Morality, technology and human nature

“(…) scientific and technical work routinely implicates politics. (…) Technological ideas and technological things are not politically neutral: routinely, they have strong, built-in tendencies.”

Isn’t it fascinating that even when we think we’ve escaped things like “politics”, “power struggles”, we haven’t really? The reason I liked science for so long, the reason I wanted to bury my face and head in it, was so I didn’t have to deal with the very imperfect human world that is shaped and pushed back and forth by human vice: pride, greed, envy to pure destructive desires. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, heck, these bad things are everywhere. Even in the idealist and vice-fighter myself!

Not only are these found in all humans, they can also permeate everything we do, be it science, technology or philosophy. That was a sad realization for me, really.

From my earliest days I had a passion for science. But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science. (Rotblat, Nobel Peace Prize speech)

As I conclude with this argument, I want to get back to the first quote of “strong, built-in tendencies”. It is theses tendencies we have, that we transmit to our inventions, our ideologies, our thoughts, our actions. Even our science and technology. It convinces me more and more. We have a great affect on the things we do as broken people.

It convinces me in a way, though this might be somewhat of a leap, of the nature of science and technological advances: a nature that is not objective, but highly subjective and with dubious intentions behind it.

Anyways, the main reason I started even talking about this is because of a paper I had to read. Funny story about my encounter with this paper: I saved it in my to-read list during IAP/winter holiday (it was sent out to my school’s CS lab mailing list). As life got busy I did not manage to read it. Then as I take two classes this semester, they both require me to read this paper. Of course, it was a win-win moment for me 😀

The paper I’m quoting is this fascinating one from Phillip Rogaway: The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.  You can find the link for it here.

More about the paper: It has some great advice on how as a cryptographer one should view his work. Less of being only interested in the technical work and more awareness in the ethics and effects your work has. Which is a great lessor for all of us.



Compassion, empathy, positive bias and the Pollyanna effect

I have been thinking about this lately. How do we go about living? It’s definitely nicer (I believe) to be pollyanesque and put a silver lining on everything. It makes you feel happier, and sure it might not be true all the time, but then you can focus on other things rather than be wallowed up in your misery. Right? It also helps you be more thankful, and being thankful is seriously very good for you. Then there is the other side of the coin, people that say putting the silver lining on things does not help, but diminishes one’s experience (be it your own or others’). People that view Pollyanas as being fake and suspicious, annoying even. It is better to be empathetic, not sympathetic they say. There seem to be tension between the two mindsets, yet one is exhausting and the other is, in the short run at least, fulfilling and helpful. What’s the point of being vulnerable and letting your own darkness come once again so you can relate with someone else’s? Aren’t you better off with a strong foot on the green grass as you’re trying to help someone that is in the dark pits? Is it not possible to show someone you care despite not sharing their feelings, or commiserating with them? Maybe this is biased, but in perspective, it’s been more helpful to be around people that I felt did not understand me at the moment, but that eventually shook me off the darkness I was in. Except for times when I was not ready to leave the darkness and then it felt somewhat violating to be pulled out of it… How do we live and be thankful and mindful of every small thing? Isn’t Pollyanna (positive bias) more like the way to go about life than the other approach? (maybe not Pollyanna but a sort of hybrid-Pollyanna is closer to the answer?)


  4. The video on empathy and sympathy: