Tag archives for technology

The Institute for Ethical Magic

When the idea for creating The Prevail Project first formed, I wondered if I could get away with calling it “The Institute for Ethical Magic.”

As my daughters were growing up in the 1990s, I was struck by how, in their lives, the most magical change seemed utterly routine. First – abracadabra! – came the Internet and then the World Wide Web. Suddenly unseen wizards conjured up cell phones the size of candy bars, palm computers smaller than paperbacks, and music players not much bigger than credit cards.

These, I realized, were all end-of-century echoes of my Baby Boomer youth and its transformative television, birth control and travel to the moon.
So I found myself looking for the muse of my daughters’ generation, for its Bob Dylan – the seer who would announce to this new generation that “the times they are a-changin.’ ” I expected some Brazilian troubadour to rocket to the top of the charts, spread worldwide by the Web without benefit of any retrograde music industry. Finally it occurred to me that the prophet of their era – the One who would speak of new realities that elders fail to grasp and offer a moral code in the face of lightning change – was here already, in hundreds of millions of books translated into more than 60 languages and carefully tucked away in bedrooms all over the globe: It’s Harry Potter, modern Magus, harbinger of today’s cultural revolution.

All you have to do is look back, as I recounted in The Washington Post a few years ago. The sorcery of the ‘90s was touted as the biggest thing since the printing press, perhaps the biggest thing since fire. It turned a walk through a dark house in the middle of the night into an easy navigation. Tiny lights marked the way in festive red or green, winking from microwaves and clocks, phones and televisions, music players and laptops, smoke detectors and docking stations. Each signaled a step toward the place where my daughters sat, surrounded by more computers than light bulbs.

Yet the decade otherwise was a snooze. The headlines spoke of little save peace, prosperity and Monica. It was the calmest era our society had seen since the golf-playing, kitchen-apron and board-game years of the Eisenhower administration – which of course were followed by the civilization-shaking ‘60s of which Dylan sang.
Perhaps that’s just the way history works. Culture and values change more slowly than innovation. Thus, when upheaval finally does occur, it is of seismic proportions. In the Renaissance, the big deal was not telescopes; it was about realizing that the Earth is a minor planet orbiting an unexceptional star in an unfashionable part of the universe.

Similarly, in the last 10 years the ground has been moving beneath our feet economically, politically, and socially. Flying robots that were science fiction 15 years ago are now at the center of our wars. Industries and jobs wink out and new ones magically appear – when our college students were born, who knew what a “web master” might someday be?

Now we’re aiming inward. We’ve been transforming all creation through genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. The means actually exist in the labs for mind-to-mind communication, via computer. What will the aging – or for that matter the young – do when soon offered memory enhancers, much less immortality? This is about what happens as we perform magic with the most fundamental aspects of our identity.

Today’s young are processing these revolutionary times through their Dylan, the ringing anthem that is the story of Harry Potter. How else do we explain the way those books resonate, how they became the fastest-selling books in history?

My daughters have used magic wands all their lives, raising and lowering the volume on the story boxes that they watch, rapidly switching among narratives. Each day, we wake up in a world that will have changed by sundown. We have absorbed the wisdom of the author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Harry Potter addresses the question that we encounter as we face such unprecedented change. It is the moral use of our powers. As the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says, “Who teaches what’s right is an issue in politics, it’s an issue in religion, it’s an issue in business.”

Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry and his cohort attend, cannot ensure that people will use their powers wisely, responsibly and for the common good. According to the literary critic Alan Jacobs writing in the journal First Things, the educational quandary for the school’s revered headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, “is how to train students not just in the ‘technology’ of magic, but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers.”

Indeed, Harry is tortured by the Sorting Hat – which searches the souls of incoming students to determine in which house or faction they belong – and why it takes so long to group him with the brave and true of Gryffindor, rather than putting him in Slytherin among the careerists, the manipulators, the power-hungry and the just plain nasty, where he could achieve institutional prominence.

“ ‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin.’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different’ ” from the supremely evil Voldemort who threatens all of civilization. “ ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.”

Harry realizes for the first time, according to Jacobs, that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start. He has been asking the question “Who am I at heart?” when he needed to be asking the question “What should I do in order to become what I should be?”

The technologies we are developing offer powers exponentially greater than those of Dumbledore and Voldemort. Yet through these books, the young have learned very old lessons about love and community and how to be human in the face of overwhelming magic. By providing a means of coping with the inexplicable and magical, the Harry Potter books provide a code for coping with real life. The young recognize their own technological age in this magical place.

What they absorb most of all is character – the humanity that overcomes the mysterious. The pivot of the entire series comes in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” when Harry’s acute friend Hermione tells him that the time has come for them to seize the day, defending against the dark arts directly:

“ ‘It’s about preparing ourselves . . . for what’s out there,’ ” she says. “ ‘We’ve gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books. . . . We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us.’

“ ‘Who then?’ said Harry, frowning at her.

“ ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she said. ‘I’m talking about you, Harry.’ ”

This is exactly why I think Harry Potter is the same kind of early-warning agent as was the young Bob Dylan. Granted, the new Magus is not holding a guitar. He is a character in that ancient technology, the book. Nonetheless, Harry is the herald who offers a moral code in times of great upheaval. He is the prophet and precursor of a new generation.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

At the distinguished university that hosts our organization, when it came to naming it, cooler heads prevailed. Our effort is formally known as “The Prevail Project: Wise Governance for Challenging Futures.”

Nonetheless, the spirit of “The Institute for Ethical Magic” lives.

The question is still what we should do with our powers – “What should I do to become what I should be?” But now we have the magic by which to connect preposterously large numbers of people – hundreds of thousands, millions, in a bottom-up, flock-like way – to help us search for these “should” answers. Right here. Right now.

Prevail’s faith is that – even in the face of unprecedented threats – the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor will wend its way to glory. It puts a shocking premium on Faulkner’s hope that man will prevail “because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

The mean-spirited may say Prevail expects a very large miracle. The more sympathetic may say it expects many millions of small miracles.

Almost like magic.

Prevailing Over Technology

Thirty years ago I wrote Taming the Tiger about our conflicted attitude towards technology: we distrust machines, even as we rely on them; we are always surprised by the unintended consequences of technology, as if our creations should be perfect; and we are eager to adopt the next new thing, even as we bemoan the good old days.

Our ambivalence, as I saw it then and still do, is the result of several misunderstandings. For example, we assume that technological change will inevitably be accompanied by loss, and we tend to romanticize past machines such as clipper ships, old handicrafts, even old towns. But the rosy image is rosy. The tall ships were inhuman work environments, dangerous and physically debilitating; old crafts often involved mind-numbing labor, and the beautiful objects that we admire in museums were available only to a wealthy few; and the old towns that we visit while on holiday lacked the technological amenities—running water, flush toilets, central heating—that we take for granted today. I think we can blame a good deal of this romanticizing tendency on the movies, which have portrayed history in highly selective ways. In truth, Robin Hood and his Merry Men endured lice and continual tooth-aches; the noble cowboy loners portrayed by Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd were illiterate, crude louts; the Edwardian swells portrayed on Masterpiece Theater suffered from gout, rheumatism (damp, drafty houses), and venereal disease.

We often confuse a device with its purpose. The hammer is an elegant tool, but the nail came first, that is, the need to hammer nails came first. Because we focus on the device we tend to fetishize machines, whether they are iPads or smart phones. Paradoxically, this attitude imbues machines with power that they don’t have, while at the same time trivializing their actual functions. For example, the so-called American love affair with the automobile in the Fifties and Sixties produced such momentous advances as chrome grills, wraparound windshields, and tailfins (meanwhile the Japanese and the Germans were actually solving transportation problems). We are seeing a replay of this distortion today in our fascination with green buildings and green cities. Certainly, our goal should be to develop—and adopt—practices and technologies that reduce global warming. But we can’t help being attracted to the symbols of greenness: grass roofs, wind machines, solar panels. The point is not to drive a hybrid SUV, but to drive less.

Another cause of our ambivalence towards technology is that we assume that machines cause technological change. The personal computer—or vapor ware—create a new world, we say. It is instructive to examine an earlier communications device: the printing press. The press famously appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century, although neither movable type nor paper-making were European inventions, but originated much earlier in Japan and China. What facilitated printing in Europe was advances in metallurgy and water-power; metallurgy, because it was needed for the spread of typesetting (the early types were made by goldsmiths), and water-power, because it permitted the manufacture of cheap paper. Cheap paper, replacing parchment made from calfskin or goatskin, was a prerequisite for printing. But the prime driver was a cultural change: a growing demand for books, that is, a growing desire to read and write. In other words, the human activity came first, the machine followed. So today, digital media are not creating a new world, they are enabling a new world that already exists.

Technology is not inhuman or dehumanizing, quite the opposite. In the concluding chapter of Taming the Tiger I quoted the German philosopher Arnold Gehlen. Gehlen wrote that technology mirrors man, “like man it is clever, it represents something intrinsically improbable, it bears a complex, twisted relationship to nature.” It is another way of saying that we are as much a part of the technological environment—and it is as much a part of us—as of the natural world.

Witold Rybczynski is an award-winning critic, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and columnist with Slate who has been thinking about humanity and technology since the 1980s, when he published his first two books, “Paper Heroes: Appropriate Technology: Panacea or Pipe Dream?” and “Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology.”

To Prevail

I have in front of me a late 1960s advertisement from the Burroughs Corporation. It shows a sketch of a guy — in a snappy suit and crisp haircut — sitting at what one must assume is a Burroughs business computer. A large genie-like figure billows from the machine, and the caption reads MAN plus a Computer equals a GIANT!”

I love this image, despite the outdated sexism. It’s a healthy reminder that the notion of computers making humans something supremely powerful (and distinctly no longer human) isn’t just an idea dreamt up in the heady days of the 1990s, as Moore’s Law seemed to be really taking off. It’s been woven into the fabric of our relationship with “thinking machines” for decades. While there may have been no Mad Men-era Singularitarians fantasizing about being uploaded into a B6500 mainframe, it was clear even then that there was something about these devices that went beyond mere tool. They were extensions not of our bodies, but of our minds.

Of course, anyone sitting down at a 1960s Burroughs business machine right now expecting to become a figurative “giant” is in for a surprise. It may be something of a cliché at this point to note that a cheap mobile phone has far more computing power than a mainframe of a generation or two ago, but it’s true. Yet instead of making us all “giants,” our information technologies played something of a trick: they made us more human. All of the things that humanize us — love, sex, despair, creativity, sociality, storytelling, art, outrage, humor, and on and on — have been strengthened, given new power and new reach by the march of technology, not discarded.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. Western intellectual culture is in the midst of a civil war between two superficially distinct viewpoints: a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization, eliminating our humanity even if they don’t simply destroy us, versus a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization and replace it (and eventually us) with something better. We’re on the verge of disaster or the verge of transcendence, and in both cases, the only way to hang onto a shred of our humanity is to disavow what we have made.

But these two ideas ultimately tell the same story: by positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, they tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.

Such perspectives aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous. They’re right to see that our information technologies are increasingly powerful — but because our tools are so powerful, the last thing we should do is abdicate our responsibility to shape them. When we give up, we’re simply opening the door to those who would use these powerful tools to manipulate us, or worse. But when we embrace our responsibility, we embrace the Prevail scenario.

To Prevail is to accept that our technological tools are changing how our humanity expresses itself, but not changing who we are. It is to know that such changes are choices we make, not destinies we submit to. It is to recognize that our technologies are manifestations of our culture and our politics, and embed the unconscious biases, hopes, and fears we all carry — and that this is something to make transparent and self-evident, not kept hidden. We can make far better choices about our futures when we have a clearer view of our present.

To Prevail is to see something subtle and important that both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution often miss: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are.

Human plus a Computer equals a Human.

Jamais Cascio is a founder of Worldchanging.org, and author of “Hacking the Earth.” Prevailing for him involves seeing technologies as expressions of ourselves, not alterations or degradations of human nature.

The Attack Coming From Bytes, Not Bombs

While the United States has a first-rate cyberoffense capacity, according to Richard A. Clarke, it lacks a credible defense systems, combined with the country’s heavy reliance on technology, making it highly susceptible to a devastating cyberattack.  The United States is currently far more vulnerable to cyberwar than Russia or China, he says.