Not So Fast (book review)

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Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology. By Doug Hill. Univ. of Georgia Press, Oct. 15, 2016, 240 pp.

In 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Doug Hill in the flesh at the first IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (http://21stcenturywiener.org/). It was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I was attracted to Doug because of his outward simplicity but at the same time deep inner profundity. It did not take long for us to get talking of our mutual interests. For instance, we've both been influenced greatly by the French philosopher, sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul [1], popularly known for The Technological Society (1964) [2], [3]. Hill is an investigative journalist by training, an award winning writer [4], with a specialization on the philosophy of technology.

In Not So Fast, Hill wastes no time in getting his point across. Chapter 1 opens: “Let me begin by stating the obvious: We live in an era of technological enthusiasm.” In his book, Hill attempts the impossible and pulls it off. He hits us with the hard facts, one after the other. And we can either take his word for it, or refute him page after page, until we realize, that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against us. In effect, Hill tells us “where we are at” with all this techno-deluge, even if we don't wish to admit it. He makes a point of highlighting the technological utopianism we have begun to believe and dream about, only to bring us down crashing the very next moment with the startling realities.

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining,’Not So Fas’ offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”

—Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought; Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The book contains quotes from people we all look up to in the tech and business world, representing thousands of hours of research to craftily support the central thesis: “not so fast.” Hill proclaims in no uncertain words, that we have lost control over the very creations we have built to make life better for us. Somewhere along the way we have become emotionally attached to our technologies; rather than being extensions of us, it seems we have become extensions of them.

But for Hill. it's not all about the bling, and high-tech gadgetry. For Hill, it is more than being enslaved into a life of upgrades, although he does question the practices of Silicon Valley - the preoccupation of building the ultimate immortal man who can live forever through AI and some sort of fantastical Singularity [5], [6]. Hill doesn't just stop there. He looks for the underlying causes to why our climate has changed so detrimentally, the very processes that didn't begin with the introduction of smartphones or social media, but of events from hundreds of years ago. Indirectly, Hill entices the reader to scratch beneath the surface and think about the “how” and “why.”

In a somewhat prophetic voice, Hill arrives at the conclusion that if we are going to reverse things that we might as well begin now. What he's really talking about is the mystery of technology. Hill doesn't shun its value but he declares that we have to put it in its place, before it puts us in a place of no return. His is a voice of one crying in the wilderness, but he is not alone. The reader, no sooner reads a few more of Hill's chapters, and finds herself admitting what she's always known: “Technology doesn't always mean progress. In fact, sometimes it has some very ugly intended and unintended consequences.” In short, we gotta be alert and awake. But even more than that!

Hill digs deep and unravels the inherent qualities of technology, and proceeds to make us aware of the happenings around us [7]. Readers will be all the more enlightened to learn about some of Hill's conclusions, through practical examples in everyday life:

  1. The technological imperative. “Our entire way of life - the social fabric in which we live - is utterly, completely dependent on technology,” says Hill. “To free ourselves of that dependence would be so disruptive that economic and social chaos would result.”

  2. Technological momentum. “There's a simpler reason technologies become intractable: it's too hard to change them. We're stuck with the infrastructure we have,” Hill says. “For example, it's not easy to replace a city's sewer system from scratch.”

  3. Convergence and diffusion. “Technologies are communicable; they spread like viruses. They converge with other technologies and diffuse into unexpected areas,” says Hill. “Bronze casting methods first used to make church bells were soon used to make canons, for example. Today automation techniques - robots - are diffusing daily into ever-more industries and applications, from assembly of everything from cars and smartphones to the handling of banking transactions.”

  4. Speed. “Regulation is slow; technologies are fast,” says Hill. “So it is that governments are frequently unable to effectively control technological development. Hundreds of companies today are feverishly working to exploit the commercial potential of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, for example, despite the fact that no one is certain either technology is safe.”

 

“This is the technology criticism I’ve been waiting for - aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all - nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike.”

—Howard Rheingold, Internet pioneer and author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and “Net Smart”

In his conclusion, Hill isn't very optimistic about where we are at and he certainly doesn't give us any tangible or pragmatic ways to combat the predicament that society finds itself in. And yet, perhaps that has left the door open to a sequel, possibly about a resurgence in technology assessment, about the importance of resistance, and breaking with the belief that technology can do no evil.

Is the path we are on, really that irreversible? Are we headed down a road of inevitabilities, locked-in on auto-pilot? Or are there strategies we might be able to employ right now, as interlinked local communities that make up a collective global consciousness? We have the power, are we willing participants? How much do we care about the future to get involved?

Hill warns: “There's more to turning off machines than hitting a switch… We are deeply, intimately tied to our technologies, in all sorts of practical and emotional ways. To give them up would be literally life-threatening. That's why many experts believe our technologies have become'autonomous.’”

I give this book 5 stars not only because it is masterfully written - the reader feels like they have known Hill for years, a faint voice in the back of their head reaffirming truisms - but because it reveals socio-technical patterns and trends happening all round us. Hill also makes observations about things that others would at best say to leave alone.

“Doug Hill’s insights into technology are both original and profound. I’ve travelled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years, and I still learned much from this book. He will be recognized as a leading thinker on technology and its impact on our world. In an industry that too seldom stops to think through the implications of the products we produce, his is a voice we need to hear.”

—Allen Noren, vice president of online, O’Reilly Media

It's time for those brave conversations, about technology in our homes and our schools, about technology in our industrial and military sectors, about what we should be pooling our resources into to ensure environmental sustainability, and about what should be better left alone. Whether hype or hope, we've embraced a pseudo-truth, that our human salvation will come from technology, abandoning myths 2000 years old.

And while Hill does not make reference to this specifically, I think we are unashamedly worshipping at the foot of technology, believing this will be our ultimate destiny, our chance to live forever on earth. And yet, our sensibilities should tell us that eternal life on earth, would be not unlike living in an endless loop, and as spiritual beings, get us nowhere. I return back to those fundamental human principles, are we bettering ourselves, our nature, because we are surrounded by so much technology, or are we just becoming less able to discern the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. And who or what is behind that wheel driving us to our destinies? It's time to get back in control.

Citation: Katina Michael, 2017, Book Review on Doug Hill's "Not So Fast", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 36(2), pp. 24-26.

Socio-Ethical Implications of Implantable Technologies in the Military Sector

Abstract:

The military sector has been investing in nanotechnology solutions since their inception. Internal assessment committees in defense programmatically determine to what degree complex technologies will be diffused into the Armed Forces. The broad term nanotechnology is used in this Special Issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine to encompass a variety of innovations, from special paint markers that can determine unique identity, to RFID implants in humans. With the purported demand for these new materials, we have seen the development of a fabrication process that has catapulted a suite of advanced technologies in the military marketplace. These technologies were once the stuff of science fiction. Now we have everything from exoskeletons, to wearable headsets with accelerated night vision, to armaments that have increased in durability in rugged conditions along with the ability for central command without human intervention. Is this the emergence of the so-called supersoldier, a type of Iron Man?

Nanotechnology in the Military Sector

The military sector has been investing in nanotechnology solutions since their inception. Internal assessment committees in defense programmatically determine to what degree complex technologies will be diffused into the Armed Forces. The broad term nanotechnology is used in this Special Issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine to encompass a variety of innovations, from special paint markers that can determine unique Identity, to RFID implants in humans. With the purported demand for these new materials, we have seen the development of a fabrication process that has catapulted a suite of advanced technologies in the military marketplace. These technologies were once the stuff of science fiction. Now we have everything from exoskeletons, to wearable headsets with accelerated night vision, to armaments that have increased in durability in rugged conditions along with the ability for central command without human intervention. Is this the emergence of the so-called super-soldier, a type of Iron Man?

Social Implications: Key Questions

This special issue is predominantly based on proceedings coming from the 9th Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security, co-convened by the authors of this guest editorial. The workshop focused specifically on human-centric implantable technologies in the military sector. Key questions the workshop sought to address with respect to implants included:

  • What are the social implications of new proposed security technologies?
  • What are the rights of soldiers who are contracted to the defense forces in relation to the adoption of the new technologies?
  • Does local military law override rights provided under the rule of law in a given jurisdiction, and 1 what are the legal implications?
  • What might be some of the side effects experienced by personnel in using nanotechnology devices that have not yet been tested under conditions of war and conflict?
  • How pervasive are nanotechnologies and microelectronics (e.g., implantable technologies) in society at large?


Recommended Reading

More broadly the workshop sought to examine socio-ethical implications with respect to citizenry, the social contract formed with the individual soldier, and other stakeholders such as industry suppliers to government, government agencies, and the Armed Forces [1].

  • F. Allhoff, P. Lin, D. Moore, What is Nanotechnology and why does it matter? From Science to Ethics, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  • S.J. Florczyk and S. Saha, “Ethical issues in nanotechnology,” J. Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 107-113,2007.
  • A. Krishnan, Military Neuroscience and the Coming of Neurowarfare, London, Routledge, 2017.
  • K. Michael, “Socio-ethical Implications of the Bionic Era”, Academy of Science in Australia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOOgep8ery8, Shine Dome, Canberra, 25/05/17.
  • R.A. Miranda, W.D. Casebeer, A.M. Hein, J.W. Judy, E.P. Krotkov, T.L. Laabs, J.E. Manzo, K.G. Pankratz, G.A. Pratt, J.C. Sanchez, D.J. Weber, T.L. Wheeler, G.S.F. Ling, “DARPA-funded efforts in the development of novel brain-computer interface technologies,” Journal of Neuroscience Methods, vol. 244, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165027014002702, 2015.
  • M. Murphy, “The US Military Is Developing Brain Implants to Boost Memory and Heal PTSD,” Defense One, 2015; http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2015/11/us-military-developing-brain-implants-boost-memory-and-heal-ptsd/123784/, 17/11/15.
  • M. Orcutt, “DARPA's New Neural Implant Has a Sneaky Way of Getting Inside Heads,” M.I.T. Tech. Rev., 2016; https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600761/darpas-new-neural-implant-has-a-sneaky-way-of-getting-inside-heads/, 09/02/16.
  • D. Ratner, M. Ratner, New Weapons for New Wars: Nanotechnology and Homeland Security, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 2004.
  • P.S. Saha and S. Saha, “Clinical trials of medical devices and implants: Ethical concerns,” IEEE Eng. Med. & Biol. Mag., vol. 7, pp. 86–87, 1988.
  • S. Saha and P. Saha, “Biomedical ethics and the biomedical engineer: A review,” Critical Reviews in Biomedical Eng., vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 163–201, 1988.
  • P. Tucker, “The Military Is Building Brain Chips to Treat PTSD,” The Atlantic, 2014; http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/the-military-is-building-brain-chips-to-treat-ptsd/371855/, 29/05/2014.

DARPA's RAM Project

In 2012, the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) confirmed plans to create nanosensors to monitor the health of soldiers on battlefields [2]. In 2014, ExtremeTech [3] reported on a 2013 DARPA project titled the “Restoring Active Memory (RAM) Project.” Ultimately the aim of RAM was:

“to develop a prototype implantable neural device that enables recovery of memory in a human clinical population. Additionally, the program encompasses the development of quantitative models of complex, hierarchical memories and exploration of neurobiological and behavioral distinctions between memory function using the implantable device versus natural learning and training” [4].

Several months later, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) published on their web site an article on how DARPA was developing wireless implantable brain prostheses for service members and veterans who had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) memory loss [5]. Quoting here from the article:

“Called neuroprotheses, the implant would help declarative memory, which consciously recalls basic knowledge such as events, times and places…”
“these neuroprosthetics will be designed to bridge the gaps in the injured brain to help restore that memory function… Our vision is to develop neuroprosthetics for memory recovery in patients living with brain injury and dysfunction.”
“The neuroprosthetics developed and tested over the next four years would be as a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use.”

The U.S. DOD also noted that traumatic brain injury has affected about 270 000 U.S. service members since 2000, and another 1.7 million civilians. The DOD said that they would begin to focus their attention on service members first [6]. Essentially the program is meant to help military personnel with psychiatric disorders, using electronic devices implanted in the brain. Treated disorders range from depression, to anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder [7]. The bulk of the15 million) and the University of Pennsylvania ($22.5 million), in collaboration with the Minneapolis-based biomedical device company Medtronic [8].

More Information

Visual proceedings of the 9th Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security, including powerpoint presentations, are available [9]. The workshop was held during the 2016 IEEE Norbert Wiener Conference, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Several DARPA-funded neurologists from the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University of Melbourne were invited to present at the workshop, including a team led by Thomas Oxley, M.D. [10]. (Oxley did not personally appear as he was in the U.S. on a training course related to intensive neurosurgical training.)

The military implantable technologies field at large is fraught with bioethical implications. Many of these issues were raised at the Workshop, and remain unanswered. If there is going to be a significant investment in advancing new technologies for soldiers suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military, there needs to be commensurate funding invested to address unforeseen challenges. In fact, it is still unclear whether U.S. service members must accept participation in experimental brain research if asked, or if they can decline in place of other nonintrusive medical help.

References

1. K. Michael, "Mental Health Implantables and Side Effects", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 5-17.

2. B. Unruh, "U.S. Military Developing Spychips for Soldiers", WND, [online] Available: http://www.wnd.com/2012/05/u-s-military-developing-spychlps-for-soldiers/.

3. S. Anthony, "US military begins work on brain implants that can restore lost memories experiences", ExtremeTech, [online] Available: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/176337-us-military-begins-work-on-brain-implants-that-can-restore-Iost-memories-experience.

4. "Restoring Active Memory (RAM)", [online] Available: https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=925a0e2faf1c2e3c3782e1788fcc660d&tab=core&_cview=0.

5. T. M. Cronk, DARPA Developing Implants to Help with TBI Memory Loss, US Department of Defense.

6. T. M. Cronk, DARPA Developing Implants to Help with TBI Memory Loss, US Department of Defense.

7. John Hamilton, "Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders", Npr.org, [online] Available: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/27/316129491/military-plans-to-test-brain-implants-to-fight-mental-disorders.

8. Tanya Lewis, "US Military Developing Brain Implants to Restore Memory", LiveScience, [online] Available: http://www.livescience.com/46710-military-memory-brain-implants.html.

9. K. Michael, M.G. Michael, J.C. Galliot, R. Nicholls, "The Socio-Ethical Implications of Implantable Technologies in the Military Sector", The Ninth Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security (SINS16).

 10. "Minimally Invasive “Stentrode” Shows Potential as Neural Interface for Brain: Implantable device repurposes stent technology to enable direct recording from neurons", Darpa.mil, [online] Available: http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-02-08.

 

Citation: Katina Michael, M.G. Michael, Jai C. Galliot, Rob Nicholls, "Socio-Ethical Implications of Implantable Technologies in the Military Sector", 15 March 2017, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 7-9, 10.1109/MTS.2017.2670219.

IEEE Keywords: Special issues and sections, Military communication, Military technology, Implantable biomedical devices, Nanotechnology

INSPEC: ethical aspects, nanofabrication, night vision, radiofrequency identification, social sciences, implantable technologies socio-ethical implication, military sector, nanotechnology, internal assessment committee, RFID implant, fabrication process, military marketplace, night vision,durability, super-soldier