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It’s not machines, it’s the way they’re used


‘Heaven knows, I’m not comparing the internet to a hurtling death trap. But the internet has its destructive side just as the automobile does … As with the car, criticism of the internet’s shortcomings, risks, and perils has been silenced, or ignored’ (Lee Siegel) .

The cyborg-ish figure of the terminator (the T-800) blurred the boundaries between human and machine, hope and apprehension. Arnie came back in the sequels hardwired to sacrifice himself for the preferred life form (humans) and this was reassuring: machines know who their masters are. 

The sci-fi series Caprica picked these ideas apart with a ‘rise of the machines’ type of plot. Fantasy and reality are woven together as characters interact in a virtual world. This machine-human narrative of the 21st century looks to unsettle rather than reassure us. What if the machines don’t come back to save us? What if they decide they are better than us?

Fictional representations play on our fears of technology, but they also capture the way in which we think about technology – as something else, something that maybe we can’t control. These storylines about human-machine relations have recently been recast in debates about our use of, and relationships with, digital technologies. 

One outcome of the digital age is that information is easily recorded, transmitted and made publicly accessible. A prime example is WikiLeaks’ online publication of classified documents. WikiLeaks continues to expose the kind of corruption that seems like something out of The X Files. For some, these revelations have meant vindication and truth, while others worry about what freedom of information may mean for democracy. 

Simon Jenkins (for The Guardian) warns that particular legislation, such as the UK’s 2000 Freedom of Information Act, has far-reaching consequences. The Freedom of Information Act alone is problematic for Jenkins, but when combined with digital technology it has the potential to expose the digital archives of political figures.  It means that the ‘contents of every laptop, the first draft of every email, every text message, every scribbled note’ is now, potentially, accessible to all. This may change the way political figures use digital technology – or choose not to use it. This could mean the ‘onset of a new terror, a retreat to a kind of sofa government beyond freedom of information’.

Debates about the relationships between WikiLeaks, political process, freedom of information and technology speak directly to our concerns about freedom of speech, democracy and human rights in the 21st century. Digital communication changes the nature of what we say and who we say it to, but are machines really still the enemy?


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