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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #134                                                   July 18, 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
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    Quotes and Provocations
       Does Television Cause Violent Behavior?  Wrong Question.
    Technology, Alienation, and Freedom (Stephen L. Talbott)
       On the virtues of abstraction
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Does Television Cause Violent Behavior?  Wrong Question.
    The news will stimulate little change, but should be mentioned anyway.
    A seventeen-year study of 707 individuals, published in Science magazine
    (March 29, 2002), concluded that
       There was a significant association between the amount of time spent
       watching television during adolescence and early adulthood and the
       likelihood of subsequent aggressive acts against others.
    The study was controlled statistically to account for previous aggressive
    behavior, childhood neglect, family income, neighborhood violence,
    parental education, and psychiatric disorders.  A commentary accompanying
    the report in Science noted that the results contradict "the common
    assumption that media violence affects only children".
    That same commentary (authored by Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman) cites
    the long-accumulating evidence for a link between televised violence and
    aggressive behavior in children, and then goes on:
       Despite the consensus among experts, lay people do not seem to be
       getting the message from the popular press that media violence
       contributes to a more violent society.  We recently demonstrated that
       even as the scientific evidence linking media violence to aggression
       has accumulated, news reports about the effects of media violence have
       shifted to weaker statements, implying that there is little evidence
       for such effects.  This inaccurate reporting in the popular press may
       account for continuing controversy long after the debate should have
       been over, much as the cigarette smoking/cancer controversy persisted
       long after the scientific community knew that smoking causes cancer.
    Anderson and Bushman also point out that the weight of the evidence from
    all the available studies is not trivial.  The effects "are larger than
    the effects of calcium intake on bone mass or of lead exposure on IQ in
    children".  Moreover, "recent work demonstrates similar-sized effects of
    violent video games on aggression".
    All this is fine, but I do wish our society were less fixated on
    identifying causes and effects.  Admittedly, the articles in Science
    refer, quite properly, to an "association" between watching television and
    committing aggressive acts.  This is not a bald assertion of causality.
    But the larger culture scarcely knows how to think of these things except
    in terms of mechanical cause and effect, and Anderson and Bushman
    themselves encourage this bias when they speak of "effects" and tell us
    that smoking "causes" cancer.  Moreover, the researchers reporting the
    actual study in Science suggest that "a strong inference of causality"
    could be made if there turn out to be no other, uncontrolled variables to
    account for the associations they found between television and violence.
    But what does this mean?  We resort to the language of cause and effect
    when we are looking for "causal mechanisms" and want to be precise.  But,
    in the social sciences (at least), this language is always more or less
    misleading because such mechanisms are abstractions from fuller contexts
    in which everything connects organically to everything else.  That's why
    we end up having to use statistical methods, and it's all too easy to
    forget that such methods are radically incompatible with the usual picture
    of a causal mechanism.  (Think of gravity, or billiard balls bouncing off
    each other.)  What sort of cause produces its effect just eight percent or
    even just ninety-seven percent of the time?
    We'd be far better off simply noting that televised violence and childhood
    aggression both belong to the larger societal picture.  Then we could try
    to sketch this picture, its coherence and interrelationships, as richly
    and fully as possible.  We would certainly want to reckon with the kind of
    research reported in Science, but in using it responsibly we would find
    ourselves trying to understand the bearing of one part of the picture upon
    another as much in the manner of the artist as the scientist.  We would be
    less concerned with causes and effects than with subtly interpenetrating
    qualities and influences.
    Furthermore, we don't need causal mechanisms in order to make meaningful
    judgments about television.  We need only attend to the immediate
    qualities of the television experience itself.  If I choose to get rid
    of my television, it may very reasonably be because I recognize ill
    health in the noise, or in the gratuitous, arbitrary stimulation, or the
    encouragement of prurient, morbid, or vain interests, or the demoralizing
    vapidity, or the fragmented, incoherent nature of the content sequences,
    or the mind-numbingly rapid shift of images, or the commercialism, or,
    yes, the countless depictions of violence.  That is, I may recognize the
    unhealthy quality of my own experience, finding myself in a state of mind
    and mood and will that run counter to the hopes I have for the development
    of my own life and character.  I do not need to learn that this television
    exposure will "cause" me to do X somewhere down the line in order to
    recognize the various pathologies I am experiencing.  The ill health is in
    the present experience itself.  Nor do I need to believe that television
    "causes" this ill health.  If I were a different person, I would have
    different experiences.  It is enough to say, "For now I am what I am,
    and in my meeting with television I have such-and-such an experience.
    This is clearly unhealthy for me, and I choose to purge this particular
    influence from my life".  Others may, in all good faith, have reasons to
    decide differently.  But a half-intelligent and self-aware person with his
    eyes open to his surroundings hardly has room to deny that our society's
    meeting with television is, in general, grossly unhappy and unhealthy.
    In sum:  the human being is extraordinarily complex in an organic sense,
    and to say that certain experiences will "cause" me — or some
    percentage of a larger group — to do X is always problematic, and
    always subject to later reinterpretation.  Never believe it when you hear
    the point-blank statement that television "makes" children commit
    aggressive acts.  And never believe it when you hear that there is no good
    reason for many people to avoid, in general, a medium they find to be as
    unhealthy as contemporary television.
    We are all experts on the subject of television's qualities, having
    watched it for hundreds of thousands of hours, and the fact that we wait
    like sheep for scientific "proof" that television "causes" people to do
    this or that — instead of resorting to the clear testimony of our own
    experience — indicates something about how alienated we are from
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                                Stephen L. Talbott
    I have spoken a great deal over the years about the habits of abstraction
    that prevail in our machine-dominated age.  By "abstraction" I mean in
    part the impoverishment of our experience of the world.  We have tended to
    ignore the expressive, sensuous, qualitative aspects of the world in favor
    of the precise, measurable, efficiently manipulable aspects (which are
    also the mechanical aspects) that we abstract from the fuller reality.
    The result has been a kind of denaturing of nature, a reinterpretation of
    earth in terms of a succession of "machine states".  And our tendency to
    conceive these machine states ever more abstractly, in the manner of
    software, suggests an urge to abandon our own embodied existence.
    I've mentioned, for example (in NF #84), the chemist who, instead of
    synthesizing a few scores of new substances in a year, now synthesizes
    fifty or a hundred thousand new substances.  But these chemicals, produced
    in microscopic amounts and analyzed by sophisticated laboratory equipment,
    are not part of the chemist's sensible experience; they exist primarily as
    collections of data in computerized databases — databases that may
    "contain" millions of substances.  Our knowledge of the material earth is
    less and less a matter of direct experience and more and more a matter of
    instrument readings, calculation, and inference.
    Similarly, the farmer riding in a sealed tractor cab high off the ground,
    pulling GPS-controlled equipment whose software is doling out fertilizer
    to thousands of acres, is not exactly "living close to the land".  And
    then there is the neighboring farmer who raises chickens — each one
    de-beaked, doused in pesticides, restricted for life to a square foot or
    two of space, denied any fulfillment of its natural urges to explore,
    scratch, and peck.  This farmer has learned to tolerate such cruelty only
    because the animals are invisible to him.  They disappear behind the
    efficient balancing of abstract accounts having to do with factory inputs
    and outputs.
    And, again, I have noted how manufacturing plants have been disengaging
    the worker from the material being worked.  Software-controlled plasma
    guns shape metal quietly, smokelessly, out of sight.  As I once summarized
    the matter:
       So even our brutest working with material is becoming less brutely
       material today.  The abstract patterns in the computer program activate
       the plasma gun, which in turn reproduces the pattern in the metal
       itself — all without anyone, or even any machine, having to bang
       away in an unseemly manner.  We manipulate a few abstractions on a
       screen, and then hidden, precisely guided forces automatically
       reconfigure the stuff of the world — the metal is shaped, the DNA
       strand is cut, the chickens in their little boxes are fed, the bomb is
       dropped hundreds of miles away.
       There's wonderfully effective manipulation in all this — and
       almost no experience of what it is we're manipulating (or killing).
       Our lives are navigations within a web of abstractions.
    Finally, I have repeatedly emphasized how disastrous this abstraction and
    loss of the world can be for human affairs, even while noting that our
    abstracting abilities serve a high purpose for us.  But now, unlike on
    those earlier occasions, my primary aim is not to underscore the risks.
    Rather, it is to elucidate the high purpose.  First, however, I need to
    recapitulate, in the briefest fashion and with the broadest strokes, the
    historical movement toward abstraction.
    Mathematical Time
    Until the clock's invention in the thirteenth century, duration and rhythm
    had an organic character.  The lengths of day and night changed throughout
    the year, the farmer measured time relative to sowing and harvesting, and
    the rhythms of the human lungs and heart, which varied with mood and
    activity, helped to define the sense of time.
    But the clock, Lewis Mumford remarks, "dissociated time from human events
    and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically
    measurable sequences" (Mumford 1963, p. 15).  Today we eat, not when we
    are hungry, but when the meal is scheduled, and sleep, not when we are
    tired, but when bedtime arrives.  As Neil Postman puts it, "we have
    learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up
    of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded" (Postman
    1986, p. 11).
    So time becomes a uniform time-line of identical moments.  We are no
    longer bound in the same way by the tightly woven mesh of interrelated
    events, but stand outside the now-measurable succession of instants of
    time, observing them.  Instead of being carried along by the temporal
    momentum of things, we convert the moments of time into objective
    "resources" we can choose to use this way or that.  This encourages
    disengagement and detachment, with a consequent loss of meaning.  We do
    not live in the moment, participating in its qualities; we employ it.
    Mathematical Space
    Just as we gained a uniform, mathematical time, so also we gained a
    uniform, mathematical space.  The change is evident in the evolution of
    the artist's techniques.  Before the development of linear perspective
    during the Renaissance, space did not present itself to the artist
    independently of things; it was more like the qualitatively varying
    presence of things, and derived its local shape from them.  This plastic
    quality of space, evident in so many medieval paintings, typically appears
    highly confused to us.
    We still have a taste of this earlier condition when we consider the
    I-Thou space.  Here, too, distance is a plastic quantity, varying
    according to the nature and quality of our interactions.  Through eye
    contact across a large, crowded room I may suddenly find myself in the
    intimate presence of another person.  The space between us contracts.  Or,
    alternatively, this other person now establishes, and becomes the focus
    of, a much larger, more intense field of influence.
    But during the Renaissance and scientific revolution the space-defining
    qualities of things began to disappear in favor of a passive, uniform,
    container-like medium.  At the hands of the artist employing linear
       Space is created first, and then the solid objects of the pictured
       world are arranged within it in accordance with the rules which it
       dictates.  Space now contains the objects by which it was [formerly]
       created .... The result is an approximation to an infinite,
       mathematically homogeneous space.  (White 1972, pp. 123-24)
    Our experience of the world changed.  Things no longer reached out and
    grabbed us; they no longer defined an enveloping space through the force
    of their own qualities.  Now they sat there inertly, filling the
    regularity of space, not with their particular character, but solely by
    virtue of their mathematical dimensions.
    So you can see that, where once we were embedded within the natural course
    of events and within a spatial web of meaning, now we confront an
    objectified space and time "outside" ourselves, to which we feel no
    natural connection.  One name for this state is "alienation".  But, as we
    will see shortly, there is another name as well.
    Media and Communication
    Commenting on the fifteenth-century advent of the printing press, Mumford
       the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate
       and the local; ... print made a greater impression than actual events
       .... To exist was to exist in print:  the rest of the world tended
       gradually to become more shadowy.
    Much later, in the nineteenth century, the telegraph finally freed
    communicating human beings from the last constraints of physical
    transportation (Postman 1986).  Henceforth we could surf the frothy waves
    of a sea of decontextualized information bearing little relation to the
    people, communities, and places where we lived.  The television news, with
    its barrage of discordant, one-paragraph "stories", illustrates how our
    informational surround has become fragmented and incoherent, assaulting us
    with isolated and arbitrary snippets that are largely irrelevant to our
    lives.  We become spectators of the news rather than participants in it.
    But Wait a Minute
    In all these regards we see the human being wrenched loose from his
    organic connections to the surrounding world.  He seeks to live more and
    more in a realm of clean abstractions — intervals of clock time,
    locations on a map, bits of information — uncontaminated by the
    "messy" terms of material existence.
    Such, at least, is one way to picture our developing habits of abstraction
    and our evident will toward disembodiment.  It's a picture I myself have
    spent a great deal of energy elaborating — and with all the negative
    connotations contained in my description above.  The negative picture is
    justified because we have yet to recognize how the one-sidedness of the
    reigning tendencies — for example, our ignoring of the qualities of
    things and our single-minded insistence upon disengagement from our
    embodied existence in particular places and communities — threatens
    us with disaster.
    But, at the same time, we cannot overcome this one-sidedness without
    recognizing the positive potentials in our current situation.  Every one-
    sidedness is an opportunity for discovery of its complement.  And so here
    I would like to take what may be an unexpected turn.  I will celebrate
    abstraction and the technology that serves it.
    We Need a Little Distance
    Think of that fragmented television news again and ask yourself:  how
    could it be otherwise?  How could all this news be fully integrated into
    the immediacy, into the coherent pattern, of our lives?  On the one hand,
    we cannot help becoming citizens of the planet as a whole.  We must
    attend to what is going on elsewhere.  But, on the other hand, we cannot
    possibly sustain the same kind of concern, the same deep involvement, with
    all the poignant, life-shattering events in one hundred thousand different
    communities.  If we tried, we would be overwhelmed, and would then be
    useless even in the communities where we lived.
    So while we must strive toward a certain global awareness, it appears that
    the abstract distance we have put between ourselves and a lot of what goes
    on in the world is, to one degree or another, unavoidable.  One
    consequence of this distance is that we are free to choose our
    connections to the wider world, and to weave them into our own tapestries
    of meaning.  We no longer have a right to complain that coherence and
    meaning are not just given to us from our traditional social and
    natural surroundings.  The birth of the modern individual entails a
    responsibility to participate in the creation of meaning.
    And this, I am suggesting, is the crucial historical function of
    abstraction.  By its aid we have won our freedom.  Yes, as the human being
    gains independence from the world, he risks being shut up within the veil
    of his own distancing abstractions; but now he is also free from the
    coercion of the world.  When the meanings of things reach out and grab us;
    when we are so intimately bound to our surroundings that our reactions are
    dictated from outside; when what we must think about things is already
    given in our qualitatively overpowering perceptions of them — we are
    not free.
    An Interior Space for Play
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks about this unfree immediacy in relation to
    forceful gestures.  An angry or threatening gesture "does not make me
    think of anger, it is anger itself".  As David Abram elaborates:
       We do not first see [the gesture] as a blank behavior, which we then
       mentally associate with a particular content or significance; rather,
       the bodily gesture speaks directly to our own body, and is thereby
       understood without any interior reflection.  (Abram 1996, p. 74)
    This is true, and important.  But it is also true that the space for
    interior reflection and for alternative interpretations is precisely the
    space wherein we are free.  It is where the gesture itself does not compel
    our interpretive response.  ("Oh, I see.  She is angry, but in this case
    it is less her own anger than a calculated effort to protect her child
    from an aggressor".)  Of course, within this reflective space we can now
    think falsely about things in a way that was not possible in earlier
    times.  We can also concoct lies.  But the possibility of error and
    duplicity is part of what it means to be free.  The complementary
    possibility is continually to see the world from different perspectives,
    each with its own reality.
    Owen Barfield provides a nice image for this overall movement toward
    freedom when he talks about how we derived mathematics from the heavens,
    gained the independent ability to "play with" our equations (as the
    mathematicians often put it), and then learned to fit our mathematical
    creations back onto the heavens:
       Is it too fanciful to picture to ourselves how, drawn into the minds of
       a few men, the relative positions and movements of the stars gradually
       developed a more and more independent life there until, with the rise
       in Europe first of trigonometry and then of algebra, they detached
       themselves from the outside world altogether?  And then by a few great
       men like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, these abstract
       mathematics were re-fitted to the stars which had given them birth, and
       the result was that cosmogony of infinite spaces and a tiny earth in
       which our imaginations roam to-day?  (Barfield 1986, p. 130)
    And roam, I might add, with a degree of freedom.  Freedom to form new
    hypotheses, to see things from fresh, previously unimagined perspectives,
    and even to consider how we ourselves might contribute to the future
    evolution of things.
    From Chaos to Order
    The negative aspect of all this is the loss of any fully given, meaningful
    context for our lives -- the inevitable result of being wrenched free from
    our natural connections to our environment.  This lostness is hugely
    threatening today, as our rootless energies turn destructive.
    But it is crucial for us to glimpse another possibility in the situation.
    Where once our connections to the surrounding world were given to us
    automatically, now it has become our responsibility to discover and weave
    these connections from out of ourselves.  Yes, the daily news, the street
    commotion of a large city, the aisles of a supermarket, the endlessly
    rearranged cubicles of a typical corporate office, the advertising barrage
    greeting us from every cultural surface, the transient and disconnected
    images seen from the window of an automobile — all these assault us
    in hopelessly fragmented, decontextualized terms.  But, on analogy with
    the old myths of creation, perhaps we can also view this hodgepodge as the
    new "chaos" awaiting our own efforts at creative ordering.
    If time and space now confront us as abstract collections of uniform,
    mathematical elements, so that we rarely find ourselves fully entering
    into the moment or the place, nothing prevents us from re-inserting
    ourselves into both moment and place, but now consciously bringing a
    richness of meaning for which we ourselves are partly responsible.
    The task is not impossible.  I referred above to a "sea of information
    bearing little relation to the people, communities, and places where we
    live".  But this is only a first seeming.  Everywhere we look we can
    discover connections.  The greenhouse gases spewing from my automobile are
    not irrelevant to the hunter in Siberia, and the hunter's pursuit of one
    of the remaining snow leopards is not irrelevant to the richness of my
    life.  All things are connected; but now it is up to us to extract and
    highlight that particular web of connections that expresses the urgent
    and selfless necessity of our own lives.
    The Danger of Arbitrariness
    None of this implies we can weave our tapestries of meaning arbitrarily.
    We are, after all, ourselves an expression of nature, and our knowing, at
    its highest, is the world's knowing of itself.  In looking within
    ourselves for sources of meaning, we are also looking into the world's
    interior, and vice versa.  The "laws" or archetypes of nature exist both
    in the world and in our consciousness — and the two locuses are not
    the distinct places that our Cartesian habits of thought have made them
    out to be.  The very lawfulness and wisdom that fashioned our bodies from
    without is the same lawfulness and wisdom now modestly but increasingly
    accessible to us from within as it gathers (if we will cultivate and
    receive it) to a self-conscious focus in our understanding.
    Yet arbitrariness is the great risk today.  The question to ask
    about the burgeoning "virtual realities" in our midst is not, "Are they
    artificial?" (art and artifice are essential to human activity), but "Are
    they revelatory?  Is there profound truth in them?  Do we see in them a
    further and worthy working of the world's creative sources — are we
    learning to "make by the law in which we're made" (J. R. R. Tolkien)
    — or do we see instead a mere working out of the dead mechanical
    possibilities we have inscribed in our machines?
    Similarly, it is no bad thing to gain a new freedom to fashion our own
    identities in online contexts.  The question is whether we take the
    challenge seriously, or flee it in frivolous pretense.  It is one thing to
    affect a calm, self-collected manner in restricted, carefully chosen,
    perhaps anonymous electronic engagements, and quite another to overcome
    one's hot temper amid the pressures of family and work.  We have all
    gained a certain freedom to fashion our identities, but a more serious way
    to state this is:  we have a responsibility to work on our destinies.
    This is not mere fun and games; it is the toil, sweat, and sometimes the
    tears of a lifetime's struggle to survive and do something worthwhile
    — and if online activities (including playful ones) can serve our
    purposes, so much the better.  But we should understand:  to work toward
    an identity in any true sense is to stake the rest of one's life on this
    A Necessary Reversal
    The problem is that, while alienation, disconnection, and the technologies
    of abstraction may free us from the coercions of the world, they do not
    carry us beyond this negative accomplishment.  They leave us empty —
    free of constraint, but also deprived of any content with which to fill
    the void.
    More than this, the processes of abstraction, if not counterbalanced, will
    rapidly make us unfree in a more radical sense than we ever were before.
    I said above that we no longer live in the moment, participating in
    its qualities; rather, we seek to employ the moment as a resource.  This
    does free us, but unless we can find a way, with our freedom, to re-enter
    the moment in all its speaking depth, we will find ourselves not so much
    employing it as being employed by it.  Many of us today know something of
    this risk.
    Similarly, I spoke of that interior reflective space where we are free to
    form new hypotheses.  But if we cannot transcend our abstract and
    mechanistic habits of thought, we will lack the imagination to conceive
    profoundly new ways of viewing the world.
    Abstraction, alienation, and disconnection may have been prerequisites for
    our freedom, but they cannot fulfill the promise of this freedom.  If we
    have been cut off from the world's meaning, from its sensuous qualities
    and expressive presence, it remains for us to reap the benefit of this
    independence.  And this can only mean:  we must begin to reconnect with
    the world — but now with the initiative and center of gravity in the
    relationship shifted toward humanity.
    Another way of saying this is just to point out the obvious:  today,
    thanks to the various extremities our alienation from the world has gotten
    us into, we carry within ourselves a greater consciousness of the world's
    needs, and therefore a greater responsibility for tending to those needs.
    But we cannot do this except by re-engaging with the world, overcoming our
    entrenched habit of disengagement.  What this means is that our long
    history of "technologizing" the world, which has, happily, led us toward
    our current burden of responsibility, may now be the greatest obstacle to
    our fulfilling the responsibility.
    But if we recognize the obstacle and struggle to surmount it, we can
    remain grateful for the gift brought by the technologies of abstraction.
    To paraphrase Barfield (1965, pp. 185-86):  where Augustine, contemplating
    Adam and the Fall, was able to exclaim with grave profundity,
       Fortunate sin!
    we in our day may learn to exclaim, with equally grave profundity,
       Fortunate technology!
    And so long as we can do it in this spirit, I am happy to join in singing
    the praises of technology.
    Related article:
    "The Deceiving Virtues of Technology", in NF #125
    Abram, David (1996).  The Spell of the Sensuous.  New York: Random
    Barfield, Owen (1986).  History in English Words.  Hudson, NY:
    Lindisfarne Press.
    Barfield, Owen (1965).  Saving the Appearances.  New York:
    Harcourt, Brace and World.
    Mumford, Lewis (1963).  Technics and Civilization.  New York:
    Harcourt Brace.
    Postman, Neil (1986).  Amusing Ourselves to Death.  New York:
    White, John (1972).  The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space.  New
    York: Harper and Row.
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