December 20, 2014

The Sony hack and the nature of technology

The cyber attack on Sony Pictures, besides being an amazingly effective act of corporate sabotage, provides some interesting insights into the fundamental nature of technology. 

In my book (Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology) I describe four characteristics that are widely (not universally) shared by technological systems. These are underlying, inter-related qualities that appear repeatedly in technological applications, regardless of the specific field of endeavor in which they appear, and so can be said to define technology’s inherent tendencies or dispositions. 

The four characteristics are:

1. Technology is by nature expansive. 
2. Technology is by nature rational, direct, and aggressive. 
3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies. 
4. Technology by its nature strives for control.

Here are some of the ways the Sony hack demonstrates those characteristics:

Technology is by nature expansive. 

The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner sums up this point nicely: “If there is a distinctive path that modern technological change has followed it is that technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.”

The evolution of the Internet within a few decades from a private network for academic researchers into a ubiquitous system of communications that runs everything from national utilities networks to national economies is one of the fastest and most powerful examples of technological expansion ever seen. 

The motion picture industry is another technological system that’s steadily widened its reach, not quite as quickly, but fast enough. The number of theater screens in the U.S. rose from 5,000 in 1907 to 18,000 in 1914; there are now nearly 40,000. By the 1950s theatrical movies were also being shown on TV; by the 1960s the TV networks were making movies of their own. Today we no longer need theaters or TV sets to watch a film; they’re available in airplanes, in cars, or on our smartphones while riding the subway to work. 

All these modes of expansion have been in progress internationally as well as domestically, of course. Indeed, the Sony hack affirms in bizarre fashion just how thoroughly the combined technologies of the Internet and motion pictures have penetrated global culture: Through their agency two marginally talented comedians have caused the leaders of two nuclear nations to trade threats with one another. 

There’s considerable irony in the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much the United States can do to respond to the attack, given that North Korea is relatively backward, technologically, and therefore doesn’t depend on the sorts of computer networks that would be our most likely targets of reprisal.

Technology is by nature rational, direct, and aggressive. 

The point I’m making here isn’t that the hackers unleashed an aggressive technological attack on Sony, although obviously they did. Rather I refer to the nature of technology itself. 

Computer software, hardware, and the Internet are mechanical and mathematical (algorithmic) systems that run by logical rules, rigorously following specific instructions. In that sense they are relentlessly rational. They respond to those instructions when received without consideration of what happens outside the system and without moral judgement. “Good" for a machine means that it works; "bad" means it doesn't. The single most important value for a technological system is efficiency—results. 

Somehow the hackers responsible for the Sony attack learned the instructions that unlocked the data in Sony’s computer system. Once those instructions were received, the system executed them directly and aggressively — that is, with all the power at its disposal and without the slightest hesitation. The executives and filmmakers involved may be traumatized by the results, but you can be sure the technology is suffering no remorse. Sony’s servers probably purred as they handed over terabytes of information to the hackers. 

We have a habit of underestimating how faithfully technology follows instructions. We needn’t assign human-like powers of decision to machines, as Stanley Kubrick did to HAL in 2001, for disaster to occur. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” showed that blind obedience is all that’s required. 

Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies. 

Technology is irrepressibly catalytic. Invention leads to other inventions; individual technologies and technological systems can be assembled into new combinations; techniques invented for one purpose are applicable to any number of other uses and spread outward into the culture, spawning still other uses. Bronze casting techniques developed for the molding of church bells became useful in the manufacture of cannons. Henry Ford borrowed the concept of the assembly line from the slaughter houses in Chicago (dis-assembly lines, actually); McDonald’s applied the idea to hamburgers. 

The microprocessor has spawned wave after unprecedented wave of technological convergence. Computers have merged with telephones and televisions and Wall Street trading and household appliances and games and genetics and, soon we’re told, the human brain. Inventors are often the last ones to realize the ways their inventions will be used. The Internet wasn’t designed to be the world’s largest shopping mall, or as a weapon to be used by thieves and terrorists, but it’s certainly proving itself handy for those purposes.

The Sony hack demonstrates the processes of convergence and diffusion in fairly obvious ways. In earlier days movies played in theaters for a few weeks and disappeared. Now, thanks in large part to the powers of digitization, theaters are the first step in a very long distribution chain that includes pay-per-view, pay cable, DVD, Netflix, Amazon, On Demand, Hulu, and any number of other channels, both licit and illicit, not to mention old-fashioned “free” TV. Sony's hackers both learned of the "The Interview" and killed it via the web. How long will it be before pirated copies of the film show up there? Not long, I’d wager, if they haven’t already. 

“The Interview” episode also demonstrates the fabled democratization of technology, which is another way of describing technological diffusion. The tools needed to become a computer hacker are very easy to come by, and plenty of people seem to have acquired the skills to use them. Daily, it seems, we learn of the latest fruits of their labors.

Technology by its nature strives for control.

Long before before human beings learned about agriculture, we were using technology to gain control, over the threats of nature and our enemies. Indeed, a substantial body of anthropological opinion holds that the use of tools is what made us human in the first place. Nowhere has that point been made more eloquently than in the famous opening sequence of 2001

The lust for control is just as prevalent in the jungles of business enterprise today, and international corporations like Sony use every technology at their disposal to maintain and extend it. Indeed, the fact that there is a Sony Pictures studio is a manifestation of a hardware company deciding, as the home video revolution took off, that it needed to have control of a steady supply of software to play on that hardware. The studios would undoubtedly still own the theaters, too, if the Supreme Court would let them. Convergence and control go hand in hand. Their offspring is giganticism.

The problem, as any spiritual guru will tell you, is that control is an illusion, nowhere more so than in the application of massively complex technological systems. Technologies allow companies to broaden their reach globally, but in doing so vulnerabilities inevitably arise. This is true partly because every system has glitches, and partly because the more powerful a technology is the greater influence it exerts on its surroundings. The effects radiate out promiscuously, and uncontrollably. Sony’s executives have spent a horrifying week watching a steady stream of unexpected consequences unfold. 
It’s a human failing to think we have more control than we do, a failing that seems to disproportionately afflict technologists. Again, the exercise of control is in many respects what technology has always been about, and hacking is simply another way of grabbing hold of the levers. Whether the cause of a breakdown is driven by intention or by accident, no system is fail safe.  

©Doug Hill, 2014

December 3, 2014

An endorsement from Daniel Cérézuelle

Daniel Cérézuelle

I am honored today to have received an endorsement of my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, from Daniel Cérézuelle, a lifelong friend of Jacques Ellul and of Ellul’s close friend and collaborator, Bernard Charbonneau. The author of Écologie et liberté: Bernard Charbonneau, précurseur de l'écologie politique (Ecology and Freedom: Bernard Charbonneau, a founder of political ecology), Daniel is  a philosopher, sociologist, professor, and activist. He lives in Bordeaux.

Here is his endorsement:
“I have read carefully Doug Hill’s Not So Fast. Insightful, well informed and well written, it should provide the general educated public with an excellent initiation to the problems of our technological society. I hope it will be soon translated into French, so I could recommend it to scholars, students and friends.”    
Daniel Cérézuelle, President, Société pour la Philosophie de la Technique (France)    

November 29, 2014

Praise be to our beneficent Lord, The Great God Technology

In a post a couple of days ago, I mentioned in passing the "salvific" powers we project onto technology.

Here we see a group of supplicants, reaching out on a religious holiday (Black Friday) for healing. 

November 26, 2014

Clara Bow and Augie March on Authenticity

Clara Bow, the "It Girl"

In the 1927 silent film, IT, an author* who has written a book entitled Iis asked how she would define what “IT” is. She answers: 
"Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not — and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That's 'IT’!'"

Saul Bellow
In Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, the title character says of himself: 
“I touched all sides, and nobody knew where I belonged. I had no good idea of that myself.” 

* The person playing the author in the film It is Elinor Glyn, the author who actually wrote the novel It, on which the film is based.

November 25, 2014

On the "completion" of the Final Solution: The application of technique to mass murder

On this day 70 years ago, Heinrich Himmler declared that the Final Solution, the Nazi’s campaign to exterminate the Jews, had been completed. He ordered the Nazi network of extermination centers, with their gas chambers and crematoria, closed and dismantled. 

He did so under pressure. Allied forces, the Soviets in particular, were closing in. And as grandiose an operation as the Holocaust may have been, the Nazis always knew it had to be carefully concealed, from the Allies, from the Jews, and from their own consciences. 

Left to his own devices, Himmler might have pursued his campaign a bit longer, but supplies of new victims were becoming scarce. The Nazis’ conquests of new territories had stalled, and Allied bombers were increasingly disrupting the rail lines needed to carry captives to the camps. By 1944 only one of the killing centers, Auschwitz, was still operating at full capacity, “processing” nearly 600,000 Jews between May and October. 

I’m writing about the Holocaust in this space — a blog about technology —  for a specific reason: To remind us of the scale of atrocity that technique makes possible. 

This is an obvious fact that we nonetheless tend to overlook as we celebrate the salvific potential of our latest technological wonders. Those who worship technology tend to think only of the freedoms it promises to provide. They forget that among those freedoms are unprecedented opportunities for humans to destroy one another. 

Set aside for the moment the arguments over technological determinism. Whether you see technology as a force that exerts, independently, a shaping influence on human culture or as a neutral tool that is effective only insofar as human beings decide to use it, for good or ill, the fact remains that the Final Solution was a technological enterprise, both in the machinery the Nazis employed and in the management techniques they used to keep that machinery in motion. 

A definitive source of scholarship on the Holocaust is Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, one of the most thoroughly researched books I’ve ever read. All the details in the opening paragraphs of this post are from Hilberg’s remarkable work, and from here on I will be drawing on passages from it. What follows are snapshots of the Nazi genocide machine. 

Jews on their way to Sobibór
The Assembly Line

Three of the earlier extermination camps, Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, constructed in occupied Poland in late 1941 and early 1942, demonstrate the basic workings of the world’s first application of assembly line techniques to mass murder. 

The camps, chosen because of their seclusion and proximity to railroad lines, were only a few hundred yards long and wide. Laborers from the Warsaw ghetto were “recruited” to build them. Arriving shipments of Jews were off loaded from freight cars to an undressing area. They were then led, naked, through an S-shaped walkway called the Hose, which was two or three yards wide and bordered on either side by a high barbed wire fence covered with ivy. The Hose led to the gas chambers, large rooms disguised as showers that were filled to capacity for each round of exterminations. 

The Jews were told they were to be transported to camps further “east” and needed to clean themselves for the journey. This was done to ensure they would walk peacefully to their deaths. The aim wasn’t compassion, but efficiency. At Bełżec the arriving Jews were greeted by the music of a ten-man inmate orchestra.

“The killing operation was a combination of physical layout and psychological technique," Hilberg says. "Every step of the victims from train to gas chamber was controlled through a combination of lies and shows of force."

Himmler visits Globocnik
The limited capacity of the camps troubled SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik, who worried he might get “stuck” with more Jews than he could handle. All three camps were expanded in late 1942. At Bełżec and Treblinka massive buildings were built containing at least six gas chambers in each camp. As the numbers of victims threatened to overwhelm facilities, the answer was always to accelerate the killing process, rather than to scale it back. 

This was true of the system as a whole. In 1939 there were six relatively small camps. In 1944 an aide sent Himmler a map showing 20 full-fledged concentration camps with 165 satellite labor camps grouped in clusters around them. Himmler was pleased. “Just such examples show how our business has grown,” he said.

The Disposal Problem

Himmler shut down the mechanism of the Holocaust just as those in charge of running it had finally worked out one of their most vexing production problems: how to dispose of the mountains of corpses they were creating. Early mass burials had a habit of splitting open the earth that contained them, spilling decaying body parts and fluids onto the surrounding terrain, attracting insects and spreading foul odors through the nearby camps. Funeral pyres, primitive ovens and even explosives were tried, but it wasn’t until full-scale crematoria were established at Birkenau, one of three camps in the Auschwitz complex, that the disposal problem was effectively solved. 

Ovens at Birkenau
By May of 1944, Hilberg says, Birkenau’s four crematoria kept 874 men working in two shifts day and night. At times the supply of corpses exceeded the crematoria’s capacity, requiring the digging of eight or nine burning pits, forty yards long, eight yards wide and six feet deep. Human fat was collected from the bottom of the pits and poured back into the fire to increase the intensity of the flames. 

The combination of the pits and the crematoria effectively handled the 10,000 bodies the chambers could produce each day. “Thus the capacity for destruction was approaching the point of being unlimited,” Hilberg writes. “Simple as this system was, it took years to work out in constant application of administrative techniques.”

The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization of Adolph Eichmann as a bloodless bureaucrat simply doing his job as he sent millions to their deaths has been criticized for letting Eichmann off too easily. A recent book has documented that he participated with enthusiasm, a true believer in the cause.

It’s odd that Arendt misunderstood this, if she did*, given that she'd read Hilberg’s book (in Eichmann in Jerusalem she calls it “the first clear description of [the Nazis'] incredibly complicated machinery of destruction”) and Hilberg clearly documents Eichmann’s true character. He quotes a comment Eichmann reportedly made to a weeping member of his staff as the Soviets neared Berlin. So satisfying was the knowledge that he'd killed millions of Jews, Eichmann said, that he could jump into his own grave laughing.

Nonetheless, Hilberg also documents that the “banality of evil” label can accurately be applied to thousands of other Germans. The majority of those responsible for keeping the killing machine running, he points out, never aimed a weapon at a Jew or poured gasoline into a gas chamber. “Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, signed correspondence, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences,” Hilberg writes. “They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”

American soldier sorts through crates of silverware at Buchenwald
Coordinating the Final Solution constituted a massively diffuse, massively complex logistical task. A subset of functionaries was responsible, for example, for collecting and distributing what the murdered Jews left behind. The quantities were astounding. One of Himmler’s lieutenants reported that he'd dispatched 2,900 freight cars filled with clothing with enough left over to fill another 1,000 cars. Another officer noted receipt of 94,000 men’s watches, 33,000 women’s watches and 25,000 fountain pens. As the Soviets closed in on Auschwitz, the Germans rushed to destroy what evidence they could, including the remaining prisoners, but they didn’t have time to finish the job. Troops liberating the camp found six intact storerooms containing 368,820 men’s suits, 836,255 women’s coats and dresses, 5,525 pairs of women’s shoes and large quantities of children’s clothing. In the tannery they recovered seven tons of human hair, used to make felt footwear for German sailors, among other things.

German bureaucrats adapted their customary procedures as necessary. Railroad agents, for example, billed the Security Police for the transport of Jews to the camps, calculating a one-way fare for each deportee by track kilometer. The inevitable unexpected consequence arose. When the Warsaw Jews were rounded up in the summer of 1942, they left behind their unpaid gas and electricity bills, creating a mess for accountants at the local utility companies to straighten out.

Walking to the gas chambers at Birkenau
The complexity of the Final Solution required the active participation of Germany’s civilian as well as military culture. The scope of its component parts defined it as a fully-developed technological system.

“An administrative process of such range cannot be carried out by a single agency,” Hilberg writes, “even if it is a trained and specialized body like the Gestapo or a commissariat for Jewish affairs, for when a process cuts into every phase of human life, it must ultimately feed upon the resources of the entire organized community….The machinery of destruction, then, was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole; the difference was only one of function.”

* Michael Sacasas alerted me to an article that suggests Arendt's "banality of evil" quote has been widely misinterpreted and that Arendt didn't misunderstand Eichmann as much as many scholars think.

November 22, 2014

Bertrand Russell on the lesson of Icarus

I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly.
Bertrand Russell

November 21, 2014

Hans Jonas' greater fear

Speaking for myself, I fear not the abuses by evil power interests: I fear the well-wishers of mankind with their dreams of a glorious improvement of the race. 
Hans Jonas

For a related post, see "Larry Page and the Lathe of Heaven."