Saturday, October 20, 2007

when tech goes bad:
Mary Shelley's haunting legacy

At least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein if not before, we have been haunted by the prospect of the creature overthrowing its creator. Perhaps the roots of this vision reach as deep as the ancient tradition of slavery: the hope of most slaves is the overthrow of their masters and the gaining or regaining of their freedom.

We see the fantasy of struggle, dethronement, and liberation played out in science fiction all the time: in the Terminator and Matrix films, as well as in the series "Battlestar Galactica," we encounter the trope of the machines that revolt against their human masters, usually with deadly results; in the same vein, most of the works of Michael Crichton are warnings about the dire implications of the technologies to which we give birth.

My brother David just sent me a link to a Wired article about a Swiss/German robotic cannon down in South Africa that went nuts, killing nine soldiers and wounding around a dozen others.

Granted, the above horrifying story in no way approaches those nightmarish sci-fi scenarios: the gun in question wasn't conscious and wasn't revolting against the human gunners; what occurred was merely a glitch. But as one fish in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" observed while witnessing the consumption of his piscine kinsman Howard: Makes you think, doesn't it?

There are implications for future technologies here; all made things have imperfections, and we have to move well beyond the "beta" phase before most of those flaws are smoothed out. As machines continue to exhibit behaviors of exponentially increasing complexity, the manners in which they may fail or betray us become correspondingly complex. A major issue, as humanity barrels down the road of self-fulfilling prophecy, is control. The more we rely on our own technology, the more control we relinquish. Machines are tools, and all tools may turn against the wielder. The scenario to avoid is the one in which the crisis begins while we find ourselves helpless, bereft of all control.

The Frankensteinian prophecy is the thanatotic side of the technological equation: it shows us the road to our own overthrow and destruction. But a parallel prophecy, the erotic one, sees humanity as melding and mating with its creation, an incestuous coupling worthy of the vision of the ancient Greek myth-makers. In this vision, we join with our children-- perhaps, in the far future, at the subatomic level-- producing yet more offspring and ensuring our continuance thereby.

Humanity currently embraces both of these flesh/machine prophecies, the erotic and the thanatotic. It is difficult to determine which prophecy is more optimistic.


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