Stewart Brand’s Environmental Heresies

John Tierney writes about Stewart Brand in today’s New York Times:

[H]e feels guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power. Alternative energy and conservation are fine steps to reduce carbon emissions, he says, but now nuclear power is a proven technology working on a scale to make a serious difference.

“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”

Mr. Brand predicts that his heresies will become accepted in the next decade as the scientific minority in the environmental movement persuades the romantic majority. He still considers himself a member of both factions, just as in the days of the Merry Pranksters, but he’s been shifting toward the minority.

“My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by,” he says. “I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.”

Link: Stewart Brand – John Tierney – An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New ‘Heresies’ – New York Times.

(More at Tierney’s blog, and see also Stewart Brand’s May 2005 article from Technology Review: Environmental Heresies.)

I have lots of respect for Stewart Brand, but his simplistic division of environmentalists into "romantics" and "scientists" is grossly unfair.  It’s quite possible to make valid, rational — even scientific — critiques of science and technology, and there are quite strong ones to be made with respect to GMOs and nuclear power.  Of course there are important economic and political considerations as well.

For examples of good, science-based assessments of GMOs and nuclear power I will cite one of my favorite scientists, David Suzuki: on transgenic crops, on nuclear power.

The Importance of User-Centered Design

CNET has a story about the growing importance of fields like human-computer interaction, usability, and human factors engineering.  As someone who has done work in this area, I heartily agree.

Wonder why YouTube skyrocketed in popularity in less than two years?

One obvious reason is that the video-sharing Web site has kept it simple. YouTube doesn’t require a video player download or a special account just to watch a video. With just a click on a link, a video is up and running in a few seconds. It’s a people-friendly design, and that attention to simplicity has paid off.

Experts in the field of so-called human-computer interaction,
however, say good design like the YouTube interface is the exception,
not the rule. For every slick Apple iPod,
there are a dozen washing machines with a baffling array of buttons.
And for every simple TiVo interface, there are umpteen TV remote
controls that look like something out of NASA’s Mission Control.

Now companies, universities and even government agencies like NASA
are investing time and dollars as they take a hard look at how people
interact with technology.

Link: The human factor in gadget, Web design | CNET,

via Usability In The News: The human factor in gadget, Web design.

Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is a great introduction to the ideas behind HCI.

Teen Blogs and Future Embarrassment

Paul Saffo writes about the downside of having your adolescent writings archived for all time online:

[…] I pity teens today, for in a few decades their sophomoric musings will deliver a vast embarrassment utterly unknown to earlier generations. It is not that their words are any sillier than earlier generations; rather teens today have had the misfortune of being the first generation to record their thoughts in cyberspace where those thoughts will remain perfectly preserved until some wag drags them out at a school reunion or the author’s children discover the IM affections that passed between mom and dad.

[…] the biggest favor you can do for a teen today is to remind them of what
is ahead and gently suggest that perhaps they should record their
thoughts the old-fashioned way — on paper. Buy them a Moleskine, or a
ream of high sulfur paper that will decompose quickly.
Link: Saffo: journal.

Of course, not everyone agrees.  In the (much blogged about) article "Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll," Emily Nussbaum explores this topic at length, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.  An excerpt:

[…] we are in the sticky center of a vast psychological experiment, one
that’s only just begun to show results. More young people are putting
more personal information out in public than any older person ever
would—and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an
entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s
the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic
thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s
going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your
picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.” 

after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people,
one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk
in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every
street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your
debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is
tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone
calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to
acknowledge it or not.

Link: Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy (New York Magazine)

Why Are There No Science Critics?

Prosthesis links to an article by philosopher of technology Don Ihde who considers why we don’t have science/technology critics and why anyone who attempts it is quickly called a "Luddite" or anti-science/technology.  Ihde takes as his starting point a passage from Langdon Winner’s book The Whale and the Reactor (coincidentally the same passage I quoted here a while back).  An excerpt from Ihde:

The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics "anti-art" or "anti-literature" in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically "anti-art" or "anti-literature." Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic.’ That is simply not the case with science or technoscience criticism.

Link: Why Not Science Critics?.

Of course we do now many (relatively new) fields of study that do just this: philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, science and technology studies (STS), sociology of science, etc., but this work doesn’t typically get mainstream exposure or respect.

There’s an interesting and lengthy discussion related to this happening amongst SEED magazine science bloggers Benjamin Cohen and others (The World’s Fair: When Talking About Science is Dangerous), in response to a recent op-ed by Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal (LA Times: Can Washington get smart about science?).  STS professor Cohen takes Mooney and Sokal to task for misquoting Bruno Latour with respect to the "science wars" of the 1990s, which Mooney and Sokal claim has re-emerged as the American right’s "Republican war on science."  (That’s an extremely rough paraphrase — I recommend you read Cohen’s post.)

Vernor Vinge Flip-Flopping on the Singularity?

That’s the tease Stewart Brand has given for a talk that sci-fi writer and futurist Vernor Vinge will be giving this Thursday in San Francisco as part of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars:

Technology acceleration is like what happens approaching the singularity in the center of a black hole – everything is transformed utterly and unpredictably. That metaphor was invented by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1980’s and has entered standard usage as a way of thinking about the near future. In this talk Vinge challenges his own idea, investigating scenarios of "a human-scaled world with long time horizons," and how that might play out over ten or twenty thousand years.

Link: Long Now > Projects > Seminars About Long Term Thinking.

Previously: Thoughts on the Singularity Summit


The Most Popular Video in the Blogosphere!

You’ve probably already seen that spiffy little video about hypertext, XML, and Web 2.0 and how it’s changing the world.  It’s by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch and is called "Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us," though the title doesn’t appear in the video.  By "using us" he means that the machine (i.e. the web) "learns" when we tell it stuff — probably the hokiest and least true point he makes in the video.

It’s a clever little piece and it makes a few good bullet points about the changing nature of how we experience text, but I’m amazed at the overblown reaction to this thing.  There isn’t much substance to it — basically a bit of information science 101 combined with some trite Web 2.0/user-generated media hype.  But it’s got style, which counts for a lot with today’s techno/web enthusiasts (Lawrence Lessig’s books may be a bore, but boy has he got the hippest posters for his talks of any academic!).

It’s not surprising, I guess, that a video cheering on user-generated content is embraced by those same users.  Yay us! (or yay you!)

This article at Inside Higher Ed tells the story of the video and its reception: A lesson in viral video.  I originally spotted the video at Chris Anderson’s blog: The Long Tail: This is what I’m talking about, though it’s been everywhere else too (BoingBoing, Lessig, even the Transhumanists love it!).


I have a Google alert set up for the word "Luddite" so I get email every day with links to new occurrences of that word in news or blogs.  Today it found this blog of student postings for a course on "Technoromanticism".  It’s pretty interesting reading.  There’s currently a discussion of Frankenstein, with reference to Steven Jones’s Against Technology, which is apparently one of the texts for the course.

Link: Technoromanticism.

GM’s Robot Suicide Ad

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl (the Puppy Bowl is more my style), so I missed the annual ad nonsense and the ensuing minor controversies.  The story of GM’s robot suicide ad is interesting, though.  From USA Today:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has sent a letter to General Motors (GM) criticizing an ad that shows a perfectionist assembly line robot dreaming about jumping off a bridge after dropping a bolt. The group said the spot may encourage people to consider suicide as a solution to their problems. The group demanded that GM apologize, not air the spot again and remove it from its website.

Link: Suicide-prevention group criticizes GM ad –

This group has a point, but what’s more tasteless, I think, is how the ad insults GM employees.  As Seth Stevenson wrote:

A robot in a GM assembly plant drops a screw. As a
result, he’s fired. He tries to make do with menial jobs, but he
remains miserable. In the end, he jumps off a bridge. Thoughts: Haven’t
a lot of actual human auto workers been laid off lately? Are they meant
to laugh when, at the end of the ad, the robot wakes up to realize this
was just a bad dream, and that he still has his job so he doesn’t need
to commit suicide after all? Whew, thank goodness things worked out for
you, robot!

Link: The best and worst Super Bowl ads (Slate)

Mark Graban makes a similar point.  CJR Daily has a roundup of other blogger reactions to the ad: Bloggers Debate GM Robot’s Suicide.

The latest news is that GM has agreed to remove the suicide from the ad: GM Changing Robot Suicide Ad (CNN).