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)