Law in the Internet Society

21st century technology has made individuals more vulnerable than they’ve ever been

-- By Julien Maudet - 04 Nov 2016


It is usually a bad start for an essay to begin with ‘Men have always’ or ‘Since the first days’. But it is essential here to go back to primitive times in order to take a look at the overtime evolution of the relation between technological progress and vulnerability of human beings. By vulnerability, it is meant the gregarian vulnerability regarding lethal dangers: men are vulnerable when they can’t defend, feed, or transport their selves. By technological progress, it is meant innovations that change the way people live: it includes the first tools in the prehistoric times, Google Maps, and everything in between.

How vulnerability grows with the adoption of new technologies

First innovations were driven by crucial, vital needs and improved the survivability of men with a great magnitude. For instance, when men designed their first weapons, they were able to defend themselves from wild animals. Mastering fire enabled them to warm cook the food they used to eat raw, which was the cause of many lethal diseases. This kind of innovation obviously reduced the vulnerability of men, who would then no longer live without them. Men became stronger and more resilient to danger and disasters. Though they got more resilient, their very basic vulnerability increased. Indeed, as they were learning how to fight with swords, as their body was getting used to be covered with beast fur, they were losing primitive survivability. A man, who would be used to have all this as granted would die much faster than the man who has never had them, if they were to evolve in the environment of the latter.

Embracing technology and vulnerability is actually a personal choice

This loss of survivability has grown all over centuries, as men tend to depend on new things to survive, and not necessarily on skills. There is actually a light clarification which is necessary. An individual who maintains his primitive survival skills while getting used and taking advantage of innovations will not lose any of his survivability, and will actually increase it. As an example, an individual who keeps training his bare-hand fighting skills, while learning how to fight with a sword as well, will only improve his survivability. Same for the individual who still knows which berries are edible and which are not, while he learns how to fish or how to grow crops. These individuals will always go more resilient as progress goes on because they only add new skills and knowledge to the stack, without never despising old skills. They would then have greater chances of survivability than those who replace their skills because, when dived in a primitive environment, they could either use their new skills when possible, either use their primitive skills if not possible. Taking the challenge of feeding oneself as an example, this individual could make himself a fishing pole because he’s learned how to and thus get fishes, which is a competitive advantage in survival, but, if not possible, he would still be able to go and pick the non-poisonous plants and berries. Consequently, progress can never make a person more vulnerable if the person maintains the skills at use before progress disrupts them. But the point here is that this type of situation is extremely rare. The average individual replaces his old skills with new ones that rely on new technologies. In that sense, progress tends to make people more vulnerable. The reason why this situation is extremely rare is that maintaining a primitive skills set is unnatural and requires a lot of dedication.

Artificial Intelligence taking our vulnerability to the next step

This phenomenon has been growing as years and centuries passed. The individual in our modern society is constantly being assisted by technology: cars provide transportation, apps and GPS provide location and directions, smartphones store all needed personal information… Thanks to the development of technologies and humans relying on it ever more, the situation is now inverted: we went from technology assisting humans to humans being strictly dependent on technology, with few or no alternative to technology when it fails. This uncontrolled dependence and reliance on technology is even more problematic and a source of vulnerability with Artificial Intelligence. The example of the autopilot of an airplane or a boat or the automated cars is straightforward. People tend to completely give up the commands to this intelligence, as if they were passing the wheel to another human pilot. This trust in technology has two main drawbacks. In case the technology fails, in situations where humans allowed themselves to be 100% vulnerable to the technology, the consequences can be directly lethal. This happened recently with an automated car under test at Tesla. The second drawback is less obvious. The more drivers turn on the automated pilot, the less they practice their driving skills. Consequently, they become less proficient in their domain of knowledge and in case the technology breaks, they may no longer be able to fully take back control. This kind of misadventure has been related and discussed in the article Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster by Tim Harford, published on October 11th 2016 in The Guardian.


Eventually, although first innovations enabled human beings to improve their survivability, the advantages they provide have made humans highly dependent on it. As many individuals don’t maintain their primitive survival skills, they basically see their vulnerability decreasing while the place of technology in their lives is ever growing. Artificial Intelligence brings this vulnerability to an ultimate level as individuals not only rely on technology but tend to let technology handle their lives: automated cars being the most eloquent example.

From a linguistic point of view, your English is serviceable but not correct, let alone elegant. You have to decide what level of proficiency you are trying to attain, that's not for me to determine. But I need to be sure you know where you are.

The form of argument advanced does not help us to analyze the differences between the present circumstances and the other historical forms of trade-off between technological advances that increase social interdependency and the "vulnerability" of individuals.

Vulnerability is not an analytically helpful category in itself, because it mixes the failure modes arising from interdependency (we are not all capable of all skills necessary to ensure individual survival in the current complex environment, though it may not be because I don't know how to farm: I may not possess real estate), with those arising from technological malfunction, let alone the most significant forms of harm, arising from human predation, which go mostly undiscussed.

I think, in short, the attempt to combine focus on both interdependency and vulnerability to disaster and predation is misplaced. If the point is increasing social complexity and interdependence, then the attempt to replace all historical sociology with crude sociobiology dooms the resulting theory to failure. You would need to say a great deal more about the historical relationship of interdependency to human safety and welfare, confront the difference between natural selection and Lamarckian cultural evolution, for example, and maybe even bump into a little Marx.

If we are talking about the probability that power relations will shift away from individuals in the circumstances now under construction, the Darwinian longue duree is of little relevance. Instead our attention concentrates on the familiar question, what is to be done? Here you run into a need for the sort of thinking the present draft scarcely acknowledges, as though purposive thinking in the face of this particular difficulty need not occur. In that sense, theory feels to me like a dissociative activity, so I become uneasy with the absence of dialog with reality. Perhaps some "actual factuality" could be added to the generally indefinite technology being discussed here?


Webs Webs

r2 - 27 Nov 2016 - 17:07:53 - EbenMoglen
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