We used to be such optimists. Technology would bring us a world of wealth in harmony with the environment, and even bring us new worlds. The Internet would erase national boundaries, replace gatekeepers with a universal opportunity for free expression, and bring us all closer together. Remember when we looked forward to every advance?
I just finished Liu Cixin’s magisterial science-fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past. It is very much a bracingly pessimistic story for our era. Without spoiling it too much, I’ll just say that it’s a depiction of a transition from optimistically anticipating contact with other worlds … to a bleak realization that we haven’t done so yet because the universe is a “dark forest,” the title of the trilogy’s second book. “Dark forest theory” holds that civilizations fear one another so much that they don’t dare to reveal themselves lest they immediately be considered a potential threat and destroyed.
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There are certain analogies here. We’ve grown to fear technology, to mistrust everything it offers us, to assume its every new offering has a dark side. Consider the recent mini-viral-storm around the “10 Year Challenge” meme, and the resulting Wired piece suggesting it’s a Trojan Horse designed to manipulate us into training Facebook’s AI to improve recognition of aging faces.
I strongly doubt that that is actually the case. Not because I have any faith in Facebook’s transparent benevolence; because they already have a way-past-enormous cornucopia of such data, more accurately (implicitly) tagged. Even if explicit tags were helpful rather than counterproductive — which I doubt, given the stripping of metadata, the jokes riffing on the meme, etc. — they wouldn’t move the needle. As Max Read puts it:
But I find it a striking example of how so many of us have grown to treat technology as a dark forest. Everything tech does seems to now be considered a threat until proved a blessing, and maybe even then. It wasn’t long ago that the reverse was true. How and why did this happen?
Part of it is probably resentment. The fabulously wealthy and influential tech industry has become one of the world’s premier power centers, and people (correctly) suspect tech is now more likely to reify this new hierarchy than disrupt or undercut it. But it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s not really technology’s job to improve human hierarchies; it’s democracy’s. It’s true that democracy seems to have been doing a shockingly poor job over the last few years, but it’s hard to blame that entirely on technology.
Rather, I think a lot of this dark-forest attitude towards tech is because, to most people, technology is now essentially magic. In AI’s case, as we see from that Wired piece, even experts can’t agree on what the technology needs, much less exactly how it works, much less explain step-by-step how it arrives at its (not always be reproducible) results.
(Possibly implicitly biased results! you may shout. Yes, that’s true and important. But I find it bizarre how everyone outside of the business keeps hammering the table shouting about how the tech industry need to stop ignoring the fact that AI may reinforce implicit bias, while all the AI people I know are deeply aware of this risk, describe it as one of their primary concerns, talk about it constantly, and are doing all kinds of work to mitigate or eliminate it. Why the implicit assumption that all AI researchers and engineers are blithely ignoring this risk? Again: technology has become a dark forest.)
Tech-as-magic is not just limited to AI, though. How many people really understand what happens when you flick a switch and a light comes on? How many fewer really understand how text messaging works, or why a change of a mere few degrees in global temperatures is likely to be catastrophic for billions? Not many. What do we fear? We fear the unknown. Tech is a dark forest because to most people tech is dark magic.
The problem is, this dark magic happens to be our only hope to solve our immediate existential problems, such as global warming. We already live in a dark forest full of terrible but subtle and ill-defined threats, and they aren’t caused by new technologies, they’re caused by the consequences of exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet with our old technologies. Climate change is a grue coming through the trees for us with terrifying speed, and technology is the one torch which might lead us out.
Fine, granted, that fire might, theoretically, in the long run, and/or in the wrong, might eventually become some kind of a threat. It’s used by a lot of bad actors to manipulate people, reify oppression, and siphon wealth its users don’t deserve. In some parts of the planet it’s being horrifically misused in far worse ways yet. All true. But just because fire is dangerous doesn’t every new use of it is a malevolent threat. Let’s get past the knee-jerk backlash and try to restore a little optimism, a little hope, a little potential belief that new technological initiatives are not automatically a bad-faith misuse, even if they do come from Facebook.
(I’m the first to admit that Facebook does a lot of bad things, and condemn them for it! But that does not mean that everything they do is bad. Companies are like people; it is possible, hard as this may to be to believe in this Death Of Nuance era, that they can do some good things and some bad things at the same time. Most shocking of all, this is even true of Elon Musk.)
I’m not just saying that this would be nice. I’m saying it’s something we probably need to do, because like it or not, it seems that we have, as a species, already collectively wandered into a very real dark forest, and a cascading series of better technologies is the only plausible route out. It’ll be awfully hard to build that route if we start assuming it’s been deliberately filled with pitfalls and quicksand. Let’s be skeptical, by all means; but let’s not assume guilt and bad faith as our default stance.