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Tuesday, July 31, 2007


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This reminds me of a similar discussion in the military aviation arena (I am by no means an expert, just an enthusiast). As weapon systems became more complex, the demands "in-cockpit" reduced the time for pilots to look "outside". After playing around with two-man crews, it seems that the military has developed both HUD (heads-up device) and HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) for aircraft, which allow the pilot to multi-task while keeping his attention (mostly) outside. We are starting to see HUD applications in cars, and most "in-car" controls are now positioned on or about the steering wheel. Communication is the weak link.......we've got to get those damn cell phones out of our hands and into the auto-electronic system for true hands-free operation.


It's interesting to me that the academic studies seem to follow a trend called "bad news bias" in media criticism. The idea being that focusing our attention on possible threats distorts our comprehension of the larger subject.

Personally, I think this is the way evolution wired our brains. You can think of it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy. You can think of it in terms of tank gunner training: shoot the targets that can kill you first, then the other things. So in that sense it's probably natural for professors, safety researchers, journalists, lawmakers and wags to respond to any new technology by looking for the threats they contain.

But does that bias misrepresent the larger picture? Absolutely. Which is why even academic studies that focused on finding dangers probably do a good job of finding them, and are probably also not the final word on how the technology should be used/regulated. It's a tangent, but I think this dynamic has a lot to do with global warming skepticism. At some level, I think people are skeptical of the bad-news bias in media and academia and just assume that the actual situation is less dire, because that's usually the case in their experience.

But back to cell phones: Has anyone compared the relative risk of cell-phone-use-while-driving to the safety benefits of cell phone use? I don't know how many times my cell phone has rung in the car with someone telling me that the location of the meeting has changed, or that this or that kid no longer needs to be picked up from practice, etc. Since there's also a correlation between miles driven and accident risk, wouldn't anything that reduces the number of miles we drive have a safety benefit?

Addison's point about improving the technology to make it safer is well taken, and there's really nothing wrong with bad-news bias so long as you account for it in your thinking. But I guess what I'm saying is that if all technologies are prosthetic (i.e., non-biological forms of evolution), then isn't the weakness always human? Isn't every improvement in technology a form of evolution by the human species?


A couple of things:

1. Very astute, Agricola. In fact, I first became interested in the academic study when I ran into an old friend in a coffee shop here in Nashville. He was a Neural-biologist of some sort who had gone on to graduate education at Stanford. I can't recall who he was working with, but they were being funded by government grants to study cell phone use in cars. The ultimate purpse of their study, however, was to think about competing modes of awareness, so that the information could be fed back into research for fighter pilots.

2. Yes, Dan, of course, the human is always the "weak" point in one regard. But we rarely like to think about it that way, which is why pop discourse generally "talks" us into being the full agents. I guess I was just doodling around with the idea of what it would be like if "human as weak link" was the dominant way of thinking.


Yeah, and it's a good thing to noodle around, too. Because you're on to something.


Damn. Could you be any smarter? You're making me feel bad for my "Oh, I went to a cheesy tourist trap" blog posts. Now I have to go back and think of something intelligent to write about...


This is a great topic area and traces its roots back to Baconian science/philosophy. Back in the days when religion, philosophy and science were intertwined, all technological advances were viewed within a normative frame - from raping Mother Earth to revealing the mysteries of perfection in the Divine Creation.

More contemporary roots are Nobel and gunpowder/TNT and Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Teller and the A/H-bomb.

From a secular S&T view, there is nothing inherently normative in a chemical reaction or atomic fission. The same is true with modulating the E-M spectrum or miniaturizing semiconductors (Moore's Law).

However, with the secularization of S&T, the ethics of applied science (technology) didn't go away. Instead, new areas of interdisciplinary "study" developed.

Instead of humans as the "weak link" in contrast to Nature or God, humans are now the "weak link" in contrast to cybernetic prosthetics.

Here's where I think Dan overgeneralizes in his "bad news bias" insight. Those who are predisposed and/or study only the Trivium tend to be the pessimists and worry warts. Those that are predisposed and/or study only the Quadrivium tend to be optimists where every problem has a solution, and every solution can be improved upon and expanded into other areas.

Those that study both understand there are positives and negatives ... Yin-Yang ... in the human interface with Nature and technology. Improving the interface to be more efficient, less distracting, more intuitive, etc., is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. The evolutionary process is human, not Natural or Tech.

At least, not Tech yet.


I thought John might enjoy reading Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology

Also, I wanted to ask Dan if he saw a parallel between S&T codes of ethics, academic studies and ethics committees; and journalistic codes, studies and news councils? Where do they diverge?



Antonio Gramsci: I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

William S. Burroughs

Too many scientists seem to be ignorant of the most rudimentary spiritual concepts. They tend to be suspicious, bristly, paranoid-type people with huge egos they push around like some elephantiasis victim with his distended testicles in a wheelbarrow, terrified, no doubt, that some skulking ingrate-of-a-clone student will sneak into their very brains and steal their genius work. The unfairness of it brings tears to his eyes as he peers anxiously through his bifocals.

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