OK, we’re into it; a new year. We’re nearly 20 years into the millennium. Y2K was a thing, right? Only it wasn’t. We were, in the year 2000, near the end of a 12-year Pax Americana between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the current state of disarray that began so rudely on 9/11/01.
We find ourselves in an era of fake news. Studies have shown that false news stories spread farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than true news. Syrian hackers can worm their way into The Associated Press’ Twitter handle and leave a fraudulent release. If the fake news is dire, such as an attack on the White House, trading algorithms on Wall Street react automatically. Tens of billions of dollars can evaporate into the ozone in a matter of hours.
The new era has introduced new means of starting war, and new ways of waging it. The North American electric power grid is well-known as a potential target. Even as we speak, Iran and the United States are experimenting with targets and provocations. Why? Because we can?
Why does false news, especially fake political news, spread farther and faster than true news? One reason involves novelty. We gain status when people think we have inside information, shared by only a few. People love twisted news. They love conspiracy theories for the same reason.
We know, for example, that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was perpetrated by a disturbed teen with access to high-powered firearms. Yet, there are those who are so dedicated to the idea that the whole melee was falsified, they’ve willingly and repeatedly exposed themselves to serious legal peril. Obviously, the cost of fake news is not yet high enough to achieve deterrence.
One answer to this danger is regulation. The Internet, especially the Internet segment we label social media, is still in a Wild West developmental stage. Many of us are tempted to wish for additional heat where Mark Zuckerberg sits. The problem with regulation is what happens in authoritarian regimes that apply heat to sources of true news in the form of censorship. Who regulates the regulators?
Even further into the fray, regulatory measures may well be made superfluous by mature computer technologies, such as digital editing of photographic images, made more deceitful with new technical sophistication. I’m referring to the ability to edit and manipulate video and audio recordings of our leaders in ways that distort reality to the vanishing point. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both been victimized by it in this political season, still in its early stages. It bodes ill for a general public trying to separate truth from fiction.
Technology should not be in the business of bolstering adversarial public discourse based on lies, but here we are. It animates the anti-intellectual boogeyman that lurks in the shadow of conspiracy theory, McCarthyism, birtherism and the myths associated with Ivy League schools fending off charges of elitist separation. Principled, ethical journalism is still very much alive in America. It tells the story of us with integrity, and is more necessary to the life of our democracy than ever.
Looking forward more broadly, we haven’t yet developed a technology that inevitably leads to our destruction. I’ll say that again: We haven’t yet developed a technology that inevitably leads to our destruction. Have you noticed? We’ve invented an enormous panoply of wonderfully beneficial technologies that have made our lives longer, more predictable and far more comfortable than those of our ancestors.
Of course there are products of scientific achievement that are mixed blessings. I don’t see a need to belabor the point that’s apparent to most of us; that nuclear weapons in the hands of a megalomaniac might bring life on this planet to an end. Thus far, nuclear energy occupies an existential gray area. Leo Szilard, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and Carl Sagan urged us to recognize the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, but stopped short of declaring our destruction inevitable.
We may, however, be entering a new age of vulnerability. Nuclear energy provided warning shots across the bow of the ship of progress in the shapes of Chernobyl and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We narrowly averted the ultimate failure. Fortunately for all of us, it isn’t easy to obtain large amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It takes industrial capacity that only a few nations on Earth can muster.
But, what about emerging technologies? We’re beginning to think of myriad ways by which we might intervene in climate change. Considering how complex weather forecasting has proved to be, despite our successes, it’s conceivable we may develop atmospheric interventions that render our planet uninhabitable. Whatever the properties of that technology, it will certainly be computer modeled, if not controlled, and therefore, hackable. Therein lies at least one of the dangers.
Hypersonic ballistic missiles, as announced by President Trump this week, hammer the last nail in the coffin of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative. There is no missile defense against these new systems under development by the U.S., China and Russia. With a global range and speeds up to Mach 20 (approximately 15,000 mph), reaction time is down to single-digit minutes. We can only watch and wait to see how this goes.
We’ve been lucky. It’s easy to see, for example, that we’re fortunate fossil fuels have proved difficult to extract from the Earth’s crust. Destructive technologies have been met along the way with countermanding technics. The limitations of fossil fuels necessitated the development of renewable energy. I’m hopeful that prophylactic technologies will appear: a golden bullet that pre-empts the invention, or neutralizes the efficacy of an emergent destructive invention.
As a species, we tend to take two steps forward and one step back. As we continue to learn how to cooperate on a global level, perhaps the steps backward will become less and less destructive. We have to try.