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Science

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The application of science to society

Tuesday, 08 February 2022 13:53

The Hazards of Technological Determinism

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Foreword

The 2020’s, perhaps more than any prior decade, is characterized by self-contradictions – and with that I mean a mixture between an extreme sense of dread and paranoia on one hand, and an equally extreme naivety on the other hand. 

The fear of the unknown – of climate change, pandemics, geostrategic adversaries, terrorists and political extremism – is perforating the very air we breathe. Meanwhile, we are actively pursuing choices which are exacerbating our dependency and vulnerability. 

In the economic and political sense, we are moving towards both a greater concentration of wealth and of the de-facto political power in the hands of wealthy and centralized supra-national institutions. 

In the technological sense, we are pursuing the further integration of our infrastructure with the world wide web, while cracking mechanisms become ever more sophisticated and accessible. 

The increased vulnerability is already a fact, and numerous debilitating attacks have already been conducted.

Prevailing as a narrative is however the notion that the current development is determined and fixed, that the short-term demand for greater dividends must trump reason and collective and individual safety concerns. A sort of technological determinism rules the day, and this technological determinism could risk us sacrificing our freedom and democratic sovereignty, without becoming safer.

Summary 

  • The Internet of Things should be understood as the digitalization of infrastructure and the further interconnection of data within a wider cloud.
  • The benefits would entail further automation, specialization, the elimination of bottlenecks and increased economic growth.
  • During the 2010’s, an increased amount of hacker attacks and “compromizations” of software have been an evident trend.
  • The narrative is that “Democracy is under attack” – the answer is an increased amount of centralization, self-censorship and surveillance.
  • The technology of vulnerabilities is by itself never questioned, and it is taken as self-evident that we must continue on the current trajectory.
  • The effect would be an increased risk for slipping into techno-totalitarianism of a Chinese or similar variety.
  • An alternative would be a de-centralized, sustainable holonic structure characterized by inclusion, autonomy and self-reliance. 

 

The Internet of Things and its benefits

A part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the increased digitalization of production, maintenance and infrastructure. We are already seeing how education, transport, retail and appliances become ever-more interconnected on the web. The features of this trend most visible are those which resemble the cyberpunk future envisioned in many works of science fiction – for example self-driving vehicles, stores without human employees, package-carrying drones.

Yet, most people experience far more prosaic changes to their life – most common less usage of cash in their daily transactions. One example could be bus tickets. In not a few cities and towns in cities, tickets could no longer be purchased by the driver. Rather, the weary traveller would have to download an app through their smartphone, use their cellphone camera to record a QR code and pay through apps like Swish which they download through their mobile Bank-ID app. Following this, the amount of freeloading in public transit has had a certain increase among the “above 80’s”, to speak bluntly.

The benefits are obvious. The existence of cash is exposing drivers for both robbers and germs. Counters and credit card readers cost money to install, and produce receipts which the customers do not desire. The overview of the amount of customers is immediately centralized and can be accessible and broken down in studies when for example the redrawing of public transit is made.

The same is true for the wider Internet of Things. Apps can benefit both travellers and businesses when they visit new towns and are recommended stores and establishments corresponding to the conscious, unconscious and subconscious choices indicated by the algorithms surveilling the individual user. This has also created new markets – for example has the recent rise of involuntary celibacy among males a certain correlation with the rise of dating apps, which has commoditized and streamlined the previously so messy and haphazard process of courtship. The next step would likely be a marketization of friendships, which further would serve to alienate the human being but also create a new avenue for growth and a new generation of tech billionaires.

In terms of the infrastructural benefits, they are mostly related to logistics, maintenance and informatics. Instead of having their own server halls, corporations can store their data on the cloud, saving the need for staff and rent. Elevators can be operated and managed from afar. In the future, with self-driving trucks, the challenge imposed by pesky “freedom convoys” can be a thing of the past. In fact, self-driving trucks can unload their cargo in storage halls, offering driver-less carrier trucks the opportunity to move the goods direct to the store.

Already, refrigerators can notify both their owners, their makers and the retailers what the owners are consuming and when the date of expediency will come. Smart jackets and sneakers will be able to tell doctors and producers of sport gear how many calories their owners are burning on a daily basis. Though Neuralink, for all purposes, currently in its most wild form best is described as something between a science fiction-dream and an (in)advertent scam, there is research aiming to connect the human mind to the Internet, in new and revolutionary forms.

All of this development will open up new markets for growth, especially in the so-called Metaverse. Investors, tech companies, a vast army of consumers and western governments are all embracing this new the latest of golden calves. This will be a driver for creative destruction, multiply monetary wealth and serve to shift wealth ever-more from nations and communities into the hands of multinational corporations and conversely into tax havens – all while at best creating a few new jobs down the line. But politico-economic orthodoxy dictates that what market-driven development craves is also the best future for the entire economy.

The question, however, is what the risks are. 

Caveats, dangers, hazards

Since the Internet began to emerge in the 1980’s, malware and hacking have followed suit. The DDOS attacks of the 1990’s gradually came to give way to more sophisticated types of criminal activities. Nowadays, as all of society is rapidly being digitalized, all of society is likewise affected by hacking.

Billions of people are affected by identity theft. Refrigerators in Moscow, credit card readers and harbours in Sweden and Tesla cars and university printers in the United States have all for varying purposes been overtaken, controlled and/or held ransom by various groups. The smart cities of the Internet of Things are also extremely fragile and vulnerable, especially as the centralization and internationalization of information creates nodes accessible for anyone with a minimum of resources and talent – in a world with billions of desperate, poor and smart minds.

With quantum decryption follows cracking software which can run billions of passwords simultaneously, and soon retinae and fingerprints won’t be hacker-proof either. The attacks are already happening, yet what is criticised is never the manner in which the technology is implemented.

Rather, the problem is deemed to be the people.

 

The emergence of techno-totalitarianism  

It is evident that we today are living in a society characterized by fear. During the 1990’s, mainstream popular music and comedy flirted with anti-establishmentarian, revolutionary sentiments and dangerous symbols. The attitude towards government power, authorities and media – even from parts of the establishment itself – was characterized by scepticism and cynicism. It was seen as healthy to question the intentions of governments and mega-corporations.

Of course, the prevalent tendency of the then dominant strand of neoliberalism was that history was at an end following the end of the Cold War, and that all expressions of youthful resistance rather than implicit threats were promises of rejuvenation of the system, following the appropriation and defanging of the revolutionary symbols.

Nowadays, the public narrative – especially within the framework of the wider English-speaking world – is rather characterized by a sense of dread and chilled anticipation. Public discourse is gradually replaced by echo chambers, and the struggle between ideas have been replaced by a fight between tribes. The purpose of public discourse is no longer about civic ideals and winning at the marketplace of ideas, but about delegitimizing opponents as extremists, by associating their positions with odious ideologies and tendencies. This trend began with the War on Terror and was initially experienced by ethnic communities of certain backgrounds, but gradually the groups suspected of harbouring extremist sympathies have been expanded.

I would argue that a surveillance state is not per definition an unhappy accident made possible by the emergence of the unsavoury application of new technologies – but a feature of what Zbigniew Brzezinski defined as “the Technetronic Era”.

The very vulnerability – the sheer nakedness, of the cloud, of the grid and of the networked infrastructure – will necessitate an increased amount of surveillance and policing, and therefore a new narrative. The vast openness of enormous quantities of data in the most open society ever realized has paradoxically birthed a siege mentality, where our systems suddenly are very fragile.

Gradually, this process will lead to the ban of anonymous usage of the Internet, to the increased division of the world wide web between vast tech baronies, by increased amounts of subjects not allowed of speaking of. What previously was considered legitimate critique of the practices of pharmaceutical and technological companies is increasingly viewed as subversive and proto-fascist.

And the more the Internet of Things will emerge in all its glory, the deeper surveillance will burrow in the social body, and the narrower the scope of what is deemed acceptable discourse will be.

No matter what political ideology will triumph in the ideological battle for ideas in the current western world, the characteristics of the emergent society will be techno-totalitarian in its characteristics – and the citizen will experience a loss of autonomy, agency and dignity, reduced to a consumer and component, while the arena of politics will continue to shift towards legalistic and clandestine conflicts between tech baronies and financial institutions.

Such a system will moreover be incapable of addressing the environmental crisis and its array of phenomena – climate change merely its most recognizable and well-published expression. A stupefied, brutalized, silenced and distracted citizenry is no longer a citizenry, and cannot be expected to take charge in terms of transitioning the human civilization towards a sustainable future.

Determinism is dangerous

The manner in which the Internet of Things is implemented today can only be described as criminally negligent and hazardous for public health and safety. The solutions to the sensitivity caused by the single-minded pro-business implementation are kryptonite for the fabric of what is worth preserving of soon to be three centuries of Enlightenment thought.

If one would ascribe to the ideas of technological determinism – that we only have one tech tree and that markets should dictate the progress of civilization, and that we are unable to steer development in another direction – then certainly a techno-totalitarian surveillance state would be a reality impossible to escape, and maybe the least worst conclusion of many bad options.

If we instead ascribe to an alternative view, one wherein we all are in power, we will begin to take back the power over our own future and determine our own fate. But that requires not only a critical analysis over the way in which technology today is implemented, but also the courage to imagine an alternate technological society. 

When we are empowered

 

The vision outlined by the Earth Organisation for Sustainability – a vision where you can play an important part – is akin back to the early days of the Internet, back to the future which Linux and early Wikipedia pointed towards.

A vision where the users are in charge, and are building the infrastructure not only of the virtual world but of real life itself.

Foundational for this new world will be a constitutional document to which millions of autonomous groups of people are ascribing – containing the Three Criteria and the Universal charter of human rights. These groups can vary in their functionality, their geographic dispersion and their ideologies and cultures, but they will all be active part in the formation of a new society, where power is distributed and egalitarian.

Communities will have the control over their own ability to sustain themselves on food, energy, heating and communications. Instead of techno barons fearful of the uprising of gaslighted and repressed subjects, we will have a world of people who respect and love one another, because nobody is under total dependency of anyone else, while all will still of course be interdependent.

Under this world, software will still be prone to breakdowns, malware attacks and sophisticated sabotage, but the damage will be limited by the vast distribution and the dispersion and availability of data. Compromised holons can be aided or isolated by their peers, and overall vulnerability will be reduced by a greater general knowledge of technological systems.

It will be a world of distributed power, where factories and software systems will be open source and available for all people, rather than closely and jealously guarded domains of distant rulers.

It is a world that you can be a part in creating, but it demands that you dare take a stand, and organize where you can have the greatest impact. The sustainable future of tomorrow shall not be a virtual palace economy under the ruler-ship of Tech Pharaohs and Cybernetic Satrapies, but a teeming garden of a billion autonomous groups comprising all of humanity.

And yes, that is probably impossible to achieve. But the more we tend to that garden, the more of that dream we can realize.