Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #163                                                    May 13, 2005
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Editor's Note

Quotes and Provocations
   Mystery Inheritance
   Practical Reductionism
   The Barren Global Vision of Thomas Friedman


About this newsletter


                              EDITOR'S NOTE

The essay, "Logic, DNA, and Poetry" from NetFuture #160 has been published
in The New Atlantis (spring, 2005).  You'll find this always
interesting journal at


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                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Mystery Inheritance

A recent finding reported in Nature (March 24) has elicited
exclamations from geneticists worldwide:  "marvelous", "spectacular",
"unprecedented", "a really strange and unexpected result".  "Something
weird is definitely going on", adds Gerald Fink, a professor of genetics
at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

The finding (as biologists are currently conceptualizing it) is that
plants can somehow gain access to and employ information derived from
their ancestors -- information that has completely disappeared from the
genomes of their parents.  They use this information to correct "errors",
or mutations, in the genes they receive from their parents.

"We think this demonstrates that there's this parallel path of inheritance
that we've overlooked for 100 years, and that's pretty cool", remarked
Robert Pruitt, the botany professor who oversaw the study.  Another member
of the research team, Susan Lolle, noted that the work "adds a level of
biological complexity and flexibility we hadn't appreciated".  And, in the
words of geneticist Fink, "This gives the lie to the idea that you know
everything once you sequence the genome.  You don't".

Citing the ongoing series of revelations that have disturbed the reigning
notions in genetics, Pruitt comments that "biologists have gotten used to
the unexpected".  So we can hope.  Geneticist Elliott Meyerowitz, noting
various discoveries that have modified traditional Mendelian genetics,
reminds us that "There are different sorts of scientists.  Some like to
ignore the exceptions, and others like to concentrate on them".

Of course, exceptions are only exceptions when viewed from a faulty and
limited viewpoint.  The tendency to refer to an ever-larger collection of
genetic discoveries as "exceptions" -- all of them pointing to the need
for a less mechanistic, more organic understanding of heredity -- suggests
that there is still great resistance to any such understanding.

Related Articles

"Logic, DNA, and Poetry" in NF #160:

"Genes Are Not Immune to Context", by Craig Holdrege, In Context #12:

Practical Reductionism

James Liao, a professor of chemical engineering at UCLA, manipulated the
"genetic control loop" of a bacterial gene, after which the cell glowed
whenever the gene was "turned on".  Moreover, Liao contrived cells that
glowed in rhythmic fashion, and he developed a way to make them glow more
brightly on command.  All this just in order to see what he could do.

"The glowing is totally artificial", Liao proudly explained.  "The idea
was to ask ourselves whether we can design something that makes the cell
behave in a complicated fashion.  To carry the idea further, electronics
engineers can design anything -- no one is surprised by the developments
in the silicon world anymore.  The challenge is to approach that direction
in biological systems.  Eventually we want to be able to manipulate DNA
just as we manipulate electronics.  Designing bacteria is the early
beginning, and as we do more and more complex things we can go on to

Sad to say, Liao's work scarcely stands out within the vast industry now
busily suborning life to the mechanistic designs of humans.  There is
nothing to prevent this.  If, to take a different example, you want to
hook a single muscle cell up to a computer chip so that the cell contracts
every time you send an appropriate signal to the chip, you can do it,
thereby creating a super-tiny, digitally integrated motor.  (You won't be
the first to pull off the feat.)  Work hard enough at isolating the
elements of life from their living contexts and at constraining them by
machinery, and you will progressively fulfill your vision of a mechanistic

In the end, we will shape the world to our preferred understanding of it.
This work is now proceeding at a pace running almost beyond imagination.

Contrivances such as Liao's -- unlike cloning, stem cell research, and
genetically engineered foods -- produce no public outcry.  But we will
sooner or later find that there is no Maginot Line whereby to protect some
life while disregarding all the rest.  We cannot insulate the human being
from the tidal wave of "progress" in mechanizing the various elements of

The Barren Global Vision of Thomas Friedman

In the April 3 New York Times Magazine Thomas Friedman sketches an
arresting picture of the seemingly unstoppable forces driving
globalization.  His wake-up call came while he was in India, interviewing
entrepreneurs "who wanted to prepare my taxes from Bangalore, read my X-
rays from Bangalore, trace my lost luggage from Bangalore and write my new
software from Bangalore".  During his visit to the subcontinent, Friedman
became upset with himself for having been so preoccupied with the "9/11
wars" that he had missed the crucial new phase of globalization.

   I guess the eureka moment came on a visit to the campus of Infosys
   Technologies, one of the crown jewels of the Indian outsourcing and
   software industry.  Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys CEO, was showing me
   his global video-conference room, pointing with pride to a wall-size
   flat-screen TV, which he said was the biggest in Asia.  Infosys, he
   explained, could hold a virtual meeting of the key players from its
   entire global supply chain for any project at any time on that
   supersize screen.  So its American designers could be on the screen
   speaking with their Indian software writers and their Asian
   manufacturers all at once.  That's what globalization is all about
   today, Nilekani said.  Above the screen there were eight clocks that
   pretty well summed up the Infosys workday: 24/7/365.  The clocks were
   labeled U.S. West, U.S. East, G.M.T., India, Singapore, Hong Kong,
   Japan, Australia.

A remarkable conjunction of events made the new shape of things possible.
One, says Friedman, was the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This gave us a
one-world imagination -- and did do so at precisely the time when
Microsoft Windows 3.0 was offering the world a unified, global computer
interface.  Then, during the 1990s dot-com boom and bubble we saw massive
over-investment in digital communication infrastructure, providing
unprecedented, cheap connectivity the world over.

Before this, according to Wall Street hedge-fund manager, Dinakar Singh,
"India had no resources and no infrastructure.  It produced people with
quality and [in] quantity.  But many of them rotted on the docks of India
like vegetables.  Only a relatively few could get on ships and get out.
Not anymore, because we built this ocean crosser, called fiber-optic
cable.  For decades you had to leave India to be a professional.  Now you
can plug into the world from India".

And so, Friedman summarizes, these political and technological changes
presented us with three billion people, previously out of the game, who
now "walked, and often ran, onto the playing field".  They did so at the
very time when the playing field was being leveled -- "right when millions
of them could compete and collaborate more equally, more horizontally and
with cheaper and more readily available tools".

The Indian CEO had used that phrase -- "the playing field is being
leveled" -- and Friedman was captivated by it:

   What Nandan was saying," I thought, "is that the playing field is being
   flattened.  Flattened?  Flattened?  My God, he's telling me the world
   is flat!"

   Here I was in Bangalore -- more than 500 years after Columbus sailed
   over the horizon, looking for a shorter route to India ... and one of
   India's smartest engineers, trained at his country's top technical
   institute and backed by the most modern technologies of his day, was
   telling me that the world was flat, as flat as that screen on which he
   can host a meeting of his whole global supply chain.  Even more
   interesting, he was citing this development as a new milestone in human
   progress and a great opportunity for India and the world -- the fact
   that we had made our world flat!

Actually, Friedman was more than captivated by this idea.  He was taken
captive by it.  This is why he invests such rhetorical energy in the
empty, purely verbal comparison between the peculiar flattening power of
globalization and the old, cosmological notion of a flat world.  The only
relevant fact in all this is that he seems unable to rise above the barren
flatness of his own vision.

I am sure that nearly all readers of NetFuture have experienced some of
the opportunities presented by the emerging global order.  I, personally,
have founded a significant part of my life upon these opportunities.  I
would be the last person to suggest that Indians -- or Afghans or Zambians
-- should be denied access to the tools of the digital age.  A certain
leveling of the global scene is an inescapable consequence of human
development in our age.

But something else should not be all that hard to see.  If we cannot
withstand the great flattening, if we cannot, with part of ourselves, move
counter to the prevailing trends Friedman celebrates -- trends that would
level and destroy all distinctions between groups -- then we will find
ourselves trampled down by the greatest tyranny of all:  a distributed,
digitally confining tyranny that conceals from the human spirit its own,
ever-unique powers of expression.

After all, a leveling or flattening, by itself, suggests that no group
will be able to sustain its own distinctive character.  To gain such
character is unavoidably to stand apart, thereby possessing certain
advantages and perhaps also disadvantages relative to others.  It is to
create a conceptual and expressive distance between yourself and others --
a distance that makes possible new creative harmonies and dissonances, but
in doing so also makes communication and connectivity more of a challenge,
not less.

Communication in such a healthily diverse community always requires an
inner effort, an overcoming of ourselves -- precisely because our selves and
those other selves have gained independent substance.  To aim for nothing
but perfect flattening and perfect, frictionless communication -- and so
far as I can see, Friedman acknowledges no other ideals in his article --
is to aim for the disappearance of both individual and community in favor
of a smoothly functioning logic machine.

Don't we already see how his ideals are contributing to the dissolution of
the American family, without offering any new and positive vision?  Many
families, with their cell and picture phones, beepers, computers and
laptops, instant messaging devices, multiple automobiles, and parental or
commercial shuttling services, are better connected than the executives in
that Asian videoconferencing center.  And yet, a psychologist writing
about the shootings at Red Lake High School in Minnesota finds it natural
to refer to "the fundamental communication breakdown in families".

Mark Lerner, who is president of the American Academy of Experts in
Traumatic Stress, sees the breakdown as resulting from an increasingly
digital and mechanized world.  "We are spending less time communicating,
teaching and modeling appropriate behavior with our children", he writes,
"and we are losing the battle to the proliferation of electronic media".
After citing the often violent and pervasive presence of television, video
games, and chat room banter in children's lives, he adds this:

   We used to know where our children went when they left our homes.
   Today, we don't know where they are when they are in their bedrooms.

The result is that "children lack interpersonal communication, coping and
problem-solving skills to meet the challenge of our new world".  Angry
behavior, drug use, and suicide follow all too naturally.

So here we have someone telling us about a tragic, society-wide breakdown
of effective communication within the family, while Friedman is cheering
the unprecedented collapse of all barriers to communication throughout our
own and other parts of the world.  On the one hand:  "we are the most
connected civilization in the history of the world".  On the other hand:
"we are suffering a breakdown in communication precisely where the
barriers are lowest and where we might have expected intimate, mutual
understanding to be greatest -- in the family".

Indisputably -- and regardless of your take on Lerner's reading of the
family -- it's one thing to be caught up by the tools and forms of
communication, and quite another to enter meaningfully, with communicative
effectiveness, into the life of another person.  But this distinction
never troubles Friedman's two-dimensional dreams.

The problem with Friedman's stance is not that he has failed to finger
very real and powerful forces in the contemporary world, but only that he
seems unable to imagine any way of engaging these forces except by
yielding to them.  He makes no effort to view the world along dimensions
that would threaten the rhetorical neatness of his flat metaphor.

Part of the appeal of the globalized and leveled playing field for
Friedman is that (in the words of the Indian CEO) it "created a platform
where intellectual work, intellectual capital, could be delivered from
anywhere.  It could be disaggregated, delivered, distributed, produced and
put back together again -- and this gave a whole new degree of freedom to
the way we do work".

Here you find the spirit of analysis and fragmentation that has for so
long ruled in science, but now penetrating and re-shaping the workaday
world.  Yes, increasingly our work can be disaggregated and put back
together again in this way -- because more and more we are redefining the
products of our work in terms that readily suffer this kind of violence.
But no symphony, no sculpture -- and no commercial product invested with
the kind of artistic, spiritually elevating value humanity so desperately
needs -- could quite so easily be produced in this fragmented manner.

More broadly:  there's a social art (or artlessness) represented in every
product.  One requirement for a globalization conceived one-sidedly as a
flattening is that we consumers must lose sight of this entire realm of
value.  When I have learned to assess goods in terms of price alone, I can
conveniently forget, for example, that the higher-priced, organic food at
my local farm store embodies a way of dealing with land, animals, and
people that thankfully is not at all on a level playing field with most of
the items in the local supermarket.  It has risen far above the field.  I
have spent many years watching my local community struggle to scale and
inhabit these particular heights, achieving values that few other
communities could offer me.  This is why I am not eager to see the
landscape flattened with a quantitative bulldozer.

I do not need to praise everything about the local farm store or condemn
everything about California's Imperial Valley in order to become conscious
of whatever the differences happen to be.  This is a necessarily
qualitative consciousness, which can be represented only as a third
dimension above (and below) Friedman's flat world.

This third dimension has fallen clean out of sight when Netscape founder,
Marc Andreessen, is quoted as saying, "Today, the most profound thing to
me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet
Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software
easily available to apply knowledge however they want .... at some point
you will be able to design vaccines on your laptop".

Someone should ask what it means to flatten the world down to the point
where all the challenges of knowledge application can be conceived to rise
little higher than the capabilities of a 14-year-old.  What has become of
our understanding of work when we can imagine it so routine, so automatic,
so independent of life experience and long-accumulating wisdom?

This question can hardly be separated from another one: why must we now
dedicate massive and costly high-tech work forces in private corporations
and public law enforcement agencies to preventing the disruption of the
global workplace by the malicious play of 14-year-olds?  This battle, too,
takes place on a wonderfully leveled playing field, so that we now face an
endless arms race between 14-year-old equivalents on opposite sides of the
turf.  It will not be otherwise until we as a society somehow find our way
toward values and institutions, toward community and social structures,
that can originate only in the uplands of human insight and imaginative

These uplands can never be scaled by mere computational processing power.
Not that Microsoft had any such high-minded aims when it sent teams to
Chinese universities "to administer I.Q. tests in order to recruit the
best brains from China's 1.3 billion people".  Of the top 2000 engineering
and science students, Friedman reports, Microsoft hired 20 -- explaining
why Microsoft's Asian research center "is already the most productive
research team at Microsoft".

The high-tech giant doubtless thought of itself as buying, through those
20 hires, the maximum amount of processing power.  And, in Flatland, that
is indeed what counts, because the competition there is a competition
between corporate machines.  Certainly we can have it that way if we wish.

But the strange thing is that Friedman takes all this to mean that
"hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less
within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration".
He believes that we have gone from a world where we faced competitors
practicing "extreme communism" to one where they practice "extreme
capitalism", and this means they are no longer trying to build a "strong
state" but rather to build "strong individuals".

One fears that rhetorical convenience has again run away with Friedman.
We can certainly hope for the emergence of strong individuals -- and for
their necessary correlative, strong, vibrant communities.  But if these do
arise, they will arise; they will never be found in Flatland.  In the
long run, no one will be found there.  People whose value to company and
society is measured in terms of I.Q. and processing power will become
either slaves or tyrants, and the relations between them, like all
relations of power, will operate vertically.  In the end, playing the role
of bits in a global digital computation will not prove much different from
being a cog in an old-style, industrial machine.

Couldn't Friedman at least have asked himself:  given the scale of values
at work in his flat world, how will those elite hires of Microsoft
"collaborate horizontally" with the 97 percent of the world's population
suffering from "inferior" I.Q.s?  And if such collaboration is not part of
the picture, how will the world remain flat?

When it comes to prescribing a successful future for America, Friedman's
vision does not improve.  He worries about the forces "eating away at
America's scientific and engineering base".  He laments the "ambition gap"
that suggests "Americans have gotten too lazy".  And he quotes Bill Gates,
who is "terrified for our work force of tomorrow":

   In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in
   the world.  By eighth grade, they're in the middle of the pack.  By
   12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all
   industrialized nations.

Maybe Friedman and Gates should ask themselves whether a flattened
landscape might be the perfect explanation for both loss of ambition and
an academic performance that declines with a student's age.  Where are the
high, visionary goals capable of inspiring young people and capturing
their imaginations?  Where do we invite competition among Flatlanders for
anything other than commercial power and the political power that goes
with it?  Why shouldn't students simply bow out of this game as soon as
they become old enough to recognize its vacuity?

Friedman concludes by saying, "It takes 15 years to train a good engineer,
because, ladies and gentlemen, this really is rocket science.  So parents,
throw away the Game Boy, turn off the television and get your kids to
work.  There is no sugar-coating this:  in a flat world, every individual
is going to have to run a little faster if he or she wants to advance his
or her standard of living".

Well, Mr. Friedman, don't you realize that the Game Boy and TV are prime
manifestations of the very processing power you want to cultivate in these
kids?  Do you really expect young people to put their energies into the
mind-numbing (and sometimes degrading) job of programming such devices
without themselves becoming desperately dependent upon the empty-caloried
stimulation of the products they are producing?  Instead of running faster
to raise our standard of living, maybe we need to slow down and consider
what sort of standards we want to live by.

Friedman seems to recognize only one sort of standard, just as he
recognizes only one sort of genius:  "Only 30 years ago, if you had a
choice of being born a B student in Boston or a genius in Bangalore or
Beijing, you probably would have chosen Boston, because a genius in
Beijing or Bangalore could not really take advantage of his or her talent.
They could not plug and play globally".

It's true that a programmer would have been at a disadvantage in Bangalore
a few decades ago, and we can be glad for the programmer's sake that this
has changed.  It's also true that nations such as India have witnessed
untold amounts of human misery over the past couple of centuries.  But by
almost all accounts this is due at least in part to the consequences of
previous phases of the industrial and technical revolution.  Alleviation
of the misery will depend upon a great deal more than technical
fleet-footedness.  Other sorts of genius are required as well.  Gandhi was
a genius, and if we are now convinced that technical cleverness is all
that matters -- if we lose our ability to unplug morally and spiritually
from the tyrannizing necessities of the Flatland to which Friedman would
chain us -- it may then happen that no number of Gandhis can free us.

(Friedman's article was adapted from a new book, The World Is Flat: A
Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.  We can hope that the
article is less than fairly representative of the book.  But to judge from
the PR and the book excerpts I've seen so far, this is probably a vain

Related Articles

See the articles listed under "Global village" and "Business and
capitalism" in the NetFuture topical index:


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