Tools for Knowing, Judging, and Taking Action in the 21st Century

April 2000
Brenda Laurel

Reality has always been too small for human imagination, but our knack for augmenting it may soon leave us breathless.  "Virtual reality" opens new worlds of imagination to the body and senses.  Remote presence technologies allow us to take action in worlds that are real but remote from our own bodies, through either distance or scale.  As the new century begins, VR and remote presence are being extended into new dimensions, from microsurgery to the Mars lander.

Nature and technology are rapidly converging in many aspects of everyday life.  Screens and displays no longer offer convenient boundaries for differentiating orders of reality.  Technology is beginning to permeate our bodies as well as our environments.  At the same time, humanity is placing increasing strain on the natural world.  Our growing population and its needs for food and energy continually tempt us to compromise our care for the earth that sustains us.  Conditions of profound change challenge us to maintain integrity at all levels - nature, society, and the individual.

Students in the new century will need more than the simple ability to separate "reality" from "illusion."  Indeed, such a binary view will be far too simplistic.  Along the exponential curve of change, old stories and symbols may no longer function as reliable signposts.  The coming times call for a complex form of ethical literacy - the ability to determine what is true, good, and valuable in a world that is radically different from our own.

In this talk, I want to explore some tools for knowing, judging, and taking action in the new millennium.  How our technologies and tools evolve will be profoundly shaped by our values.  And so the first part of this talk is going to be, not about technology, but about values - how we construct and transmit them.

We can think of stories as containers for values that work like DNA to transmit traits down through generations.  We judge the "truth value" of stories by both objective and subjective measures.  A story that may not be literally true may nonetheless revealing of an essential aspect of human nature or a crucial ethical principle.  One question can ask is, are our stories  - especially our stories about technology and values - up to the challenge of the new century?

Whatever else may be true of 21C, we can assume that the changes it brings will be profound and the rate of change will accelerate.  I was born in 1950 and I've seen a whole lot of change.  When I was a kid, for example, there were less than half as many people in the world as there are today.

It really was like Pleasantville.  My grandpa worked for the railroad and my grandma did a lot of sewing and managed a grocery store.  My dad was a city planner - a civil servant - and my mom kept house and worked in sales promotion for an insurance company.  They paid cash for most everything and kept their money in a savings account.  They worked hard at being in the middle class and they were content to be there.  In my lily-white high school, I learned that there was a correct answer for every question.  I still have nightmares that I have to go back to Indiana and give all those right answers.

The illusion that change consisted only of benign forms of "progress" was shattered for me in the great cultural discontinuity of the late 60s.  For this, I am grateful.

Many of the rules and stories that I grew up with - even venerable stuff like proverbs and Aesop's fables - don't seem entirely applicable in today's world.  Stories influence how we live and what we put our minds to.  The challenges we are facing in terms of how to learn, how to know what is true and good, and how to take action under conditions of profound change will be mediated by the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on and what should be going on.  In turn, these stories will frame how we deploy technology.  As technology is ever more deeply intertwined with our lives, it means a whole lot more than desktops and gigaflops.  Technology plays a role in popular culture, personal identity, government, and business.  It is already the stuff of stories that shape our lives.

For example, Y2K was not just a technological event.  It was a climactic moment in popular culture, based on a very old story  - a prophecy about disaster at the end of an age.  Some journalists talked about Y2K as "the secular apocalypse."  But the new millennium began without a bang, or even a whimper.  At our house, we weren't entirely prepared for the end of the world, but I was ready at least to crank up the generator and serve canned beans.  The power didn't even flicker.

The week after New Years, NPR ran an editorial offering a new story about Y2K:  that computer infrastructures have been greatly improved by the Y2K preparedness effort.  So Y2K turned out to be, not about disaster, but about successful prevention.  Of course, the editorial continued, preventing a disaster it not nearly as dramatic as a recovering from one.  It's more dramatic to be cured of cancer than to never get it because you took preventive measures like not smoking.  Prevention probably works, but it's totally unglamorous.  The editorial asked, are we finally mature enough to live out a story of prevention instead of insisting on the glamour and drama of catastrophe?

Maybe not yet.

For example, let's think about prevention of global warming.  The arguments that we sometimes hear against laws and treaties aimed at prevention offer alternative stories.  One story says that nothing is changing.  Another says that climate may be changing, but humanity is not the cause.  It's part of a natural cycle that can't be helped, and therefore expenditures on prevention are a waste of money, especially for corporations who have to dump stuff into our air and water and soil in order to make a profit for their shareholders, because that's their primary responsibility and we certainly don't want to mess with the free market economy that's been so good to us, so stop all the whining about this virtual catastrophe that probably won't happen or if it does we can't prevent it anyway.

No, the case for prevention of global warming requires some drama.  Even last month when a piece of Ross Ice Shelf bigger than the state of Delaware broke off and began melting in the sea, it wasn't dramatic enough.   Perhaps a 10-meter rise in sea level would get people's attention.  But I digress.  We will return to this problem later in the talk.

In the world of technology, the Y2K Millennium story was about disaster, but it accomplished prevention.  In spiritual dimensions, it was also a story about disaster that didn't - immediately - come true.  Right around New Year's Eve, people and governments were worried that the apocalyptic Millennium story would lead to some hideous act of terrorism.  For a few months, that didn't happen.  Then the other shoe dropped in Uganda, with the murder/suicide of over five hundred people by a cult whose leader was disgruntled that the world hadn't ended on schedule.

In his book, Playing the Future, Douglas Rushkoff contends that we are hesitant to accept any version of history that isn't a linear story.  In Rushkoff's view, the apocalypse is actually an artifact of power of narrative form.  Our belief that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends makes us structurally blind to phenomena like contradiction, change, interetextuality, and cultural polyphony.  In other words, if a compelling story isn't true, it may still have the power to make us rearrange the facts to fit.  Snap to grid.

The converse is also true - that is, that we rewrite our most important stories to reduce dissonance with our times.  When I was in college, my Ph.D. advisor taught Sunday School at the Methodist Church, so of course I attended regularly.  We studied Bible stories as well as their historical, cultural, and geographical contexts.  One day we were considering the story that it was easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to go to heaven.  My advisor was presenting us with the conundrum that camels didn't appear in the holy land until considerably later than the story was supposed to have been written.  Out of the blue, a middle-aged woman in the class - the wife of a wealthy real estate agent - suddenly leapt up and cried, "JESUS was a RICH man!"  She was quite certain of it.  She had read it somewhere in the Bible.  It was a story she believed.  One could say that she reworked the Bible to conform to her experience.

One of the stories I grew up with that doesn't work very well these days is Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.  As you will recall, in the original story, the Tortoise wins the race because the Hare is an over-confident slacker.  Here's how the story might go today.

One day a hare was boasting of his running speed and laughing at the tortoise for being so slow.  Much to the hare's surprise the tortoise challenged him to a race.  The hare, looking on the whole affair as a great joke, readily consented. The race began and the hare, of course, soon left the tortoise far behind and went on to beat him handily.  It was probably the case that the tortoise thought the hare would stop and fool around and maybe take a nap.  But the tortoise failed to notice that the hare did everything fast and hard.  He drove fast and he talked fast and he ate fast and he ran fast.  He traded hot stocks on his Palm 7 during boring business meetings.  No time was wasted.  The tortoise, on the other hand, felt that his maturity and balance made him superior to the hare, and if he worked steadily and paid his bills on time, he would do well in the end.  The hare made millions on an internet IPO before the NASDAQ crashed, and his fortunes sent several generations of little hares to the best colleges.  After retirement, the tortoise was unable to survive in the city on his social security checks so he ended up living in the park.

Okay, what's wrong with that story?  It's cynical.  It doesn't give good advice about how to live.  We probably don't want our children to believe it, even though some of us may be afraid that it's true.  One of our perennial fears about technology is that as technology gets better at telling stories (through means like virtual reality and special effects), people - especially kids - will be increasingly unable to distinguish reality from illusion.  But to my mind, the danger isn't technology, it's the stories of our times that pose the greatest threat to our children and our future.  Stories are tools for knowing and judging.  Change the stories, and you change how people live.

In our part of the world, today's lead story is about money.  In the story of money, many distinct domains of human endeavor - work, value, science, education, politics - collapse into a single category.  Due, no doubt, to a steady diet of commercial television, as well as the sustained prosperity that Americans have enjoyed for the last two decades, money is the language of our culture.

The story I learned about work when I was growing up was that the idea was to create value.  The idea was to make things that would make people's lives better.  If you could create something of value, then you could hope for - even expect - to be rewarded with some money.  If you did your job well, you would also reap spiritual rewards - not the least of which was happiness.  In this story you can recognize the Aristotelean idea of virtue.  The old Greek guy said, happiness is virtue, and virtue consists in fulfilling a worthy function well.

In today's business climate, the story is not about producing value, but about producing money.  And the "happiness as virtue" part has gone missing altogether.  In the world of internet startups, quality, service, and value in the old-fashioned sense are not typically part of the conversation.  The story was:  get there first, build it fast, cash out.

Kids speak the language of money very well; they are among our finest consumers.  Teens in America control around $160 billion dollars in annual spending.  A market research firm that I work with, Cheskin Research, has conducted extensive research on American teenagers.  Here's how they sum up their findings:

"They're potentially the most powerful generation ever.  They're generally well educated and well cared for.  They're widely connected, have powerful computers in their homes and schools, and are extremely sophisticated.  Many have a global perspective.  They're already convinced that the environment is important to save, politicians are suspect and sex is dangerous.

"On the other hand, they have few, if any, role models who aren't either athletes, actors or models.  Money is seen as the main reason for working and heroes are billionaires.  They have never known anything but prosperity and good economic times.  The way to get ahead is to avoid too many years invested in education, jump in the stock market game, and break all the rules."

I have mixed feelings about these findings.  I think that teens' global perspective, their values around the environment, and their technological savvy are positive traits that we can work with in creating new tools for learning, judging, and taking action.  But the ubiquity of money as the essential goal and sign of success in life is disturbing.  Easy money, good times, and the get-rich-quick fantasies of pop celebrity or stock market jackpot are not giving young people the flexibility and resilience they will need in times of profound change, and change is the one thing we can be sure the future holds.

The fact that teens are suspicious of politics as usual may be a positive thing, but not if it results in non-participation in democracy.  According to the non-partisan Alliance for Better Campaigns, voter participation in the 1996 election was at an all-time low - 49% of all eligible voters, and only 32% of those between 18 and 24.  And that number appears to be falling.  According to UCLA's annual nationwide survey of college freshman, the freshman surveyed in 1997 had the lowest levels of political interest in the history of the survey.

Politics and voting seem irrelevant to many of today's kids.  The candidacy of John McCain stirred some uncharacteristic interest among young voters, but when he lost his chance for the nomination, the young supporters did not move over to Mr. Bush; they simply melted back into apathy.  Given the poor quality of our political discourse, it is easy to see how kids can become cynical.  It's healthy to see politics for what they are, but the real question is, what are we teaching kids to do with that insight?  Take action, or shrug it off and go to the movies?

Many of the shapers of our democracy - Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison - began their political lives at tender ages.  They read the classics in Greek and Latin and studied the stories of Athens, Rome, and the Republic of Venice.  They were well-educated kids looking for action - more precisely, for the ability to take action in the arena of government and politics.  For young people today, the desire to take action is much more likely to eventuate in a purchase than a vote.  We've taught them how to be good consumers, you see, but not necessarily how to be good citizens.

The story of money has conflated two other categories that, although related, are appropriately distinct:  economic prosperity and public good.  All boats do not necessarily rise when more people are rich - witness the growing homeless populations of our cities.  All boats do not necessarily rise when people pay lower taxes.  American institutions like public education and public transportation were designed to express our collective commitment to the public good.  When public funding for such programs is eliminated, what do we do instead?  Support them through charity?  Altruism can do a lot of things, but charity probably can't build and run a public transit system.

In the story where prosperity equals public good, free enterprise should run the public transit system - and they would do it more efficiently than government.  But they'd probably have to run it at a loss, and would therefore not be allowed by their shareholders to run it for long, because the unquantifiable benefit - the prevention of pollution - cannot be shown as revenue on the balance sheet.  It's similarly hard to make a business plan for public education.

When is the right solution government, and when is it private enterprise, and when is it charity?  It's enough to make a voter's brain hurt.  But in the story where prosperity magically takes care of the public good, all I have to do to take care of America is make more money and spend it.  You see, this story is easier to understand and easier to live.  And that is why it is dangerous.

One way to look at these issues is to consider them in terms of agency.  Being able to see the effects of our actions is what gives us the sense of agency or personal power - a feeling that young people are particularly hungry for.  I can see the result of a purchase; it is harder to see the result of a vote.  I can see the result of having more money; it is harder to see the result of funding for public education.  The effects of our tax dollars are hard to see unless we know where and how to look.  And most often they fall in the non-dramatic category, like the essentially boring story of Y2K as prevention - your taxes are the bridge that didn't collapse, the kid that didn't rob the 7-11, the person who didn't freeze to death in a doorway.  Hard to see, hard to sell, so to speak.

Unless, perhaps, you are able to visualize the web of causes and effects, to look for patterns and explore alternatives, to see how different choices and actions can have different outcomes.  Those abilities can help us make better judgments about many kinds of things.  They can help us make both business and government more efficient and more accountable.  They can influence what young people decide it is important to learn, how we help them learn it, and what they decide to do with their lives.

And so here is where we come to the technology part.

One of the most highly leveraged things we can do with our burgeoning technological power is to improve our ability to make interactive simulations of complex systems.  Why?  Because the ability to visualize complex webs of causality and to evaluate alternative courses of action will become increasingly vital as the century proceeds.  Interactive simulation of complex systems is not a new idea.  People have been working on them for several decades, and the art is far from perfected.  We still can't make simulations that predict the weather completely accurately, or the stock market.  But as we work on the problem of making better interactive simulations of such complex systems, we open up new spaces for thinking about the issues, discovering connections and alternatives, creating and testing models of system dynamics.  Our ability to create robust simulations improves literally every day, and working on them makes us better thinkers.

If Moore's law continues to operate - and no one thinks it won't - interactive simulations will be easier to implement because of increasing computing power, and easier to distribute because of decreasing cost.  In ten years, the equivalent of a Pentium 3 will probably cost about 50 cents - and that's a conservative estimate.  In 2010 you'll be able to paper the walls with them.  Think what kind of computer $5000 will buy then.

Of all the ways in which nature and technology are coming into contact, many are profoundly ugly and alarming.  But sensing is one nature/technology interface that may produce powerfully positive results.  We are making tremendous advances in our ability to sense and represent the real world ? from the geography of the ocean floor to the substances present in our air and water to the composition of DNA.  For complex interactive simulation, sensing technologies provide a wonderful new power:  the ability to run a simulation of a system based on data from the real world.

The tools that you will have tomorrow - and the tools you are hopefully developing in your colleges and universities - will let us see into the causes and effects of real-world phenomena in unprecedented ways.  We've already seen notable successes in businesses like prospecting and scientific endeavors such as molecular modeling.  By trying out computational representations of competing theories of system dynamics in combination with real-world data, simulations function - not as answer machines - but as what-if engines.

Simulations may also serve as a new kind of interactive database that will support collaborative work in science.  For example, a growing challenges in the field of molecular and cell biology is representing and working with the huge amounts of data that are being produced.  Susan Burgess' vision is to create an interactive simulation of cell biology that can be progressively "filled in" with the discoveries and theories of various scientists, providing a dynamic environment collegial discussion and collaborative work.

To look at some of the advantages of interactive simulations as tools for making judgments, let's return for a moment to the "myth of global warming."  New data are being produced all the time, and data that confirm certain hypotheses are starting to show up.  For example, in December of 1999, Science News reported findings that demonstrate fairly convincingly that controls on CFCs instituted in the 1987 Montreal Protocol are beginning to have a positive effect.

A good interactive simulation based on real data would allow us to visualize projections based on one or more theories of climate, and would also let us model the effects of changing conditions, for example, stricter controls on auto emissions and various kinds of industrial air pollution.  Our confidence in the simulation would be influenced by our confidence in its source, the veracity of the data, and the strength of the theory driving the system's dynamics.  This, at least, would enrich public discourse.  Running the simulation, we could visualize aspects of causality by examining the effects of tweaking them.  By attaching the simulation to a good VR interface, we could experience the drama of that 10-meter rise in sea level.  The simulation and the discourse around it could inform public opinion.  Good simulations will not only help people learn about systems, they will help us evaluate policies and form political goals.

Simulations will also strengthen accountability by helping us to understand the effects of actions taken by particular companies, industries, or governments.  Today, public interest tools like provide us with information about the specific types of pollution that exist in our area and what the sources of that pollution are, including the naming of individual companies.  Type in your county, and you are likely to find some familiar names.  Using such data as the basis for an interactive simulation will not only make a more convincing case for accountability, it will also allow both citizens and companies to explore the consequences of changes in industrial practices.  Simulations could even model the economic effects of change on specific companies and the communities in which they operate.  With work, we may be able to simulate some of the social dimensions of the problem as well.

Robust economic and social simulations are an important frontier.  A central challenge in simulation is the diversity of data types involved - geological and geographical data are less diverse and therefore more tractable than biological data.  Economic data is less diverse than social, behavioral data.  But these are challenges that we can meet, if we turn our minds - and our funding efforts - to the task.

However, we probably won't be able to depend upon corporate research to get the job done.  The leaders of Xerox PARC and HP Labs are both retiring this year, and dicey corporate earnings make the futures of their labs uncertain.  Many large companies, including Microsoft and Intel, are increasingly deploying research dollars as venture capital rather than funding large, long-term projects in the lab.  The problem with venture funding as research, of course, is its fundamental short-sightedness.

And so who will fund ongoing research and development of complex simulations?  How do you quantify something that can improve the effectiveness of business, government, political participation, education in the long run?  How do you turn these public goods into revenue streams?  What's the business plan, as they say in Silicon Valley?

Regardless of the 2000 election results, the federal government will probably continue to fund a fair amount of R&D for interactive simulations in areas close to its heart.  Scenario-building is a successful and well-used tool in many domains, from energy policy to military strategy, and it can benefit greatly from improvements in simulation technology.  Scenario-building is a technique for visualizing and planning for possible futures.  Its use in government probably originated with the German idea of a general staff for military planning in the 19th century.  Its use in business was pioneered by the Global Business Network and the Stanford Research Institute.  It makes sense for both business and government to fund the continuing development of interactive simulations that are able to act as environments envisioning and planning for various futures.

This is where you come in.  As the keepers of humanistic values in this picture, institutions of higher learning have both the opportunity and the duty to utilize private and public funding resources to push the envelope of interactive simulation in domains that involve social and ethical issues as well as pragmatic and economic ones.

We have more resources than ever with which to work on these problems.  In these few brief years since the Worldwide Web has been with us, we've all become aware of its enormous potential to make us larger than our individual selves.  Our collective intelligence is enhanced by distributed memory and distributed expertise.  The internet has spawned online communities like MUDs and MOOs.  These virtual worlds operate on real social data that arise from a community of people rather than a single author or development team; they are distributed interactive simulations.

And we can add distributed computing to the mix, as exemplified by the devoted community of people who volunteer cycles from their PCs to help meet the massive computational needs of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (or SETI).  The idea of citizen participation in distributed computing for very large projects is now being extended into areas like weather modeling and prediction and genomics.  This is a new kind of thing in the world, and it is very cool that at least some of the stories about it are not ominous; for example, the excellent speculative fiction of David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Which brings us back to stories.  What other stories will shape our future?   Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars - is award-winning, best-selling science fiction.  But it is more than that.  The Apollo program owed a significant debt of gratitude to H. G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke.  The NASA Mars team has been so inspired by the Mars Trilogy that they've adopted a flag based on Robinson's books - bars of red, green, and blue.

Going to Mars is a very cool story - certainly more motivating than the story in which the space program devolves into a lot of private companies schlepping cargo around and launching communication satellites.  Going to Mars is a story that would involve government, big government expenditures, even treaties.  The tiny-minded, tax-cutting, be-only-here-and-only-now flavor of conservatives do not aspire to go to Mars.  But lots of our young people would like to.  And they'd be eager to learn a lot of math and physics and biology and chemistry in order to get there.  The dream of going to Mars is coming up for our kids.  As my eldest daughter says, "your generation had Woodstock and the Moon landing.  We get immortality and Mars."  Remember how the space program focused and motivated young people thirty years ago.  To see that kind of excitement in a kid's eyes again would be worth the cost of the program, even without the obvious benefits it offers to science, technology, and the future of space travel.

Well, that's one story about the space program and education.  Here's another story - about virtual reality.

Last month I lost a good friend and the world lost an incredibly smart and learned person.  His name was Terence McKenna, and although his reputation came from his work as an ethno-botanist, he was also a philosopher.  Terence was one of the first people to grasp the importance of virtual reality and to put a deep and provocative story around it.  During a retreat that I attended with him at at Esalen in 1990, Terence proclaimed that VR is a manifestation of humanity's desire to "texualize the world and exteriorize the soul."  At first, this struck me as a horrible, nerdly idea.  The world is so beautiful, so sensual, why would one want to "textualize" it?  It is only in retrospect that I think I see what he meant.

To textualize the world is to make it amenable to different orders of representation that may give us profound new insights.  For example, sensing technology is a kind of textualization.  The Hubble telescope textualizes the glories of the universe every time it sends us a picture as bits.  And if we use the output of sensors to fuel simulations, then we may see and interact with the world in new ways.  Because a true VR interface relies on the movements of human bodies, our interaction with such new representations of the world may be kinesthetic and tactile as well as visual.  Sensory immersion in new dimensions of reality. . . suddenly that doesn't sound nerdly; it sounds divine.

But what did he mean by "exteriorizing the soul?"  This is not the same as wearing your heart on your sleeve.  It's an image that turns people inside out.  Now, it occurs to me that that is precisely what is happening in our new information age.  Already, we are experiencing eponential leaps in the availability of information.  Probably everyone in this room has had the experience of marveling at how few clicks it took on the web to find a piece of information that would heretofore have taken hours to locate, if one could find it at all.  Waking up every morning to the Hubble's latest pictures or a view of Earth from orbit is an awesome thing.  Information lives in the infosphere and it comes easily to me; I need no longer carry so much of it in my head.  What is called forth from me as I observe the Hubble's view of a borning star comes straight out of my soul.

I think that to exteriorize the soul means to enact the values that are at the core of us.  In our inside-out new world, it is not getting information that is so hard, but rather judging its quality, applying it to the world, and figuring out what to do.  You might call it, leading with the soul.

And here I must put in a plug for the good, old-fashioned liberal arts education.  All the information in the world will not help you learn how to live unless you have a grasp of history.  Nothing can replace literature and philosophy for sources of knowing how people have thought about their world, how our thinking has changed, and what its trajectory might be.  Without an understanding of how people are different, our own increasingly global culture will make no sense.  Worse, in the hands of a technologically powerful elite, ignorance of human diversity can turn globalism into a thoughtless flattening of the meaning and quality of people's lives.  Without knowledge of how people construct their cultures and their personal identities, our best ideas and most generous impulses are likely to fail.

These obvious truths should lead us to resist the pressure to allow students to specialize early in their undergraduate years.  Humanities and arts must not be sacrificed to concerns about career expediency, even when that is what our students ask us to do.  Far too many students - including Bill Gates, for example - are tempted to leave college before they graduate because the potential riches of a technology career beckon.  Equipping them early to do just that is not an antidote.  Rather, from the moment they hit the ground in their first year of college, I think we must work extraordinarily hard to show the relevance of human studies to successful careers in technology, business, and science.  Carnegie Mellon University requires all of its computer science students to take courses in rhetoric.  From the first moment, students are required to engage in discourse around the larger implications of technological work and faculty joins them energetically in that conversation.  Young people today are tough customers.  We must continually work to demonstrate the value of a well-balanced education, and then we must see that they get one.

Lest I imply that all the tools for learning and judgement are technological or academic, I want to mention another tool that I think we need to give our students: the awareness of community.  In this regard, California State University at Monterey Bay is exemplary.  The student body is vibrantly diverse, and the university serves an economically challenging region of the state.  CSUMB's Service Learning Institute makes community involvement a part of the core curriculum.  Each student commits to a year-long community service project or apprenticeship.  The result is what you might call an actionable education.  The story is one that says that work is something you do with and for a community.

Finally, I want to speak up for one of the tools for learning and thinking about the world that we may all be thinking about more these days: unplugging.  I'm not just talking about spending the weekend without checking your email.  I mean walking around in the real world.  This idea is catching on with the young and prosperous in our culture today  - the trekking routes of Nepal are groaning under the load of goretex.

But it's not essential to be exotic.  Taking a walk in the woods will do.  A slow amble is preferable to a power hike.  In these wired times, it's awfully easy to forget that there's an outside at all.  Walking in the woods is an endangered experience.  Nature speaks the language of balance within change, integrity within interconnectedness, resilience within fragility.  A thousand little epiphanies within a beautiful whole.

At the end of the day, I think that the sense of wholeness is our most important tool for preserving and enhancing our ability to learn and make good judgments.  A whole has many interrelated parts.  For example, science is a dialogue with nature.  But science is not nature.  We need awareness of both, and of the differences between them.  And that is the position from which we can make good judgments.  A whole person is not a monolith with a single story.  A whole person is a web of stories and many ways of knowing.  The contrasts and the intersections are where learning, intelligence, and judgment happen.  The self is in the interstices.

Our young people need to be multilingual.  They should not speak only the language of money or only the language of technology.  They should also speak the languages of curiosity, possibility, history, community, activism, balance and health.  As educators and mentors, we have the power to tell the stories, shape the technologies, and enact the values that will make our students resilient, responsible, creative citizens in a rapidly changing world.  And I have no doubt that this community - the heart of higher education - has the values, knowledge, courage, and intellectual strength to do the right thing.

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