Killing ourselves with technology

What do we do when technology spirals out of our control? Or, to put it more bluntly, when does humanity’s ability to build ever more dangerous weapons become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t know what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth would be waged with sticks and rocks. Even that classic of science fiction optimism, Star Trek, had humanity surviving a third world war. (Spock recounted the tolls of Earth’s three world wars in one episode.)

But we wouldn’t, would we? Or we might wish we didn’t. One story that has long lingered in my mind is an early Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” published in 1953, a time when the cold war was looking decidedly hot. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic France, in a world in which nuclear bombs and other equally nightmarish weapons have reduced most of North America and Europe to gray ash, with only a stubby tree trunk or a blasted wall dotting barren, depopulated landscapes.

NagasakiThe West’s governments have retreated to a bunker somewhere on the Moon, with scattered groups of soldiers huddled in hidden underground bunkers on Earth trying to “win” the world war. The land is uninhabitable because of a super-weapon developed by the U.S. — autonomous machines that hone in on any living being and rip it to shreds with whirring metal blades that make short work of whatever they encounter. The Western soldiers are protected by a belt that forces the death machines to back off. This is the weapon that turns the tide of the war into a U.S. advantage after years of “losing” the war against the Soviet Union.

But what is there to “win”? Much of the world is uninhabitable, not only because of the total destruction and residual radiation from countless bombs but from the new weapon. There is no alternative but to huddle in underground bunkers. As Dick’s story unfolds, the nightmare gets progressively worse — the weapons are not only autonomous, they are self-replicating and continually inventing newer and more deadly varieties of themselves. The last pockets of U.S. and Soviet soldiers in this slice of the French countryside are systematically killed as the machines learn to build robots difficult to distinguish from humans; robots allowed into bunkers as refugees, only to suddenly become unstoppable killing machines, and which don’t distinguish one side from the other.

Although shuddering at the mere thought of their deadliness, more than once a soldier tries to justify these ultimate weapons by saying “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.”

If we didn’t shoot first, bomb first, destroy first, they would have. Whatever we do is justified. No culture has a monopoly on such thoughts. But such thoughts combined with the technological progress of the present day, rising nationalism and budget-busting military budgets leave the possible end of the human race a concrete possibility rather than merely a science fiction allegory.

Philip D. Dick was no prophet — no one is — but the nightmare world he created is chillingly tangible. What would happen if a technology of war was given autonomy? Such a weapon would be purposefully designed to kill swiftly and without mercy. The Pentagon has already begun a program designed to create autonomous weapons systems.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

But what if an artificial intelligence decided humans were in the way? Isaac Asimov famously had his robots programmed with three laws that blocked them from doing any harm to any human. The other side of this equation was explored in another Star Trek episode, when the Enterprise encountered a planet populated by advanced robots. The robots had killed their creators so far back in time that the robots couldn’t remember when, but had done so because their creators “had begun to fear us and started to turn us off.”

Technology need not be feared nor is it necessarily fated to escape all control. There are no von Neumann machines swarming everywhere (at least in this part of the galaxy!), and I am inclined to agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil applications of technology. Yet we live in a world where there are plenty of opportunities for technology to be used for evil purposes. We see some of this all around us as workplaces become sites of tightening surveillance and control, from computers that report on us to bosses, to the endless treadmill of work speedups. Technology is today a tool of capitalists, to extract ever more work out of us, to outsource work on scales never before possible and to facilitate ever faster and more numerous speculation in dubious financial instruments.

Technology in these hands also makes waging war easier — a drone operator can sit in a control room thousands of miles from the targets, safe from the carnage rained down on far-away peoples. If autonomous weaponry ever is unleashed, how could it be controlled? It couldn’t. Humanity won’t survive a third world war.

When we think of existential threats to our descendants’ world, we tend to focus on global warming, environmental degradation and the looming collapse of capitalist industrialism, of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. That is properly so, and these do seem to be the gravest challenges that will face us across the 21st century. But technology applied to perfecting military killing machines is within the human imagination. Dick conjured this at the midpoint of the 20th century and he is far from the only one.

Yes, a warning and not a prophesy. But in a world of vast inequality, of an industrial and financial elite willing to do anything, even put the planet’s health at risk, for the sake of acquiring more wealth, the potential for evil applications of technology are ever present.

One more reason, if we didn’t already have enough, to bring into being a better world, one built for human need and environmental harmony rather than private profit. We then wouldn’t need to endure a mad pursuit of fetishized technological advancement; instead we could harness technology for the greater good as necessary. Barbarism remains the likely alternative.

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Capitalism in outer space

Would it be possible to circumvent Earth’s physical limitations with a rapid colonization of the solar system? Yet it would be a temporary panacea since humanity would still not have unlimited resources.

To put this another way: Could humanity pull a rabbit out of the hat by industrializing space and tapping the solar system’s abundant metal and gas resources to overcome the dwindling availability and environmental devastation of our home planet? Would we want to?

I’ve been stimulated to think about these questions since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312. Set three centuries into the future, around the year that is its title, the novel envisions a time when humans live comfortably on Mercury, Mars, the Moon, satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt, and more than 19,000 hollowed-out asteroids engineered to create a staggering assortment of environments. Still more real estate is being opened up with the terraforming of Venus nearing completion.

Complex political, environmental and social problems nonetheless endure, with multiple political blocs stretching across the solar system: a still capitalist Earth struggling with vast environmental distress, including a 20-meter rise in sea level, with various off-Earth colonies still under control of major countries; a “Mondragon Accord” consisting of off-Earth localities working together within a cooperative economy modeled on the eponymous collective enterprise; a socialist Mars, now one of the solar system’s biggest powers; and an unknown number of those hollowed-out asteroids that comprise the “unaffiliated,” some of which exist in self-imposed isolation.

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

This imagined 24th century, for all its technological wonders and the copious free time of many off-Earth inhabitants, is a time of hideous inequality, particularly for Earth’s billions of desperately poor and billions more comprising a planetary precariat; these broad groups still comprise most of Earth’s population. Capitalism continues to do its work, centuries in the future, only now the divide is not North/South but rather Space/Earth.

Despite the social consciousness Mr. Robinson brings to his marvelous novels — I have been a fan of his since reading his Mars trilogy in the 1990s — this all seems rather too easy. His 2312, as with his earlier works, is outstanding literature that soars vastly above ordinary science fiction, wrestling with complex socio-economic problems and human relationships from a Left perspective through characters that are actually fully formed human beings. One of these is rare in the genre; having both puts him in very rarified company, with, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Industrializing the solar system

There has frequently been an underlying pessimism in Mr. Robinson’s novels despite his creation of worlds with alternative social systems, dizzying technological advances, and racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality. That is, capitalism seems unmovable, continuing to grind down large sections of humanity and further degrading environments long past the point of any rational excuse and despite alternative socialist systems flourishing somewhere.

In light of this, let’s rephrase the opening questions I asked: Can capitalism be saved by industrializing the solar system? In the world of 2312, that is what has happened. Earth is in bad shape indeed, with 11 billion mostly precarious inhabitants, countless species wiped out and drowned cities. Food grown in and imported from hollowed-out asteroids devoted to agriculture, and access to natural resources mined across the solar system, are what keep it from complete collapse.

But, again, it seems too easy. Our present-day course continues through this century into the first decades of the 22nd century before a series of technology breakthroughs — including space elevators, artificial intelligence and automated self-replicating factories that convert raw materials into finished products — touch off a fantastic exodus into space; in less than a century the solar system out to Saturn is settled and thousands of asteroids are hollowed to create new, artificial worlds to inhabit.

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

I can’t help but think of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. So it is here, with robotic machines creating the infrastructure both to make planets, moons and space rocks inhabitable and collecting and delivering vast amounts of raw materials from across the solar system. The terraforming of Mars is made possible by stripping the Saturnian moon Titan of half of its nitrogen. Venus’ terraforming requires the disassembly of another Saturnian moon and bombarding Venus with the ex-moon’s ice while Venus cools off behind a sunscreen that blocks the Sun, freezing out its carbon dioxide atmosphere.

A truly gargantuan amount of capital would be required to finance these projects! And surely there would be a pushback against such wholesale destruction. In the author’s Mars trilogy (a different universe and story), the Mars colonists, having effected a revolution to free themselves from the grip of Earth’s dominant corporations, are divided into those who wish to go no further than the pre-revolution partial terraforming already forced through by Earth and those who wish to make Mars fully Earth-like.

In 2312, however, environmentalism is strangely absent, although internally understandable as most of the action is off Earth and virtually every character of note is a “spacer” native to someplace else — their very existence is based on artificial environments, technology, the use of resources across the solar system and political alliances across space. In such a time and place, the vast engineering that makes space civilization work would appear as an inevitability; such environmental disputes that do exist are territorial.

The chicken and egg of space

Setting aside that any systematic attempt to exploit other worlds would surely be accompanied and critiqued by an environmental movement, the depicted 24th century civilization rests entirely on magic in the Clarkeian sense. The depicted mechanics of engineering are physically possible but would they be viable for an Earth destroying itself environmentally, economically and morally?

Although ever mounting inequality could conceivably pool enough capital to make early stages of space colonization financially possible, the countervailing factors of environmental destruction, global warming, depletion of natural resources and increasing unrest on a world scale as more billions are immiserated (and all the problems that flow from them) should give us pause. Were humanity to continue on its current course into the 22nd century, it would most likely be too late.

The metals, gases and water to be found throughout the solar system would greatly expand the natural resources available for humanity, surely providing enough to create the necessary early space-colony infrastructure, but we have a chicken-and-egg problem: The resources to establish a space presence exist, but can’t be reached until we are present in space.

A rational system geared for human need rather than private profit, in which a healed planet has reversed its gathering crises, seems better equipped. There would not be the concentrated capital that now exists, but with a planned, democratic economy it might be possible to slowly establish bases on the Moon, or perhaps Mars or nearby asteroids (presumably accompanied by an environmental movement), should humanity see it in its common interest and as a spur to useful technological development distributed in an egalitarian manner.

Under capitalism, it is inevitable that private enterprise will take the helm, with expectations of the highest possible profit. But space capitalists would have to be heavily subsidized by governments; already, the U.S. space agency NASA is shifting more of its budget to contracts with private companies to launch rockets for it. Should a space program become just another corporate subsidy? And as tempting as grabbing the solar system’s natural resources may be, limitations will assert themselves. Capitalism requires ceaseless expansion and growth and that is no more possible in a finite solar system than on a finite Earth.

A badly degraded Earth, saddled with massive poverty, environmental degradation and billions struggling to survive in the face of dwindling resources and global warming, is an unlikely candidate to, in the nick of time, develop a series of magical technologies that save the day. But even this outer space cornucopia, where spacers routinely travel billions of miles the way the more privileged among us take airplane trips, is dependent on the surplus value extracted from Earth’s inhabitants, both on Earth itself and on major projects, such as the Venusian terraforming. That is so even though Earth in turn is dependent on the food and raw materials continually sent to it by spacers.

None of this, I wish to stress, is meant as a criticism of Mr. Robinson. His novel 2312 does what the best literature does — stimulate thinking at the same time we enjoy well-crafted writing. As I was reading it last month while on vacation in Vermont, my partner asked me to read a bit of it out loud to her and just the first six pages, vivid descriptions of the Mercurian city moving along a planet-circling track while “sun walkers” walk the surface ahead of the deadly sunrise on excursions, matching the pace of the city, made her want to read it herself, so enraptured did she become. Me too.

The humanity of resistance can’t be erased by a Pinochet or a Friedman

I have long felt haunted by the fate of Chile. I can’t help but feel a strong attachment because the people who were involved, and “disappeared,” tortured and killed, were me and many of my friends and fellow activists.

Not literally, for I was a boy in 1973 and lived on another continent. But if I were then, and there, who I am now, I would have shared the fate of Chileans who believed a better world was possible.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup. The first “9/11.”

La Moneda 9-11-73I continue to be struck by the fact that participants in the government of Salvador Allende freely apologize for their mistakes. It is no revelation to say President Allende’s Popular Unity government was not perfect. It was full of people who previously had been shut out of political participation — is it reasonable to expect perfection from them? But contrast their thoughtful reflection with the behavior of the coup plotters and those who took up posts in Augusto Pinochet’s murderous 16-year reign.

No apologies. Nothing.

It is to the credit of those who reflect on what they could have done better, who are moved to publicly acknowledge mistakes, particularly in actions or speeches that, intentionally or not, served to throw up barriers to participation by those in mild opposition or sitting on the fence. Their humanity is there for us to see. Where is the humanity of those who killed, those who tortured, those who willingly served a régime that inflicted casualties in massive numbers and hurled millions more into poverty?

The Pinochet coup was the first application of “shock therapy.” The intellectual author of this shock, Milton Friedman, repeatedly used the word “shock” in advising General Pinochet to apply a maximum of pressure, helpfully reprinting a letter he sent to the dictator in his book, Two Lucky People: Memoirs.

Friedman needed believers just as he needed the dictator to implement his ideas. That such ideas need force is exemplified in a revealing interview conducted by Patricia Politzer in her book Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet. In a 1984 interview, an enthusiastic supporter of the régime and self-proclaimed “Chicago Boy” estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 had been killed — a figure, amazingly, he found acceptable because of the dictatorship’s “honest principles that I shared.” This Pinochet supporter declared that “sometimes democratic regimes suffer from too much freedom” in explaining why he applauded the ouster of the elected Allende government, later saying that “freedom ought to be restricted.”

Let us not dishonor those to whom the shock was applied by forgetting. Another story told by Ms. Politzer is that of a communist woman repeatedly arrested, beaten and tortured, as was her husband. One day in prison she was dragged into a torture room, where her husband had cold water thrown on him so that he would regain consciousness and the torture could be resumed. She recounts these grisly details from one session:

“They applied the electric prod to [her husband’s] penis, to his anus, to his eyes. … it was terrible. I knew what was happening from his awful screams and the way he was moving … every scream went straight to my soul. But I didn’t move or express anything. I was suffering enormously, as if they had my heart and they were squeezing and squeezing it. … The only prayer I had was that they wouldn’t go too far with the torture. That he wouldn’t die.”

The authorities had concocted false charges against the couple; the torture was intended to force a false confession.

The obligation of a poet

Let us remember Pablo Neruda, whose house at Isla Negra was ransacked by soldiers and some of his manuscripts destroyed immediately following the coup. He died only two weeks later, apparently silenced via a poison administered by an agent posing as a doctor. The opening of his poem, “Poet’s Obligation,” perhaps provides us one clue as to why the great poet was seen as a danger:

“To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.”

Let us remember Victor Jara. The popular singer and songwriter suffered repeated beatings in a sports stadium turned into a concentration camp, then had his hands mangled and his guitar thrown at him by the guards as they sneered “Let’s see you play now.” He did play, so enraging the ignorant shock troops of fascism that they killed him with dozens of machine-gun rounds. He could do nothing else but play. From the last song he wrote before he was murdered:

“Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labour
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing
truthfully singing his song.”

Victor Jara’s songs live on. The singer and songwriter Holly Near celebrated his memory in her song “It Could Have Been Me”:

“The junta broke the fingers on Victor Jara’s hands
They said to the gentle poet ‘play your guitar now if you can’
Victor started singing but they brought his body down
You can kill that man but not his song
When it’s sung the whole world round.”

The spirit of life in the face of death

Salvador Allende captured that essence in his last speech. Speaking at the La Moneda presidential palace on the morning of September 11, the coup in progress and not in doubt of what his fate would be, he said:

“Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history. …

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.”

Of what were the rulers of capitalist societies — those in the U.S., those in Chile, those elsewhere — so afraid? Why would an elected government determined to provide concrete reality to the word “democracy” by enabling all citizens to become real participants in the functioning of their society engender such frenzied reactions? Ariel Dorfman, in his memoir Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey, told the story of “Juan,” a factory worker who was being driven out of the country into exile with him in the aftermath of the Pinochet coup:

“[Allende’s] policies had created an economic boom: increased salaries and benefits led to skyrocketing consumption and that led, in turn, to a major increment in production. So, more goods sold and a better life for Juan and his co-workers, right? Not at all. The owner of the factory, opposed to the revolution, even if it did not threaten his property, had decided to sabotage production. … The workers had watched this class warfare patiently for months and, finally, when the owner had announced he was shutting down the whole operation, they had taken over the premises. It was the only way to save their jobs and keep producing the food that Chile needed. Allende’s government intervened in the conflict, negotiated compensation for the owner, and put the workers in control. Juan had been elected to head the council that, for a couple of years, ran that factory, and in spite of inevitable mistakes, it had been a successful venture.”

Professor Dorfman’s conclusion?

“[T]he Chilean revolution had given him a chance to prove his dignity as a full human being, had dared to conceive through him and millions of others the pale possibility of a world where things did not have to be the way they had always been. That is why the rulers of the world had reacted with such ferocity.”

Equality or dominance. The ability of everybody to develop their full potential and be full participants in societal decision-making or a minuscule elite hoarding wealth and dictating to everyone else.

Which do you want?