Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Who amongst us has not entertained a fantasy of possessing powers beyond those held by most mere mortals? The ability to fly, to be able to heal quickly, to be able to move objects with your mind, to possess magnificent strength or speed without having to workout excessively, heat vision, invisibility, command of the elements…and the list of potential powers could easily go on. Numerous mythologies, and the super-hero stories of our day, provide a vast trove of tales of individuals with uncanny abilities. And though we may be amused by these stories, and may briefly (or not so briefly) dream of possessing similar powers, we recognize that in the end we simply remain human.
Granted, the desire to have super-powers is a want that can be easily exploited, especially by those who deeply share in this longing. Thus it makes a sort of droll sense that the terminology of super-powers is so commonly invoked amidst discussions of modern technology – whether these come in the form of the excited dreaming of venture capitalists or musings in article titles. We may not be able to fly, but perhaps the flying car is no longer such a flight of fantasy; we may not develop a speedy healing factor but if we constantly monitor our vital signs we can achieve a heightened level of health; our memory may not hold as much information as a library but our smart phones can provide us with instant access to that much information. And given the current state of technological empowerment, who knows what new abilities we shall encounter in the decades ahead?
And yet that which is most clearly missing from the discussions of technologically granted super-powers is a wrestling with the darker side of such abilities – with the tragic aspect of such powers. Indeed, many is the super-hero (or hero from mythology) whose power comes through a sort of bad luck or unfortunate incident and thereby saddles that individual (or a group of individuals) with a set of troubles for which they were unprepared. Perhaps there is no line more closely linked to this ethical issue than that from the pages of Spiderman comic books (more widely disseminated thanks to the Spiderman films), namely: “with great power comes great responsibility.” It is the recognition of this link between power and responsibility that puts the “hero” into “super-hero” – that these characters find themselves in possession of magnificent power and feel that with this has come an obligation to use it justly. Power just as often as not proves to be more of a curse than a blessing.
If the ethic of super-powers in fiction is that of “with great power comes great responsibility” than the ethic of supposed technologically granted super-powers may well be “with great power comes liberation from responsibility.” Or, to put it slightly differently, “with the granting of great power comes great fealty to the sources from whence this power comes.” Modern technologies that provide us with impressive new capabilities come with no mandate that they be used to fulfill an important human obligation, and indeed many of our great technological achievements seem to run rather counter to such obligations. Though these may be super-powers they are decidedly inwardly focused (such as the “quantified self”) – they give us a small sense of personal empowerment yet do relatively little (if anything) to alter our place in the overarching power dynamics of the world. If anything our embrace of these new super-powers puts us into a perilous relationship with those who dispense of these powers (for a cost) as we become addicted to these new abilities and plunk down money, expose our personal lives, and contort ourselves for the privilege of partaking.
It is not that technology has granted us super-powers over the world, but that technology has usurped human powers the world over.
Thus it is important to note how seldom is the question of responsibility raised when it comes to these powers – indeed, the main power that modern technology has granted is the ability to pass off ever more of our personal responsibility to our devices. We need no longer be conscious of ourselves and our bodies – our devices will monitor us; we need no longer be aware of our commitments – our devices will monitor us; we need no longer actively engage with the world – hitting the “like” or “retweet” button is sufficient activism; we need not consider the well-being of the planet – some miraculous new device will fix it; and we need not think of those who assembled these devices (or mined the minerals inside of them) – for what does it mean to have a super power if it does not come with superiority over others?
The world today is simultaneously filled with mechanical marvels and gross inequity – and the love of the marvels by one part of the world’s population often works to exacerbate the inequity. Those in the possession of technologically granted super-human capabilities revel in the joy of the power and the speed with which new powers are granted, and shudder at the thought that there is anything wrong with their machines or the powers that are granted by them. It seems that one of the surest ways to make somebody bristle is to ask them to think through the ethical implications of their high-tech toys. Legion are those who proudly buy “organic” and “ethical” products – but there are no such labels for high technology. We are entranced by that which is at our fingertips and cannot bear to think that it may the power may be an illusion. Thus, though the language of super-powers is often used, it may be more fitting to use the terminology of magic – a point well captured by Lewis Mumford:
“the machine has become our main source of magic, and it has given us a false sense of possessing godlike powers.” (Mumford, 138)
It is this “false sense” that is imperative to take note of in discussions of our new powers, for our abilities are not the result of some bizarre accident that bestowed us with abilities or a result of our birth, but are the result of a deal. Our super-powers are the result of a power relationship, one which we have entered into – or one into which we have been entered. The model figure for our technological powers is not Peter Parker (Spiderman) but Doctor Faust. It is not a fortuitous scientific encounter that has given us our abilities, but our pursuit of a deal with a powerful figure whose motives we do not thoroughly understand. This is not to say that in exchange for our newfound magic we have sold our souls to Mephistopheles (like Faust); however, it is worth remembering how many dotted lines we have had to sign on (or click agree at) in order to obtain our super-powers. And how many of us can truly claim to have read the full contract? Our super-powers are the result of an exchange – and our powers are always tethered to the source of those powers. We are able to obtain great power, but it is worth being somewhat skeptical at the lack of responsibility that we are asked to take on in exchange for this power. While numerous thinkers have found a link between the figure of Faust and technology, the belief in super-powers is somewhat new.
Yet it is important to remember – a super-power once obtained puts the bearer in a new ethical category: they are suddenly a changed individual in possession of a new ability that they can use however they see fit. The magic that is bestowed through some form of dark bargain is always riddled with caveats and lurking in the background is always the source of this power – it can be used in multiple ways, but the bearer is not the one who can determine these ways. In the case of a super-power the responsibility is vested in the person in possession of these abilities, in the case of our technologically granted magic powers it is always tricky to locate where responsibility truly rests.
As a result, the question of what this responsibility might look like is a complicated one, and there are multiple answers that could be correct. Yet the question of responsibility from the point of having the powers often overlooks the responsibilities that have been discarded in first accruing those abilities. The smart phone bestows many seeming super-powers yet it is made of minerals mined in abhorrent conditions, was assembled by exploited labor, and will eventually become poisonous e-waste once it is discarded; similarly the phone turns its carrier into a constant surveillance target (corporate and government), and binds them to the technological order that sells the carrier the phone in exchange for fealty. An early step in responsibility would thus be a demand that such power granting devices do nothing to despoil the planet, harm workers, or warp the device user – yet the question remains as to whether or not such “great responsibility” is even possible with the pursuit of “great power.” After all, part of the ethical imperative of a super-power is to recognize that possession of a power does not equal universal license to use it. Indeed, sometimes the only way to take “great responsibility” for a “great power” is to emphasize “responsibility” over “power.”
The language of super-powers (or magic) is of course rather difficult in these conversations, precisely because of the muddling that transpires between mechanically enhanced abilities and genuine super-powers (whatever those might look like). When we hear, or read, of technology as granting super-powers it is important to resist getting too excited and to take a moment of reflection in order to remember that these powers are the result of decisions made by investors and boards of directors who have specific motivations for their making available certain powers. These are not powers with which a person can truly do anything they so desire – rather they can use the powers as prescribed, and though the power may appear vast this vastness may be deceptive. You can know your vital statistics at any moment! But this does not mean that your society will have a more equitable dispersal of medical facilities. And even as we are granted the ability to buy into greater and greater powers there is another force that is made even more powerful – Mephistopheles only grants Faust power, because Mephistopheles knows that he will be the one who truly benefits.
It may well be that the superhero ethics with which we are familiar has warped our sense of power and responsibility, for it places our power in a position that is incumbent upon us suddenly finding ourselves made even more powerful. Yet, if there is one thing that human history should make extremely clear it is that human beings were already in possession of great powers long before the computer or the Internet. Humans have created amazing works of art, invented all manner of machines, have cured diseases, have built cities, have traveled in the clouds and beneath the waves – humans already wield “great power.” But in our pursuit of ever-greater power we are ignoring the great responsibility we should have already taken – with the result that the planet is in the throes of a mass extinction and significant climatic change threatens the future of our species.
Perhaps, especially when it comes to new technologies, we need to put the responsibility before the power. Such was the argument advanced by the philosopher Hans Jonas in his attempt to construct “an ethics for the technological age.” For Jonas the matter that humans needed to keep at the forefront of their thought was a rigorous confrontation with consequences and a deep recognition of how dire these could be. In some ways Jonas advocated for a “worst case scenario” approach to technology one that recognized that fears should be given as much weight (if not greater weight) than exuberant hopes. In Jonas’s reckoning this related to the fact that humans needed to take responsibility not only for their own day but for the future of the species – a future that the blind pursuit of new technological powers put into question. Even in terms of new technologies that promised to ameliorate concerns (or grant super-powers) Jonas recommended caution, noting:
“these are not undertaken to preserve what exists or to alleviate what is unbearable, but rather to continually improve what has already been achieved, in other words, for progress, which at its most ambitious aims at bringing about an earthly paradise. It and its works stand therefore under the aegis of arrogance rather than of necessity; declining some of its beckonings will hit the optional and marginal beyond the necessary, while pursuing them may injure, in the end, the inner core.” (Jonas, 36)
The key element to pry from the above quotation – insofar as it relates to super powers – is the question of that which has been “achieved” versus that which is “unbearable.” Our world is filled with travesties and situations that are “unbearable” but our technological capabilities seem overwhelmingly to be directed at making the all-too-bearable (the comfortable) even more bearable. An enthusiastic embrace of progress because we like the sound of that word has kept us from asking towards what are we progressing? Part of the task of responsibility, therefore, is in facing the dark truth that our pursuit of super-powers may be injuring instead of enhancing our “inner core” – to say nothing of what this pursuit is doing to the planet.
After all, there is a term for those who ceaselessly, arrogantly and selfishly lust after ever-greater super-powers whilst not giving a whit for human necessities or the responsibility such power entails…
But that term is not hero.
Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility. University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. University of Columbia Press, 2000.