Second outing: About Digital Origins and Identities

I have never been of one place, any place. Even before I left India to live in Europe, I was never of one culture, one language. My experiences in Europe amusingly showed me that sometimes I am also not of one colour. I like it that way. Needless to say, my reactions to many things – which are proposed as black-or-white, 1-or-0, this-or-that – are tempered by this ability to see variations, shades of grey and other hues, across boundaries. This post about digital origins and identities was written originally in July 2007. It gets a second outing now that I am part of a bigger blogging community where these questions will resonate and I hope, generate a discussion.

Professor John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center, delivered the keynote address on “The Internet and University” at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society’s Internet & Society Conference titled “University — Knowledge Beyond Authority: What Is the Role of University in Cyberspace?” The core theme of his speech was that students coming into universities today are “digital natives” and fundamentally different in their use of technology than the “digital immigrants” who teach them.

Natives and immigrants – a great analogy which you must keep in mind as you review the general gist of his speech, which I had to cull from various sources since the whole speech is still not available on-line in entirely. Is this proof of the ‘digital immigrant’ status of the larger Harvard community?

The gist is as follows:
There are differences between being born digital versus learning to be digital. The four major attributes of natives are that they have digital identities, they multi-task, they use digital media (both tools such as cameras as well as ‘channels’ such as flickr and youtube), and they have gone from being consumers to creators, thus creating a sort of “Semiotic Democracy”.

There are challenges posed by this new media including the digital divide, ethics and transparency. The question whether teachers, as digital immigrants should be reborn? How will pedagogical methods change?

Interesting so far. I was most interested in the ‘identity’ aspect of this speech, and think that the analogy fails when referring to immigrants being ‘reborn’. I word it differently and add another layer of distinction by extending the immigrant analogy.

Looking around me in the real world – or should we call that the analogue world now – I identify two kinds of immigrants.

Some immigrants remain loyal to their country of birth, defining their identity by their origin and origin alone; they support their country-of-birth’s cricket team; they make 1, sometimes more, pilgrimages a year to their country of birth, referring to it as ‘home’ notwithstanding that they pay mortgage in their adopted country; they socialise largely with people from their country of origin, making some, not many relationships and friendships with ‘natives’.

Others naturalise and go ‘native’. They understand that ‘home’ is where you pay mortgage, where you shower and change for work every morning and not a place where you visit 1 or 2 times a year to spend time with your parents and siblings. They learn to be ashamed at the cricket team of their adopted country being beaten by 3rd rate teams from elsewhere, as well as be ashamed when their country of birth loses to a new European team! They can look at both countries dispassionately but not detachedly; they remain closely involved with both countries personally and professionally. They build quasi-families and deep friendships with the ‘natives’, as well as retaining the close ties with other migrants from their country of origin. While they foster a complex, kaleidoscopic identity, they remain aware of their distance from both the countries, their difference from the citizens of both and forge their own path ahead.

In the digital world, this latter group of people, the ‘naturalised digital citizen‘ is somewhere between the ‘digital native’ and the ‘digital immigrant’. These naturalised digital citizens are fully paid up members of social networks from LinkedIn to Facebook connected to their teachers in some cases, fully paid up contributors to the blogosphere as writers and readers, Twittering on friends’ mobiles, bookmarking on and checking their Technorati ratings and ego-surfing to see how they control their online image, Googling on Google Scholar and quietly drafting a note to the product manager from a researcher’s point of view on how to improve the product. They also have real friends whom they know by face and with whom they have impromptu lunches and cinema visits; they write and publish in printed magazines too; they also sit in – and enjoy the tranquil surroundings of – the British Library thumbing through papers for their research, enjoying the limitations set by the fact that the Library staff will only bring out copies of the papers you want and request in advance and not whole journals. They shop online for books and packaged foods, while still buying their greens in the ‘real world’. For their favourite brands, they may use a 3-D model on the web to buy their next trousers, but when they want to buy something different, they go into a shop and try it out. They email and read feeds, but also write letters and read hardback books, sometimes reviewing them on Amazon. Everything short of – sometimes not – a fully paid up citizenship in the Second Life.

This is not being reborn, as Professor Palfrey puts it. This is ‘adaptation‘ on a smaller time scale than Darwinian adaptation may require. This is not a struggle for survival, but survival of the fittest.

I wonder what Professor Palfrey would think of this distinction. May be I should ask him… Meanwhile tell me what YOU think.

Second outing: Redux: the global warming "band" wagon

In a dilemma over to-print or not-to-print, a friend of mine in California and I were discussing our respective green karma. She is of the view that having grown up in India, and having lived there for a long while, I have saved enough water and paper not to worry about printing occasional materials for my writing.

She said that the US was the largest consumer of paper with an average American consuming 730lb of paper, and I found confirmation here.

She added: “Humans kill trees so they can wipe their bums. How would humans feel if we were killed so trees could wipe their leaves?” Pause for thought, eh?

She then suggested that this earlier post from April 2007, deserved a second outing. So here it is:

Warning: Contains some scatological references; please do not read if offended easily by mention of or reference to bodily functions.

More from Sheryl Crow, whose bio-diesel tour bus was mentioned in an earlier post, on saving the planet:

* Ration loo-roll to one square except on pesky occasions when 2 or 3 may be needed;

* Instead of paper napkins, use a cloth dining sleeve;

Interesting as these ideas are, I think they stem from deeply-ingrained cultural practices too difficult to change. The mantra for being green goes “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Sheryl Crow’s ideas are based on ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’.

What about alternative ways?

It may surprise her to know that even in countries where there is a paucity of water, people use water, not loo roll (you could call the bidet a kind of western equivalent).

Further, I agree that paper napkins are a waste, but there is no consensus on the ‘green’ economics of paper versus cloth napkins. Much energy is consumed in washing and then (presumably) ironing cloth napkins, whereas paper napkins could be made from recycled paper and degrade easily without further use of washing up liquid, water or energy. An easier solution? Let’s all learn some table manners, use our hands to dust off loose flour and bits etc, and wash our hands after eating. Having grown up in a developing country, I can tell you with confidence that it takes about 30ml of water to wash one’s hands without soap, and about 100ml with soap.

While we are on the subject of eating, I must mention that many a time, I have been asked why Indians eat with their hands. Well, I explain, it is more sensible to trust the hygiene of one’s own hands than to trust cutlery that has travelled many a mouth. Further it saves washing up, but this ‘explanation’ I have admittedly made up. Instead of promoting the cultural shift needed to start eating with one’s hands, I would again mention innovation in edible cutlery about which my friend Shantanu wrote last year, and which I found in a neighbourhood vegetarian/ vegan store right here in the UK shortly thereafter. No cutlery, no washing-up, no detergent used, no water needed.

Too radical for Ms Crow?

Twist in the tale: Watson (contd.)

Continuing the story of James Watson, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories first issued a press release distancing themselves from Watson’s view on intelligence of black people and now have suspended him, pending further deliberations at the Labs.

Considering all his engagements are being cancelled by hosts in a hurry to distance themselves from Watson, the Cambridge Union Society may be the only place where he is apparently still scheduled to speak.

Several terabytes of data packets are floating on the web about “what he said” and “what is being done” by way of cancellations of appearances.

But while all this goes on, his book “Avoid Boring People“, which admittedly does sound like the title of a Dilbert comic, is in the top 100 books on Amazon-UK.

If the “what” of the whole story bothers you much more than the “why” does, here is a story for you to consider.

During my MBA, we had to watch a film as part of course materials. The film was called Skokie, named after the Illinois village where the story takes place. It is a Jewish majority village through which a Neo-Nazi group wishes to march. One survivor of a concentration camp decides that ignoring is not enough; he will take action. The story depicts the views of several generations from fear, bad memories, disgust, helplessness, concern to shoulder-shrugging indifference amongst teenagers in the village. You can probably read the synopsis much better here.

So what? If you have not seen the film, you cannot guess how it ends. When the film ended and the lights went back on, the boisterous, high decibel MBA group was in a shocked silence, something that affirmed the essential humanity of many in my mind.

After much national debate and court cases involving the ACLU, the Neo Nazi group pulls out. Their leader says that the objective of the march was to create greater awareness of the Neo Nazi movement. With so much public attention having been paid, at government’s and taxpayers’ expense, that objective had been achieved and the march was no longer needed.

Surprised? Now consider this! Is it possible that by discussing the issue over and over again, Watson’s idea of “racism” is being propagated much more than it might have done as any other interview in a British Sunday paper? And that the very same people are propagating it as claim to be horrified by it?

If it bothers everyone so much that Watson is being racist, don’t you think it is time to stop promoting and discussing the idea till the world is aflame?

Oh and by the way, will you be buying the book? Millions apparently are.

Whatever your answer: ask yourself why. “Why” is the essential question in Science and if more people asked it more often, the world might just have been a better place.

Scientists as "people"

Long post alert!

The Science Museum in London has cancelled a talk by James Watson, of Watson & Crick fame. The museum takes exception to his remarks made to the Sunday Times where he says that black people are essentially “less intelligent” than “ours”. At the time of writing this post – Thursday 18 October 2007 – Watson’s scheduled appearance at the Cambridge Union Society is still on. Cambridge Union Society is a debating society so such people, as Watson or Jean-Marie Le Pen, are almost grist to the mill.

Reader and fellow blogger Madhuri, who is a biology PhD and (ed.: until July 2007) a post-doctoral researcher in the US, has also taken exception to this remark by a scientist held in high regard, even as his shortcomings as a person increasingly raise questions about his judgement.

There are two separate issues here – one is the appropriateness of Watson’s growing tendency to be direct and in current terms, politically incorrect; and the second is the issue of intelligence. In this post, which I aim to finish in the next 15-20 minutes, I shall only write about the former, hence the title of the post: Scientists as “people”.

The questions to ask are:

Why do some people express opinions that outrage most people today?

Where do these views come from?

Is there a “right” way to judge their appropriateness?

Are these views to be taken seriously?

If these views are likely to cause harm, what is the mitigation, short of confining such people to an institution?

Watson is now 82. When he was born, eugenics was a well-funded branch of scientific research. He comes from an age where social norms were different and certain behaviours were acceptable. For instance, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to enabling Watson and Crick’s “discovery” was glossed over for a long time in history. The sort of behaviour meted out to Franklin would – in theory – be unacceptable behaviour today, but it was acceptable then. To turn the issue on its head, today perhaps a woman scientist will fight back. Why did Franklin not make that choice? For part of the reasons, I refer you to the brief history of women in Cambridge in the comments section from an earlier post. Franklin’s contributions being key to the Triple Helix discovery puts to rest any doubts about her inherent capability as a scientist. But since 1901, only 3% of Nobel Prize winners have been women.

In 21st century reality, women researchers are still treated as second-class in many laboratories. A super-smart friend of mine was a mature PhD student in environmental chemistry, in Cambridge. She told me of how a young 22-year old male PhD thought it was ok to talk down at her, asking her to run his errands. She set him straight, but one has to wonder where he learnt it was ok to talk down to a colleague like that? As Ali G would ask “Is it because I is a woman?” Not an insignificant proportion of his bad behaviour was down to his maleness and his evident sense of being born superior. But some of it was definitely learnt. It is hard today to fathom a life where a man can go unchallenged for a whole 22 years! Perhaps that is how his father treats his mother? Perhaps his laboratory seniors and Professors overlook his social faux pas and thereby encourage them?

Larry Summers found to his peril that the scientific establishment’s treatment of women can never be explained away satisfactorily, whichever way you frame your argument. Empirical evidence shows that it is a complex of factors – most of them institutional – that has held back women’s progress and participation in science, as well as their rightful claim to credit for some of the most lauded scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Just like the state of women in science is a complex reality, so are the views expressed by Watson.

Some of it is down to his upbringing. Some of it is down to an establishment that prized his genius so much that it never rebuked him. Some of it is down to the fact that he is antediluvian and therefore espouses antediluvian views. This is not an ageist comment. This is something that scientists have been struggling to understand for a while.

Recent research shows that while younger people, who make an effort to be politically correct and fit with the evolving norms of acceptable behaviour, can change, older people genuinely find it difficult to change. This is down to how our brains age. An older research paper suggests that older people say prejudicial things because they just cannot help it. They lose their inhibitions as their brain’s ability to inhibit inappropriate thoughts diminishes. Recent research by the same Bill von Hippel of University of Queensland confirms the finding that as we age, our brains’ frontal lobes atrophy and so do the functions associated with the frontal lobes such as planning, reasoning, judgement, impulse control and motor control.

This may also explain why Watson thinks that if it can be done, girls should be made pretty. Hardly an appropriate remark!

So is there a right way to judge the inappropriateness of some remarks? Back to Watson and Franklin, to judge events from back then through a lens of today would be incorrect. We cannot revise history but if we do not learn from it and change ourselves, we will soon be repeating it, to paraphrase Santayana.

If these views are not to be taken seriously, what about the harm they may cause? Madhuri suggests that people with bigoted views still serve on funding committees and can hamper the chances of perfectly good candidates who do not suit their criteria of being “ours”.

Here is my take on it.

I would immensely prefer a Watson, a poor old dear with diminishing control over his frontal lobe and his mouth, whose opinions are out in the open, to a smart-arse who espouses just the right views in public and then goes inside and strikes out all minorities – gender, race, colour – from the list of potential beneficiaries of funding.

Do Watson’s views harm his workplace? Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories, which host Watson, have a diverse community of researchers, even though a vast majority of them are male. But there are signs of hope. There are some women as well as several non-white – mainly Indian and Chinese – researchers. Admittedly I did not click to see each researcher’s mugshot. But from the name list, it appears there are no black/ African-American/ Afro-Carribean researchers at CSHL.

Is this all down to Watson’s racism? I do not think so.

The United States passed its civil rights act in 1964 and by all accounts, the country still struggles with where it stands on race. Surely even scientists appalled by Watson’s racism can see that it is not all his fault.

Watson will be dead in a few years’ time, but if the youth of the country is still bigoted, we have a bigger problem at hand than just the utterances of an old man of DNA.


Yes, I know that post title should have been followed by ‘sic‘ in brackets. I can spell fine but before ‘pharming‘ was cruelly hijacked by ‘phishers’, it used to imply a combination of the agricultural methods with advanced biotechnology. This involves insertion, into plants and animals, of genetic material that would code for useful drug products, which can then either be purified or just consumed directly.

A well-known example of such GE* food products is of course Golden Rice. Golden Rice is created to deliver Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes night blindness, common in developing countries. Its health benefits notwithstanding, Golden Rice has attracted a lot of criticism from anti-globalisation and environmental activists. If the science were to be considered, separate from the argument surrounding private profits and patent ownerships, or political will, it is a good illustration of what can be achieved with technology.

The promise of the technology made way for European funding to explore the development of vaccines and drugs for HIV, rabies and tuberculosis.

Today it is reported that Sembiosys, a Canadian firm, has developed a safflower variety, with human genetic material added, that can deliver insulin. Unlike bacterially-produced insulin, these plants needn’t be kept in sealed areas but can be grown in open spaces. Trial planting has been done in Chile, the US and Canada.

Although the number of Type-I or insulin-dependent diabetics is smaller (5-15% of all diabetics) than those with Type-II or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, the market is still considerable. The incidence of Type-I was commonly associated with age but in recent years, a huge growth has been seen in children. Much as this is no cause for joy as a society, it still means that demand for insulin will grow.

The regulatory loop of bio-equivalence to human insulin of course yet needs to be cleared, if the firm is to have hopes of large scale commercialisation, and large scale profits.

As block-buster drugs become more elusive, new methods of production and delivery of drugs will gain importance. Since food is essential, what can be better to deliver essential drugs and ensure enhanced compliance?

* GE (genetically engineered) is technically the correct term for what we commonly call GM (genetically modified) in food context.