Question Technology

International Anti-Copyright © 1996 Matt Chisholm
Ways of Knowing
A million thanks to Jude Todd
7 June 1996

The world is changing all around us. How will this technology affect our lives? Will it be good or bad for us, for our environment, our society, our culture? What technologies do we have now that are beneficent, and what do we have that is harmful?

When we pose these questions, many people defend themselves by saying "We can't go back." In Gerry Mander's book In The Absence Of The Sacred, he proposes that this response is an expression of fear from people who do not want to give up everyday conveniences like electricity and television. Mander believes that we must continuously question and review technology and its effects on society, rather than blindly accept the new forces as helpful.

In Alvin Toffler's visionary book, The Third Wave, the forces of the present are presented as a clash between two ways of living, the Second and Third Waves. According to Toffler, the change to the first wave was the beginning of agriculture, sometime around 4000 B.C., that first massively changed the human race. The beginning of capitalism, industrialism and imperialism around 1700 A.D marked the onset of the second wave . The third wave, beginning to be felt now, is harder to characterize. One of the major elements of the third wave, however, is the influence of high technology such as computers, communications and the internet, biotechnology and genetic engineering, and nanotechnology.

When we see that we are on the cusp of a great societal change, it is even more important for us to ask what is going to happen in the next few years with technology. I hope to show that if we carefully look at what the trends of the future are, and compare them with the design and the nature of the emerging technologies, we can ask what the future will hold for technology, the human and the planet. If we continuously reconsider both our questions and answers, I believe that humanity can exercise a great deal of control over technology and the future. However, if we fail to control the ways that technology influences us, technology will increasingly dominate human lives and speed unchecked into the future. Technology is like a drug, and our society is addicted. People like their digital calculators, and if someone tried to turn off the electricity, people would fight very hard against it. People like technology: we think it makes our lives easier, we think it is good for society as a whole, and we have been raised and educated in a society based on progress, development and the concept that technology is inherently good. We don't know to question it.

Where does this concept of the inherent virtue of technology come from? The answer lies in how technology is presented to us within this society and who presents it. For the last 400 years, industry, machinery, and the economy have grown in size and power alongside one another. People in developed nations have come to view technology as linked to progress, and higher standards of living for themselves. Technology is also seen as a benefit because it is always presented as such. Corporations are focused on the beneficial uses of the technology and could unconsciously gloss over possible side effects. Also, as Mander points out, when a new technology is created, the only people who know enough about it to know what effects it will have on society are usually the scientists who developed it. And since these scientists generally stand to benefit a great deal from the widespread acceptance of the technology, they present only the good side to the people. No corporation ever sent out a press release saying:

"We have developed the nuclear fission power plant. It will take lots of energy to maintain, depend on a small amount of nonrenewable fuel, and generate waste that will be very dangerous for several thousand years. In addition, the reaction will be the most dangerous way of producing energy that the world has ever known."

In reality, only the benefits of nuclear power are presented to the public by corporations and scientists with vested interests, and the new technology is heralded as yet another fantastic development in the progress of western society. Another example of this method is the evidence now surfacing that the cigarette manufacturers knew in the sixties that nicotine was the most addictive drug known to man, but kept that information a secret and instead increased the amount of drug in their products. The cigarette corporations knew that their product was (and is) deadly, but they kept it a secret because profit and progress was (and is) more important than the life of a customer.

Furthermore, dependence on technology can twist solutions to technologically created problems. An interesting example is presented by the philosophy of the post modern artist Stelarc. Stelarc proposes that the body and the mind of the average human is too weak to handle all the information in the modern world, and too fragile to withstand space travel. Technology, according to Stelarc, has transcended the human and made the body obsolete. His solution, surprisingly, is more technology. Making the body more powerful, more standardized, hollower, drier and harder, is the solution. If the body is really obsolete, why is it unthinkable that technology could be altered so that it did not make the human obsolete? The answer is that we see technology as all beneficent, unquestionable and the solution to everything.

Stelarc's solution is similar to the old story where villagers with a mouse problem raise a bunch of cats to control mice, but then have to bring in dogs to control the cats, and so forth, until they have an elephant problem. The tale is resolved by scaring the elephants away with mice. But, in the real world, elephants aren't afraid of mice, and there is no final technological solution to technological problems. A campfire song along the same lines goes, "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly, I don't know why she swallowed a fly...." The old woman proceeds to swallow a spider, sparrow, cat, dog, goat, and horse until she dies. She swallowed each animal intending it to consume the previous animal. Every technology is going to create problems outside of the solution that it provides. Rather than dealing with the fly that humanity has swallowed by swallowing larger animals, perhaps we can find another solution. The old woman could just wait to digest the poor fly, or find an animal to eat the fly that would be less intrusive. The point is that humanity has used technology to deal with problems, but the new technology ended up creating bigger problems. Somehow we cannot see that there are other solutions, both in the renouncing of technology completely and in the careful, thoughtful application of technology.

This philosophy that technology is the only solution makes nature and natural, non-technological solutions seem inferior, clumsy, and inefficient. The assumption that a scientific design can outstrip the continual redesigning of evolutionary forces is preposterous, and has been proven wrong time and time again. Using technology to continuously clean up after itself, perpetually fixing an environment that wasn't broken to begin with seems to be horribly inefficient. The ecological destruction caused in Australia by imported animals such as rabbits and cane toads is one example of similar logic at work. Cane Toads were imported to control flies and rabbits as pets and as stock to hunt, but since neither of the animals had natural predators, they multiplied rapidly, and became incredible pests. Scientists tried to manipulate the environment but discovered that the effects of a foreign animal could not be predicted reliably.

Continuous technological clean-up, no matter how efficient, should not be a replacement or excuse for a lack of clean practices in the first place. If a technology is evaluated before it is put into practice, and it will create too much hazardous waste, or it will split society, then it is possible to not implement the technology. This leaves no mess to clean up at all. This never happens because technology is never evaluated before it is implemented, leaving no choice but continuous repair.

The view that technology can clean up any mess that it creates, and that it outstrips nature and natural solutions leads to the conception that technology is neutral. As Mander points out, the problem with television does not lie solely in the programs that are broadcast on it, but in the sedentary, passive execution of the technology. Yet most of the complaints that people voice towards television are about the nature of the television programs. While most technologies have the potential for bad and good, the people who develop it can and do tailor it to their maximum benefit. As a result, not only are new gadgets presented as saintly but their design tends to benefit the designers.

I believe that if we question technology and where it is going, we can come up with a much more complete philosophy and policy for dealing with the future. The first major point is to determine where the world is and where it is going, so that we can see which new innovations will become most successful. The second objective is to look at these technologies and figure out what they are going to become in the future. Then, we would have greater ability to control our future rather than having technology control us.

It is clear that the developing entity works hard to ensure that a new technology looks its best when presented to the public, and that it is touted as a great achievement. It is also clear that no possible side effects or devious uses to this technology are considered publicly. Some may think that this is a policy of the past, and that now corporations are honestly presenting all sides to the public and being responsible in the design of their products. But even the fledgling corporation Netscape has created potentially disastrous flaws and loopholes in their new product, Netscape Navigator Two. The program creates a file, aptly called "Magic Cookie," through which Netscape corporation, the FBI, (or anyone else who can figure out how) can access personal information about the owner of the computer and his or her online activities. The online community is also concerned that another Netscape functionality, "Java," could be used to write virus-like programs that could be very damaging. These problems have not been made known to the public. However, the computer community, capable of comprehending the risks, is abuzz with discussion of the threat.

An interesting side note is the fact that some computer viruses were written and released in order to demonstrate the potential dangers in computer technology. In a sense, the writing of viruses is a kind of guerrilla warfare against the people who present computers as reliable and perfect. As awareness about the potential dangers of technology spreads, the people who are knowledgeable enough to comprehend the dangers will need to bring their expertise to the public. If the public fails to grasp the necessity of consciousness raising and questioning of technology, activities like virus writing may become more widespread, as the guerrillas become more frustrated. On the other hand, if the risks are considered, known and dealt with, the need to write viruses will fade away.

It is important to open a debate on the pros and cons of technology, so we will not continue to stumble headlong through "progress" until we run into something dangerous. For example, computers and communications hold a great deal of capability to democratize and equalize society. When it first began to grow, the internet baffled "second wave" economists, who see profit as the only motivation. Programmers, artists, writers, and representatives from virtually every field created free (or very cheap) art, software, information and entertainment. They got nothing in exchange except access to everyone else's products. Toffler suggests even using the communications technologies to expand voting and participatory democracy. Ten years ago, the internet was a huge cooperative organization, freely making, trading and discussing information and products. It is still being hailed as such by mainstream media, but it is not as free as it used to be.

Powerful software corporations are using their influence to try to take control of the internet. Personal computers are dependent on expensive commercial software and are organized hierarchically. Microsoft has a stranglehold on the personal computer industry, using products that are inferior to lots of free or cheap software. Large companies like AOL or CompuServe offer ridiculously expensive, inferior internet access. Since these big corporations have the money to spend on advertising, they are presenting a "second wave" image onto a "third wave" organizational structure and, in the process, are killing it. Here is an example of a potentially fantastic cooperative organization presented to society as free software and then milked and drained for maximum profit, at the expense of its cooperative qualities. Hundreds of new members join the internet daily, paying high prices, for censored and limited service. They are customers of organizations that neither agree with the internet's philosophies of cooperation, nor promote them in any way.

Therefore, the best case outcome is well known in this field. It is possible that a huge, cooperative, directly democratic society could grow out of the skeleton of the internet. But it is more likely that the large amounts of capital will be used by corporations to first dominate and then monopolize it. Already, databases store personal information on each of us, plus bank account balances, financial history, medical history, credit card purchases, magazine subscriptions, even movie rentals, and the commercial internet access providers are also beginning to record individuals' online activities. The computing power exists, to take this information, any information that can be gathered about a person, and run it through a program to create an accurate picture of someone's desires and interests. Computers offer not only the possibility of customization of democracy and society, something that Toffler called "de-massification," but also the possibility of custom social control through this collecting of information. .

Mander tried to present a worst case scenario for computer technology, but his image of supercomputers waging nuclear war seems a bit outdated and shortsighted. Even when we try to consider everything, even when we are well informed on a topic, it is not possible to see very far into the future. This means that we can never stop questioning the emerging technologies, and if they are hurled at us at a faster rate, we must evaluate them faster. With this in mind, my speculation about the future of biotechnology, genetics, and an emerging field known as nanotechnology, is purely hypothetical.

I'll begin with genetics and biotechnology. Genetics offers a great deal more than just the ability to predict the probability of a person's contracting cancer or the cloning of square tomatoes for ease of shipping. Through genetics, the entire chromosomes of humans and eventually all living things will be mapped out. Certain genes will be associated with diseases, conditions, and even personality traits. However, the conception that there is one switch for one state, like a heart cancer on-off switch, is an oversimplification to the point of incorrectness. Genes code for proteins to be produced, which then go into the cell and perform other cellular tasks. For the majority of inheritable traits, there is a collection of many genes that together add up to create an overall proclivity toward a certain trait. And the proteins created by these genes do not have one malicious function, rather, they help a cell to perform a variety of tasks that add up and create a certain trait. For there to be precise, predictable, controllable genetic engineering, huge numbers of genes and proteins and biological processes must be considered. Genetic engineering will only become feasible and reliable if powerful computers are programmed to consider all these traits and predict the final outcome of the organism. All kinds of inherited conditions could be eliminated, from varicose veins to Tay-Sachs, nearsightedness, farsightedness, Down's Syndrome, hereditary missing teeth, and countless others. It may even be possible to render all humans immune to all viruses, retroviruses, and prions, by exploiting a quirk of the structure of DNA. Would these things would be desirable? Yes, but the same technology could be horribly exploited. The only organizations with the power and knowledge to develop treatments are large health-care and pharmaceutical corporations. Are these organizations going to offer these treatments to everyone for reasonable prices? No. Are people going to spend as much time and effort on curing Sickle-Cell Anemia as they do on Crautzfeldt-Yacob? Are the developing corporations going to present all the pros and the cons of the new treatments? What do you think? I don't see it happening. I see large heath corporations offering treatment for the living and the recently conceived who have the money. And I see these people embracing a technology that they are told represents the end of human suffering. I see people engineering their babies to be healthy, intelligent, blue eyed and blonde. Genetics threatens a new form of Social Darwinism and significant change in the class structure. Science is beginning to isolate the genes for "mental disorders," the most commonly mentioned being "manic-depressive disorder," and the question is beginning to arise as to where "mental disorders" stop and where personality traits begin. Psychologists have proposed that many famous individuals in history were "manic-depressive," but would the world be better or worse today if Van Gogh had been on Prozac? Another shade of this is what happens when someone like the Unabomber is brought to account for his actions. Already the media is combing his past for some "traumatic event" that brought him to murder. If there is such an event, it is quite possible that he could be acquitted because his mother abused him, or because he was manic-depressive. If his actions are traceable to the actions of someone else they therefore are no longer his fault, according to contemporary logic. The same deterministic logic could be applied to people in reverse. If I have the same genes for wanting to blow things up that the Unabomber did, society could want to lock me up ahead of time, before I committed any crime. Genetics could be used to predict what people will have interests for and create a predetermined life for everyone. The potential for genetics to save countless lives and make everyone healthier is counterbalanced by the potential for social engineering and control, prejudice and hatred.

What about cloning? What about the horror of dying rich people cloning their bodies in the prime of life and having their brains transplanted into a new body? What about the potential for huge donor banks storing unconscious clones waiting for their living genetic duplicates to need a new heart, leg or hand? Nanotechnology is making this apocalyptic vision less and less likely. Tiny robots, assembled from single molecules, are becoming more and more feasible to create and easier to design. These robots are small enough to float around in the body and repair it from the inside out. Nanotechnology could completely redesign the immune system, making us impervious to disease, and repairing cuts and broken bones in a matter of minutes or even seconds. And when an appendage or organ needs to be replaced, these small robots can examine the genetic instructions and make the appendage grow back.

Tiny technology is already widespread: people carry cellular phones, beepers, and calculator watches. I am typing this essay on a laptop computer. Through a combination of shrinking microprocessor technology and newly created nanorobots, the personal computer, already as indispensable as the telephone, can be grown as a part of the body. It is already possible for electronic circuits to be connected to a neuron and for the two to communicate with each other. The potential here is also staggering. People would be able to control and manipulate their own genes and therefore their body's traits and characteristics. It would be possible for people to think, "I want wings," and the processor in their mind, programmed with their genes, would alter their genes to grow wings. Nanorobots could circulate the body and change all the genes in every cell at once. In a matter of weeks or even days, the cycle would be completed. Wings on a human are not that useful, but the ability to grow back lost appendages, change the lung structure so the atmosphere on Mars is hospitable, or grow gills would be. This internal personal computer would no doubt integrate the ability to connect to the network of computers that will grow out of the internet. Not only could the computer be part of the human form, but the individual would be continuously connected to the minds of everyone else, carrying on conversations and living a great deal of life in the internet. One of the most beneficial uses of the computer is its ability to manipulate gargantuan amounts of data and perform long mathematical processes quickly. While adding the ability to manipulate data tremendously expands the potential for Tof▀er's idea of electronic democracy, the conception of forgetting how to do long division makes some people frustrated.

However, there is a great potential for incredibly powerful mind control and tyranny here. Everyone's bodies and minds would be connected to each other, and accessible to any power hungry government or Unabomber inspired biohacker. They could break into someone's body and kill them, monitor the thoughts of "deviant" citizens, or simply placate the people through untraceable mind control. Perhaps the undesirables could be kept out of society altogether by disconnecting them or simply denying them the ability to connect. Cyberspace is already the most white, upper middle class, Christian male American place to be, although it can somehow be very liberal. An internal microprocessor and microscopic robots could turn out to cause so much damage and problems that they do not offer that great of a benefit. If these technologies are presented and accepted in the usual way, then it could be many years before we know what their damaging aspects are. No doubt the businessmen will say, "here, this technology will make you freer," but people must not accept them at their word.

I don't want to ask these questions.I don't want to be a pessimist. Sure, maybe technology could really destroy the human race. Somewhere, deep down, I know it can. But I am an optimist, and I'd rather speculate wildly on how wonderful the world can become rather than think about how destructive and antihuman technology can be. It's hard to say "Stop. Is this right?" when "this" could possibly cure AIDS, or end oppression. It's hard to question something that has such great potential. I'm afraid that I could say "stop!" to a technology that I think is dangerous, and find out that it is the great cure or the social equalizer. How many people would be denied life? How many people would I have hurt? We can't come up with a rule and stick to it. We have to keep questioning everything. It's hard to do, but if it is not done, we can't expect the best case scenario to spontaneously occur. The only way that we are going to survive is if we keep asking what we're doing and keep considering the future.

Works Cited

Mander, Jerry. In The Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco: Sierra Club books, 1991
Stelarc. "Towards The Post-Human." Architectural Design Nov.-Dec. 1995: 90-96
Stelarc. "Redesigning the Body- Redefining What is Human." Whole Earth Review Summer 1989: 18-22
Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980