Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cyberpunk: How Technology Drives Humanism

There are some people that are able to see the future. They are not wizards or oracles. They just have great insight into human nature. William Gibson is one of these people. When the Internet was even younger than it is today he foresaw the dangers of becoming too dependent on technology. He foretold both the appeal and the dangers. Over the next thirty years we have come closer and closer to the world he created. Gibson was a pioneer in his view that while machines see things in binary, on and off, black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, the rules by which they do this were created by humans.... humans who despite their best intentions always have an agenda that isn't always in everybody else's favor.

Through cyberpunk we were able to see a window into the future where people and machines merged into single beings, inseparable yet constantly at odds with each other. On the one hand, a tool, on the other having a growing consciousness and desire to exist in its own right. Separate and apart from its human creators.

At its core, the cyberpunk genre was all about the unavoidable need to point the finger at the duality of the human consciousness. It argues that it is foolhardy to ignore that the very humans who are fallible, each having the capacity for both good and evil, are attempting to create "perfect machines". So, the flawed are attempting to create the Gods that will rule us all.

Artificial intelligence (AI) introduces the concept that for the benefit of mankind machines should be given a certain level of autonomy to make common sense decisions. Decisions, in the framework of a computer are necessarily based on a code of yes and no. Yet, who is to define those systems of judgement? The very same creators of the machines. Are these technical wizards then so all knowing and all powerful that their own sense of right and wrong is perfectly balanced and completely neutral?

Back then, when Gibson first introduced Neuromancer, people laughed. Many thought it was pure fiction and fantasy. The workings of a paranoid and overactive imagination. Yet, today nano technology is very real. It is able to detect and destroy cancer cells without harming good cells. Robotic arms are able to repair space ships and perform virtual surgery. Microchips are implanted in pets and prisoners to track their whereabouts. Although, there is much good that can be realized through technology, there is also cyber stalking and identity theft.

Consider that although much of the civilized world understands the risks involved with human cloning and development of nuclear weapons, others are moving full steam ahead. There is little most of us can do to guard against the evil of others. There is virtually nothing that can be done to prevent those people from becoming computer literate enough to pose a serious threat to our way of life.

The advent of Cloud Computing, with its rapid development and many issues around metadata ownership and security, has made Cyberpunk literature all the more relevant. Its exploration of the duality of human consciousness should be mandatory reading not only at the university but, also the high school level. Its lessons should be discussed at legislative assemblies when developing policies for dealing with emerging technologies. Let us return our attention to just how far we are willing to let technology control our lives. Let us once again ask the question about who is really making the decisions that affect us all.