TTB speech

Ethics, culture, and expression of self for better future

A speech delivered at the opening of the "Taming the butterfly" game

Inna Kouper

My role in this game is to serve as an expert in the area of “mindset”, which includes ethics, culture and expression of self. I’m going to talk about things in a general and simplified way, so that we can specify and elaborate on them later.
First of all, I’d like to say that we as the Bloomington community cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. We are a unique community, no doubt, but ethics and culture are about connections. To family, friends, strangers, enemies, animals, and the environment. And how we connect to everything around us makes us better or worse humans. Our minds should be set on striving to become better humans.

One way of becoming better humans is to improve our relation to strangers and to the environment. Strangers are people around us who are unknown, strange, or foreign. More and more strangers appear around us nowadays. People with different skin color, hair, languages, customs, sexual orientation, and so on.

Here in Bloomington we’re used to diversity. The city strives to make its services, programs, facilities, and businesses accessible. The Indiana Code requires forming a diversity committee on each campus to review and recommend policies regarding cultural diversity among faculty and students. We, Bloomingtonians, are friendly and welcoming to international students, African-Americans, GLBT community, breastfeeding mothers, or bicyclists.

And yet, hate crimes and hate speech happen. Cultural and religious hostility exists. I’d say that IU as a whole is still geared toward a particular kind of student or faculty – younger, single, probably male, probably heterosexual. We’re talking about diversity a lot. And it’s good. But the question I’d like us to think about is: Are we ready to accept cultural, religious, sexual, and other kinds of diversity as a norm? Can we handle “strangeness” as part of our lives? Or, can we be brave enough to say that we should limit strangeness and diversity, at least in some aspects?

It may sound politically incorrect, but I’d say we’re not ready for diversity. Here in Bloomington and around the world we were eventually trained to accept some “strange” groups and communities. But we’re not willing to accept strangers without fear, without prejudice, without caution. And to a certain extent it’s necessary. So what can we do about it? How can we make diversity work beyond clich├ęs, meetings, and declarative gestures?

Now the environment. By environment I mean everything around us, including people, animals, nature, and artifacts. What is our connection to the environment? It’s active modification and transformation via technology. And this is the area, about which I think most and which is crucial for our future. If you think about any major recent achievement in our society, it probably depends on technological innovation. Technology and innovation mean development and improvement of life for us. But they also mean manipulation and control. And suffering. And I’m not talking about animal cruelty. With our food and drug production we’re way beyond that.

Most of the technologies are what they call dual use technologies. They bring benefits, but they also bring harm. They can cure disease or feed the poor. But they can also be weaponized and used to bring death and destruction. Nuclear energy, genetic manipulations, GPS navigation are examples of such dual-use technologies.

A lot has been said about dealing with negative consequences of dual-use technologies in order to minimize harm and reap the benefits. I would like to encourage us to go beyond immediate consequences. As we move forward with all technologies that are at our present and future disposal (and this is what we seem to be doing – developing technologies just because we can), how does it transform our relationship to other living beings and to the environment? Are we going to be ok treating everything else as a resource at our disposal? And again, a politically incorrect question: with overpopulation and depletion of resources, can we afford not treating everything around us as a resource?

In conclusion, I’d like to bring the conversation back to Bloomington and ask “to whose benefit all these technologies are being developed?” You know those new buildings that are being constructed on the 10th street and 45/46 Bypass? It’s a $10 million Indiana University Innovation Center (IUIC) which, according to IU press release, “will help turn critical research into entrepreneurial efforts that will benefit Hoosiers and stimulate Indiana’s economy.” Who is going to make sure that it helps Hoosiers? How can Hoosiers (in all their diversity) claim at least a partial ownership of this whole enterprise? Ownership not in terms of capital and profits, but in terms of impact and understanding. How many people understand who will occupy the building and what they will be doing? For example, the IU Pervasive Technology Institute and a wet-lab space that is “ideal for bio and life science start-up companies”? I’m not saying we don’t need them, but how will those entities help us to connect and relate to others and the environment and become better humans?