Friday, April 26, 2013

Those Damned Opposable Thumbs

When Eli Dourado of George Mason University wrote a puff piece for Wired magazine about drones being as revolutionary as the Internet, and former Wired editor Chris Anderson promoted the hell out of it, I hit the ceiling.  I'll plead guilty to naturally equating drones with surveillance and armed killing (gee, I wonder why?), but I won't say I consider them as inherently bad as Medea Benjamin of Code Pink might.  Nevertheless, this editorial seemed especially vile.  And then it hit me - and also told me why I feel nervous about the so-called Maker Revolution.

Dourado, Anderson, and all too many Maker advocates do not distinguish between the role of the scientist and the role of the engineer.  The scientist asks neutral questions about the natural world without seeking to change that world.  In fact, the scientist usually would like to minimize any external impact of an experiment, if only to avoid skewing the results.

An engineer wants to tinker with the world for the alleged "betterment" of humankind.  More often than not, an engineer requires a janitor tailing along behind, cleaning up the mess the engineer has made.  This is because neither the group engineer working for a large corporation, nor the lone engineer tinkering in the backyard, takes enough care and consideration to factor in the potential environmental harm that can be caused by a project that manipulates the environment.  This can even be true in a green energy or green geo-engineering project.  Just as we do not want to create centralized solar "power tower" facilities that might pollute in their own right, we do not want to accelerate carbon sequestration by dumping strange chemicals in the ocean or putting large umbrellas in orbit.  The Hippocratic Oath is paramount here - first, do no harm!

A single individual developing a drone in the backyard may not have evil spying or weapon intent, but the Federal Aviation Administration is worried that when thousands want to play Tom Swift, that the airspace will be cluttered with tens of thousands of drones.  And even if one individual working on a drone has no intention of turning over information to the State Police or the NSA (though many probably do), the ability of drones to practice "emergent intelligence" or "hive intelligence" means that the sum may be scarier than the individual parts.

Some might say, "So what? Dozens of small surveillance cameras, private YouTube posts, and private smartphone photos are what helped to bust the Boston Marathon bombers."  True, and there may be times we can say we're proud of being our own intelligence agents - it helps the CIA and NSA cut their budgets, I suppose.  But if we don't all work hard to limit the goals of law enforcement agencies, at least in theory, we destroy our Bill of Rights in record time.  The worst thing we can do with our democracy is to give law enforcement everything it wants.  It's not that the cops are bad actors, it's that their bureaucracy does not promote the protection of civil liberties.  Therefore, it is the duty of citizens concerned about democracy to fight expansion of surveillance and law-enforcement domains every step of the way.  Would a backyard drone-tinkerer do that?

I am not suggesting that every individual working on a drone, a Heathkit robot, or an Arduino controller project is a necessary polluter or tool of the corporate state.  But I am saying that the mere act of being an engineer moves one into the field of potentially doing harm because one is tinkering with the external environment.  Every engineer working in isolation on a project that impacts the macro-world, even in an apparently benign field like 3-D printing ("Make a gun at home!") needs to ask the questions as to how the technology might be abused.

Yes, this applies to non-engineers.  A writer, for example, must constantly weigh whether a best-seller instantiated as a printed book or an e-book is least environmentally damaging.  But a product that moves neurons or electrons, like written works or like the Internet itself, is far less intrusive than a product that has a visible physical-world impact.  The honest analysts of 3-D printing are the first to admit that its popularity may lead to a rise in more junk to fill up landfills.  With drones, the situation is much worse.  Drone proliferation means more potential death-at-a-distance, more potential spying by a wealth of corporate and government players, and an airspace so cluttered, we may see more crashes of macro-sized planes as a result.

No comments: