Bay Area thinkers ponder ‘life’

Jan. 20, 2012, 2:28 a.m.

Clarification: A previous version of this article may have implied that Piero Scaruffi is employed by Stanford Continuing Studies. In fact, he is an author and blogger helping the Continuing Studies program plan this series of interdisciplinary events.


A panel of Bay Area thinkers addressed interpretations of life, the role of technology in human existence and ethical quandaries Thursday evening at “Life,” the second stage of an “Interdisciplinary Tour of the Human Condition in Three Stages.” The panel of speakers, moderated by Piero Scaruffi, an author  helping to plan events for Stanford Continuing Studies, attracted an audience of around 250 to Cubberley Auditorium.


The Continuing Studies series commenced with an autumn examination of “Time” and will conclude with a discussion of “Mind” in the spring. Scaruffi highlighted the series’ significance due to its inclusion of varied experiences.


“We wanted to explore the human experience through a range of perspectives and disciplines that don’t mix often,” he said.


The four panelists spanned professions from cognitive psychology and anthropology to nanotechnology and multimedia art. Each panelist was granted 10 minutes for a presentation before the group collectively addressed questions submitted by the audience.


Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication, drew on his experiences running Stanford’s recently revamped Virtual Human Interaction lab to highlight the significance of virtual reality, and specifically avatars, in behavioral conditioning.


Bailenson cited studies noting the efficacy of avatars resembling the participant in encouraging behavior change, often in response to the avatar carrying out entirely new activities and thus demonstrating the consequences of certain actions. Bailenson highlighted the experiment’s potential replication in fields such as advertising.


“People have always been able to see reflections of themselves,” Bailenson observed. “Now, you can see yourself doing something that you’ve never physically done.”


Christine Peterson, co-founder and president of The Foresight Institute, a public interest group seeking to educate the community on forthcoming technological advances, emphasized the increasingly prominent role that nanotechnology has come to play.


Peterson noted that nanotechnology has the potential to create new materials and make vast advances without the side effects, such as pollution, that would currently ensue. She allowed, however, that the near-invisible and highly sensitive technology might enable intrusions on privacy.


“We need to know what data is collected,” Peterson said, “how it is used and how long it is retained. We have those rights.”


Peterson highlighted the medical benefits of nanotechnology, noting, “The ability to control atoms and molecules would mean that there really isn’t a physical illness [that] we wouldn’t be able to address.”


She acknowledged, however, that remaining constraints on applying nanotechnology to individuals have slowed the speed of advances.


In contrast to Peterson, Lynn Hershman Leeson, chair of the San Francisco Art Institute film department, noted that technology, while allowing the summarization of information in data and statistics, often fails to improve human understanding.


Hershman Leeson hypothesized that creating fabricated persons serves as a means of exploring areas we don’t understand while simultaneously testing reality.


Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology at the UC-Berkeley, questioned the underlying role of ethics in exploring human interaction. Rabinow criticized a prevalent lack of concern, especially in academia, for the question, “What is a good life?” and the corresponding emphasis placed on material success above all else.


Audience questions focused on the effects of technology on human identity, as provided by language and social interaction. The panel largely acknowledged the inevitable nature of technological advances and emphasized the need to preserve and develop positive aspects of the advances to fully benefit society. The speakers also noted, however, the increasing fragmentation of society due to the increased personalization and segregation of human interaction.


Scaruffi expressed disappointment at the low levels of student attendance, but emphasized the significance of the debate.


“These four were picked because they’re working with different aspects of life that will dramatically change,” Scaruffi said. “They discussed life as in the future, rather than life as in the past.”


Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.

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