Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue # 172            April 22, 2008
A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (

On the Web:
You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.

To read this issue on the web:

Editor's Note
Laying Bare the Unintended Consequences of Genetic Engineering - a project of The Nature Institute
Quotes and Provocations
      Economic Bubbles -- and an Overlooked Distinction
      What's (Still) Killing Higher Education?
About this newsletter


There's been a six-month hiatus since the last issue of NetFuture. The following developments will help you understand why:

** We announce below the fruits of a major project we have undertaken here at The Nature Institute, designed to set the public conversation about genetic engineering upon a much firmer scientific basis.

** The University Press of Kentucky has this month released a new book that Nature Institute co-founder Craig Holdrege and I have co-authored: Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering. As it happens, many of the chapters in this book first appeared as articles in NetFuture.

The book is part of the new "Culture of the Land" series launched by the Press. Edited by Georgetown College's Norman Wirzba, the series is under the guidance of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, David Orr, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, and others. It "is devoted to the exploration and articulation of a new agrarianism that considers the health of habitats and human communities together". We were happy to receive the following commendation from bestselling author, Michael Pollan: "Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott's analysis of genetic engineering is the smartest, most original, and most compelling I have seen anywhere, in journalism or academia".

You can check out the book at or by calling the Press at 800-839-6855.

** As it happens, a second book in the same series was also released this month, and it includes chapters by both Craig and me. It's entitled The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge, and is edited by Bill Vitek, a philosopher at Clarkson University, and Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute.

** The Nature Institute is conducting two courses this summer: "The Plant as a Teacher of Living Thinking", open to the general public, and "Bringing Science to Life", a course for science teachers. You will find more information at

** The Nature Institute is now looking for a half-time research assistant to help with our "Nontarget Effects of Genetic Manipulation" project. See our posting at if you're interested.

The next issue of NetFuture is not far off. It will, I suspect, prove rather dramatically unexpected for readers familiar with the newsletter's past trajectory.


Goto table of contents


Research reports from the mainstream
technical literature may change the tenor of
the public conversation about biotechnology


The Nature Institute has unveiled a new website designed to set the public debate about genetic engineering upon a more accessible scientific foundation. Distilling a voluminous technical literature, the website gathers together - often in the researchers' own words - information about both the intended and unintended consequences of transgenic experiments. The emerging picture tells a dramatic story - one that has scarcely begun to inform the public conversation to date. The website, available at, is part of The Nature Institute's ongoing project on the "Nontarget Effects of Genetic Manipulation."

Nontarget effects have proven both extensive and unpredictable. The evidence for their occurrence, while mostly buried in the technical literature, is not disputable or even particularly controversial. It's simply not widely known. Once it is known, the frequently heard claim that genetic manipulation of organisms is a "precise science" without dramatic risks will either be voiced no more or will be recognized as dishonest. Project director, Craig Holdrege, explains:

If you manipulate one or more genes in an organism using the techniques of biotechnology, the so-called side-effects - which are not side-effects at all, but include direct responses by the organism to the invasive actions of the engineer - can occur anywhere and everywhere in the organism. They are not predictable, are little understood, and have mostly unknown consequences for health and the environment. The intended result may or may not be achieved in any given case, but the one almost sure thing is that unintended results - nontarget effects - will be achieved.

Holdrege, whose most recent book, Beyond Biotechnology, deals with the practical and philosophical implications of genetic engineering, maintains that a great deal of the discussion of genetic engineering practices can become calmer and more focused once the basic facts revealed by the extensive research to date are more widely known. Holdrege believes that "we can hardly fail to acknowledge a need for caution when we are dealing with a powerful technology that is changing organisms and environments around the globe - organisms and environments that cannot simply be restored to their previous state when we encounter the unpredicted results of transgenic experiments."

Contact: Craig Holdrege

Goto table of contents


Economic Bubbles -- and an Overlooked Distinction

I have a question for economists. It's a question that might have been asked at any time over the past century or so, but gains particular poignancy in our current state of economic perplexity. Why does a certain obvious distinction not figure more centrally in economic theorizing - namely, the distinction between the application of capital in order to increase that capital itself, and its application in order to achieve something worthwhile in the world? Or, more simply: why do we not distinguish between using money to make money, or using it to do meaningful work?

Granted, the distinction can at times be rather subtle. Every business needs to "make money". It's the difference between survival or dissolution. That is, it's the difference between success or failure in the organization's chosen work. And so "making money" in this sense becomes a prerequisite for using money to do meaningful work.

This is as it should be. But it's an entirely different matter when the immediate and primary aim of the doing is to make more money - that is, when making money becomes an end in itself rather than a necessary consequence of our succeeding at our work in the world. The goal then becomes purely abstract and mathematical. Money begins to chase its own tail, circling around and engorging itself upon itself.

One might argue that the only way money can multiply itself is by doing useful work in the world. But this is patently false, and the falsifying evidence is by no means obscure. In the subprime mortgage mess and the ensuing credit crunch we've seen as vividly as possible how money's pursuit of its own increase - while temporarily successful for some people and businesses - can be founded upon anything but real value. It just seems painfully obvious that the more our focus shifts from particular desirable work to a quantitative concern for money as such, we lose the only rootedness, the only reality principle, that preserves us from repeated episodes of economic chaos.

From personal savings to pension funds, from stock markets to currency exchanges, from commodities to hedge funds, the amount of money "invested" in the usual sense of that word has in recent decades grown explosively. Money's pursuit of its own increase has become such a big thing in our society - so customary and all-enveloping, so doctrinally fundamental - that to question it will seem bizarre to many people. Doesn't the investment industry - a significant chunk of our entire economy - see itself as dedicated almost solely to the art of multiplying money? How many of us, when we invest our money in stocks, ask what the money will accomplish in the world rather than what its rate of return will be? And aren't most corporations in the business of maximizing profits first of all, rather than performing a task for the sake of which they try to remain at least minimally profitable?

Yes, it requires a little subtlety to sustain the distinction between the pursuit of monetary gain and a striving to accomplish something worthwhile. But economists are nothing if not subtle, and the task is hardly beyond them. And in this matter the underlying difference at issue, however subtle its playing out in particular circumstances, is in principle as dramatic as it could possibly be. Everyone can immediately recognize the incompatibility of the two stances.

Moreover, money chasing its own tail sounds rather like the very definition of an economic bubble. Untethered to reality, such money will follow any scheme that is, for the time being, profitable. It matters little whether the scheme involves subprime mortgages or an investment plan based on the monthly, weekly, or even daily upslopes and downslopes of a stock market graph. When the immediate connection between money and useful work is in this way severed, we lose the means to distinguish a sound enterprise from a bubble - as in fact virtually all economists failed to foresee the current crisis. This is not so much a failure of foresight as acquiescence in economic realities that make foresight impossible. No matter how assiduously regulators seek to address previous excesses by strapping safeguards around the economic balloon of our economy, the money-seeking investor will be driven to invent ever new strategies and the balloon will simply bulge outward in new and novel places.

As the conventional faith in investment for its own sake continues to grow and dominate the economic practices and institutions of our society, we may well find it ever more difficult to prevent entirely unpredictable crises from arising. The dot-com bubble featured a dramatic rise in participation by small players, including day-traders, and the economy hardly managed to recover from that fiasco before this new one took root. I suspect that there is only worse to come if we cannot, as a society, recognize that the success of capitalism hinges upon individual creativity in doing meaningful work, not creativity in money-making for its own sake - and that the two are powerfully at odds with each other. This is hardly surprising, since the two aims come from radically different places, morally and otherwise, in the human being and therefore lead to different patterns of action - something you would think scientific-minded economists ought to pay attention to.

Somehow the fiction that profit automatically translates into real accomplishment, into real value for society, prevails no matter how evident its fallacy - no matter how evident the truth that, for example, one can make at least as much money selling cocaine as selling penicillin. Moreover, bubbles, which economists have never found any agreed-upon way to explain, continue to occur, and they always involve the disastrous absence of real value in favor of vacuous, mathematical profit (to which investors easily become addicted). It's about time we faced this fact squarely, and explored the significance of the inevitable disconnect between the mere drive for return on investment and the effort to accomplish something substantial in the world. And then we will need to ask ourselves further: how can we as a society discourage this disconnect rather than strive to maximize it as we have now been doing for many years.

The economist's reluctance to deal with this issue is presumably related to the fact that here we come up against moral qualities. But I guess the only proper response to such reluctance is, "Welcome to the real world".

What's (Still) Killing Higher Education?

Robert Cringely attended a conference for computer professionals in K-12 schools and came away with the disturbing feeling that "these people were under siege". Why? Because young people, empowered by technology, "are ready to dump our schools".

Cringely writes the "Pulpit" column for, and in his March 21 piece he starts with the proposition that "kids can't go to school today without working on computers". But this immediately leads him to the paradoxical observation that in recent years ever greater resources have been devoted to purging technology from schools. "Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue, as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults. But does it?"

Well, you can probably guess what's coming:

Andy Hertzfeld said Google is the best tool for an aging programmer because it remembers when we cannot. Dave Winer, back in 1996, came to the conclusion that it was better to bookmark information than to cut and paste it. I'm sure today Dave wouldn't bother with the bookmark and would simply search from scratch to get the most relevant result. Both men point to the idea that we're moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what's wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?

The entire education system, Cringely suggests, is now unstable. "There's only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart - ISO certification", not only for schools, but also for students. After all, he writes, "certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy". When there are precise, certifiable standards, a manufacturing plant in Kuala Lumpur can reasonably claim to produce the same product as an IBM plant in New York, so that mere "reputation" has to give way to unvarnished "statistics" - and as a result the IBM plant has now disappeared. Much the same, Cringely argues, is about to happen to the MITs and Harvards of the world, as soon as the necessary standard-setting bodies move into action. Attach a label to every student showing exactly what he's capable of, and who needs a costly degree?

I had a strange sense of déjà vu in reading Cringely's column. Back in 1998 (NetFuture #78, subsequently published in Educom Review) I wrote an article entitled "Who's Killing Higher Education? (Or is It Suicide?)". And now it's as if Cringely, not only confirms all the fears I voiced back then, but finds in their fulfillment an occasion for rejoicing - or at least for yielding to reality.

I wrote in my 1998 essay that once we reconceive understanding and education in terms of a computer-like ability to store, manipulate, and transfer information, the school is bound to lose out because it can never compute as successfully as the computer itself. I also remarked that teachers and classrooms would not be the only losers; students, too, would become superfluous. After all, it's much more efficient to download information into another computer than into a mind. The idea of "just-in- time information" being downloaded to computational nodes on the assembly line or in workers' cubicles - intended to minimize the need for workers to understand much of anything beyond the calculable or to act on their own initiative - pretty much captures the situation. Further, I cited the various efforts to standardize the educational transfer of information, with the associated loss from view of everything constituting the uniqueness, the nonconforming, individual angle of insight - the genius - of the true learner. And, finally, I spoke of the loss of the very subject matter of education:

If we've been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another, this is because what passes for knowledge has more and more been reduced to the kind of decontextualized fact fit for such transfer. The world we ought to be engaging has disappeared behind a tissue of brittle, yes-or-no abstractions. Just as we have ignored the student in favor of an array of measurements, so also we have turned our faces away from the world itself, as qualitatively given - the world that might, unnervingly, speak to us. From the scientist's instrumentation to the sociologist's surveys, we have perfected the means for ignoring the immediate, expressive presence of the people and the natural phenomena around us, and therefore we have no meaningful context in which to anchor our swelling cascades of data.

And now, facing all this, Cringely hails our movement "from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic" - "dynamic", in this case, apparently meaning that we prefer searching and bookmarking (and maybe plagiarizing) to the accumulation of static data.

Let's agree, then, to reject a fact-shoveling model of education. And let's try to forget, for the moment, that the computer, with its "knowledge databases" and "information storage", its uploading and downloading of "content", its input and output of "critical data", has done more than any other human invention to rivet the fact-shoveling model of education upon our imaginations. What we still need to realize is that the dynamism we're looking for in education is, in the first place, a dynamism of minds, not a dynamism of computerized search tools, however valuable these may be in their place. Without minds capable of attending in a sustained, focused, ever more deeply penetrating way to whatever aspect of the world and its problems we are addressing, all those tools simply put us even more at the mercy of shallow automatisms of the intellect than did the static content of shoveled knowledge. We end up frozen, mesmerized by the dazzling, mechanical play of information taking place before our glassy, screen-fixated eyes - a play that we mistake for our own understanding.

I find it stunning that an intelligent commentator can cite computer searching - googling - as a fit symbol for an ascent from "static" to "dynamic" values. Type in a search string and skim through the disconnected, decontextualized fragments spit out by the search engine - yes, one can conveniently find certain things this way. More and more, as society continues to restructure itself around such tools, this will become the only way to find things. It certainly has its peculiar advantages. Yet how can one deny that our use of this digital ejecta in any reasonably educated sense depends upon mental skills having little to do with - being almost the opposite of - the intellectually empty exchange between student and search engine?

In my 1998 article I, like Cringely, suggested that education, in the dominant form we have known it, will inevitably continue to disappear - and needs to disappear. This is not because education needs to advance into the computer age, but rather because education has already become too computerized. Long before the computer as such took hold, our classrooms, teachers, students, and subject matter were well on their way to the current dead end. That is, they were being shaped by the computational, informational, data-debased mindset that was driving society in such a one-sided way toward the Information Age. The industrialization of education, by which it was progressively collectivized and standardized, objectified and quantified, was but one stage of its computerization.

Until we can see in the long-running industrialization and computerization of education a sickness rather than healing, there is little hope for our finding the right educational uses for the powerful and endlessly distracting data-manipulating tools now at our disposal. In fact, until we recognize that the computer's storage, manipulation, and delivery of information have almost nothing to do with human cognitive and creative activity - until we recognize, as I put it in Devices of the Soul, that a computer cannot even add 2 and 2 if by this we mean anything remotely like what we do when we add two numbers - there can hardly be a coherent conversation about the role of technology in education. Meanwhile, we are likely to remain divided between those for whom that last statement is simply laughable, and those less computer-entranced souls for whom it is a self-evident truth.

At this point in our culture's technology-infatuated trajectory, I'm not sure there's much for the latter people to do except to cultivate among themselves those disciplines which, at some future time, our society may be desperately trying to remember.


Goto table of contents


NetFuture, a freely distributed electronic newsletter, is published and copyrighted by The Nature Institute. The editor is Stephen L. Talbott, author of Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in the Age of Machines. ( You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see .

Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:

To subscribe or unsubscribe, go to
If you have problems subscribing or unsubscribing, send mail to:

This issue of NetFuture:

Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #172 :: April 22, 2008

Goto table of contents

Goto NetFuture main page