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Diagramming Sentences of Value: Evolving Human Rights and the Terms of Geoethical Nanotechnology
Wrye Sententia   Jul 20, 2005   Terasem Foundation  

Talk at 1st Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology, July 20, 2005 by Wrye Sententia, Ph.D., Director, Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethic.

Dr. Martine Rothblatt:  Our next presenter, the Director for the Center of Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, is Dr. Wrye Sententia, speaking on the subject of diagramming sentences of value, evolving human rights in terms of geoethical nanotechnology.  We have had a number of people today talking about thought, freedom of thought, prisms of thought, policies governing thought.  Ultimately, as I think we will hear in our keynote presentation from Ray Kurzweil, in the end it’s all going to come down to thought.  So I think a great launching point for that discussion will be a group which is dedicated to protecting the liberty of thought and one of its foremost thinkers, Dr. Sententia.  Wrye.

Dr. Wrye Sententia:  Thank you.  First of all I want to extend a large thank you for Martine and the Terasem crew for putting this gathering together.  I think it’s really important and I’m very happy to be in this proactive setting.  I also want to begin with a private comment that Martine said to me this morning as we were looking out on a beautiful environment seated here in another beautiful environment.  She said history is the pair of nucleotides that are the base pairs which are us. 

Today technologies that we have and the questions that they raise are more groping, more comprehensive than at any other point in human history.  Technology is drawn into human effort.  It becomes an integral part of who we are and what we do.  Hannah Arendt said as much in the mid-century in her book The Human Condition.  Now nanoscale science, engineering, and medicine is poised to radically alter our current human condition.  I’ve been charged with a definition of geoethical nanotechnology and I don’t have one.  What I do have are puzzle pieces and we are here together to solve this puzzle.  I don’t think we will solve it today.  I don’t think it will be tomorrow.  But we need to make an attempt.

Each of us approaches puzzles in a different way.  Some people go for corner pieces, other people go for scuttling the pieces around until they fit.  But the goal is to end up with a completed puzzle, not a pile of unassembled parts and not to have someone lock up your game in the process.  We shouldn’t be hoarding puzzle pieces.  The puzzle is constantly changing.

My particular interest in nanotechnology and in nanoscale science is in the area of cognition, accelerated cognition and communication in data processing, memory enhancement, neurodiagnostics and nanomedicine.  In gray matter, not gray goo.  I think that for myself I do have concerns about nanoscale surveillance, about the loss of autonomy, not just for my own personal decision-making capacities, but for those who have already diminished decisions, those who have less of a voice in what’s going on in the rapid acceleration of techno-culture. 

Most of you here know about The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. But if you’re not here and if you are not familiar with us, the Center for Cogntive Liberty & Ethics has set out as its mission to protect and promote freedom of thought in an age of interactive technologies where we’re interacting with the brain on a literal and quite technical level.  Freedom to think without constraint is a fundamental human right and an evolutionary necessity. 

Back to my intentionally unwieldy title, I like words but I don’t like this title.  I think that language offers a kind of linguistic puzzle that affects how we think and how we act.  Sentences come before paragraphs, but after words.  Sentences are also an analog in different semantic systems.  There are analogs to grammatical sentences in mathematical formulations, in formal logic, in computer programming and of course in the law in passing judgment and claiming a sentence.  I think we are at the sentence level in terms of geoethics, after words but before paragraphs.  We have some of the terms on the table.  We have some of the concerns that are getting air time in the public but we don’t quite know how the science is going to fit together into our larger social and semantic systems and how to bring about the most benefits and inhibit most harm.

As you know and as we just heard from Frank Tipler, most of people’s practical expression is run on autopilot and tends to bifurcate into binary decision making.  Linear questions lead to linear results.  It’s like the grocery store question, “Would you like paper or plastic?”  Inevitably you choose one and you’re never quite such which one is hurting the environment and if you’ve done the right thing with your choice.  I’d like to put out the idea of syntax as patterns of relation in sentences and semantics as patterns of meaning.  When we think about diagramming sentences, in this instance we have a simple sentence on the screen:  “We have made progress.”  There is a noun, there is a verb, there are objects and verbs.  This sentence as it stands leads to a straightforward meaning, provided that you agree with the sentence.  But you don’t necessarily have to agree to see the logic of the sentence.  There is sort of a grammar gavel that comes into effect.  It’s straightforward and there is not much disagreement about it. 

I think that if-then sentences are a form of thinking that comes up a lot in ethical discussions.  They rely on a deceptively simple pattern.  Consequential relationships are built and coerced by the grammar of “if-then” logic.  I will show you a couple of examples of this later.  In computer programming, you also have if-then-else logic.  In branching logic with nested “if” codes are constrained by conditions and determine results, “if-then-else.”  I want to put on the table today an appeal to think of how the cultural, the nested cultural, social and ethical “if” clauses can be leveraged, productively leveraged to improve the human condition. 

Social software is buggy.  Okay?  We can’t reach consensus.  The processing power that we can collectively gather helps and good design strategies help but I would, to play devil’s advocate with Max More, say that objectivity is not something that we can ever achieve.  It’s not in the human sphere, that’s what I would argue.  So an if-then-else logic doesn’t work well for ethics and it doesn’t work well for forecasting the future because ethics take place in a geopolitical matrix that’s constantly changing and is unpredictable, unmanageable and repeatedly subject to human variables. 

I want to argue today for proactive social engineering. So the proactionary principle, offered by Max More in his presentation today, fits very well with my thinking right now and I will adopt that phrase into my lexicon.  How can we engage abstract values, things like cognitive liberty, terms like human freedom to serve as we build thought into action with the assistance of technology?

Here is another straightforward sentence, it has a noun, a verb and a couple of prepositional phrases.  If you read it this way then you know that Jimbo used a telescope to see Ahab in the park.  Pay attention to D, D is the determiner.  If you read it in the second way, Jimbo saw Ahab and that’s all you know about Jimbo and Ahab was doing something with a telescope probably and Ahab was in the park. 

I’m going to run through these quickly.  You have conjunctives, you have simultaneous actions and you have a different version of simultaneous action.  From these examples, I hope you get the idea.  Concretely, the sentence is reading the same.  But constructively, the meaning shifts in the ways you parse it out—in how you place emphasis on the grammar.  I’m not going on to the relativist side of the aisle, where everything is arbitrary and nothing is fixed because objectively the sentence is the same.  The song remains the same.  Sorry, a little Led Zeppelin reference.  I’ve got to get those in.

In thinking about the ethics of nanotechnology and the dizzying complexities that we are faced with of convergent technical issues, scientific issues, and social issues, the diversity is as extensive as our planet, as our language systems are multiple and as our values are imbedded in culture that is an expression of language.

I would like to make an assertion that as proclaimed advocates and self-conscious advocates of geoethical nanotechnology, we each have strong values that we bring to the table.  From the Extropy Institute, from the World Transhumanist Association, from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, my own organization, the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, and then extending out to the larger global community with interests and concerns—to ETC for the environmental impact to the President’s Council on Bioethics with their own insights and agendas and to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Department of Commerce and all the other players who are speaking up in this discussion of nanoscale science and nanoethics.

What nested values can we collectively affirm for the future?  Can we?  Why should we?  I’m a big fan of emerging ethics.  Emerging ethics requires that we pull back from our own binary thinking, from our own if-then logic.  We need new paradigms.  We need new alliances, strategic ones that are contingent.  Because we have some of the representatives of the organizations that I mentioned, I’m going to focus on some that aren’t here to speak.  This is from the converging technologies report of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, specifically the focus on improving human performance.  On this slide you see the clause that is put forth suggesting that ethics is a necessary component to the discussion of nanoscience and nanoscale engineering.  But what is “proper attention”?  It’s obvious that the difficulty is in managing competing interests, managing different desires, and different needs across cultures, across continents. 

The issue was on the table for the National Science Foundation a year before this converging technology report at least and it came up in the report on the societal implications of nanoscience.  This image is from that report.  It was on the cover.  “Polymer rods embedded with cadmium selenide nanocrystals, fluorescing at various wavelengths.  This photograph suggests the broad societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology. “Well, I’m glad that’s perfectly clear.  To a specialist, maybe, but to the non-specialist certainly that’s not going to carry.  Furthermore, in California, something like the rainbow evokes gay, lesbian and queer-friendly culture.  I’m sure that’s not what the NSF intended. 

So I would like to focus briefly on two attempts at international dialog on ethics that have come up in the last year or so.  Last October ICON, the International Council of Nanotechnology held its first meeting at Rice University.  How many people in the room are familiar with ICON?  Okay.  ICON’s mission is to “assess, communicate and reduce nanotechnology, environmental, and health risks while maximizing its social benefit.”  It sounds pretty good and they say that everybody is participating.  However, last fall when ICON met there were representatives from several non-profit groups with explicit concerns for the environmental consequences of nanoscience who were invited to join ICON and didn’t go and others in this room I suspect were not invited.  CRN was not invited?  Okay, no. 

One of the groups that was invited and didn’t go was ETC.  ETC has made a lot of visible impact on the debates over nanotechnology, particularly with the call for a moratorium on research and their subsequent reports on the damaging effects.  So why did ETC and the two other groups from Washington DC decline formal participation in the forum?  Well, they cited as their reasons a conflict of interest in the organization’s structure, a corporate-driven research agenda and the issue of sponsorship, who was paying for it.  Pat Mooney of the ETC criticized the word “international” in the name because he saw the sponsors and he said, “It doesn’t cut it to have Mitsubishi from Japan and L’Oreal from France.  Two-thirds of the globe is left out in the process.” 

So I think some of the concerns, we are all familiar with these.  Another complaint was that ICON needed to include more stakeholders, more people from academia, more trade unions, more developing countries and a similar desire for the inclusion of more voices is voiced by the Europeans.  I’m going to skip that slide. 

So this is my Bill McKibben moment.  Will enough stakeholders ever be enough stakeholders?  I’m not sure.  This is another group that has some international pretensions to open dialog and have convened stakeholders, but I’m not going to go into it.  They too raise international concerns that most of us are familiar with, which brings us to another Bill McKibben moment.  When are enough ethics or enough dialogs going to reach enough ethics?  At what point will we be able to say, “Now we’ve got it,  now we can make a decision.”?

Affirming ethics means applied ethics.  It’s not enough to say that you love me.  You’ve got to show it.  So we need to move from if-then simple syntax to if-then complex formations.  I’d like to look at some strategies that don’t seem to work and some strategies that can. 

The first example I will show you s from a person who I believe was at the WTA conference last year in Toronto, so maybe in the discussion those of you who were there can tell me more about him.  But his stated position seems to mimic the President’s Council on Bioethics, calling for an ethical language that’s “without distortion” and that somehow reaches a moral point that it becomes “perfectly clear.”  I’m confused even by this language of perfect clarity.  But that’s another issue. 

It’s not just conservative bioethicists who are using this kind of fallacy in an “if-then” moment. If we can determine the morality, then we can act, then we can know.  It’s also the rationalists, to quote Bill Joy: “If we could agree as a species what we wanted, where we were headed and why, then we could make our future much less dangerous.  Then we might understand what we can and should relinquish.” There is an odd confidence, a utopian wish that language can be pinned down in species agreement but we can’t even agree what a species is.  It’s specious I guess.

So why bother with abstract values like cognitive liberty?  Because nested values in the diagram part of reality, the part that you don’t see, the sentence diagram that you don’t see, nested values can change peoples’ attitudes and actions.  Just as nanotechnology changes the property of matter at a scale that we can’t see, so can affirming ethical values.  If at the center of nanotechnology applications we can attach a language of freedom, a language of human rights, we can shift the way that society will respond, but not necessarily in a direct linear fashion.

Diagramming social change takes parsing at a scale that’s not measurable by the naked eye.  Now this is really weird.  Why do I have an example of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in a discussion of nanotechnology?  Because this is just one example, and there are countless examples of speech acts, of creating action through words. 

When a priest pronounces you married and you act that way and the state gives you benefits and others react to you that way, there is a speech act that has been committed.  The priest has made you married.  It’s the same thing when a cop yells after you as you are going down the street and you see him.  “Hey, you!” he yells And then you turn, stop, or, you run.  What you do in that situation kind of depends on how you approach the law. 

So a speech act affects how we behave.  Language goes even further.  Judith Butler, has anyone heard of Judith Butler?  All right.  Judith Butler is a professor who studied how we perform our own identity, how we perform acts of gender.  She talks about how gender is produced over time and through repetition.  It starts on babies.  You get pink or blue and you get blue until you are blue in the face.  So it’s a ritualized act.  The stronger the effects of repeated affirmations, the stronger the feedback in social environments and the stronger the influence will be on how we behave.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a reality show on the Bravo Channel.  Familiar?  Okay.  There are five guys with taste.  These are five gay guys with taste and one straight guy without any.  What they do is an extreme makeover on the tasteless guy’s fashion, his food, his design.  It’s concerned with all the aspects of his lived environment.  At the same time they are redoing that, they respect the interests and the values of the person they are engaging with.  Through this process I see an extreme makeover of the straight mind.  It’s not just superficial.  It’s not just the direct personal value of “I got taste, now I get the girl.”  It’s not thateven though that’s the level of appreciation that it sometimes takes place the show at. 

But there is an indirect social value.  There is the audience that is facilitated by the TV broadcast, that is learning increased tolerance, learning appreciation, and understanding for something that they may not have a direct relationship with in their daily reality.  There is an implied semantics subtext that: “it’s okay to have gay friends.”  It’s okay because we all are the same—we are all consumers who want things in our lives.  There is a cultural bridge through something that seems very superficial but that acts on a deeper mental level.  So what does this have to do with geoethical nanotechnology?  It has to do with taking language, doing acts of tangible good, even reengineering.  Using the word “queer” in the title to provoke intangible social change and different iterations of meaning. 

I’m going to skip this, but I could say more.  We can talk about Rebuilt at another point.  I will say that Michael Chorost, who has a cochlear implant in his head, has said “the essence of my implant was language.” 

We need to create sentences to parse out the geoethical puzzle and then to find places to deploy new meanings.  I’ve mentioned the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics; privacy, autonomy and choice are values that we see embedded even within freedom of thought and autonomy.

So to close, I would like to take the sentence back down to the physical reality.  We have the backdrop, the diagram.  But what can we do?  In the year 2000, virtually all countries signed on to a global proclamation for the UN’s millennium goals, which was an abstract statement that didn’t exist before the year 2000, a way to make direct, tangible improvements in eight areas of human well-being for the world’s poorest populations. 

The millennium goals progress report issued just last year has shown that just by manifesting the words of the proclamation, they have set in motion change.  There is increased equity for girls’ education, improved literacy, reductions in maternal mortality, and improvement in issues of environmental sustainability.  In Africa, in Southeast Asia, across the globe, these changes are taking place.  But they are not there yet—there’s a lot more to be done The UN has set a level of benchmark goals for the year 2015.

So what can nanotechnology do?  18% of the world’s population, 1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water.  One of the target goals of the UN is to cut this number in half worldwide by the year 2015.  Let me just add that people who can’t drink can’t think and can’t think about freedom. 

So if the mega-minds of nanotechnology could get behind the practical implementation of these eight goals, they would impact not only the poor, but they would have a marketing campaign to die for.  It would get global coverage.  And it could potentially shift the attitudes, the skepticism, the concern, the suspicion to nanoscale engineering.  This is phase one of the future and I’m counting on us to create the second.  Thanks.

Wrye Sententia served as a fellow of the IEET from 2005 through 2009. She also directed the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), a nonprofit research, policy, and public education center working to advance and protect freedom of thought into the 21st century.

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