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the price of technology


Every once in a while news re-surface about the seemingly neverending conflict in Congo. Mostly it's European media (The Economist in particular keeps up on the subject), but in this case it's a Salon article on the war and the lack of engagement of the International community:

[...] The statistics of the war there are staggering: More than 3.3 million lives lost in five years, and more civilian deaths in one week than in the Iraqi war to date, according to a recent report by Watchlist, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations focused on children in armed conflict. It is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and although a South African peace plan has been discussed, few are optimistic it will work.
And what fuels this war? Why does nobody press for intervention? Well, money, of course. The money made from large deposits of non-renewable resources, such as diamonds, or rare minerals used in high-tech devices. All our wonderful technologies built on the blood of innocents. Cell phones, computers, you name it.

This is not a tirade or anything, by the way, but it's something I've been thinking about for a while in different contexts, and I'll probably come back to this in the near future. But to begin with...

What I've been thinking is that In the tech world we are missing an element of responsibility, we haven't accepted the fact that we are creating tools that both exacerbate problems (enviromental, economic, wars, and so on) and are also used for unsavory ends (While it's an oft-repeated mantra that the US military is the best in the world, what I don't hear often is that this superiority is entirely due to technology, not forces. Even the North Korean army has at least half a million men more than the US Army).

Just as the scientists of the Manhattan project realized what they'd done and then called for controls, we should begin to take a step back and consider the results of our relentless drive for the next cool thing. A while ago Bill Joy made a similar argument in an article in Wired called "Why the Future doesn't need us" (a must read), but he was referring to nanotechnology and its potential future perils. I tend to agree with the counterpoint presented by Jaron Lanier in One Half of a Manifesto. His counterpoint, also worth reading in full, might be expressed (only half quizzically) as: "We can't get our machines to stop crashing, much less are they going to take over the world," or, as he himself puts it in the article, that "cyber-armageddonists have confused ideal computers with real computers, which behave differently."

But while I tend to agree with Lanier I also think that Joy's argument has an important kernel of truth in it (and he might still end up being right about nanotech), which is this: we have yet to take responsibilities for any of the technologies we create. While we demand limits to, say, research on genetics, we have no problems with people that design ever-faster supercomputers. But if you ask me, when you consider the immediate end result , in which advanced technology is immediately (and perhaps inevitably) used for military purposes, or creates an imbalance in society that later leads to suffering, then the super-computer designer should have as many constraints as the geneticist, if not more.

Idealistic? Sure. In fact, I'm also a hamster in the tech-wheel, running madly. I enjoy creating new things, and using cool gadgets. But somehow we need to start considering how to deal with this, to start assigning value to creation, and stop creating just because Moore's law sounds like a dandy way to live, or, pretty soon, we'll realize that the high-tech industry in general and Computer Science in particular has created its own Manhattan project to look back on and be terrified at, and stayed complicitly silent about it.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on July 6 2003 at 1:51 AM

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