Saturday, May 31, 2008

What's So Dangerous About Technology

Embracing some technology wholeheartedly is not in the best interest of anyone. To illustrate, imagine how we might explain to someone from a different timeline - someone from Earth but for whom there was no World War II - what happened in the 20th century (and beyond):

In your timeline, 1940 does not hold much significance: in our timeline the significance is almost unprecedented. In your 1940, Germany invaded France but was defeated at the Ardennes. The war was over by the end of the year. But in our timeline, Germany invaded France with staggering success. By the end of 1940, there were very few places in Europe and North Africa that the German army hadn't occupied. By the end of 1941, the Japanese had joined forces with the Nazis. They launched a "surprise" attack on America, turning the whole conflict into a global conflict. It was mechanized warfare on a scale the world had never seen before. It lasted until 1945. The allies won, but the cost was considerable. By the time the war was over, the world was a completely different place. We'd let too many genies out of too many bottles.

The Germans developed high-altitude rockets to bomb London. Within a couple of decades, the same technology would put people on the moon. The Americans developed atomic bombs that were used to flatten Japanese cities in a single strike. Within a couple of decades, those bombs had become powerful enough to wipe out humanity many times over, in less time than it takes to make breakfast. Then there were the computers. You know about Enigma machines. They played a significant role in wartime cryptography. But the allies built bigger, faster machines to crack the Enigma messages (the Enigma cipher was first broken, not by the US in the 1940s as our history textbooks triumphantly suggest, but rather by a group of Polish mathematicians in December, 1932). Those machines filled entire rooms and drank enough power to light up an office block. But they became smaller and faster: much smaller and much faster. They shrank down to the point where you could barely see them. Valves became transistors, transistors became integrated circuits, integrated circuits became microprocessors and microprocessors became quantum optic processors . . . and still it snowballed. Within a few decades, there was no aspect of living that hadn't been touched by computers. They were everywhere, so ubiquitous that you almost didn't notice them any more. They were in our homes, in our animals, in our money, even in our bodies. And even that was just the beginning. Because by the beginning of the 21st century, some people were not content with just having very small machines that could process a lot of data very quickly. They wanted very small machines that could process matter itself: move it around, organize and reorganize it on a microscopic scale. It was eventually proposed that these nanomachines could fix the climate: "Smart Weather" they called it.

"Big Dumb Idea" might be a better name for it. It is going to solve all our problems. Weather we could turn on and off, weather we could boss around. Proposals to seed the oceans and the upper atmosphere with tiny floating machines: invisible to the eye, "harmless" to people. Unthinkable numbers of them that are self-replicating.

Unthinkable numbers of self-replicating machines dumped into the atmosphere and oceans, supposedly under our control.

Need I say more? I think our imaginary friend from a different timeline might think all this a big dumb idea: so why not those who propose this nonsense? If it's not a nuclear holocaust from aggression, it might well be a nanomachine holocaust from compassion: either way not much left to leave to our children.

Even a nano-Bible? I mean really:

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