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Losing Technological Restraint

Andrew C. Thomas

“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it.” -- Michael Crichton

I didn’t need “Jurassic Park” to come to the realization that scientific progress is forged by hard work, and abused by those who only see quick gains from its use. After all, I could just have easily been watching another of my favorite movies, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where the diligent, decades-long work of the title character’s father was hijacked by a stereotypical Nazi unit financed by a rich man, as was the faith and brainpower of Dr. Jones himself abused by his competitors as he neared the Holy Grail, even though Indy himself, following his father’s research, did not respect the Grail’s apparent power.

But even ignoring these worlds of fantasy overseen by Steven Spielberg, are we not now living in a world where discipline as acquired through hard work is just as abused?

We are living in an era where violent action is as easy to carry out as pushing a button, from as large an act to launching a missile strike to as small as changing a television channel in order to see the bodies in the aftermath.

In our quest for discipline in this world, we at MIT live in great privilege, as we indulge ourselves in research for, among other things, the advancement of science for the benefit of mankind. Now, it’s no coincidence that the same struggle can, in future years, put vast amounts of food on the table by showing an employer a nice piece of paper on the wall with Chuck Vest’s name on it. For the most part, with mild instances of cheating aside, we earned what we’ll walk with after four or more years of toil and pain.

But the discipline we earn has its limits; inevitably it’s only as powerful as the force of will to avoid desperation, provoked by insecurity. And we’re starting to see the effects of that desperation in the advancement of the Internet.

Once, the pursuit of knowledge was a genuinely difficult task, a quest that taxed the soul and the pocketbook equally. Any who were able to learn to read and write in the past had a decisive advantage. We’ve made incredible improvements even in the last 200 years to bring literacy to the majority of the population. Now that literacy, in terms of the use of modern tools like e-mail, is (in the words of the fictional yet fascinating Ian Malcolm) being wielded like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun; as a whole, it’s insufficient to stop a small fraction of the uninformed population from clicking on unknown attachments and jackknifing the tractor-trailers of the information highway.

The Internet, as a tool, was borne out of a massive, decades long military research effort. Services like Google helped reduce the expansive clutter into an incredible information gathering tool. Yet there are still abusers of the technology -- young hotshots who program Trojan horses as a means of competition against each other in the arena of the Internet and use unsuspecting surfers as their weapons and shields.

The idea of the Internet driver’s license has been tossed around recently, largely by disgruntled computer elitists who are, thanks to the globalization of the technology, inexorably tied to the inexperienced user. I think it’s a lousy idea -- if there’s anything I’ve learned from kung fu movies, people are going to abuse systems no matter what level of responsibility is necessary for the attainment of their skills. Heck, we complain just as much about speed demons on the roads as we do about old people doing 30 on the highway. Besides, most people learn to behave only when they’re being watched continually, a solution too terrifying to comprehend.

It’s not like that situation is far away. While it was the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) who developed the use of the Internet, it’s other governmental descendants like the Defense Department’s DARPA that are unveiling the weaknesses of our integrated society. While I’m in favor of programs like Terrorist Information Awareness as a way to gather reasonable types of information, there’s every possibility that this power could be hijacked and turned against us because we didn’t truly respect the power the Internet gave us as individuals.

Inevitably, we make progress as a species through hard, repeated experience, and society is still learning to deal with the Internet. Software designers lost their discipline in the 1990s when limits on memory and hard drive capacity escalated, and a previously crucial need to scrutinize code for efficiency and smooth operation became insignificant compared to the profit motive. These weaknesses, which once had minimal danger, are now becoming vulnerabilities. Can we afford to continue to not ask the big questions in a search for the proper uses of this technology?