Dr Ing Konstantinos KarachaliosBiography
The Five Singularities We Have Created and What They Mean for Our Children
I believe that in Europe, a thousand years after its burial by theocratic regimes and raw barbarism, the paradox of rediscovery of the scientific method as a search for truth, together with the social rise of a kind of middle class, helped to open the gates for a new era of enlightenment and political emancipation. Half a millennium after the so-called Renaissance, the 20th century tested all limits of humanity. We failed many of these tests, but miraculously, we survived. There was even a moment at the end of this century, when the triumph of a capitalistic regime, allegedly based on rationality and tolerating some varieties of political freedom, appeared to be so overwhelming that the “end of history” was proclaimed; the era of liberal democracies had become apparently irreversible.1 Thirty years later, I find myself wondering whether we are truly progressing, equipped with tech gadgets of all sorts, toward a new age of enlightenment or regressing toward a new era of dark ages.2
Unfortunately, I am not overly optimistic. There is a school of thought around one hypothetical “singularity”,3 based on a messianic vision that computers will take control over humans and possibly protect us from our worst inclinations. However, I cannot warm-up to this idea, mainly because I fundamentally disagree with their concept of “human intelligence” as a mechanical, computer-like “function”. There are good reasons to believe that the phenomenon of human intelligence has aspects that we are able to observe in action, but cannot explain with purely rational means.4
Moreover, there is no reason to spend any time on such speculations, because there are at least five other obvious singularities that are already ante- or even intra-portas. Three of them represent threats and two are possible remedies.
Probably the most acute threat-singularity emanates from the escalating nuclear weapons races, and the coupling of such uniquely lethal devices to more and more complex computer systems for their control. Knowing the number of times in the past seventy years that humanity survived incidents of incorrect computer hints to nuclear attacks, it is already a miracle that I am still alive and writing this essay. We should all send thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov who may have saved humanity single-handedly in one extremely critical situation, because in 1983 he was still able to say “[W]e are wiser than the computers. We created them” and ignore the false nuclear attack alarm in the middle of the night.5 To this type of directly tech-induced threat, we could add engineered viruses that could swiftly eradicate humanity.
The second, extinction-level threat is of a geological dimension. Against the Western image of a passive-submissive “nature”,† Gaia is hitting back, big time, and much faster than predicted by the most pessimistic scenarios. In the past few million years, the earth has never warmed up as quickly and to the level that our children’s generation will most certainly experience, even if we start doing our best-of-the-best, immediately.
The third singularity is socio-political and is intimately associated to an epochal shift of the regime of power. We, adults, were born and grew up in an era where power was exercised mainly in a disciplinary manner, where the insignia of coercion were the walls (around schools, military barracks, factories, prisons). Now power is exercised more and more through a continuous, modulated control; through devices granting us access to the resources we need, while enabling a ubiquitous tracking and monitoring of our physical presence and activities. One remarkable result is that the physical “factory” is ceding its place to an “enterprise”, which becomes more and more virtual.6
Regarding the relation between technique and power, Lord Anthony Giddens says that it is the mastering of the techniques of storage (food, weapons, information) and of “transportation” that gives rise to empires.7 It seems now that the most precious goods to be stored and transported are information and knowledge, in particular information about ourselves and our behaviors that results in knowledge that helps anticipate our future desires and actions. Assuming this is an accurate assessment, who are the true emperors of our era and what have we, techno-scientists, done to bring them to power? It is a delusion to believe that our democratic systems can survive this classic master-slave configuration. The crisis of some flagship democracies is not just an unfortunate episode; rather, it is probably the prelude of worse that is coming.
The fact is that we are rapidly losing the power to reveal or conceal the aspects of our personality and personal life, or in other words, to choose our personas‡ according to our interactions and their circumstances, as we have done since the dawn of humanity. After homo sapiens, a new human species is emerging, the homo transparensis. We are becoming totally transparent to people and mechanisms that are themselves obscure and not transparent, while forcing all others to accept their rules of the game. How dominant their position has already become is revealed by the fact that they state publicly and solemnly, almost without any protest or backlash, that they will decide how much “privacy” we deserve, or whether we should try at all to keep something secret (from them). They have become so self-confident, because we are subduing ourselves without physical coercion to their new power regime. A regime which disguises itself as a “service”, at the same time as it takes control over our identities; manipulating our behavior through anticipation and co-opting our desires, thus perverting our capacity to imagine our future.
While some may say that we deserve what we are getting, our kids definitely deserve better. The problem is that they are born into the new power regime and will perceive it as something “natural”. They will find it difficult to realize that it is an artefact that we, their parents, produced within one generation. In addition, they are factually deprived of their most fundamental and encoded rights, by having all kinds of data about them gathered since birth and by being treated as consenting adults in the cyber-space. How are they supposed to have a chance in their struggle for dignity and political self-determination in a world where their desires, intentions, and acts are transparent from the moment of their birth, in a monstrous hyper-realization of Foucault’s Panopticon? This will inevitably lead to a political submission and thus to a prolonged medieval age, where the new benevolent masters of the cloud8 will dictate how much dignity, privacy, and wealth everybody else deserves as a function of one’s willingness to serve the new regimes of power.
Interestingly, there is a common link among all mentioned singularities (including the one hypothetical and the previously mentioned three real singularities): they are all intimately related to developments in the sphere of science and technology (i.e., computing, combustion engines, nuclear science, and the Internet/Web). Whereas all these technologies are releasing new types of energy and possibilities, all have also exhibited critical downsides. Combined, these downsides may have a devastating effect on the souls of our children, through what Paul Virilio calls “negative horizons”.9 What could be a blessing turns into a problem, because techno-science has become a Deleuzian “machine de guerre”: a system that does not recognize any constraints, other than its own temporary limitations, and thus imposes itself as a “fact”, largely resistant to any attempt for control from “outside”.10 Heidegger, in his famous interview to Augstein, speaks even of “Technik” as a new sui generis ontology, largely escaping human control and one that will inevitably extinguish humanity.11
Even if we assume that Heidegger was exaggerating, the fact is that techno-science has been integrated by and is primarily serving another self-referential mega “machine de guerre”, namely turbo-capitalism; the future of humanity being an “externality” to its single “currency” and purpose, namely exponential growth. How else can one explain the mind-boggling fact that extremely rich power brokers are vehemently obstructing any environmental protection measures and denying anthropogenic global warming?
This epochal confluence of human-made singular threats and the apparent massive failure of our generation to deal with them explains why our children are now openly revolting against the nihilism of the negative horizons we, their parents, are offering. They are also revolting against us because they do not trust us anymore. It is becoming a clash of generations, this time at a global level. This emerging global conflict between two generations marks an unexpected socio-political turn in human history. How can we be their guardians and mentors at an individual level if they believe we have been betraying them at a collective level? This is the fourth singularity, and I would say one that should give us hope, even if it is painful and humiliating to admit our failure as the current adult generation in power and custodians of the future of our kids. This pain explains partly the intensity of vitriolic hatred against the kids who dare to speak up.
The fifth singularity is the one announced by Buckminster-Fuller approximately fifty years ago, when he proclaimed the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life.” He concluded that precisely because of this technical progress, humanity was about to cross a singular boundary: “It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable as mandated by survival. War is obsolete.”12
What a vision! The problem is that it looks like we are going in the opposite direction, where technology is used primarily as a strategic tool in the service of power and dominance, at all levels. The current falling apart of this globalization era is probably due as much to trade and social tensions as to aspirations for global, perennial dominance, and military supremacy through technology.
So, is there anything we, scientists and technologists, can do as individuals and through our collective forms of self-organization to make Buckminster-Fuller’s vision a reality? As an example, we could use our collective intelligence as well as our inclusive community building and convening capacities to contribute to blueprints and road maps of actions toward a sustainable planet: in particular to mitigate global warming as much as possible. We would do so by integrating technological expertise with policymaking and other experts, such as economists and climate scientists.
We could join forces to create a “[s]afe, secure and performant information and communications technology that fosters the fullest achievement of humanity’s potential.”13 In particular, we should work together with those legislators and regulators who try to both enforce existing children’s rights in online environments and create new rules where this might be necessary. We could offer our neutral and well-informed technical expertise when regulatory frameworks are being built, and support their implementation through appropriate technical tools, platforms, and standards.
At the same time, we should try as much as we can to reduce feeding the forces that work against our goals. To understand these forces, we must add a layer of self-reflection, individually and collectively, about what we are doing and how. Perhaps, we could ask the “why” questions too. We must challenge the self-serving perception of inherent innocence or benevolence of our acts. The time of innocence is over: it is time to really become adults, at an individual and collective level.
Several scientific and engineering professional associations have already begun to address ethical aspects of their profession and encourage their members to assume their share of responsibility for a human-centric design and use of the technologies and systems they produce. As an example from my direct field of experience, IEEE has recently revised its Code of Ethics to reflect the need to assume our share of responsibility, through complying with “ethical design and sustainable development practices” and by improving “ the understanding by individuals and society of the capabilities and societal implications of conventional and emerging technologies, including intelligent systems.”14 IEEE’s Global Initiative on Ethics of A/IS§, and the work inspired and produced by its global communities, such as Ethically Aligned Design and the related series of standardization projects and certifications, are large-scale trailblazers in this direction.15
ACM also recently revised its Code of Ethics, which now includes environmental considerations as well as “promoting fundamental human rights and protecting each individual’s right to autonomy.” 16 It would be interesting to think through what the deeply manipulative and addictive computer programming by many online platforms practically means with regard to our children’s rights to mental health and autonomy, and what may be the personal responsibility of the involved programmers and coders.
In spite of these encouraging signals, we are still in the timid beginnings. A much deeper and broader transformation is necessary. This means we should push our organizations as much as we can to assume their – often publicly declared, but not always executed – good intentions and ambitions, in the service of global public goods that would strongly push the needle in the right direction. Even the CEOs of some of the most notorious Wall Street corporations declared recently that their goal should no longer be to simply serve the short-term shareholder interests but also to pursue broader socio-economic ambitions. Let us not ironically shrug our shoulders, and take this instead as a sign of change that may be in the air. In addition, let us work within our organizations so that they start to not only explicitly embrace but also practically pursue higher global causes, e.g., what can a given knowledge-based organization do to join the fight against global warming? What can it do to respect and enforce our codified norms and rights online?
Finally, we must understand that we cannot do this alone. We have to ally ourselves with those political actors and other scientific disciplines that fight for a sustainable planet and for a new “Internet” in the service of democracy and enlightenment. In particular, we need to recognise that “children are children until maturity, not until they reach for a smartphone,” as my friend Baroness Beeban Kidron says, and commit to the principle that the online world should be designed to account for children’s rights and needs.
In the Iliás there is a remarkable episode about the fate of King Télephos, who was wounded by Achilles. His wound was not healing with time, and the oracle told him “ο τρώσας και ιάσεται”, which can be translated as “the one who hurt you will heal you.” Only if we, techno-scientists, wake up and divert techno-science from being a machine de guerre per se and in the service of another machine de guerre, only then will we stop infecting the wounds of humanity and be part of a healing process, of the driving forces toward a new age of enlightenment.¶