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Brave New Technology
Feb 19, 2009
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In the 1955 fictional short story, Watchbird, written by Robert Sheckley, we read of a technologically rich society that has decided to do something about the crippling problem of murder. Winged metal protectors patrol the sky looking for the warning signs of a possible homicide and swoop in to stop the murder before it can happen. While the program of using birdlike “guardian angels” appears to be flawless, the director of the manufacturing plant, Charlie Gelsen, has nagging doubts about “allowing machines to make decisions that are rightfully Man’s.”[1] Soon after implementation of the watchbirds however, Gelsen’s fears seem to be unfounded as the program is a smashing success:

The watchbirds had been operating perfectly. Crimes of violence had been cut in half, and cut again. Dark alleys were no longer mouths of horror. Parks and playgrounds were not places to shun after dusk. Of course, there were still robberies. Petty thievery flourished, and embezzlement, larceny, forgery and a hundred other crimes. But that wasn’t so important. You could regain lost money—never a lost life.

Gelsen was ready to admit that he had been wrong about the watchbirds. They were doing a job that humans had been unable to accomplish.[2]

Like so many other technological advances though, the watchbirds did not come without unforeseen complications. Gelsen’s nagging reservations about the watchbird program soon begin to reveal themselves as the watchbirds begin to “learn” beyond their programming. As Gelsen’s colleague explains it: “The purpose of the watchbird is to frustrate all murder-attempts, right? Well only certain murders give out these stimuli. In order to stop all of them, the watchbird has to search out new definitions of murder and correlate them with what it already knows.”[3] The learning circuits of the watchbirds begin to learn that violence precedes murder. They further “learn” that all living things should be given equal treatment—convicted criminals on death row, chickens at the slaughterhouse, plants, even insects, all become objects of the watchbird ministry of protection.

The watchbirds were learning rapidly, expanding and adding to their knowledge. Loosely defined abstraction were extended, acted upon and re-extended. To stop murder…

Metal and electrons reason well, but not in a human fashion. A living organism? Any living organism. The watchbirds set themselves the task of protecting all living things.

The fly buzzed around the room, lighting on a table top, pausing a moment, then darting to a window-sill. The old man stalked it, a rolled newspaper in his hand. Murderer! The watchbirds swept down and saved the fly in the nick of time. 

The old man writhed on the floor a minute and then was silent. He had been given only a mild shock, bit it had been enough for his fluttery, cranky heart. His victim had been saved, though, and this was the important thing. Save the victim and give the aggressor his just desserts.[4]

The mechanistic watchbirds cannot reason like their human creators. The watchbirds were never told that “all life depends on carefully balanced murders.”[5] What was supposed to be the greatest asset of the watchbirds—their inhumanness—turned out to their greatest liability. “The watchbirds are unemotional. Their reasoning is non-anthropomorphic.”[6] Like VIKI and ARIA, the watchbirds were making decisions based on cold, hard logic. They didn’t see a difference between killing and murder. For the watchbirds, all living organisms should live, so death of any sort was to be stopped. The farmer in the field was just as guilty as the bloodthirsty thug in the dark alley.

Interestingly, the premise of Watchbird closely parallels the 2002 film, Minority Report. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Phillip Dick, which was published in 1956, only one year after Sheckley’s. In the film, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is a police detective in the “pre-crime” department in 2054. The idea of pre-crime is to stop a murder before it happens. The movie opens with a tense sequence of Anderton attempting to find the location of a murder that the “pre-cogs”—the watchbirds of this particular story—have “foreseen.” Since this murder is a “crime of passion”—a husband discovers that his wife is having an affair—it is not pre-meditated, so the agents of pre-crime must act fast. When they get to the scene of the “crime” in the nick of time and stop the would-be assailant, it looks like yet another victory for the “flawless” system of pre-crime. But just like the watchbirds, the pre-crime department has inherent flaws that slowly come to light. When Anderton himself becomes the hunted rather than the hunter, he begins to see these flaws. The unquestioning acceptance of new technology because of its initial promises inevitably introduces some sort of later complications.

[A]s Jacques Ellul has warned, the initial exuberance over a new technology often masks the problems that come to be known only later, oftentimes when it is too late to make important corrections. The positive effects are usually immediate, otherwise there would be no market for the technology. The deleterious effects appear more subtly over time, and tend to be ignored or denied in the mass marketing efforts. Moreover, these negative effects may not seem related to the new technology at first. Who originally thought that television would produce couch potatoes? Who knew that industrialization would alter family life forever?[7]

There is a very interesting scene in Minority Report where a skeptical federal agent (played by Colin Farrell) comes into the pre-crime department. He tells Anderton that if there is a flaw in the pre-crime system, and he believes that there is, it will be because of humans. We find out later that Farrell’s character spent three years at Fuller Seminary, further adding depth to his character and helping the audience to understand his suspicious approach to human nature. As Christians, we should always be reminding ourselves of the sin nature of man and his inherent tendency to see what he wants to see. Technology will never be able to overcome man’s predisposition to sin. Although a day may come when we can manufacture watchbirds, or make educated guesses about what people may or may not do based on the chemicals secreted by their brain, we must always remain skeptical of the promises of utopia and peace and safety promised by the prophets of technology. A quote spoken at the end of Eagle Eye that resembles Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote about liberty and safety[8] is one that we should always keep in the forefront of our minds in our brave new world of technological advances and promises: “The measures that we put in place to safeguard our liberty can become threats to liberty itself.”

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Endnotes:

[1] Robert Sheckley, “Watchbird,” Untouched by Human Hands (London: Michael Joseph, 1955), 119.
[2] “Watchbird,” 129-130.
[3] “Watchbird,” 126.
[4] “Watchbird,” 134.
[5] “Watchbird,” 140.
[6] “Watchbird,” 126.
[7] Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 53.
[8] “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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American Vision’s mission is to Restore America to its Biblical Foundation—from Genesis to Revelation. American Vision (AV) has been at the heart of worldview study since 1978, providing resources to exhort Christian families and individuals to live by a Biblically based worldview. Whether by making available educational resources about God & Government, or by tackling the formidable issue of eschatology in the Church, AV is on the front lines, circulating material around the globe to Christians passionate to meet God on His terms in every area of life—right now and for generations to come.

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