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<nettime> Steven Levy: Tech's Double-Edged Sword
geert lovink on Sat, 6 Oct 2001 22:58:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Steven Levy: Tech's Double-Edged Sword

What do nettimers think of the double-edged sword theory? The 'discovery'
that evil forces also use technology can hardly be called new. The rise of
this discourse tells more about the collective dream, uphold by so many,
that technology is something essentially good (which then suddenly, in a
shockwave, gets 'misused'). Technology criticism, for example the one
developed after Hiroshima, so dominant in the 20st century and particular in
the post World War II period, seems to be forgotton. The unwareness of this
rich tradition of thought by Bill Joy and now Steven Levy I find stunning.
Both can hardly be called anti-intellectuals. They are not ill-educated.
They are brilliant and have deep a deep understanding in information
technology and its broader science context. Is it a lack in humanities
knowledge? Have they never heard of the decades long struggles amongst
scientists about the ethics of science related to atomic power? Or the
enormous debates within cybernetic circles over exactly this issue in the
fifties? We cannot expect from 'leading' technologists (and their
journalists) to be aware of contemporary post-modern theory. Geek culture
has associated itself with New Age and science fiction, not with Zizek,
Butler and Negri. So be it. The least these thinkers could do is to show a
basic awareness of their own history. Perhaps that's too much to ask. I read
into the pop culture commentary below a cry for the need to teach the
philosophy of technology. Technology is sophisticated, so why shouldn't its
discourse? Geert


Tech's Double-Edged Sword
The same modern tools that enrich our lives can be used against us. How
bad will it get?

By Steven Levy


      Sept. 24 issue -  From American Flight 77, en route to death and
the Pentagon, lawyer Barbara Olson cell-phoned her husband, the U.S.
solicitor general, and told him of the hijacking. On United Flight 93,
both Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett Jr. called their wives and confided
their (apparently successful) intentions to counterattack the hijackers.
Others on the stolen planes, as well as dozens trapped in the World
Trade Center towers, pulled out their cells to speak one more time to a
wife or parent and say "I love you."
     THE RECIPIENTS of those calls, while justifiably inconsolable, are
undoubtedly grateful for the final opportunity to hear those voices. But
before we celebrate another irreplaceable use of wireless
communications, consider this: according to government officials, within
hours of the explosions, mobile phones of suspected terrorists linked to
Osama bin Laden were buzzing with congratulations for the murderous
acts. They use them, too.
           The contrast dramatizes a long-recognized truism: modern
technologies that add efficiency, power and wonder to our lives
inevitably deliver the same benefits to evildoers. The Internet is no
exception. On Sept. 11 the Net seemed like a godsend. E-mail worked when
phones didn't, allowing countless New Yorkers to assure worried friends
and families around the world that they were still alive. Web sites were
quickly home-brewed to carry lists of companies affected and family
members missing. But there is also every likelihood that the terrorists
had exploited the Internet as well, using easily available and virtually
untraceable accounts on Yahoo or Hotmail, and meeting in ad hoc chat
        Perhaps the terrorists cloaked their planning with cryptography,
once an exotic technology, now a commonplace computer utility.
Communications could also be shrouded with steganography (hiding
messages between pixels of a graphic-a reputed bin Laden technique) or
anonymizers (which make e-mail untraceable). Such tools are lionized by
freedom-loving "cypherpunks," who have shrugged off potential dark-side
usage as a reasonable trade-off for the protection that crypto can
provide just plain citizens; as with cars and telephones, the benefits
way overwhelm the abuses.
        So goes the attitude that has taken us to where we are today, in
the best sense and now the worst sense. Technology drives civilization;
it augments and amplifies human effort. Our own age is marked by
computers and software, which have democratized formerly specialized
pursuits. With the right software and the Web, anyone can be a
publisher, a music distributor, a photo refinisher... the list is
        But the sophistication of our technology also leverages the
efforts of those who would destroy. And the very structure of our
society-a dense thicket of connections, where skyscrapers hold thousands
of workers, "just in time" factories rely on next-day deliveries and
air-traffic controllers manage hundreds of planes at once-allows a
single act of terror to generate torrents of disruption and pain.
Levy: Did Encryption Empower These Terrorists?
        Thus a barely armed band of 19 can slam our nation with the
force of many armies. The implements they used were strictly off the
shelf. We don't know if they practiced their aeronautical skills by
flying into virtual Twin Towers on Microsoft Flight Simulator (which was
quickly taken off the shelves). But they did apparently train by renting
time on computer-powered flight simulators that democratize the
experience of flying a 767. Then, by way of the dime-store technology of
small sharpened blades, they were able to take charge of sophisticated
commercial airlines. Suddenly those benign carriers were powerful,
targetable bombs.
        It was a nightmarish fulfillment of science-fiction writer
William Gibson's proclamation that the street finds its own uses for
technology. The more powerful our tools are, the more dangerous they are
when turned against us. For centuries we've accepted that. It's simply
the downside of tech.
        Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy has been pondering
this downside while writing a book tentatively called "Why the Future
Doesn't Need Us." Coincidentally, Joy was in lower Manhattan in the
early part of last week. As bad as it was, Joy believes, the tragedy was
nothing like what might be possible with biological weaponry. The coming
age of biotech will undoubtedly make programmable bacteria and viruses
more accessible-to doctors, business and bio-terrorists. "The things I'm
worried about haven't happened yet," says Joy.
        Virtually no one dares ask whether the balance of technology
might tilt too far toward empowering the evil. Who would have a clue of
how to address that situation? Human beings have a track record of
pursuing what they see as progress and asking questions later. While
refusing to think the Unthinkable, we create the circumstances that
allow it to occur.
        Should we be giving the Unthinkable more consideration as we
drive technology ever further? The answer seems obvious. Yet it almost
goes without saying that any safeguards we institute won't be perfect.
What assurance do we have that future terrorists will not feast on the
contents of Pandora's box? "Knowledge itself is dangerous," says Joy.
"Scientific information we pursue in an unfettered way is a weapon. And
we're not ready to deal with that." Maybe after last week, we are

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