You Are Staring Into A Palantir. – Have you seen the real dangers of the future?

by Aug 15, 2000Critical Viewpoints

I’d like to propose a broad discussion of the dangers of technology on this site, since it is one of the central concerns of the Professor and his books, and since we risk totally sidestepping it in our attraction to the powers of the computer, for these films and in our lives. I suggest we consider that our technology – and of course I am using it too – may be an addictive Palantir, if not a Wraith-Ring outright. We do not know where its great power will lead us, and we should never forget that putting our own energy into it helps directly to further its advance.

To start the discussion, I would like to point everyone to a now-famous article called “Why the future doesn’t need us” published by Bill Joy, the Sun Microsystems co-founder, in Wired magazine in the spring. (It was the cover story and the main feature. See address below.) It’s long – but if President Clinton can read it, you can too.

To me the article is a very sobering and Gandalf-like warning about what seems likely to happen in the near future, when the new areas of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics start to converge, at a scale which will be available to many, many people. If you think he’s exaggerating, don’t forget that he is a confirmed and cutting-edge tech-head himself, and his address book (or should I say, Palm-Pilot) is filled with similarly clued-in people.

I think everyone who takes Tolkien seriously at all should consider that a large part of the power of the Professor’s work comes from his deep antipathy for technology (and its ultimate justification as a supposed escape from pain and death), his deep reverence for Nature, and the value he places on humility and a vigilant technological minimalism. There is a remarkable similarity between some of Gandalf’s warnings and Bill Joy’s concerns.

Here’s a quote (backed up by a lot of information not included here):

“The 21st century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) – are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.

“Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction, this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

“I think it is no exaggeration to say that we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.”

Joy’s point is that if you thought nuclear weapons were scary, wait till it is possible for people to clone and invent an infinite variety of real viruses and bacteria in a garage, or to make cheap nano-robots which are small enough to enter your skin pores and do who knows what. But the article has an authority which I do not have, because Joy personally knows personally many of the leaders of robotics and artificial intelligence technology, and uses interviews in the article. I think it is no exaggeration to say that this is the voice of Gandalf. Please check it out!

My point is that in my heart, I agree with Tolkien: there is no way to defeat Sauron, or even Saruman, with the Ring, and it would make sense for us to talk about how we are trying to do just that. Those who say the main effect of technology is to make our lives easier sound to me like the citizens of Harad accepting an alliance with Mordor: they have never worked in Sauron’s mines and toxic dumps; they have never sweated in a Chinese computer factory for 12 hours a day, or slaved for nickels and dimes on a globalized coffee mega-plantation in Colombia, or considered careers like telemarketing. Technology creates 5000 of these jobs for every cyber-pioneer like Peter Jackson, although I don’t blame him any more, or less, than myself. We shire-dwellers of the internet are even yet a small minority in the large world, if you think about it, and though we may wish everybody were in our Shire, the fearsome Ring-Riders of new technologies will surely not sleep while the rest of the world catches up and ‘logs on’.

If the occasion of this film does not at least afford us the opportunity to discuss these things, then it is hardly more to be celebrated than a new movie like “Gone in 60 Seconds”. I want to know how the rest of you feel about this.

Joy’s article has provoked an incredible response for a magazine article, and I will close with several of the replies to be found on Wired’s site at I find it most interesting that so many of the responses correspond to the personalities of certain characters we all know and love – or fear.

I imagine ‘Gimli’, for example, when I hear this:

[Rich Gold, manager, Research in Experimental Documents, Xerox PARC]:

I think of nanotechnology as still about 30 to 50 years out. Robots seem less worrisome to me. But genetic engineering has already begun, it is here, and it is massive. I believe that it will make the computer revolution seem like a small blip on the screen, though, of course, computers made it possible. It seems to me that genetic engineering should be dealt with at about the same danger level as we treat plutonium. But the real problem seems to be the ethos of our tribe: “Here’s some new technology, let’s make some new stuff!” Of course, our tribe can’t even write bug-free software yet.

Here’s a bit of ‘Legolas’:

[Peter Tabuns, executive director, Greenpeace Canada:]

It might be easy to dismiss Joy if it weren’t for the fact that the human track record with far simpler, less powerful technologies has not been very good. Currently, humans are engaged in changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the climate of the planet with a very low-tech practice, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. Even with evidence mounting daily that our use of these fuels is putting our world at risk, it is extraordinarily hard to turn things around. Our challenges with more complex technologies, which could have a huge impact even more quickly, are sobering. Thanks to Bill Joy for speaking up; now it is important for the rest of us to listen and act.

Hear the soothing voice of ‘Saruman’:

[Stephen H. Miller, editor in chief, Competitive Intelligence Magazine:]

The not-very-joyous Bill Joy makes me think of a dinosaur whining because it’s not going to be the final point on the evolutionary scale. If the universe has evolved humans because our intervention is necessary to produce the next step up on the developmental ladder, so be it. I trust the universe knows best where it’s going and what the point of it all is.

[Greg Weller, Web developer, Cuyahoga County Public Library]:

I think that Joy should heed the tag line of the Sun Microsystems ad in the same issue: “Please, if you do not take part, at least have the good sense to get out of the way.” Personally, I’ll side with the techno-utopia, live-forever-in-a-silicon-body faction.

‘Boromir’ checks in also:

[Derek Becker, independent computer consultant:]

Humanity has always faced the possibility of extinction and it has always been valid… The fact that we now have our fingers on the Ragnarök button does not mean we should take the machine apart; it means that we should grow up. Growing up is much harder than taking machines apart – as anyone who has given a screwdriver to a fifth-grader knows – so a call to primevalism always seems to be the more acceptable solution.

And here are some words from a voice like ‘Elrond’s’:

[Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun Microsystems]:

Bill Joy has helped create some of the top networking technologies on the planet. He has made a habit of predicting and inventing the future. Nearly 20 years before almost anyone else, he knew the world would be built around the Internet. Given his track record, maybe we all need to spend more time thinking about the issues he addressed in Wired.

[Mel Schwartz, professor of physics, Columbia University, and 1988 Nobel laureate]:

The problems are real and are probably more serious and closer at hand than most of us imagine. Indeed, now that we have learned how to clone sheep and pigs and are on the verge of making immortality a fact, it is time to have a far-ranging discussion of these issues.

(Ted here, If you want to submit your own article head on over to The Registry)


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