Our children could live happy, fulfilling lives even if we become a repressed society much like Orwell’s 1984. There would be sacrifices, but they might still be truly content. But that is not what any of us would want. Why accept that risk?
My argument is not that an Orwellian dystopia is inevitable, only that its likelihood during our children’s lifetime is at least 20%. Not 50/50; I propose merely one in five. Like Russian roulette and perhaps with only one bullet.
All it takes is fear. Tyrants offer security, albeit conditional and therefore false security. How many of us will accept their offer? Neither Hobbes nor Maslow can show us how we, and our neighbors, would respond to intense, unrelenting fear. And fear is possible.
Also, tyranny never arrives properly labeled. It almost always builds gradually, starting with "limited, temporary" powers.
Be forewarned: there is not a single original idea in this post. Not one. My concern of an oppressive dystopia is based on only four assertions which, like all my supporting examples, have been clearly presented by others. This is all old hat:
1. The technology needed to develop an untreatable contagious disease, or other catastrophic bioviolence, is expanding quickly and is also becoming available to “tens of thousands, perhaps millions”, of people. The knowledge, equipment and other resources needed are so
accessible that a small group, or even a lone individual, could accomplish all the necessary tasks.
2. Given this technology, widely available today and growing in both capability and accessibility, and countless examples of people's behavior in recent history, there is a significant (>50%)likelihood that bioviolence will kill over 10,000 people in the next thirty years. There is also a comparable risk that at least 1,000 of those victims will die from a single attack whose perpetrator(s) will remain anonymous or at least unapprehended.
3. If this happens, how would the frightened public respond? Such a level of dread and helplessness would be beyond any of our experiences. History has shown how quickly public opinion pluralities can swing, and how many pundits and politicians would arise to exploit those with heightened fears. Clearly, wouldn't there be at least a 40% probability that these public fears would lead to laws relinquishing privacy, open inquiry and free expression, and other liberties, in pursuit of perceived greater safety? Historical examples come from so many countries, and such recent decades.
4. Unlimited centralized power has proven most dangerous. Certainly not always, but often; and the more 'absolute' the power attained, the more likely the corruption of the empowered. Fear-driven relinquishment of privacy, open inquiry and free expression could easily evolve into a sustained tyranny. Historical examples abound. Furthermore, the surveillance technology to allow a government to sustain such oppression has now expanded dramatically and these capabilities, along with impending psychopharmacology and neuroscience capabilities, will grow much greater.
Sustained tyranny is itself an existential risk. In our childrens' lifetime it is the most likely existential risk. What steps should we, their parents, undertake?
Is the Technology Both Real and Accessible?
Several world-class scientists and other knowledge leaders have shared their concerns about emerging “super-empowering” technologies. Focusing on biotechnology, the first of the often cited genetic, robotic, nanotech and Infotech technologies of concern, examples include:
1. Sir Martin Rees has been President of the British Royal Society since 2005. Cosmologist Rees predicted in 2002 that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event,” asserting that: “Biotechnology is plainly advancing rapidly, and by 2020 there will be thousands-even millions-of people with the capability to cause a catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only organized terrorist groups, but individual weirdoes with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses. Even if all nations impose effective regulations on potentially dangerous technologies, the chance of an active enforcement seems to me as small as in the case of the drug laws.”
2. The U.S. National Academies of Science commissioned a 2004 “Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology” which unanimously concluded that “these (biotech capability) categories represent experiments that are feasible with existing knowledge and technologies or with advances that the Committee could anticipate occurring in the near future.” The seven capabilities cited were to:
1. “Render a vaccine ineffective”.
2. “Confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral
3. “Enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a pathogen virulent”.
4. “Increase transmissibility of a pathogen.”
5. “Alter the host range of a pathogen.”
6. “Enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection modalities.”
7. “Enable the weaponization of a biological agent or toxin”.
3. Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute surveyed all participants who had just attended their 2008 Global Catastrophic Risks conference and found that over half of responding participants believed that there was at least a 30% probability that a single “engineered pandemic” would kill “at least one million...before 2100”. Over half also projected at least a 10% probability that such a single attack would kill “at least one billion” people.
4. The (MIT) Technology Review 2007 article “The Knowledge” stated "There is growing scientific consensus that biotechnology — especially, the technology to synthesize ever larger DNA sequences — has advanced to the point that terrorists and rogue states could engineer dangerous novel pathogens."
These concerns are also shared outside the scientific community. As called for by the 9/11 Commission, Congress established a commission on the “Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism”. The very first sentences of the commission’s December, 2008 report were “The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013. The Commission further believes that “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.” Their report later added “as the anthrax letter attacks of autumn 2001 clearly demonstrated, even small-scale attacks of limited lethality can elicit a disproportionate amount of terror and social disruption”.
Would Someone Actually Use Such a Capability?
How will these new weapons be used? The key is who will decide.
As political theorist John Gray wrote in 2002, "The development and spread of new weapons of mass destruction is a side effect of the growth of knowledge interacting with primordial human needs... It will occur haphazardly, as part of competition and conflict among states, business corporations and criminal networks."
People don’t decide collectively, Wittingly or otherwise, they communicate cooperation to support what they perceive as their individual self-interest. These perceptions are consistently driven by fear or greed, or a self-deception founded in fear or greed. Where will fear and greed drive the newly super-empowered? More importantly, where will it lead the most dangerous of the many newly empowered?
Historical examples abound. How many years did Unabomber Ted Kazcynski devote to his bombs? What could he have developed in that time with tomorrow's (today's?) biotechnology? What could Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh have developed if he spent his bomb research time applying open source genetic engineering? How many (dozens of) militant religious fundamentalist groups are preparing for their 'Christian', 'Islamic', "Hindu', 'Judaic' armegeddons by enhancing one of God's plagues? What if today's Charlie Manson collected his longing followers at UC-Berkley?
(Incomplete- text to follow later)
How would the Frightened Public, and Political Elites, React?
Many commentators have noted that technology once discovered cannot be relinquished. They are almost certainly correct in our 2009. Would they also be correct in Orwell's 1984?
How much would majorities of frightened voters sacrifice for greater security? How might the most opportunistic of politicians exploit voters' fears? Historically, how far have voters swung under much less scary circumstances?
Let's begin with the historical record...
Now consider how much worse the impending traumas might (>20% likelihood) be?
What Technology Really Exists for a Fear-Empowered Despot?
How might a tyranny establish and maintain itself if ever given the oportunity?
Can't We Wait?
Time constraints are especially challenging because they are, in this case, essentially unknowable. It may be literally impossible to know when it would be too late to act except when it is already too late to act. The accelerating biotechnology research efforts will soon lead to unanticipated new capabilities. Without possibly knowing what these new capabilities will be, or even how often their discoveries will be presented outside the sponsoring organization, it is impossible to know how long an effective response would take to implement. What is now known is that any policy which can control bioweapon acquisition must now include essentially every country and substate participants including isolated individuals. Absent the most extreme solutions, it is difficult to see how such policies could be effectively implemented in decades let alone years.
It's Time to Act
Our children deserve specific precautionary steps and the time to act has come. As nations but also as universities, firms and individuals, we must think before we further spread WMD knowledge.
We must also prepare for a possible challenge to our cherished liberties. The best single defense of American liberties is not either an anti-ballistic missle system or the Second Ammendment. The best single (albeit no single defense is solely sufficient) defense is quality education, both in our schools and beyond schools. It is the 'middle third' in political involvement and often in political knowledge, who will control our children's fate. Their level of misinformation and gullibility is well documented.
Defending liberty will never safely rely on any one solution. Our children's liberty certainly deserves defense in depth. This requires thoughtful analysis of how an open society might mitigate against tyranny even if privacy were substantially curtailed. An example, although certainly not recommended as a completed, practical solution, is David Brin's The Transparent Society.
These issues also raise important questions about 'dystopian ethics'. What are we, as individuals or groups, morally obligated to do if we believe that tyranny, or some other impending catastrophe, is possible (or even inevitable)? The most obvious answer is that we should carefully consider that we are probably mistaken. From biblical millenialists to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Bruce Ivins and Aum Shinrikyu, others have done great harm because they foresaw world-changing disaster. Open inquiry is the best preventive of such error, but it needs to be open-minded as well as open sourced. Here we must be our brother's keepers, challenging our facts and paradigms and also our receptivenesses.
But truly existential risks compel us to also carefully consider the costs of a 'false negative' error. Accepting that we don't know how much we don't yet know, we cannot now assume that future generations might attain knowledge which makes their lives qualitatively better than our own. They might conceivably 'find God', either figuratively or quite literally. Any 21st century consideration of acceptable existential risks must accept this possibility and with it the unknowable likelihood that future lives and costs should be 'premiumed' rather than 'discounted'. Assume any probability to an infinite future value and the cost/benefit arithmetic is fundamentally simplfied.
Highly recommended for further inquiry:
Global Catastrophic Risks (ed. by Nick Bostrom & M Cirkovic)
Our Final Century (published as Our Final Hour in the US) by Sir Martin Rees
‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ by Bill Joy
Heresies/Progress and Other Illusions by John Gray
Brave New War by John Robb
‘Biowar for Dummies’ by Paul Boutin
‘The Knowledge’ by Mark Williams, in The (MIT) Technology Review, 3/2006
This is a work in progress. I will be revising this draft as I complete the sections noted incomplete above. Your feedback would be sincerely appreciated. For example, am I incorrect that this danger is real? If this is a plausible (10%) risk to our children's future, how could we better promote thoughtful evaluation of prudent preventive steps?