The character and nature of technology
Published: Jan 09, 2022 07:36 PM
internet companies Photo:VCG

internet companies Photo:VCG

It's probably best to have the president of one of the world's largest tech companies write a book about the "promise and Peril of the digital age" (the subtitle of the book). Tools and Weapons, published by CITIC Publishing House in February of this year, with Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith as lead author, seems to be such a book. 

Smith discusses the development, possible pitfalls, and solutions for emerging digital technologies and AI in a comprehensive way from the perspective of a company leader. Most of the chapters in the book start with real-life cases or vivid stories, and then offer in-depth analyses and solutions. Smith talks about wiretapping related to the Snowden incident, technology and public safety issues, how governments protect individual privacy, how companies protect consumer privacy, cyberattacks, disinformation, the talent divide, social media, digital diplomacy, face recognition and unemployment issues arising from artificial intelligence. He also talks positively about measures and ideas for how emerging technologies can protect democracy, advance data sharing, and help build internet broadband that will empower rural development.

The author talks about Microsoft's early self awareness, recognizing the need for ethical self-regulation in the application of technology, as well as some of the principles for self-regulation. Moreover, the author is acutely aware that, because of the global nature of digital technology, it is not enough to rely on the moral self-discipline of a single tech company. What is needed is the communication and collaboration of multiple transnational corporations, a proactive pursuit of government regulation, and international cooperation and oversight claims. He is aware of the difficulty of enforcing agreements on international rules: there would always be countries that might be in violation, but he believes that if international norms and standards existed, it would be easier for other countries to respond effectively.

I quite appreciate the author's efforts and negotiation principles for resolving issues primarily through legal means. Smith agrees with McTaggart, an American who has struggled to establish a privacy law: "The law needs to keep up with technology or people will keep breaking the bottom line." Microsoft even sued the US government five times in an effort to push for legislation that would establish appropriate boundaries. And in all legal disputes and negotiations, he adheres to the simple principle, "never let negotiations be limited to an issue that produces only one winner", but rather, put more issues on the table, creating more opportunities for exchange and concessions, and make round after round of compromises, so that all parties have a winning side. Compromise is not weakness, but rather the search for the middle path that can solve problems. The author doesn't advocate a complete one-off solution, like a complete ban on something, but rather seeks partial control first, and then a viable path utilizing the kind of in-depth detail that "requires a scalpel, not a meat cleaver".

When dealing with all these issues, people need to be aware of the characteristics of technology. The author clearly articulates two properties of technology. It can be a powerful tool for humans to use and control, while on the one hand, it can also be a dangerous weapon. While people mostly appreciate and enjoy technology as a tool of convenience, the author pays close attention to the other side of it as a weapon and sets about solving some tough issues.

When it comes to public safety and imminent danger to people's lives, technology can often play a huge role. For example, when two killers broke into the Paris headquarter of Charlie's Weekly on January 7, 2015 and shot 12 people, Microsoft quickly provided the killers' emails and account records to the French National Police through the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, including IP addresses that showed the location of a computer and phone when a user logged in. A day later, French police found and killed the suspects.

But should companies respond to all government requests for user information? In the past, a court warrant was needed to search a home, but now monitoring email or searching a cell phone generally requires no application. Today, a person's cell phone may contain more private information than his home. If power is abused, new technologies can become weapons that harm the fundamental rights of citizens. Smith is aware of the need for clear regulations on this issue. He sued the US government once again on behalf of Microsoft on this issue, trying to find a delicate balance between public safety, national interest, and civil rights.

We've seen both sides of cyber technology during the COVID-19 outbreak. On one hand, it has brought us great convenience. It is hard to imagine the days when hundreds of millions of people were confined to their homes without Internet, without all the information that connects the world, without all the online shopping, etc. There is also information tracking to discover the pathway of virus transmission, potential patients, etc. But, on the other hand, we also see that the Internet brings with it all sorts of rumors and misinformation, and even all sorts of personal attacks, human searches, etc. As the author says, some social media may be constituting "the freedom that divides us". It is also questionable whether some of the stringent electronic surveillance measures taken by government agencies in special times will become routine practice.

Tools and Weapons

Tools and Weapons

The issues addressed by the author are real issues, but the level of importance will still vary. On the question of whether super-intelligent machines are possible, or whether the "singularity" will come, the author tends to think it is still too far away. He quotes Dave Hefner as saying that this issue takes up too much of people's time and attention and distracts them from more important and pressing issues. The "singularity" issue does not appear to be a pressing one, particularly as it is less likely to be on the agenda of pragmatic leaders, but whether it is less important is open to question.

The author does a fairly good job of presenting and dealing with the pressing problems that technology encounters, expressing the characteristics of technology: the twofold properties of both tools and weapons that technology has. However, we can also pay attention to technology, especially the nature or essence of technology that has developed into modern technology. Indeed, this is a question that belongs to philosophy, and is one of fundamental importance. Heidegger once argued that the essence of technology is that it is a "pedestal" in which man is situated and from which it is almost impossible, or impossible on his own, to free himself.

If one looks at the nature of modern technology, it has at least two characteristics in its essential manifestation: first, it has the power to involve almost everyone, even all human activity. Second, it is a powerful force for one-way progress. It has an inherent urge to keep moving forward, not stopping on its own and growing faster and faster. For example, it is easy to see that all technology products are constantly being demanded, replaced and renewed. It will die without renewal. It not only adapts and meets people's needs, but constantly creates new ones. And the sweep of technology is getting wider and wider, even for those who would otherwise avoid it. For example, when cars were first invented and manufactured, people who were willing to walk could still walk their own way leisurely, but with the popularity of cars, it was almost impossible to go out without running into a swarm of cars. The main roads were turned into car lanes. The distance between the workplace and home is now measured in time by car.

However, as the author is also keenly aware, the tremendous increase in technological capacity has not resulted in a corresponding increase in human self-control and organizational management capabilities. He quoted Einstein as saying that "if the development of the human organizational capacity could keep pace with the advance of science and technology", then scientific and technological progress "would have already made it possible for us to live happy and carefree lives". Instead, "these hard-won achievements of the Big Machine Age are in our hands, but are as dangerous as handing a razor to a three-year-old." So, the author also addresses the key of today's challenge: "can the future technology be controlled by the world (humanity) as it continues to advance?" The question to be asked using the author's two-sided characterization of technology is: since technology has both tool and weapon properties, will the weapon's properties slowly overtake those of the tool, to the point where it is completely beyond human control? With technology so appealing, even nesting people, even that we have to use it as we eliminate its evils, will the day come when technology will be reversed to fully master humanity? What is the way out? 

In the summer of 2018, I had a conversation with the author, Brad Smith, in Beijing. He also mentions this conversation in his book "Tools and Weapons". He introduces my view that Westerners believe more in progress as a straight line, that technology keeps moving forward, and are optimistic about continuous improvement. In (traditional) China, on the other hand, it may be that a view of cyclical change in all things prevails. At some point in the future, everything will return to its original point. I once detailed how the traditional notion of circular time was replaced by a unilinear progressive view of time in my book "Electoral Society". I am currently even considering that this may also be a possible form of the longevity of the human race. The West began as a linear conception of time, including chronology, that pointed to a path of salvation in the first place in Christianity. In recent times, this idea of linear time has been given a secular "progress" orientation, and one of the most important of these advances, and one that has indeed been achieved and realized, is that of technology. But is it in danger of "snapping" at some high point?

We can still go back to a traditional, even ancient, wisdom. I don't think that the kind of eternal cycle of thought is unique to China, and similar thoughts can be found in the Upanishads, in the wisdom of the Buddha, and even in Greek philosophers like Heraclitus. Among modern thinkers, Nietzsche says that the basic idea of his major work, Charlathustra As Such, the idea of eternal reincarnation, the highest affirmative formula we can get, was formed in August 1881. He was on a lake in Switzerland at the time, and the thought came so suddenly that he wrote excitedly in a letter to a friend: "The thought has risen, and such a thought as has never been seen ... I must indeed live some years!" Heidegger, in his reading of Nietzsche's work, argues that it is the strong will that is the essential characteristic of all beings, and that it is the eternal reincarnation that is the supreme rule of existence. However, they have only addressed this idea at the metaphysical level, and even philosophically, they have not done much.

Heidegger talks about how the doctrine of eternal reincarnation at first seems so dull, desperate and intolerable that people immediately adopt a rejectionist attitude or ignore it. "By its very nature, the doctrine has always been something of a surprise." Modern people, who are particularly convinced of progress, can hardly stand this view. But it may not only be philosophical, it may be what people experience on a daily basis through the history of nature and civilization.

Perhaps there are various cycles, universal cycles, cycles of life, cycles of civilization, cycles of dynasties, cycles of ideas. Even these loops, layered on top of each other, may contain multiple loops. While we are at a certain high point in terms of technology, we may be at a certain low point spiritually. The opposite is also possible. Perhaps technology can still return to a certain high point, even if it hovers low, but human civilization will not be interrupted.

The author is a professor in the Philosophy Department of Peking University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn