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by John Rupley
We are surrounded by Luddite mobs. Pity our children, it will get worse.
Before WWII the industrial revolution had reached an equilibrium. Rousseau was a dead white male, Californians weren't moving to Alaska for the simple life, Greens were not with us, nor was Nader. The horror of WWII did not destroy the pre-War world view. During the 50's America prospered; Western Europe and Japan were rebuilt as free democracies. The 60's and 70's, however, were from another mold. One can't blame those times on the atom bomb, but it was then that opposition to nuclear weapons, rational behavior in which many leading physicists indulged themselves, evolved into wide-spread opposition to nuclear power. A small number of activists, not the aforementioned physicists, were able to play the fear and ignorance of a majority of our people into a halt on construction of nuclear plants.
The anti-nuclear was first of this era's Luddite mobs. [More properly, neo-Luddite mobs; the original Luddites were honest weavers, though violent ones, thrown into poverty by the first burst of the industrial revolution.] For a sampling of the online literature, see Sanderson Beck's page or the list of links on Jay's Leftist and 'Progressive' Internet Resources Directory. Note that Rousseau lives again, in company with Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, etc.
The revolution in biology began in 1953, with Crick and Watson's DNA double-helix. Less than 20 years later, Berg constructed the first recombinant DNA. We had gene engineering, very public soul-searching by molecular biologists, and mild government regulation. By the 80's we had commercial biotechnology products and, predictably, a Luddite anti-biotechnology movement, populated by environmentalists, anti-nukes, the anti-corporate left, and whoever else saw Green pastures in anti-biotech. The movement has been notably effective in Europe, where it shut down agricultural development of engineered crops. America is only modestly infected with these people. The immediate consequences of the movement have been small for us and Western Europe but perhaps deadly for many Africans and Asians.
Environmentalism (in the manner of Ehrlich/Carson/Commoner), global warming, anti-globalization, anti-evolution/anti-Darwinism (not new but revitalized) -- all are arguably Luddite movements. They use junk science wrapped around a core of good science to manipulate the public, often through fear engendered by a picture that they present as likely but that is in fact not probable. Refutation is difficult once the Luddite view is widely accepted, particularly if it is encoded into law. With time, however, as the public becomes aware of competing interpretations, the Luddite view can be refuted or modified: we seem to be coming to a more balanced view of nuclear power; we eat gene-engineered food; the EU has begun to relax its anti-biotech position; we have a few press reports in which anthropogenic global warming is not considered proven fact. Society is probably better for having passed through a period of Luddite excess. Twenty-five years ago the Tucson City Council could not have voted to preserve Bellota (A-7) ranch.
So there is room for hope and optimism. Yet we should beware of imminent new forms of Luddite fanaticism.
The elucidation of the human genome, the expected rapid progress on defining the proteome, the march of discovery through successive levels of cell architecture and organization, all are awesome, even for a cynical old biochemist and biophysicist who thinks the science generating these discoveries is itself pedestrian. Cloning of body parts is possible now; manipulation of the human genome is possible in principle and will be done likely within my lifetime; human-directed evolution of humans is not far-fetched. What I prefer not to imagine is the associated conflict between groups fanatically devoted to a particular truth, like the pro- and anti-abortion factions of our time, that are certain to seek to co-opt the future debate on engineering of humans that will be truly consequential for mankind.
Anti-computer and anti-information-technology groups are not yet dominant players in development of the internet. There are few restrictive laws or regulations. Online commerce is essentially tax free. The web is like the government of Italy: a state of disorder that works beautifully for its citizens. This can't last. States are likely soon to tax, and the Federal government to legislate on web privacy and incongruously, on limiting the power of crytographic algorithms. There is a minor industry focused on on computer security and web privacy. There are organizations that support legislation to control what they see as abuses of the web. A newly-coined futurist with impeccable credentials (Bill Joy, UNIX guru and co-founder of Sun Microsystems) has suggested that scientists may be morally obligated to stop work in the fields of gene engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. For a sample of this argument, see a Wired article by Joy and a refutation from the Center for the Study of Science and Technology.
Arguably, we are in the pre-emergence stage of a Luddite anti-computer-technology movement, where the technology is advanced and has proven itself, where leading scientists and engineers are publicly thinking through implications of past work and future expectations, and where yet there is no organized high-profile Luddite opposition. Looking backward, one is reminded of the anti-nuclear movement at its birth during the late 1940's: leading physicists felt that they had "known sin" in building the atom bomb; some ceased work in physics; a few entered the political arena. Only later and with other adherents did the Luddite anti-nuclear-power movement develop. Looking forward, we can expect interesting times at the interface of computer technology and public policy: coalescence of a Luddite opposition; novel, creative methods of protest and disruption, required by the diffuse character of the web; the seeking of political advantage by spreading fear of the future; restrictive or repressive legislation that does more harm than good.
It seems plausible that Luddites would organize first around computer security and privacy, where there is considerable software-engineering activity, much interest on the part of corporations and government, and some on the part of the general public. If this is true, we should be careful not to over-respond to claims of danger with regard to computer security and privacy, particularly warnings aimed at the general public in order to marshall public support for some action.
For the following discussion, we separate corporate and government computer security from the discussion of security and privacy for personal computer users.
Some, possibly many personal computer users believe that something fearful will happen, owing to their having an insufficiently high level of computer security, or owing just to their being connected to the net: inundation of their email account by spam, destruction of computer files, theft of personal files, theft of identity, theft of property, stalking, assault.
There indeed are problems with computer security (a determined and informed person can break into perhaps any computer), spam (pervasive), computer viruses (common and destructive of computer files), privacy (publicly accessible databases tabulate information most would want kept private), crime (it's certainly out there), etc.
However, these problems, where they involve harm to self or property, are of low probability, and where of high probability, are an inconvenience (small in the case of spam; avoidable in the case of viruses). Exposure on the net should not induce fear.
Openness and accountability in government, in public and private institutions, in corporations, is, I believe, understood by most to be desirable, by many to be necessary, by some to be a moral imperative. Privacy as a right is supported perhaps more strongly by the public and is thought to be irreducible, absolute, and the basis of a free democracy.
In fact, openness is rare: political bodies resist and are forced into divulging information (Congressional oversight, FOIA, elections); corporations divulge little, notwithstanding the SEC and tort law; foundations appear no more forthcoming.
Privacy also, or at least its support in law, is as much a chimera as openness. Privacy encoded in Constitutional law is protection against possible attack by the government on the individual's freedom of expression, property, movement, or body. Much of this body of law is recent (post WWII; Griswold, etc.) and restricted in scope. Privacy of personal information, violated through sale of voting rolls or of databases of addresses, etc., is not widely protected. Perhaps it will be, in response to privacy concerns (Luddite?) generated by web technology. Should it be?
Government, because of its power, justly should concern us: consider a requirement that we carry a true identity card. Corporate acquisition of data does not appear to be of the same level of threat. In a bargain that gives us convenience, we choose to release our phone number for publication, our credit card to a waiter or its number to an online seller, our email address to friends or attached to a web posting. I have not seen substantial abuse of my giving up, voluntarily, significant blocks of my private information for publication or use on the web. Anecdotes of abuse are unconvincing. I am sure there have been cases of theft of identity, or of burglary of a home by an internet-proficient thief, but until these become widespread, minimal precaution remains a safe option and allows me the freedom of convenience.
To put the matter of privacy with regard to web exposure in perspective, choose the outcome you fear most, assess its probability, and compare its importance to the 0.1 probability of death faced by Air Force combat personnel in the early raids over Europe in WWII or by John McCain over North Vietnam, or the less than 0.1 but significant probability of death faced by a CIA or Army combatant in, for example, the recent attack near Gardez or the insurrection at Mazar-i-Sharif. Apples and oranges? Excessive? Perhaps, but the comparison serves to make a point.
The consequence of a violation of personal privacy on the web is inconvenience. Inconvenience, particularly if of low probability, should not block acting in accordance with an ideal of trust and openness, chimerical as the ideal might be.
John Rupley email@example.com -or- firstname.lastname@example.org 30 Calle Belleza, Tucson AZ 85716 - (520) 325-4533; fax - (520) 325-4991 Dept. Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, Univ. Arizona, Tucson AZ 85721
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Last revised: May 28, 2002
John Rupley: email@example.com