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« Autonomous Weapons and Asymmetric Conflict | Main | Kabul's Architectures of Fear »
Saturday
20Sep

From the Lake of Fire: Responsible Technology


Lake of Fire, Justin Baldwin [link]

In our recent amicable exchange, Aaron Weisburd of Internet Haganah and I have discussed the future of cyberspace. In my first post in this series, Death of the City, I relayed Kazys Varnelis' feelings of depression. The excellent professor was concerned by future urban trajectories, based on his readings of the infrastructural perturbations he detected in his own environment.

It seems that the discussion has now come full circle. In a new post, Aaron tells us that he too is pessimistic about the future. Perhaps he has reason to be; he is a one-man open source counter-insurgency campaign, for which he has received credible death threats. He writes:

My own view of cyberspace, of the information age, of information technology generally, and of what kind of world or worlds will issue forth, is extremely bleak. I consider it at least as likely that we will enter a new Dark Age as a new Enlightenment. Cyberspace will be what we make of it, and so I am led back to Milton's Paradise Lost, Book 1, as Satan acquaints himself with his new dominion.
Aaron's chosen passage from this most beautiful and striking of English poems concludes thus:
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th' associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th' oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav'n, or what more lost in Hell?
And so Satan rises from the Lake of Fire and commences his reign in Hell.


I do not share Aaron's disposition on this issue but I do agree with him on responsibility: "Cyberspace will be what we make of it".

This is largely true, and is applicable to all technology. Technology - the use and application of tools and methods to control and alter one's environment - comes with inherent risks. One's view of the outcome of the reliance on technology somewhat depends on moral judgement.

Extreme technicists argue that technology has the capacity to alter man's world and possibly its future. As such we will become God, in a post-Gaian holistic formulation. Transhumanists, extropians and other techno-utopians argue that technology is a force for good, something a pro-lifer, for example, would vehemently disagree with.

In contemporary discussions of terrorism, particularly of the 'home-grown' variety, Theodore Kaczynski is sometimes overlooked. The Unabomber believed, like philosopher Herbert Marcuse and primitivist anarchist John Zerzan, that technological societies were a priori flawed. Kaczynski's conviction that the techno-industrial complex must be destroyed led him to deploy targeted violence as an antidote to the dangers of modern society.

Less oppositional, and more cautious, critics such as Martin Heidegger have a long history of questioning technology. That such querying of technological development has evolved in parallel to technology itself is reflected in the modern currency of the term 'Luddite', derived from the early 19th century movement deeply concerned about the social impact of technology. Although its etymology is obscure, it is possible that the phrase 'to throw a spanner in the works' reflects the social trope of the disruption of industrial process.

In the longer term the technological singularity [see FAQs here] may come to pass. The emergence of hard artificial intelligence (AI) will supplant humanity's ability to control these AI agents, for better or for worse. In this scenario we will be responsible for the effects of our technology, yet unable to significantly alter events once the singularity has passed.  Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly maintains (correctly, in my view) that the singularity is "a continuum woven into the very warp of extropic systems" and as such will always be 'near' rather than reached.  MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks agrees, and suggests that if the singularity does happen, we probably won't even notice.  In his view, an AI entity may already exist in cyberspace itself - we just don't recognise it as such.  On an ethical point, can we possibly have responsibility for emergent behaviour such as the Google server net suddenly springing into consciousness?

Author Warren Ellis has described the concept of the singularity as the 'NerdGod Delusion', recalling a character in Ken MacLeod's 1998 novel The Cassini Division, who dismisses the singularity as the rapture of the nerds. It happens anyway ...

I suggest that we have a moral responsibility to ensure that technology is used to effect positive social change. How we do this is very much in our hands. The recent moral panic over the Large Hadron Collider's mission, and attendant black-hole-destroys-earth scare stories, shows that public concern over the uses and implications of technology is alive and well. In this case, opposition to the project has included hacking the website, legal challenges and death threats, but now it seems the great machine is broken anyway (a self-generated spanner, perhaps?).


Aaron is right, although I do not share his pessimism. Cyberspace, as a technological and social terrain, is a complex and often perplexing place.  It has its problems, but it also generates opportunities.  We need to embrace complexity in order to explore and exploit it effectively.  This is as important to the individual as it is to those who frame policy.  I am, however, concerned that particularly in the latter field we do not damage long-term opportunities in order to address short-term problems.  Why use a hammer to crack a nut?  Or indeed, a spanner?


Related posts:

Tim Stevens - Death of the City, Death of Cyberspace I

Tim Stevens - Death of the City, Death of Cyberspace II

Aaron Weisburd - The death of cyberspace? More likely: the death of reality

Tim Stevens - Tripping, Deathtripping in Cyberspace

Aaron Weisburd - We've come not far from Milton, and surely we are near'r to Hell

Acknowledgements:  I am very grateful to Justin Baldwin for permission to use his 'Lake of Fire' image at the top of this piece.  More of his excellent work can be viewed at www.justinbaldwinartist.com.  Thanks, Justin.

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