Authors: Thomas P. Keenan
To my parents, Ruth and Joseph, for allowing me to have white rats and cancer viruses in our basement at the age of fourteen. To the love of my life, Keri, who inspires me every day with her amazing Australian wit and wisdom; and to my wonderful son, Jordan, who bounces ideas around with me like a pro and is navigating his own amazing path in life.
Published by arrangement with OR Books
, New York
Copyright Â© 2014 by Thomas P. Keenan
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We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.
Figure 1. IBM 1620 computer like the one at Bronx Science. Erik Pitti, via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution License.
I wrote my first computer program in 1965, while I was a student at the legendary Bronx High School of Science. Tech pioneers such as Marvin Minsky, Robert Moog, and Martin Hellman once walked its halls, which sometimes reeked of chloroform. In those days, students were actually allowed to perform surgery on small mammals. I remember coming in early one morning to help my friend Mark remove the spleens from several hapless white rats.
Bronx Science had a computer, then a rarity in all but the largest businesses and almost unheard of in a school. It was a cranky card-munching monster that we regarded with a combination of veneration and lust. In retrospect, jockeying for time on a computer seems like a bizarre hobby for a group of normal teenagers. However, the students at Bronx Science were anything but normal. Eight alumni have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Two of the Nobel laureates in physics, Russell Hulse and Hugh David Politzer, were in my graduating class. I was in good company.
Access to the school's computer was strictly controlled. Only seniors were allowed near the hallowed IBM 1620 console. We juniors were forced to sit for hours in front of whirring calculators, doing endless numerical analysis calculations and writing down the answers. Our teachers hoped that this would help us appreciate the magical day when we finally got to put our little deck of carefully punched cards into the whirring IBM 1622 Card Reader/Punch. The computer would then do the calculations we had slaved over for the last term in mere minutes, or even seconds.
Driven to get my hands on a computer sooner, I discovered a special youth training program at New York University. If we were willing to give up our evenings and weekends, the folks there would teach us all the computer programming we could possibly absorb. We were even allowed to leave our card decks, secured with rubber bands, for the computer operators to run when they had nothing better to do.
The door of the building that housed NYU's computer had a sign that said “United States Atomic Energy Commission.” There was a curtain to shield the IBM 7094 from prying eyes when it did secret work. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in 1957, leading to fears that they would dominate the world from space. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis had us doing air raid drills in school. Clearly computers were going to play a role in saving America, and we were being trained to play a part in that drama.
Under the leadership of professors including Max Goldstein and Jacob T. (“Jack”) Schwartz, and coached by a kind-hearted and energetic NYU researcher named Henry Mullish, there were no limits to what we could accomplish. We created whole new computer languages, fixed bugs in existing ones, andÂ wrote emulators for computers that were still on the drawing boards. I wound up programming everything from the statistics for numerous PhD dissertations to particle physics calculations to some of the structural engineering data for the original World Trade Center. I earned my keep on that last project by catching a glitch that might have caused the two 110-story towers to collide in high wind conditions.
Back then, computers spat out their results in 132 column-wide format on oversized continuous sheets of paper. When I pulled out a printout while riding the Bx40 cross-town bus in the Bronx, I always got strange looks from the other passengers. I was proud that I had something special and almost magical in my hands. I now realize they probably thought I was a very creepy kid.
Years of being a computer programmer, a computer science Âprofessor, and a technology journalist have helped me realize that almost every new technology can be misused and often become deeply disturbing. In 1984, I had the great fortune to co-write and host a CBC IDEAS series called
Crimes of the Future
, in collaboration with Dr. Duncan Chappell, then head of the Criminology Department of Simon Fraser University; and Dave Redel, a very talented CBC Radio Producer.
Those programs marked the first time many people heard about identity theft, except perhaps in the context of someone going to a graveyard to copy the name and birth date of a deceased infant. We talked about crimes that have now become real, such as trafficking in human body parts, and others that are only now surfacing, like “wireheading”âthe direct stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. Back then, we had to use the work of science fiction writers like Larry Niven and Spider Robinson to introduce this intriguing practice. Today there are detailed, instructions for brain self-stimulation on the Internet.
For almost five decades now, I have been watching as everybody else gets on the tech bandwagon, sometimes adroitly, sometimes clumsily, and often without fully understanding the implications of what they are doing.
This work has taken me to conferences like DEF CON; Black Hat; Computers, Freedom, and Privacy; and led to unexpected adventures such as being allowed to scrub in on a liver transplant operation. I have had the privilege of talking to thousands of academics, visionaries, and technology creators, and come away with the strong sense that we need to raise the bar in our thinking about technocreepiness, and sooner rather than later.
Over half the people on that Bronx bus today would now be glued to their smartphones, connecting with friends, checking sports scores or enjoying celebrity gossip. Would any of them be thinking about the next chapter in technology, and how it is going to change their lives?
This is a book about the creepy pioneers of technology: what they are doing and why we need to know about it. In the pages that follow we will go on a journey into some of the disturbing ways our lives are unfolding, often behind the scenes and without our knowledge orÂ permission. Not all of these incursions are necessarily bad. The benefits of knowing you are prone to a certain disease, for example,
outweigh the risks of having genetic tests on your medical record. And what seems creepy today may be the accepted norm in the future.
Still, there is this nagging feeling that decisions we make today may come back to haunt us in the future, in ways that are hard to envision. Yet that is precisely what we should be doing.
Modern technology is not what it seems. Or rather it is much more than it seems. Digital wheels are turning in the background that most people do not even know exist. Increasingly, we are getting an uneasy feeling about this â¦ a sense that things are not quite what they seem.
So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us. They are parsing and analyzing it to squeeze out the deep meaning of what we say and do, sometimes before we are even aware of our own intentions.
Technocreep is quietly but relentlessly invading our daily lives: