Prince Charles gets nervous, neo-Luddite meme gathering steam

Russell Turpin deafbox at hotmail.com
Mon Apr 28 16:36:30 PDT 2003


Jeff Bone:
>We need to get our arguments in order, folks.  With the likes of Francis 
>Fukuyama, Prince Charles, Martin Rees, Bill Joy, and others lining up 
>against the kinds of technology and scientific research that will get us to 
>transhumanity, we've got more and bigger challenges ahead of us than just 
>the tech.

Yeah. Somehow we have to convince the neo-luddites
that the technical safeguards to protect us from grey
goo -- or even just from an engineered virus -- will
work better than the technical safeguards that protect
us from hackers, spam, computer viruses, OS crashes,
etc. If I were to argue the neo-luddite case ..

Well, let's see. Where did I put my certificate for
representing the Devil? Here it is. I'll state the
case in six claims..

(1) The private sector usually leads government in
applying innovation. This isn't true for pure research.
But when it comes to bending science and technology
to practical purpose while decreasing cost and
difficulty, capitalism is an accelerator that no one
has yet beat.

(2) Wackos, fundamentalists, criminals, and terrorists
are quick to pick up applied technology that furthers
their cause. There were fundamentalist bulletin boards
back in the days when a 300 bps was a fast modem.

(3) Dangerous technology falling into the wrong hands
is an external cost. The customer who buys a DNA
fabricator has an individual interest in knowing that
it will function as intended, and that it has
safeguards against misuse. But he doesn't have any
individual interest that the underlying technology,
back at the lab, is kept out of the wrong hands. That
interest he shares with the rest of the world, and is
unlikely to surface as part of his purchase decision.

(4) Absent regulation, businesses will exploit
external costs for profits. That is an economic law
as certain as any other. Even if one business
exercises ethical constraints in such matters, that
simply highlights the opportunity for others to do
differently. This happens in every field, in every
domain. Polluting processes are moved to regions
where their pollution is not regulated. Risky
processes are moved to regions where occupational
safety has a low priority. Spam thrives because it
converts an external cost to internal profit.

(5) Corporations generally are sheep when it comes
to systemic security and reliability. This is a
consequence of (3) and (4). Their first choice is
simply to disown liability. A good example of that
is software, whose producers typically are free of
consequential liability. I bet dozens of Microsoft
lawyers were verifying that and safeguarding its
statement in their EULA decades before it became
a technical priority for them to lessen the
frequency of BSOD. If businesses can't disown
liability completely, they will try to disown it
partially, by hoping that significant problem hits
their competitors first, who then bear the cost of
paving the way. "We're adhering to current,
industry standard practices." That sounds like a
good defense, even when industry standard practices
suck. Start-ups are the worst, because they see it
as a problem that they can face down the road. If
they don't get to IPO or acquisition, then it
doesn't matter. They'll worry about that, once
they do, which is to say, after the current round
of founders and investors achieve some liquidity,
letting subsequent investors inherit the concern.
Now yeah, I know there are exceptions to all of
this. Usually, it is where the cost of lapse is
largely internal, i.e., borne by customers and
factored into the purchasing decision.

(6) An evolutionary arms race between abusers of
technology and people trying to defend against the
abuse will make victims of most people. Geeks use
throw-away email addresses to register at sites,
run Spam Assassin on their computer, and have the
savvy not to get taken by even sophisticated spam.
Meanwhile, the less geeky are swamped in spam,
their computer is infested with ad-ware, and they
occassionally get taken by a sophisticated spammer,
for example, selling pirated anti-virus software.
Geeks know to back up their data. Businesses pay to
have it done. The less geeky and more careless lose
important data when they get infected by a virus.
In a futuristic arms race between those who
apply various kinds of grey goo "for the cause,"
and those who purchase nano-tech defenses against
it, the losers will be the mass of humanity who
fall into neither camp.

OK. It's your turn at moot court. Fire away.


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