We don't want bio-engineered food, but we do want our privacy: Readers respond to Alan Goldstein's "Bio-stupid" and David Brin's "Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society."

By Salon Staff
Published August 6, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read "Bio-stupid."]

Alan Goldstein contrasts the ignorance and arrogance of the biotechnologists with the ignorance and arrogance of the biotech protesters. It is not a pretty picture.

I was in the Reclaim the Commons group; I am not ignorant of genetics or cell biology and I am daily bombarded with one aspect of bio-engineering (pharmaceutical marketing.) I agree with much of the criticism Goldstein levels against the protesters -- there is too much ignorance, too little understanding of both the biological sciences and the "science" of marketing, leading to a largely ineffective protest -- though in reality, many points were scored by the protesters.

On the other hand, he admits to the same fears that drive the Reclaim the Commons people -- and their vision of the future is dark indeed -- it doesn't take a scientist to see that messing around with life forms may have unintended consequences.

The teach-in that preceded the protests and the Really Really Free Market that Goldstein was so contemptuous of was a large, well-organized and scientifically literate program lasting several days. Unfortunately, many of the protesters did not attend these events, or they would have been both better informed and more frightened. Reclaim the Commons does not claim to be a university course, and it freely mixes magic with "science" -- but the science is there. It's a "commons" after all!

If Goldstein and his friends really want to save the world -- as opposed to just making witty comments as the ship goes down -- perhaps he could address himself to a group that has put a lot of themselves on the line in that effort and who are desperately in need of any support they can get in their quest to save humanity from itself. Perhaps he would like to help improve Reclaim the Commons? I don't see anyone else out there doing the job they are doing -- a job Goldstein himself implies needs doing. If there were, I would join it myself.

Dr. Goldstein, get on board! Don't just carp from the sidelines!

-- Thomas S. Duncan

As a master's student in biochemistry, I was very excited to read Alan Goldstein's first few paragraphs in "Bio-stupid," stating that he is a doctor of genetics and molecular biology and that he was going to examine both sides of the GMO/biotech debate. To do this he would "witness, record and analyze both the BIO meeting and the reactions of an opposing force called Reclaim the Commons." Such a contentious issue receives less play than it deserves in the media, often due to the lack of scientific understanding among reporters. Finally, here was someone who would pull back the curtain and ask the Wizard some well-informed and incisive questions.

How disappointed I was by the article that followed! Goldstein didn't make it into the BIO summit held in San Francisco because he failed to register in advance. The article mentions no attempt to speak to anyone from Reclaim the Commons. Instead, he teaches an impromptu seminar on biotechnology and ethics at a weekend market. Shockingly, he finds that people without a bioscience degree don't seem to understand what a stem cell is or what its manipulation might produce in terms of medical technology.

Goldstein writes early in the piece that "The BIO forces ... could have devastating and irrevocable consequences for the ecology of our planet," but he does very little to explain why this might be so. As a biochemist, I understand the process by which a fish gene can be inserted into a strawberry, but I don't understand enough about agriculture and ecology to know why spraying GMO bacteria on crops might lead to catastrophe. As someone trained in agronomy and in biotechnology, Goldstein is uniquely positioned to inform the public about why this is so. It seems that he could do his part to combat the ignorance he laments through his work in Salon. I hope sometime soon I get to see the article I thought "Bio-stupid" would be.

-- James Magee

Mr. Goldstein correctly characterizes what is wrong with most anti-technology groups: They have no idea what they're talking about. This observation could also be extended to just about any vocal "anti-" group. To really get angry about something someone is doing, it is almost necessary that you know nothing about them or what they're doing.

People are people. Even profit-driven biotechnology people are people. It could probably even be argued that marketing people are, at some fundamental level, people. And people do not typically wish to destroy the world. Anytime you hear a Luddite claiming that some new technology will destroy the world, you are hearing the cries of someone who does not accept that people are people. You are hearing the braying of a bigot. You are hearing someone whose anger is born of ignorance.

While I agree that genetic engineering is a technology that we need to be careful with, the benefits far outweigh the risks, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most of the researchers. Furthermore, I would much rather eat a tomato (an edible fruit) with a fish gene (an edible animal) than a tomato dusted with poison. To me, as well as to most of the researchers involved, recombinant genetic technology promises a much "greener" future than the paradigm in which we live now.

Finally, arguing against technology will always be an exercise in futility. Technology is a natural product of human intelligence. It is always scary. It is always a jump into the unknown. But it is inevitable. Anything which can be done will be done. People have free will, but only to the extent that simple statistical probability allows.

-- Aaron Batty

Although I can appreciate the careful agnosticism in Alan Goldstein's article "Bio-stupid," it seems to me that neither he nor the woefully uninformed BIO conference protesters he covered made much of a case against bio-engineered food, other than to propose that it is somehow "a crucial ideological battle." There may well be serious moral or economic issues that need to be debated here, but unfortunately, opponents of stem cell research like the one in the story who didn't know what stem cells are, where they come from, or what they might do seem to add little to that debate. Likewise, for Dr. Goldstein to suggest that these people may be on to something big despite their ignorance seems like a stretch considering that neither he nor they really explained what all the fuss was about. Is it enough simply to say that big oil or chemical companies funded some of the research, or to invoke scary images of headless organ-donor bodies grown from stem cells?

If there needs to be a reasonable and fact-based discussion about the potential benefits and risks of this area of technology, stories like this only create confusion and do little to clarify or explain what are the real issues. If the only protesters Dr. Goldstein could find were the lame, uninformed goofballs he cites, then why not send him to a Star Trek convention next time; at least he might get in.

-- Bob Green

"The green revolution, totally reliant on mechanized agriculture, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, was never a true green technology. Now the same players are going to feed us with the green biotechnology revolution even though there is no real evidence that hunger in today's world is the result of a shortage in food production technology."

Hurray! Thank you, Salon.com, for having the fortitude to publish an article calling attention to the real issues at hand here ... and the unfortunate inaccurate ineffectiveness of those protesting agricultural biotechnology.

-- Gautam Barua

[Read "Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society."]

Mr. Brin's article raises many interesting points regarding the use of public access to information readily available to powerful organizations. However, it falls short in two glaring respects.

First, Mr. Brin falsely assumes that the battle between monitoring versus encryption technology and legislation designed to protect privacy must ultimately be won by one side or the other. It would be more accurate to say that the battle is ongoing -- perhaps even eternal.

Second, he assumes that, as devices for invading privacy become pervasive, people will settle for a world in which they can watch the watchers as much as the watchers can watch them.

This is an inaccurate reading of human nature. The desire for privacy -- to be left alone and free from observation by others for any reason on one's own patch of earth, and to simply not have to worry about what others think you are doing -- is one which is fundamentally different (although admittedly related to) the desire to know what is being said about oneself. And, like the First Amendment, it is actually pretty easy to imagine a blanket legislation that can protect that right and encompass most eventualities. An example of such legislation would be:

No party may distribute or secrete a device or program upon another person or his property which monitors that person's location, activities, or physical status inside their own home or on their property (including their clothing, computer, PDA, etc.) without that person's express consent beforehand in each instance of monitoring; nor shall such a device or program be distributed without the ability to permanently deactivate that monitoring ability if the person so wishes. The functionality of said device or program in all other (non-monitoring) respects shall not be compromised by said deactivation.

Simple (well, to a lawyer, at least). Legally enforceable. And I can assure Mr. Brin that there will be an army of activists and lawyers who will make their careers upon suing the hell out of the makers and distributors of devices that violate such a hypothetical law.

I also predict that there will be legislation, in much the same manner as the existing "No Call List," which forbids corporations from anticipating the desires of citizens who, although subject to public monitoring like everyone else (something which I must concede does appear to be inevitable), do not wish their desires to be anticipated or their motives predicted by organizations trying to sell them things.

There are people (myself included) who do not like being billed without being asked, having our choice of food predicted without being shown the menu, or having our washing preferences determined for us. I like my clothes rumpled, God damn it!

-- Michael B. English

I agree with David Brin that the kind of surveillance and privacy-diminishing technology he writes about is coming and cannot be stopped. What I think is wrong is his either woefully naive or purposely deceptive conclusion that all of this is nooooo problem because we citizens will have accountability over how this information is used. Perhaps Mr. Brin has never heard of spyware, TiVo, or cable set-top boxes that broadcast viewer preferences back to their sources, which are then sold to marketers. In none of these cases are the information-gatherers too eager to make sure the public knows it is collecting and selling this information. It is ironic that a link at the bottom of this article should lead to an article describing an RFID test in which every buyer of Gillette razors was unknowingly photographed. While this one story got out and the test was stopped, how many others are not?

-- Scott Telek

One of the more glaring omissions of the piece centers around the use and abuse. Use of the technology to abuse the position of those in power. If you think that making things more transparent will help people to see and realize those abuses, I don't think this is realistic. Laws are made and still exist that someone may disagree with. Your resulting society would not allow for civil disobedience -- a benchmark of a truly great society.

Additionally, what if I can see another's work habits? What if they are unlike mine? The beauty of humanity is not that we all think the same, but that we are different. A completely transparent society will only create homogeneity in the world. It makes it easier for people to be controlled, actually.

The nature of fulfillment in people is the doing. If this society is created, it has just made it easier for people not to do, but to be done to -- or to watch it.

Privacy exists so that people have freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to disagree and freedom to act. A transparent society actually harms these "natural" norms; it does not enhance them.

-- Edward Kiernan

I agree with Brin's fundamental points, that the advance of technology is impossible to stop and why would we want to do that anyway, that being able to hold our government accountable is the important thing, as it always has been, etc., etc.

However -- and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's going to write in to say this -- Brin doesn't really address the near certainty that much of the technology he describes will at first be really expensive and therefore available only to those who have significant wealth: governments and corporations. By the time the price goes down -- if indeed it ever does -- a new technology may well have been invented to supersede it. That doesn't mean we should all go back to being paranoid. There are plenty of low-tech ways for little guys to get around high-tech problems. I've always been pleased that much of the most elaborate and expensive technology man has ever created can be destroyed with a glass of water. But I just wanted to point out that a technology gap will likely still exist between the watchmen and the watchmen's watchers. The watchmen will simply be able to buy what they need; to keep up, the watchers will have to work that much harder, or be that much more clever.

As long as I'm on the soapbox trying to inject some economics into the problem, it's also worth mentioning that the danger of being surveilled by high technology is, by and large, a rich-country problem. If you're truly paranoid about being followed by cameras, I'm, er, happy to report that there are plenty of places left in the world without electricity. You can always go there. Though for the people who live in those countries, many of whom still have trouble getting drinking water, your fear of security cameras and microchips may seem a little quaint.

-- Brian Slattery

David Brin has, I think, overlooked the best defense we have against surveillance -- Murphy's Law. The flaw in "1984" is that to watch everyone, someone has to be watching! Standing in the Library of Congress doesn't mean you can read all the books, or make sense of them even if you do. "Brazil" is more realistic than "1984."

However, I do not believe we should simply accept that the technology is coming and we are all vulnerable before it, either. We must not confuse the technology with its application. We must battle the inappropriate application of technology, if only to make it harder on Big Brother wannabes.

-- Steve Kelner

Yeah, we'll be able to watch them. That's why new regulations from NRC free the nuclear power plants from reporting accidents.

No point in telling the people what they already know.

-- Chris Miller

Salon Staff

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