World as a puppet graphic

Can technological solutions distract from reality?

'The road to hell is paved with good intentions,' affirms an old proverb. History shows that technologies aimed at creating a utopian ideal often lead to totalitarianism, exploitation and thought control. So shall we continue wasting money and effort to achieve something that is simply unachievable?

Last year, Edward Snowden told us what was really going on with the Internet. Technology that was supposed to bring about a sort of informational utopia, where "ordinary people" were liberated from the clutches of politicians and corporations, was actually being used by politicians and corporations to spy on, and control, the same "ordinary people".

Now, thanks to Snowden, we know what the US secret service has been up to - snooping on other governments, overseas companies and the European Union; tapping the phones of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel; intercepting millions of email and phone communications, and using national security legislation to force companies to pass on user data en masse.

This is what can happen to utopian ideals once unscrupulous people get their hands on the latest technology. That doesn't mean, however, there's no place for utopian thinking in the modern world.

Utopians believe that technology can deliver desirable futures quicker. However, opinion is divided as to what is desirable. Hitler and Mugabe, for instance, were driven by their own twisted versions of utopia.

In the mid-1990s, when the Internet was commercialised, many thought it would encourage a peaceful, democratic world. Reformers believed that if we could connect with each other, there would be no place for bureaucratic government or exploitation, while conservative capitalists thought totalitarian regimes would no longer be able to control their people. Economists hoped online marketing would aid economic growth and put an end to boom/bust cycles.

'Solutionism', but no solutions

The Internet has revolutionised communications, just not how utopian commentators hoped. Technology is still shaped by those who fund, develop and use it - people, organisations and governments who don't necessarily believe in libertarian principles, but who are driven by more basic instincts: power, greed, and the need to outcompete rivals.

"Forty per cent of every US defence dollar goes into California," says Professor Richard Barbrook of the University of Westminster. "With these dollars the US government has built the roads, buildings and universities that surround Silicon Valley. Is it really that surprising that US security agencies were using the Internet for surveillance?"

Google chairman Eric Schmidt once said that if we get technology right, we can fix all the world's problems. These days, every new technology seems to come with its own utopian vision; a slogan that proclaims how it will make the world a better place.

Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the social implications of technology, says that the present historical situation means we are ill-equipped to unlock technology's democratic and progressive potential. "As long as the global political regime is characterised by the dismemberment of the welfare state, the decline of the very idea of public goods and the triumph of tinkering over structural reform, we shouldn't expect technology to perform much of an emancipatory function," he says.

Prof Barbrook adds that many of the world's issues need social, political or economic solutions. "Often, when you throw technology at a problem, you are dealing with the consequence of that problem, not the cause," he says. "Capitalism is very successful but it doesn't solve basic human problems. Technology gives us the tools which will help us liberate ourselves, but technology itself doesn't liberate us."

Take obesity as an example. According to marketing, if you buy a smart fork that tells you if you're eating too quickly, you'll lose weight. Particularly if you also get an app to count calories. Never mind the additives in junk food, the constant advertising, or the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that encourages you to stay indoors. If you're overweight, it's because you eat too much. "A consumer is forced to accept this situation as a given," Morozov says.

Morozov adds that some technologists focus only on problems that their technology can fix. They do this, he says, instead of dealing with the problems that really need fixing. He calls this 'technological solutionism'. "It's not that technology can't fix problems," Prof Barbrook adds. "It just tends to focus on the wrong problems."

A super-intelligent AI?

Companies make fridge freezers and watches that connect to the Internet rather than designing high-quality freezers and watches that everyone can afford.

Geneticists spend millions cloning extinct mammoths, while endangered species die out. Physicist Michio Kaku talks about nanotechnology creating a utopia, 100 years from now, where everyone can be abundant. Today, however, three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. That's 50 per cent of the world's population.

Morozov believes that technological solutionists identify problems based on quick fixes. They present solutions to attract quality staff while a soft side keeps the regulators off their backs. "We end up with a shallow debate about whether technology is enriching the human condition," he says.

From this standpoint, should we be spending billions on experiments in genetics and artificial intelligence, hoping to create a utopia of intelligent humans and super intelligent robots? Not while schools and universities remain underfunded.

Jim Miller, from Smith University, Massachusetts, disagrees. He believes that the future of the human race depends on whether we can create super intelligent AI that shares our goals.

Miller explains that the human brain alone will not see us thousands of years into the future, because it works only when it needs to. A thinking machine that operates constantly and trillions times faster would, he believes, be able to do anything it wanted.

"We would have to programme this machine to share our values at the outset," Miller says. He explains that if we get it right, we'll have a utopia where all our problems are solved - cures for biological attack, cancer, asteroid strikes. Get it wrong, and we could end up with bigger problems.

"Say a super intelligent AI had, as its primary objective, the calculation of Pi to as many digits as possible," Miller says. "Knowing that there's only a finite amount of free energy in the universe, it might decide to wipe out anything else that used energy that it could be using to work towards that objective."

The Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) hopes to create software codes that ensure any future AI, that is smarter than humans, is friendly towards mankind. "We aim to make intelligent machines behave as we intend, even when there's no human supervision," says MIRI director Luke Muelhauser. He wants to make sure an AI can reason about its behaviour in a principled rather than an ad hoc way. "To be safe, a super intelligent AI would have to share our values," Muelhauser adds.

And there's that problem again. For a Californian hippy, a world of peace, love and harmony sounds like a good place. An NSA director, or a high-ranking CIA official, for example, would no doubt prefer a world where the USA can go about its business free from internal and external threat.

Corporate leaders might imagine a utopia where their company has cornered the market, and is making more money than their trophy wives and trust fund kids can spend. Who's more likely to be making that super-intelligent AI?

Hippies versus governments

Leaders of corporations and governments have more cash than Californian hippies. They can make, develop, buy and use the latest technologies. People listen to the hippies, though. We empathise with, even believe in, their utopian ideas. And in countries like the UK and the USA, where governments need votes to get elected, we expect our leaders to buy in to these sort of principles. To at least look like they're trying to use technology for the good and betterment of all.

Look at President Obama's speech at Nelson Mandela's funeral last December. The leader of a government that oversaw the systematic, secret removal of the American people's moral, if not constitutional right to privacy, eulogising about the power of ideas, justice, freedom, equality, tolerance of dissent, moral necessity. Anything less from Obama and there'd have been worldwide uproar. It won't stop the NSA, in the interests of national security, from continuing to collect data in secret.

Utopian ideas might not drive how technology is used, but they carry enough weight to make sure governments at least have to do their sneaky business out of the public eye. And that, if they get caught, there's a chance they'll be held to account.

Following Snowden's revelations, Silicon Valley capitalists, some of the world's top novelists and lots of old hippies, condemned what the NSA did. They joined together for different reasons, but behind them all was a professed belief in a right to privacy.

Rather than how far governments depart from the things that they tell everyone they believe in, consider how much worse things could be without utopian ideals keeping the unscrupulous operators in check.

The idea that technology can bring about a libertarian utopia might well be a mixture of hippy idealism, political and economic spin, with a little desire to end human suffering thrown in for good measure. But if it stops the NSA and GCHQ from acting like the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, or Orwell's Thought Police, then it's worth having.

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