Monday, April 16, 2012


It's time to start thinking about our technological innovations more systemically and within their social context:
The shale gas R&D projects assumed a kind of vacuum. The only criteria were technical feasibility and economic profitability, and the innovators failed to consider questions about how the technologies would play out in the real world. What is the long-term fate of the chemicals that remain underground? What do we do with the toxic mixture of fracking fluids and naturally occurring radioactive materials that flows back up the wellbore during drilling and production? How will roads handle the increase in traffic volume that results from the roughly 1,000 truck trips (hauling fracking fluids and waste water) it takes to get each well producing? What are the air quality and climate implications? Can we safely frack in places where people live? What happens when the wells run dry? Is it wise to further commit ourselves to a finite fossil resource that requires such extreme measures to extract?

Why weren’t these questions asked with the same rigor as the technical questions? It is because we have an innovation system that only asks “how to,” not “what if?” As a result, we have enormous powers to change the world and the way we live, but essentially zero capacity to guide those powers wisely or responsibly. We promote transformative research with one hand and clean up its messes with the other. And throughout we lack any clear sense about what needs transforming and why.

The lesson from shale gas development is one we should have learned a long time ago: We need to rethink and broaden the parameters of innovation.

The current myopic system is too much like Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” We unleash poorly understood powers and try to ride out the resulting problems. Goethe’s is a story of humans controlling nature through an artifice that, in turn, controls humans. It results in the kind of reverse adaptation one can find in many U.S. cities, where people seem to be primarily in the business of creating habitats for cars, despite the pollution and financial drain.

As our technological powers grow, we can no longer chalk things up to unintended consequences. Instead, we need those who design our technical systems to take broader social and ethical questions into consideration. This isn’t a novel insight: In the ‘60s the American musician Tom Lehrer put it in the form of a song about the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “ ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Once the frack fluid is pumped down, who cares where it goes?

For too long, “innovation” has meant just this kind of thoughtlessness, in which questions of social context are not in anyone’s department. Engineering models simplify nature in order to control it. But there is always the danger that the models overlook something important. Unless the models can be challenged and complexified, we won’t know what we have overlooked until it is too late. As with shale gas development, we’ll be forced to try to cobble environmental and social values onto a juggernaut that already has significant momentum.

We need to frack the innovation system—create fissures to let in more people and more perspectives. Researchers must obtain the informed consent of individuals participating in trials of new pharmaceuticals. The same should hold for things like shale gas development that amount to large-scale social experiments. Those of us living atop shale plays have been enrolled as unwilling human subjects of research. There are pitfalls to including the public in science and technology policies: Those who shout the loudest, even if they are a small minority, may end up setting the course. But these problems are no more difficult than those associated with getting gas out of shale. We just have not invested comparable time or intellectual energy into processes of design-by-democracy.

Some might argue that we now account for the broader contexts of innovation through the ethical, legal, and social implications research that often accompanies major R&D projects. Shale gas would have turned out better, they will claim, if it would have had ELSI researchers working in parallel with the scientists and engineers. But too often ELSI researchers dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

More importantly, the ELSI model of innovation reinforces the wall between the two cultures: Humanists do “values,” and scientists and engineers do “facts.” But there is no such thing as “value-free” work. Our innovators cannot help but make choices with social and ethical dimensions. No ethics expert can do this thinking for them. If we want to rid ourselves of a myopic innovation system, then we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who see things in the round.

Industrial ag is a terrible, terrible thing:
Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn’t as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added.

Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.


Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.

The police would stop wayward boys who were torturing a stray dog, so should we allow industrialists to abuse millions of hens? Shouldn’t we agree on minimum standards?

Granted, it is not easy to settle on what constitutes cruelty to animals. But cramming 11 hens for most of their lives into a cage the size of an oven seems to cross a line.

Somehow, fried eggs don’t taste so good if you imagine the fetid barn in which they were laid.

You needn't be consciously racist in order to hold prejudiced views against black men:
Very few Americans make a conscious decision to subscribe to racist views. But the toxic connotations that the culture has associated with blackness have been embedded in thought, language and social convention for hundreds of years. This makes it easy for people to see the world through a profoundly bigoted lens without being aware that they are doing so.

Over the last three decades, a growing body of research has shown that racial stereotypes play a powerful role in judgments made by ostensibly fair-minded people. Killers of whites, for example, are more likely to receive the death penalty than killers of blacks — and, according to the psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, juries tend to see darker defendants as more “deathworthy” in capital cases involving white victims.

As Vesla Weaver, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, has written, “virtually every aspect of life and material well-being is influenced by skin color, in addition to race.” Studies have shown, for example, that darker-skinned blacks are punished more severely than others for the same types of crimes; deemed less worthy of help during disasters like Hurricane Katrina; disfavored in some hiring decisions; and more likely to be unemployed.

These preconceptions are at work even in the early grades at school, where voluminous data show that children of color are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled or declared “disabled” and shunted into special education.

Stand Your Ground laws seem to be a lovely excuse for people to kill at will:
“I have no problem with people owning guns to protect themselves,” says Bill Kuch, Billy’s father. “But somehow, we’ve reached the point where the shooter’s word is the law. The victim doesn’t even get his day in court. I don’t think most Americans realize it, but that’s where we are.”

In Florida and across the country, “Stand Your Ground” laws — the same kind of legislation that authorities cited for not arresting a neighborhood-watch volunteer after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in February — have coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.

Pretty amazing: in just two months, we've raised $110,000 for cancer treatment. Looks like we'll need another $40-50,000 and we'll be set. We can do it.

Speaking of raising money for cancer treatment, this happened:

The market didn't create sprawl; government subsidies and other forms of intervention like land-use regulations did.

How walking became passé.

The resilience of the Arctic’s ecosystems in terms of withstanding risk events is weak, and political sensitivity to a disaster is high. As a result, companies operating in the Arctic face significant reputational risk, the report says.”

Daily temperature variability can be deadly to the elderly.

An inter-agency task force on fracking.

As Donald Shoup would no doubt tell you, free parking ain't free.

SoCal's attempts to move towards sustainability actually look fairly impressive.

Trees: they're important.

How clean is your electric-powered car/plug-in hybrid? Depends on how clean the source fuel for your your electricity is.

Keep peat moss where it is.

Subsidizing dirty energy.

Yup, we sure do love doing it.

Tennessee flips reality the bird, and instead encourages teachers to lie and teach nonsense.

Climatologist Michael Mann fights back against those peddling lies and misinformation about climate change.

Chris Christie is a lying fraud.

No, Republicans don't actually value women's work.

And they don't much care for motherhood if the mother in question is poor.

Yes, the modern-day GOP is as insanely batshit conservative as you suspected.

The GOP's War On Women gets even worse here in Arizona.

A fundraiser for Trayvon Martin's family? Yeah, that'll get you fired in Michigan.

Open access now.

Even The Economist is in favor of OA, as they recognize Elsevier makes millions in profits off of doing next-to-nothing.

How much do faculty earn?

An investigation places the blame on UC-Davis leadership and the police for the violent crackdown on student protesters.

An absolutely fantastic profile of Robert Caro.

Ultimate goes pro.

Microsoft Word is a bloated piece of crap.

The jig is up: Matt Groening reveals the location of Springfield.

The AVClub offers a primer on how to get acquainted with the Velvelt Underground.

Wifey asked me to make her a Talking Heads mix; I did. [Spotify]

[P]erformances in the desert of Western Sahara. Music played with no thought of Western commerce or polish and no urge to bow to foreign sensibilities. This is music borne of struggle, and it's fucking amazing.”

James Farm, whose self-titled debut, was one of the finest releases of last year — jazz or otherwise — performs at the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival; NPR has the recording.

Turns out Neneh Cherry is still around — and the influence of her late father, Don Cherry, appears to be rubbing off on her. And she's got a great cover of Suicide's “Dream Baby Dream” on her upcoming album.

(The Boss' cover ain't too shabby, either, but Neneh's version takes the cake.)

Get excited about the new Santigold album:

Does Pulp still have it? Hell yes. An absolutely fantastic performance of their classic, “Common People,” on Fallon that will BLOW YOUR MIND:

Your favorite feature returns! Heather's Happy Link Of The Day takes us on a trip investigating the depth of lakes and oceans.

As for Wifey, she's been doing things. And cultivating eggs in her salads.

We sure do create lots of trash:
Life of Garbage

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