Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cyber adventures

Be all you want in cyberspace


From The Statesman

On the Internet nobody knows whether a person is a dirty old man trying to seduce teenagers, a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a virtual game room, or a teenager posing as an expert. It is also true that eventually no one can hide in cyberspace. Cyber opacity is an illusion.
A few years ago, a California teenager Marcus Arnold, using his knowledge gained from television programmes such as Court TV or Judge Judy, and taking advantage of the pseudonymous freedom that a knowledge sharing company had provided, turned himself into a legal expert and began to dole out free legal advice. And he began to be noticed by people hungry for information.
Arnold’s direct and jargon-free approach to tough legal questions had a great appeal. Soon people began to call him at home seeking his legal advice. But then his conscience or may be the fear of being found out began to bother the 15-year-old boy. And one day he revealed his true self to his admirers.
Real lawyers poured scorn but the public rallied around him and he continued to give his non-expert common sense expertise on legal matters for sometime. AskMe, the online knowledge sharing outfit closed its free Website, but at its height about 10 million registered visitors posted questions and answers on everything from Armageddon to Zen mediation.
The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, give and receive feedback, but also provides an interactive collaborative environment in which words can become deeds and speech can become action.
Networked computers, the building blocks of the Internet, are much more than mere productivity tools and informatics appliances. Unlike the traditional media, they are capable of creating the cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, that can motivate people to act and change their social behaviours. Stanford University researchers call this rhetorical concept as Captology, which “focuses on the planned persuasive effects of computer technologies”.
The next challenge for software programmers is to design virtual environments to motivate people, for example, not to drink and drive, to have healthy sexual behaviours, to avoid pregnancy, or to be successful corporate leaders. Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School believes that computer codes have the potential to control behaviour the way law does, that programmers in a manner of speaking could become lawmakers.
But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfills desires and keeps the users coming back has not been fully explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games. There may be a fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behaviour and actions.
One of the great strengths of the strength of the Internet is its interactivity, its ability to respond and give instant feedback. Feedback not only regulates the flow of communication but also gives some of the control back to the receiver of the message. Two persons in conversation establish a dynamic relationship to create shared meanings.
Human communication is essentially a transaction that takes place effectively if people have or can create a common field of experience.
Islamic jehadis share each other’s vision of “Paradise”, and for them suicide becomes a door to that mental image of the promised everlasting beauty, as Omar Khyyam said, “…A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou Beside me singing…”
Persuasion works through sharing of mental models. The Internet makes it easy to share mental models whether they are of instant access to Paradise through self-destruction, buying and selling on a virtual platform such as e-Bay, or sharing experiences in MySpace as millions of teenagers do.
Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be very persuasive, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable. Lack of face-to-face cues, physical appearance and vocal inflections, which might arouse scepticism, are absent in Internet communication especially when it is time delayed such as in e-mail or question-answer Websites.
Selective self-presentation makes it possible for people to open themselves up to others, which they would hesitate to do in face-to-face conversation for fear of contradiction, lack of control or sense of shame.
Even in chat rooms and instant messaging, communication can become what one researcher, JB Walther, called as “hyperpersonal”, that is, socially more desirable than we are likely to experience face-to-face. It allows the play of fantasy partly to compensate for the absence of aural and visual information that gestures and voice create in interpersonal encounters. Fantasy lowers our guards and makes cyberspace so seductively persuasive ~ and dangerous.
Many teenagers go astray in chatrooms because cyberspace lets them assume fake identities and gives them the freedom to pretend ~ 13 going on 18 ~ what they fancy themselves to be. Some of them become victims of con men and predators, who too assume identities desirable for their teenage victims.
The playfulness of virtual environment, an environment of “Be what you want to be”, creates a pleasurable experience, a sensuous flow, in which we feel control of our environment that real life might deny us. The strength of teenagers’ most popular portal MySpace is also its vulnerability, as many parents have been discovering.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Gates Giving

Bill Gates is retiring... So what?

From The Statesman

The market shrugged off Mr Bill Gates’ announcement that he would give up the commanding heights of Microsoft, the digital empire he co-founded with his friend Mr Paul Allen in 1975. Gates plans to focus on philanthropy, especially global health and education work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This is not the end for Mr Gates but another chapter in the life of a most creative mind who began, like most American innovators, in his garage with an idea and transformed the world. Yes, Mr Gates helped usher in the digital civilisation. But I wonder if Mr Gates could have risen to the top in any other country except the USA, a country that brings out the best in ordinary people like Mr Gates and transforms them into extraordinary humans through the competitive ethos of the marketplace.

In his introduction to Mr David Brown’s book, Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse, Mr James Burke, a London-based television producer, commended America’s “can-do” spirit and said that the “readiness to adapt to circumstance is one of America’s most enduring characteristics and is what makes the American social environment more amenable to innovation than any other...”

Henry Ford, for example, adapted a British Royal Navy-originated assembly-line idea of production and used it to usher in an era of “democracy of possessions”. Of course, the democracy of possessions also creates social and environmental problems that demand the application of new technology, thus, feeding the inventive-entrepreneurial spiral.

What makes a scientist more inventive and innovative in the USA than back in his native country might be puzzling to some of us, especially those who do not understand the ethos of American society. Consider the case of Mr Ashok Gadgil, one of the 35 inventors profiled in the book, whose invention of a drinking water purification system might save millions of people in developing countries where diarrhoea, cholera, hepatitis and water-borne diseases are widely prevalent. The “Bengal cholera” of 1992 that spread throughout India and killed approximately 10,000 people, challenged Mr Gadgil, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to develop an affordable and effective water purification system using ultraviolet light. Mr Gadgil’s device, the UV Waterworks, may not be an earth-shaking invention but it is extremely useful for the masses in India and other developing countries, where drinking water contamination is commonplace.

It sounds incredible but Mr Gadgil says in the book: “You could disinfect one person’s drinking supply for a full year for a couple of cents.” Could Mr Gadgil have developed this invention in India, a nation with a quotas-and-reservations mentality and a straightjacket bureaucracy? The USA is the most inventive and innovative nation today.

In 2005, US residents received 85,238 patents out of a total of 165,485 granted by the US Patent and Trademark office. Burke wrote in his book that scientists and inventors follow the two-fold rule propounded by the 17th century French rationalist philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes: Be a doubting Thomas and reduce every system to its fundamentals. You cannot sit in your bathtub and wait for “Eureka” to occur. Inventing is sweating all the way (Thomas Edison’s 99 per cent rule) until a new configuration, a new way of doing things surfaces like an irrepressible force, an answer to a prayer, when you say, yes, yes, indeed, one plus one is equal to 11.

During the last 70 years, job categories (teaching, journalism, road-building, etc.) have increased from 80 to 800 in the USA. With global e-commerce rising, the job marketplace will explode the world over and will demand massive inventiveness and innovations. What will happen to a nation that does not invent and innovate?

In his foreword to the book, Mr Lester Thurow, an MIT social scientist, wrote that most scientific and technological advances in human history have occurred slowly and sporadically in civilisations, often vanishing from the place of their origin. After the end of Roman civilisation, Europe plunged into the Dark Ages when technological leadership passed on to the Islamic world. China was more advanced in the 15th century than in the 19th century.

There are no guarantees that a nation’s technological lead will last forever. The restless and questioning spirit in Europe began with the re-invention of the moveable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century that unleashed simultaneously two forces, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which caused a tremendous upheaval in Europe and the rest of the world from the time of the discovery of America to that of the colonisation of Asia and Africa. One great invention led to another ~ the invention of steam engine led to electricity ~ and moved some countries to the rank of the first world and relegated many others to the third world.

But what has made scientific and technological innovation a sustainable enterprise in modern times, according to Prof Thurow, is the German idea that “systematic investments in research and development based upon academic science could lead to a much faster rate of technological progress.”

Universities have become the most important source of inventiveness and innovations in the USA and elsewhere. Great research universities, MIT, Stanford, Harvard and others, with abundant research funding resources, attract the best brains from all over the world and make the USA the most inventive and innovative society. That explains why the book celebrated Mr Gadgil as an American, not an Indian, inventor because the USA provides the socially supported scientific platform that India does not.

We know how German rocket scientists were persuaded after WWII to come to the USA to help beat the Soviet Union in the race into space. But Prof Thurow warns: “What has been gained can be lost.” Great Britain and Germany were the technological leaders since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago. So was China once, as were the Arabs.

What makes the USA so different from the past technological leaders is that it is culturally situated between the First Amendment freedoms and the awesome temptations of the open marketplace. The marketplace of goods and ideas, the Darwinian competitiveness, is fuelling the relentless pace of inventiveness and innovations in the USA which is the only place where a man like Bill Gates could rise.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Harvard v the Vatican

ND Batra
The Statesman

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

~ TS Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

When South Korean Scientist Dr Hwang Woo Suk admitted last December to have faked the result of his research regarding the creation of stem cell lines from cloned human embryos, it seemed a terrible setback to one of the most transformative and promising fields of medicine.
But last week’s announcement that Harvard Stem Cell Institute will begin doing research using Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer process to create specific cell lines from cloned human embryos has once again raised hopes for millions of people suffering from incurable diseases.
Harvard research will be diseases specific; for example, the nucleus of a skin cell of a diabetic patient will be inserted into an unfertilised donor egg, from which the nucleus has already been removed. The newly engineered composite egg will be nurtured on a petri dish where it will develop into an early embryo from which embryonic stem cell lines would be developed and guided into becoming healthy insulin producing pancreatic islet cells. These would replace the diseased ones, for example, in a child suffering from juvenile diabetes.
What would you not do to make your child disease free and healthy? But somewhere in the process, life begins. That has been an ethical dilemma for those who believe that human life is sacred at every stage, even on a petri dish.The late pope John Paul II, for example, admonished President George W Bush on a visit to the Vatican saying that a “free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death.”
The late pontiff was referring to proposals for the creation of embryonic stem cells for research purposes, which hold the promise to lead to a cure for diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and much more. The pope himself was afflicted with Parkinson’s, one of the millions of sufferers of the debilitating disease. The promises of embryonic stem cell research for healing incurable diseases and rejuvenating life are so great that it appears inhuman to shut the door on it.
Many people wondered why the Vatican would deny the gift of stem cell miracle to the suffering humanity. Suffering is at the heart of Christianity, especially Catholicism. Suffering creates compassion and humanises us. Respect for life must begin at the beginning, and the beginning of life could be on a petri dish or the womb. Pope John Paul II warned: “how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide…”
Would Pope John Paul II have refused the stem cell-based cure for his Parkinson’s, if it were available in his times? The Vatican, nonetheless, is not totally opposed to stem cell research; it favours the research based on adult stems cells, though the results of such a research at present are not promising. Embryonic stem cells have the potential of growing any specific stem cell, such as bone or brain stem cell, needed to heal the body. Cloning embryonic stem cells takes one more step toward creating life to heal life.
The Vatican’s view about the sanctity of life is a sharp condemnation of the practice of foeticide, especially the killing of female foetuses, a widespread practice in some parts of South Asia. It is difficult to surmise what happens to the conscience of a woman who learns upon pre-natal screening that she is carrying a female foetus and decides to abort it, especially now when abortion technology enables a woman to abort in a jiffy. That’s why many Americans have not been able to ignore the late pope’s warning that the destruction of embryos to extract stem cells, even when the purpose is to fight diseases and reduce human suffering, would dehumanise us.
Regardless of the views of the Vatican or the policy of the Bush administration to deny funding embryonic stem cell research with federal money, stem cell research, as the Harvard announcement shows, is unstoppable for the simple reason that the perceived health benefits not only in terms of fighting incurable diseases but also prolonging healthy life are immeasurable.
Stem cell revolution is as momentous as was the splitting of the atom; therefore, it needs protocols and safeguards to harness its benefits without the coarsening of our conscience.It requires a fundamental change in our thinking, a paradigm shift as significant as when Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens ~ away from the Vatican.
Now that that the mighty Harvard has put its moral authority, reputation, knowledge and wisdom at stake in pursuit of health and happiness for mankind, let us hope the marketplace, the ultimate test of everything in the USA, does not coarsen life in the process.

The Mighty Harvard

Harvard v the Vatican

ND Batra

Tuesday, June 6, 2006


For a just & competitive society
From The Statesman

Quotas and reservations in India are merely populist measures to win votes for the next election; they would never churn up the backward classes to the fore. Even if some people were put on the creamy surface, they would go down unless they are intellectually prepared and enabled to stay on the top in a competitive environment.
The quota and reservation system is one of the biggest frauds being committed against historically deprived classes. This is the way to keep them down forever. The best way to raise them high is through a system of challenge and response; by providing them access through merit and need-based scholarships so that backward class kids can compete in the marketplace. Let’s keep in mind that historically deprived people are not genetically deprived.
Like India, the USA is an imperfect and messy democracy. The goal of inclusiveness, not merely desegregation, has been a struggle for every generation. Time and time again, the US Supreme Court has played a critical role in bringing the American people back to the basics, the vision of the founding fathers of an integrated society.
The Supreme Court is not only the ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Constitution; it has become the supreme moral authority in the USA. “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
That was the opinion of the US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor regarding the affirmative action admission policy of the University of Michigan (23 June 2003). Justice O’Connor, who occupied a middle-of-the road open-minded position on the US Supreme Court, has retired but her legacy lives on.
When the Supreme Court speaks, the question of what is right and what is wrong is settled until the next time when another crisis brings the nine justices together to ponder over and argue once again what the Constitution means, after all. Its decisions are seldom unanimous and the voice of dissenting justices is never lost.
Even a lone dissenting opinion might become the voice of the Court majority in another time when the mode of consciousness of the society changes. That’s why there is so much partisan political struggle as to who gets appointed to the Supreme Court.
But by and large the Court is both a reactive and creative institution. It listens and questions; but when it does speak everyone listens.
That’s how it bonds American society whenever it seems to be coming apart, for example, in the 2000 presidential election. On 23 June 2003, the Supreme Court spoke about the affirmative action policy of the University of Michigan and its decision has impacted every private and public institution as well as businesses in their recruitment practices. Its decision has not gone unnoticed by Indian commentators struggling with the recently proposed nationwide quota for Other Backward Classes (OBC) for admission to Central universities.
One of the US Supreme Court decisions involved the University of Michigan Law School that used a method of admission in which race was included as one of the factors. The Court upheld the practice thus affirming the 1978 (the Bakke case) decision that allowed race to be considered as one of the many factors, a “plus” factor, for admission, emphasising that diversity enriches the educational environment.
The Court did not endorse the idea of a quota for any race. The Court was, however, troubled with the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, which used a point system that automatically granted 20 points to a minority student (Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans) toward a minimum of 100 (on a scale of 150) required for admission. The plaintiffs had complained of reverse discrimination that disqualified otherwise qualified white students. In this case a 6-3 majority led by the late Chief Justice Rhenquest called the numerical system not good enough to enrich diversity.
An individualised admission programme would consider the whole person, including race as a factor among others. In the Law School case, Justice O’Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority: “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civil life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realised…. Access to legal education (and thus the legal profession) must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity so that all members of our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational instructions that provide the training and education necessary to succeed in America.”
Since the enactment of Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans have been given a legal recourse to fight against discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. It has opened many doors for minorities to advance in fields that were shut on them. The United States Military wouldn’t be what it is today without affirmative action. It is the biggest field of “the American Dream” and minorities are drawn to it with the hope that service to the nation would open up opportunities for them.
Former secretary of state Colin Powell, a retired army general, exemplified what a person could achieve once affirmative action opened a door. But his successor, secretary of state Dr Condoleezza Rice, another black person, has risen to international prominence on sheer guts and merit.
American businesses, too, have embraced diversity as something good for them to succeed in a multi-cultural global environment. The Supreme Court heard myriad briefs filed in support of the University of Michigan, and the Court’s decision embodies their collective voice: Diversity is a compelling national interest. But neither corporate America nor any social group has ever advocated that diversity and social justice should be achieved through a system of quotas and reservations for historically deprived classes, as it is being done in India.