Friday, September 28, 2007

Antisocial Technology

Perhaps the best way to explain the opposition between the United Nations and the United States with respect to the current environmental crisis is in terms of attitude toward technology and growth. This, at any rate, is how I read the attempt by David Jackson, of USA Today, to summarize the current state of affairs:

"There are two different visions about how you make progress," said David Doniger, policy director for the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Doniger said Bush's encouragement of voluntary efforts simply won't work. A global treaty with "real limits," he added, would actually force businesses to pursue the kinds of cleaner energy-producing technologies that the president talks about. "If you just call for pledges, you don't get any real changes," he said.

Over the years, Bush and his aides have said that hard-and-fast restrictions would cripple economic growth. In 2006, Bush told an audience that the Kyoto treaty would have been "a lousy deal for America," leading to "massive layoffs and economic destruction."

The United Nations approach to a global treaty basically requires trans-national commitment to a new regime of regulation; and that concept of regulation just does not sit will with our President (or, probably, with most of his supporters). Thus the United States would rather frame the issue in terms of economic growth, presenting the "Clear Skies & Global Change Initiatives" to encourage the development of new technologies that will "solve" environmental problems like global warming. We probably should not be coming down too hard on the President for taking such a position, since ours is a culture that has been seeking a technology fix for every problem for quite some time (at least all the way back to Benjamin Franklin).

However, where this once may been one of our more admirable national traits, it may now be turning into a global hazard; and, for those of us who have been following the DigitalLife conference in New York this week, that hazard may well impact more than the environment. It may involved tampering with the very social fabric through which we engage with each other, often with little regard for what the consequences may be. Let me focus on one example reported by Associated Press Business Writer Mark Jewell:

A new device by iRobot Corp. resembles the company's disc-shaped Roomba vacuum cleaner but has a webcam bulging from the top.

It's designed to enable parents on a business trip to feel they're almost at home. For example, a parent could remotely send the wheeled robot into a bedroom, where the children could open a book in front of the robot's camera. The parent could then read the story aloud and watch and hear the kids' reactions. The family could also converse.

The robot can be controlled from within the home or remotely, using a Web connection to a home wireless network. The user can operate the robot with either a joystick or a computer installed with iRobot-supplied software.

Color digital video streams only one way, meaning a traveling parent could see the kids but not vice versa. Up to 10 parties can have PIN-number access to the gadget, allowing distant relatives or friends to keep in touch, as well as immediate family.

This item was part of a longer article entitled "Robots take on social tasks;" and it should remind us that any pursuit of new technologies cannot ignore the history of what we have tried (not always successfully) to learn about the nature of those social tasks. In this case a good place to begin would be by reviewing the history of Harry Harlow, which, fortunately, Lauren Slater did for the Boston Globe, about three-and-a-half years ago. He is best known for running a series of experiments with monkeys that could teach us about the nature of parenting. Here is Slater's summary of the experiment for which Harlow is best known:

Rhesus macaque monkeys share roughly 94 percent of their genetic heritage with humans. But Harlow felt no kinship with his test subjects. "The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish," he said. "I don't have any love for them. I never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you love monkeys?"

Harlow's experiment required wire cutters, cardboard cones, hot coils, steel nails, and soft cloth. He used the wire cutters to fashion a wire mother, its torso patterned with small squares, a single inflexible breast "on the ventral front." Affixed to this breast, a steel nipple pierced with a tiny hole through which the monkey milk could flow.

Then Harlow fashioned a soft surrogate, a cardboard cone bunted in a terry cloth towel. He wrote, "The result was a mother, soft, warm, and tender, a mother with infinite patience, a mother available 24 hours a day . . .. It is our opinion that we engineered a very superior monkey mother, although this position is not held universally by monkey fathers."

First Harlow took a group of newborn rhesus macaque babies and put them in a cage with the two surrogate mothers: the wire mother full of food, the cloth mother with an empty breast and a sweet smile. After the initial trauma, something amazing started to happen. Within days, the baby macaques transferred their affections from the real mother, who was no longer available, to the cloth surrogate.

The cloth mother, however, had no milk, so when the youngsters were hungry, they would dart over to the chicken-wire mother and then run back to the safety of the soft towel. Harlow graphed the mean amount of time the monkeys spent nursing versus cuddling. The disparity in favor of cuddling, he wrote, was "so great as to suggest that the primary function of nursing . . . is that of insuring frequent and intimate body contact of the infant with the mother."

Harlow was establishing that love grows from touch, not taste, which is why, when the mother's milk dries up, the child continues to love her. The child then takes this love, the memory of it, and recasts it outward, so that every interaction is a replay and a revision of this early touch. "Certainly," writes Harlow, "man cannot live by milk alone."

For a long time psychology classes tended to treat the above summary as a closed story on an experiment, results, and lessons learned. However, the narrative of the real world does not close off quite so nicely. It turns out that the monkeys that participated in Harlow's experiments experienced side effects that did not appear until after they had grown:

When he [Harlow] took the grown-up cloth-mothered monkeys out to play and mate, they were violently antisocial. Some began to display autistic-like behavior. A New York Times reporter came out to Madison to do a follow-up and Harlow led him to his lab, where a troop of rocking, head-banging macaques sat in cages, chewing off their fingers. "I admit it," said Harlow. "I have made a mistake."

Harlow's admission was good news, but he did not necessarily see any mistakes in his underlying methodology. Rather, he saw the mistake as an opportunity to formulate and explore new hypotheses, no more concerned about long-range side effects than he was with his first round of experiments.

This brings us back to the present. The "long view" of Harlow's biography should serve as a cautionary tale to the sorts of visions now being promoted by iRobot, if not the entire vision of DigitalLife, let alone a world-view that sees environmental crisis as a little more than an opportunity to investigate hypotheses and promote the technologies that emerge from experimental results. In the case of the iRobot, we may find ourselves cultivating a new population grounded in norms of autistic behavior; where the environment is concerned, we are faced with the prospect of repeating history with consequences that will be anything but farcical, whatever Marx' assessment of the human condition may have been.

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