer to making them into opposites.
    Creativity is required for technological innovation, but its role is
    largely ignored and the entire point of the innovation is generally to
    reduce the creative and expressive to the syntactic and automatic.  The
    classic contrast between artisan and factory worker does, after all, have
    some validity — and I'm convinced that we are allowing digital
    technologies to alienate us even further from the artistic and creative.
    But instead of running off in that direction, I'd like to respond more
    positively by offering this definition of technology:
       Technology consists of the machinery expressing and further reinforcing
       our abstract habits of mind.
    (We can usefully let "machinery" here include such things as
    organizational apparatus and bookkeeping and alphabetizing procedures.)
    The definition aligns well with common usage that refers, for example, to
    digital, genetic, and nuclear "technologies".  But it also identifies a
    pronounced trend of the past several centuries — the trend that has
    made these technologies possible.  It's the trend you fingered in your
    little essay on "The Computational Metaphor" (NF #126), where you talked
    about how we've been converting the world of "its" into an abstract world
    of "bits".  Information, genes, and atoms are all high abstractions behind
    which we lose sight of the world except as a field for blind manipulation.
    But the definition applies also, for example, to technologies of physical
    transportation.  Automobile and airplane do, as you say, widen our world
    of choices in some respects.  We can get to many more places much more
    quickly than ever before.  But this freedom tends to "abstract" us from
    the world or, conversely, to render the world an abstract network of
    transportation nodes that we're merely passing through at ever higher
    velocities.  The choice to get to know one place deeply and intimately
    becomes much more difficult for most people.
    To free up some choices is always to put others further from reach.  What
    conceals this from us is our infatuation with particular kinds of choice.
    In sum:  I think we need to recognize the one-sided human activity that
    comes to expression in the distinctive technological thrust of our day.
    Then we can counter this one-sidedness by intensifying our inner ability
    to relate to our surroundings in a non-abstract way — concretely,
    qualitatively, expressively, meaningfully.  As I indicated before, these
    strengthened capacities through which we "resist" technology are
    themselves the gift technology offers us — but only if we don't
    mistake the gadgetry itself for the gift.
    KK:  Technology can't be ANY anything, just anything the mind creates.  I
    read your definition of technology as that which is abstract, or that
    which makes things more abstract.  If by abstract  you mean "of the mind"
    then there is little difference in our definitions, and I think what I
    said about technology would still hold true with this definition.  For
    instance, in this sense, your definition (Technology consists of the
    machinery expressing and further reinforcing our abstract habits of mind)
    is really parallel to one I could write:  Technology is an apparatus which
    expresses an idea or thought of the mind.  Would you agree with that?
    However if you mean something else by "abstract" you'll have to explain it
    to me, since I then don't see the connection to technology.  Webster's
    wasn't much help.  It suggests: "the word poem is concrete, poetry is
    abstract."  How a car is abstract, while a poem is not, is not evident to
    ST:  It is common today to equate the abstract with the mental or
    conceptual.  But abstraction represents only one pole of our mental
    activity, and our off-balance inclination toward this single pole is the
    whole problem.
    To abstract is, literally, "to draw out from", to remove something —
    usually something narrowly and sharply defined — from its fuller-
    bodied context.  Mathematical and logical formulations are abstractions.
    We can abstract the dimensions, mass, velocity, and other quantities from
    a thing, but the thing is no longer to be found in the numbers.  Likewise,
    we can abstract the empty logical (or grammatical) structure from a
    conversation, but the logical structure is not the conversation.  To grasp
    (or reconstitute) the content from which we do the abstracting
    requires the other pole of our mental functioning.  This other pole has to
    do with qualities and meaning.  If we want a real world, we need the
    qualities of things.  Without its qualities, the world is not there.
    In contemplating (or reasoning scientifically about) a soprano's sung
    note, I can deal in wavelengths, or else I can cultivate an objective
    awareness of the tone itself — its texture and timbre and expressive
    gesture — as it sounds in and shapes my consciousness.  In the former
    case, I approach the note abstractly (and this abstract approach will
    figure prominently in my design of sound-processing machines); in the
    latter case, I approach it qualitatively.
    As you say, an automobile is not an abstraction.  But a map is highly
    abstract relative to the geography it represents, and the automobile has
    tended to convert our surroundings into not much more than a map so far as
    our awareness of them, our engagement with them, is concerned.  There are
    many other ways the automobile expresses our habits of abstraction.  To
    take just one line of thought:
    Cut a cross-section from a tree trunk and you have a wheel.  It still
    bears something of the tree's unique character, and, of course, this
    uniqueness is now its imperfection.  The technological imperative drives
    us to remove the imperfection as far as possible.  Flawless circularity is
    the goal, and this in turn sets requirements on roadways, which begin to
    smoothen and straighten themselves out before our ever more efficient
    advance.  Local details with their own character — this creek and
    that ridge — are no longer allowed to interrupt us.  They give way to
    the abstract, geometric purity of the lines and nodes constituting a
    transportation network.  Our travel, now so efficient (look at the
    speedometer!), is deprived of context and qualitative detail.
    Abstraction, by itself, detaches us from the world.
    You profess to see no essential difference between the alphabetical
    encoding of Hamlet and the encoding of an HTML page.  Fine.  But your
    ability to conceive and work with the idea of texts as mere strings of
    characters is exactly what separates our day from Shakespeare's.  It is,
    after all, a long way from the creation or contemplation of Hamlet, as a
    meaningful expression, to the information-theory abstraction that
    reconceives it as an indifferent string of bits without reference to their
    This is the shift in mental focus I have in view when I speak of
    technology as expressing our abstract habits of mind.  And my worry is
    that we are so enthralled by the undoubted technical powers we have
    received through abstraction (for example the power to construct computer
    networks) that we are less and less able to entertain the meanings we
    began with.  Just as the soprano's tone is no longer in the mathematically
    conceived wave, so also Hamlet's meaning is no longer in the bits.
    Neither is it available to a mind that has assumed a "bit stance".
    Bit-mindedness is not inconsistent with meaning-mindedness, but once we
    grow accustomed to the intellectual ease of manipulating bits and other
    abstractions, it can be extremely difficult to rouse ourselves to reckon
    with the qualitative and meaningful.  This is illustrated by the insanity
    in our employment of various economic concepts, such as Gross Domestic
    Product (GDP).
    GDP is increased when people have heart attacks requiring expensive
    medical attention, or when we bulldoze wetlands, or when, as a few decades
    ago, we funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into high-rise urban-
    renewal housing projects that became perhaps the most miserable and
    socially destructive "communities" ever erected with good intentions
    — and GDP rose again when we began tearing the high rises down.
    Everyone knows this, and yet the public discussion goes on as if
    GDP numbers really were a measure of economic health.
    Abstractions such as GDP have a seemingly unshakable hold upon us, and the
    hold is indistinguishable from the fact that we can't help thinking of
    corporations and economies as machines.  The nice thing about mechanisms
    expressing abstractions (such as corporations that choose, computer-like,
    to do little more than calculate their own bottom line) is that their
    operation gets as close to automatic as possible.  We can mentally coast
    along with them.  (This has to do with the moral passivity I mentioned
    When, on the other hand, we begin to ask questions such as "What social
    values do we want our products to embody?", things become much less neat.
    We have to wrestle with ambiguity, meaning, value.  It's much easier to
    stick with the automatic, clear-cut, precise, and unproblematic terms of
    abstraction — which can also be taken as the defining terms of
    So:  you and I are, of course, free to define "technology" as we wish.
    But if we use your definition, then I want to say that I have no problem
    with some "technologies" — for example, Hamlet.  My problem is with
    those creations that represent the powerfully one-sided influence of our
    dominant abstracting tendencies — the creations arising from the kind
    of stance that says, "Its are bits".  This is a stance that loses us the
    world.  As Max Frisch remarked, technology is the knack of so arranging
    the world that we don't have to experience it.
    If we want a real world to experience, we need qualities — we need to
    find our way from bits back to its.  My worry is not about technology as
    such, but rather our willingness to accept its invitation to enter a
    bitworld without retaining an adequate, counterbalancing foothold in the
    world of qualities.  We are crazy not to retain this foothold,
    since the bitworld is in any case always parasitic upon the qualitative
    presences from which it has been abstracted.
    KK:  There is the old saw about a chicken just being the egg's way to make
    another egg.  The reason we find any humor in that classic is because it's
    true to a large extant.  Richard Dawkins extended that insight in his
    theory of the selfish gene.  His notion was that a chicken is just the
    gene's way of making more genes.  By his perspective everything is
    explained by genes.  In other words he looked at the world from the point
    of view of genes.  At one level it is true that organisms simply exist to
    replicate genes, but at many other levels it ain't so.  Living organisms
    have many other "qualities" (as you might say) that have nothing to do
    with the logic of genes.
    Most of the people I know, including Dawkins, are perfectly capable of
    looking at a chicken in a number of ways.  They can see it as a glorious
    domesticated jungle fowl, or as someone's favorite pet, or an egg machine,
    or as an amazing social animal, or as sack of flesh carrying genes.  Their
    view shifts according to their interest or need.
    But the amazing thing about Dawkins' view — which might be called the
    bit-stance in biology — is that it is an extremely productive view.
    When you put on the selfish gene rose-colored glasses, you see the world
    anew.  Looking at the universe in the way a gene might view it uncovers
    aspects about biology and evolution you would have never discovered any
    other way.  It is totally crazy, as you say, to have only the view that
    biology is nothing but replicating bits, except, sometimes, when it is
    totally brilliant.
    As we both agree, the bit-stance is in ascendence throughout our culture.
    When new and productive stances come along we go overboard in exploring
    them.  We are like kids with a new periscope; we use it to look at
    everything, and through it everything looks new.  Over time we'll see that
    a lot of what we saw via the bit-stance was simply amusing and not
    important, or that it was distorted, or that it was a distraction.  But
    some other discoveries with this new metaphor and perspective will be
    valuable and unique.  We won't know which is which until later —
    that's what exploring means.
    If the bit-stance was the ONLY view available all the time, I would be
    worried like you.  But while it is critical to fully immerse oneself into
    the view at the moment of looking (or else the view doesn't work), I find
    that people have multiple stances.  They can look at their kids and see
    machines that metabolize starch, or they see a beautiful son or daughter,
    and somewhat at the same time.
    Let's take us for examples.  You understand scientific logic, precise
    abstractions, the dynamics of bits, and yet you can see the world in its
    values and meaningfulness.  I too can see that a chicken is nothing but
    tissue holding selfish genes, but I also see it as the trickster being who
    snuck out of the heavenly zodiac to boast in the morning dawn.  We don't
    have much trouble zipping back and forth.
    I think what worries you is a belief that this new stance, this
    perspective which features abstractions, which is powered by technological
    advances, is the lazy way.  It is a bad habit, something we will become
    addicted to, unless we shape up.  Therefore we need to heroically struggle
    against it (like Odysseus!) to find meaning.  Each new technology is yet
    another temptation pulling us off the straight and narrow path to meaning.
    The proper life in this modern world is to resist the easy passive path,
    where we see chickens as genes, the countryside as maps, and the brain as
    a computer.  Odysseus was a man untroubled by these temptations.  Danny
    Hillis, on the other hand, was mired in the bit-stance.
    I think it's  almost the other way around.  Odysseus, I believe, could
    only see the world as full of meaning, as a play of values, as
    ambiguities.  On the other hand, Danny Hillis (who is us) can both see the
    word in ambiguity AND in precise, bit-laced, abstract glory.  We hold
    these views and others in our minds with ease.  I think we benefit greatly
    from the view that technology has brought us.  We gain because it is a
    productive new view, and because we have it in addition to all the other
    views of the past.
    I agree with you that if we gave up all other views of the world for
    technology's view, we'd be in sorry shape.  But I disagree with you that
    this view is inferior, parasitic, corrupting, or narcotic.  The bit-stance
    is another view, another choice, another good.
    You use it and you're wonderful.
    ST:  Remember, I'm not saying that the technological (abstracting)
    function of our minds is inferior and corrupting, but only that it is
    unhealthy when given one-sided rein — when, that is, we ignore the
    world of quality and meaning from which we do the abstracting.
    You've offered the perfect illustration.  Those who promote the selfish-
    gene business have lost (at least from their theorizing) all qualitative
    appreciation for the organism, and therefore their theorizing is just
    plain wrongheaded, not to mention dangerous.  There is no level at
    which the understanding of genes as selfish is "totally brilliant".  The
    gene no more wields the chicken in order to make more genes than the liver
    wields the chicken to make more livers.  The erroneous thought here
    clearly derives from machine thinking: the parts of a machine can indeed
    be arranged in this clear-cut, controller-"controllee" relationship, but
    the parts of an organism cannot.
    The fact is that our DNA is not a kind of computer program calculating our
    traits.  There's an irreducible wholeness to the cell and organism so
    that, in the words of my Nature Institute colleague, Craig Holdrege, "the
    organism determines its genes far more than genes determine the organism".
    This is now becoming much more widely recognized.
    So it's not that we can combine the selfish-gene view with other views to
    arrive at a healthy balance.  Taken seriously, the selfish-gene view
    denies the integral, qualitative, and governing unity of the organism.
    That's the way it is with the bit-stance when one-sidedly pursued:  it
    leaves so much of the whole out of its abstractions that it quickly leads
    to "understandings" that are highly illusory.
    The reigning notion of the gene arises from an illicit concretization of
    mathematics.  In the classic genetic experiment you cross, for example, a
    white-flowered pea with a violet-flowered pea, resulting in a first hybrid
    generation with all violet flowers.  If you allow these in turn to self-
    pollinate, the second generation will have (approximately) 75 percent
    violet flowers and 25 percent white.
    But you can obtain these neat, statistical relations only by restricting
    your attention to a relatively few ("Mendelian") traits and, even in these
    special cases, by dismissing the observed, qualitative differences between
    occurrences of the "same" trait.  (Not all violet flowers are exactly the
    same violet color.  Ignoring this allows you to obtain your simple
    statistical relations.)
    Once these appealing mathematical relations were abstracted away from the
    complex, full-fleshed reality of the organism, it became all too natural
    to hypothesize a few simple and general mechanisms to account for the
    numbers.  In essence, the abstract and highly selective numbers were
    reified — that is, projected back onto the organism from which they
    were derived, but now in the hopelessly simplistic form of perfect little
    algorithmic mechanisms of the sort that can so easily be correlated with
    unambiguous mathematical results.  (The history here is laid out in
    Holdrege's book, Genetics and the Manipulation of Life.)
    Thus was born the prevailing notion of genes and chromosomes — the
    notion that more recently shows every sign of falling apart.  It's a good
    example of how a technological mindset tends to falsify our understanding
    of the world.
    KK:  Your argument above is not an argument against the selfish-gene
    alone, but against the abstraction of reductionism.  Science reduces
    complex "irreducible" processes to simplified mathematical equations or
    notions in order to understand them.  In a very profound sense,
    reductionism is the core of science — reducing complex phenomenon to
    a few variables at a time, which can be observed and tested.  Scientists
    themselves would be the first to acknowledge that the reduced version does
    not capture the full essence of the whole and may at times even
    misrepresent it.  But it is a tool, a wonderful and brilliant tool.  It
    allows us to grasp and use the complexity of reality.  All that science
    has brought — antibiotics, airplanes, inexpensive color dyes, just to
    start a list, and yes, all the bad stuff too — have all come about
    because of our skill at reducing things to abstract simplifications.
    If you would like to dismiss reductionism in any form, and to throw out
    all that it has generated for us, this conversation won't be large enough;
    we'll have to start over, because reducing things to abstractions is the
    normal tack for almost every intellectual stance I know of, except one:
    the mystical stance.  The mystic, almost by definition, embraces the
    whole, with all its paradoxes and contradictions and cross-logics.
    I have absolutely no argument with the mystic view.  In fact I encourage
    it.  The view of the whole is glorious, compassionate, and vital.  A
    mystic would say the reductionist view is partial and limiting —
    which it is.  But these partials views are valid.  They are useful, which
    is why we continue to use them even though the mystical view is so
    Does the mystical view get closer to the "reality" of reality?  I don't
    think so.  I believe that a view of life that does not include the
    mystical whole view is not very real, but any view of life that does not
    also contain the reductionist view is as likewise unreal — a bit of
    poetry — and misses much of what reality has to offer.
    I may be in the minority, but in my eyes a true mystic would be able to
    see the world from the selfish gene point of view and find a hen
    controlled by numerated chromosomes as marvelous as seeing the chicken as
    an earthly gift.  Both the myopic scientist who claims to witness only
    mathematical genes, and the robust mystic who sees only the whole
    organism, both are blind to the full beauty of reality.
    ST:  Hey, Kevin, we really are having difficulty connecting!  Maybe this
    will help:
    First, I have no interest in mysticism.  I want a proper and scientific
    Second, I am not objecting to the practice of isolating one or two
    variables while holding other things constant.  Nor in general am I
    objecting to limited views of things.  (All views are limited.)  But I
    am saying that much of contemporary science, having lost sight of
    the limitations of its technological mindset, has therefore been led into
    dangerous error.
    Third, and more specifically, my objection to the "genes cause traits"
    theory was not merely that it is reductionist but that it is mostly false.
    Either genes cause traits or they don't, and the answer is that they
    don't.  Nearly every biologist nowadays will, when pressed, tell
    you they don't.  But the way of thinking as if they did has been so
    deep-rooted that it continues to govern not only the public's thinking but
    also that of many scientists.  No scientist, reductionist or otherwise,
    should want falsehood.
    Today I saw a news report about the first cloned cat.  The "original" was
    a black, orange, and white calico; the "copy" turned out to be a black and
    white tabby.  The report (in Newsweek) duly notes the puzzlement of
    scientists, adding by way of partial explanation that
       coat-color patterns aren't controlled solely by DNA.  Neither is an
       animal's personality, meaning that an affectionate cat could give rise
       to an aloof feline.
    So much for cloning your pet.  If the author had gone on to try to tell us
    what traits are "controlled solely by DNA", he might have stumbled
    into a real public service.  But I guess that's still too much to ask.
    Certainly genes are among the conditions bound up with traits.  But when
    you start exploring all the relevant conditions, you find that the
    performance of the genes is as likely to be the "result" of the other
    conditions as to be their "cause".  And you find that your search for
    conditions inevitably leads you to the organism as a whole.
    Fourth, nothing prevents us from developing an ever more complete picture
    of these complex relationships and of the organism as a whole.  There's
    nothing at all mystical about this, and abstract, reductionist
    simplification may possibly play a transient role.  But, crucially, we
    must continually bring reality to bear upon the simplification as a
    corrective, rather than allowing the simplification to "correct" (that is,
    falsify) reality.  Unfortunately, abstract simplifications running amok
    are dominant in much of science today.
    Finally, there's one point at which your and my thinking seems to
    converge.  You write that scientific reduction
       allows us to grasp and use the complexity of reality.  All that science
       has brought — antibiotics, airplanes, inexpensive color dyes ...
       and yes, all the bad stuff too — have all come about because of
       our skill at reducing things to abstract simplifications.
    That's what it usually comes down to, isn't it?  Science works!  It
    produces endless wonders.  I myself am in continual awe of them.  We
    need to produce things that work.  The only oddity is that we
    should by degrees have come to equate our inventive ability with an
    adequate understanding of the world.
    Science gives us things that work because that is the one thing its method
    insists on.  It is a method for making things that work.  The
    understanding it sponsors is the understanding implicit in making;
    everything else drops out of the picture.  This lowering of the aim of
    science is why the line between scientist and commercial entrepreneur is
    breaking down.  It is also why the old distinctions between pure and
    applied science, and between scientist and engineer, are losing their
    force.  (How many scientists today bridle at the "genetic engineer"
    label?)  Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues approvingly that biology as a
    whole "is not just like engineering; it is engineering.  It is the study
    of functional mechanisms, their design, construction, and operation".
    But most scientists continue to believe they hold the keys, not merely to
    endless construction of clever things and successful IPOs, but to an
    understanding of the world.  Their confidence, combined with failure to
    recognize the limitations in their method, yields a systematic blindness.
    So perhaps we can agree on this:  the technological mind substitutes
    making for understanding.  In other words, it strives for blind power.
    KK:  You bring up the case of causality in genes.  Do genes cause traits?
    Causality is a contentious word.  There are entire philosophical libraries
    on the subject.  Can we say that anything causes anything?  In a strict
    sense no, since causality in most cases is not a chain, or a ladder with a
    prime elemental cause, but a field, a web of interacting and at times
    self-causing factors.  It is absolutely clear that genes alone are not
    responsible for an organism's shape, form, behavior or being.  It is also
    absolutely clear that without genes, or with different genes, all these
    things are altered to varying extent.  The entire debate is to what
    I can only repeat that the stance of viewing the organism as being caused
    by genes only, while obviously limited and "wrong," is a useful device of
    reductionism and a way of investigating the extent to which organisms ARE
    shaped by genes.  Sure, we all want to have a more wholistic view of an
    organism.  One way to get there is to see how far (or short) genes will
    take you, and move on from what that teaches us.
    Another path is to say genes don't really matter much and ignore them;
    that way is ignorant and won't get to holism.
    But I'd like to address your main concern, which is your worry that
    science has become engineering, and that we have soiled our souls because
    we insist on investigating the world by making things — things that
    are often more powerful than us (whether it be gas engines or artificial
    As usual, while you worry, I celebrate.  I think that this urge to address
    the world by creating things is a holy stance (we are made in the model of
    a creator who creates), and that we have divine work to do to explore
    creation by making new things and new tools.  I'd like to close this round
    of our conversation by pointing to something I wrote 4 years ago, a piece
    commissioned by Science magazine for their 100th anniversary.
    The essay, "The Third Culture"
    (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/279/5353/992) is a rough draft
    of the new way of thinking which technology has created.  The main gist is
    that while humanists and artists explore our creation by expression,
    scientists explore it by observation and experiment, while nerds explore
    creation by re-making it.  For example, to explore reality, artists will
    examine their own and other experiences of reality and write, paint, dance
    about it; scientists will probe reality and subject it to experiments;
    technologists, on the other hand, will try to make virtual and synthetic
    realities.  They seek truth by making new tools.  While you will probably
    be horrified by this stance, I believe that this style of thinking will
    invigorate us as humans, and bring us closer to our souls.
    Go to the next installment of this dialogue"
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                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
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    will feature addresses by NetFuture columnist, Langdon Winner, along with
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    emeritus of nutrition and education at Teachers College, has authored
    This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, among other
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    The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Spiritual
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    For more information, please contact: The Center for Educational Outreach
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #130 :: April 2, 2002
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