March 31, 2003
Fear and Trust in the Networked Society

Sheldon Pacotti in Salon writes "Are We Doomed Yet?" looking at information technologies and the threats they pose to humanity. He is "alarmed by the ease with which our society is being frightened into abandoning its hard-won openness. Numerous ideas currently in circulation, taken together, foretell a future which might shock our late-capitalist sensibilities, but which could very well become our reality, by degrees, if we don't take the time now to ask fundamental questions about what we value as a people. "

The shift in science from the descriptive to the functional is the key. Instead of observing with language, it's about reconfiguring the natural world as language, which does not just describe, but digitally encodes. The shift to heightened granularity of choice makes this the age of fashion (as compared to the age of machinery in the last two centuries) where diversity and customization make every expression, from your genes to computing to your t-shirt a computational exercise in design for consuming.

"The power of our voices to reshape materials to suit our pleasure will soon be limited only by our salaries. But as advanced language-processing technology frees us as consumers, will it also make us free in more fundamental ways, as citizens, artists, parents, employees? Or will its functional nature -- and, by extension, its users -- be seen as a danger that needs to be regulated?"

"In crude terms, governments are deciding what to do about networks. Since the rise and fall of Napster, everyone seems to have a theory about what to do about piracy on the Internet, but piracy is the smallest of the threats waiting for us in the digital age." So it's not piracy, but dangerous technologies (he gives the example that posting DeCSS is unstoppable by the government, and if someone posted a new Ebola-AIDS genome, it would be just as unstoppable, but far more dangerous) that are threatening. And if there must be surveillance, he believes it should be through a completely open network.

"...Though we might be foolish to put too much faith in the romantic notion of the ?citizens' militia,? we should be very suspicious of laws that limit the creation or dissemination of knowledge. They threaten to create a privileged class of information shepherds who, though well-meaning at first, could easily abuse their dramatic power advantage over information consumers. We should not give up our freedom to know and to communicate unless we are certain that the new order would be vastly more secure than the present one -- and, as I argue above, the likelihood is that it would not."

So if computer code becomes the central form of expression, what happens to free speech, and the open society? He argues that we need the most educated, most open society in order to overcome the next generation of dangerous technologies. "The choice is not between a perilous freedom and a secure tyranny, but rather between fear and trust."

Posted by Mary Hodder at March 31, 2003 08:07 AM
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