BALLAD OF THE UNABOMBER
I returned from France last Monday, intending to write about the Gallic reaction to Internet and its impact on France's national computer network, Minitel. That will have to wait until the next Meme. This issue is dedicated to the Unabomber and this meme in his manifesto:
"As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex, and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage machines will be in effective control....If man is not adjusted to this new environment by being artificially re-engineered, then he will be adapted to it through a long a painful process of natural selection...
The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown."
--Unabomber, a.k.a. FC, from Tuesday, September 19, 1995, in a special supplement to the Washington Post titled "Industrial Society and its Future."
The Unabomber wants to get us out of this supposed mess by returning us to nature. ("That is WILD nature...free of human interference and control." Par. 183) What happens when 5.5 billion people go back to nature is that most of us die, because without technology the Earth cannot support all of us. This would be a very short, very brutal "painful process of natural selection" to say the least. It is also not going to happen. So, apart from the Unabomber's absurd prescription for saving the human race from mechanical enslavement, does he have a point?
The Unabomber's real importance, in the long-term, goes beyond the fact that he killed 3 people and injured 23 others in 16 attacks over 17 years. It goes beyond the fact that he essentially blackmailed the New York Times and Washington Post into reprinting his manifesto. The Unabomber is important because his argument against technology is destined to become the mainstream argument against our wired world in the next century. The fear that technology will erase something fundamental that defines us as human beings is old, as old as technology -- see Prometheus or the tower of Babel. So if this is an old argument, why aren't we technophiles doing a better job of addressing it, as opposed to mocking it? Last Tuesday we got a sneak preview of the next decade's battle-lines.
The Global SuperOrganism
I've noticed that many of us technological sophisticates are also uncomfortable with some of the goals of our peers. I wince when I read in the latest issue of Wired that "by 2040 robots will be as smart as we are. Then they'll displace us as the dominant form of life on Earth." This isn't a problem though, it is presented as a form of human transcendence, the binary version of getting closer to the perfection of God. Should this be taken seriously? When I first saw that article I thought it was a joke, a sort of send- up on the cooks. Unfortunately it is dead-serious. It is also similar in logic to the Unabomber's conclusions about where technology is headed. The only difference is in their conclusions: one thinks it is cool, the other thinks it is not.
I was surprised how up-to-date the Unabomber is on the fusion of man and machines. He must have read such paragons of the genre as Bruce Mazlish's "The Fourth Discontinuity: the co-evolution of humans and machines," (Yale University Press, 1993); "Metaman: the merging of humans and machines into a global superorganism," (Simon Schuster, 1993) and the seminal text "Out of Control: the rise of neo-biological civilization", by Kevin Kelly (Addison Wesley, 1994). These are all serious books by serious writers published by serious publishers. Yet they all argue the same thing: we are merging with machines, becoming something more than human, and we should embrace it. The end of the individual is a blessing, the shedding of a tired meat-cocoon. What's troubling here is that we have two extremes coming from the same root -- one calling for a return to wild nature, the other calling for the destruction of what it means to be a human being. Where is the alternative -- a humanistic vision technology that bolsters both our individuality as humans and improves our ability to live together?
Technology with a Human Face
I got a computer at 12, went online then, and stayed online. I learned to program, learned to think the way a computer thinks. I made money writing programs for a while. I love science fiction and get a thrill from gadgets. More importantly, I think the combination of computers and communications can profoundly alter the nature of information by decentralizing it and getting it into the hands of people who otherwise would not be exposed to it. I relish the Internet and everything it stands for. But I am worried. I am worried that the folks writing these books about the joys of fusing with machines have lost all compassion for human beings. I am worried that what was once nutty is becoming conventional wisdom. Consequently I am worried that for many people the anger of the Unabomber will come to make sense. I am worried that, in our love of technology and gadgets and change we will at best ignore the silent majority that do not understand what is happening and want to; at worst we will mock them as hopelessly headed the way of the dodo bird.
Beware the Backlash
The initial euphoria of the digital revolution is over. We get the jargon. We get the possibilities. It's time to start translating what's possible for everyone else, or else we risk destroying the thing we're so proud of. So long as technology is associated with free enterprise those that fear technological change will be muffled. This association has insulated many technology firms from the rage out there in America -- the rage behind credit reports, behind workplace automation, behind caller ID, bar codes and all those other points where data gathering meets human flesh. But the rage is there, simmering. The rage comes from confusion, from the fact that so little effort is made to explain how these technologies work. It comes from the arrogance of those who think most people are too stupid to understand.
If the changes before us in digital technology, nanotechnology and genetic technology are as huge as I think they are, then expect a resistance equal to the force behind these advances. To expect anything less would be foolish. If we are going to deal with this basic fact of human nature responsibly, then it is time to stop spouting jargon and start talking clearly about what is to be lost and what is to be gained as we digitize everything. That way at least we can try to influence what is happening, as opposed to believing it is an inevitable force of nature, unstoppable, unchangeable. If we can't have faith in our ability to define our future, then we really are worthy of our supposed role as nothing more than pollinating facilitators, nurturing some still-dormant machinic-species. In such a world I would resist too. To do otherwise would be insane.
Here is a quote from T.S. Eliot that I've had on my desk for awhile:
Where is the life we have
lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have
lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have
lost in information?
A PEEK AT MEME 1.05
The French government sees the Internet as an American Trojan horse, a sneak attack on the world in America's latest phase of Information Age Imperialism. But some French don't agree with this argument, and they're doing something about it. Find out how Internet and Minitel, France's national infobahn, are facing off and who the players are, in Meme 1.05.
Meme 1.04 and its contents copyright 1995 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at http://www.reach.com/matrix/welcome.html. Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.
Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at email@example.com.