The Dark Age

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, March 1, 2005

Just over a week ago the Kyoto Protocol---the treaty obligating developed countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions---went into effect. The United States and Australia were absent from the list of signatories, but I think one should not overinterpret their absence. The dispute is about means, not ends. All parties understand that technical civilization is harming the earth, and that aggressive changes in laws and practices will probably be required soon. This idea, particularly through its implication that we are the problem, is so powerful that it has morphed Kyoto into a metaphor. In subscribing to its principles we confess our sins: extravagance, selfishness, greediness, lassitude and so forth. Unfortunately, we also confess to a troubling modern version of original sin---that technical knowledge itself is bad because it empowers us to carry out evil deeds.

It seems astonishing that respect for nature would form an allegiance with fear of knowledge in modern times, particularly in light of the ample historical evidence that it hurts you in the long run, but this has nonetheless occurred. Last November I attended a remarkable international conference in Kyoto called the Science and Technology Forum. The theme of this conference was "Light and Shadows," an allusion to the double-edged nature of technological progress. Prime Minister Koizumi spoke at the conference, as did high-level representatives from various governments, powerful business leaders, philanthropists, scientists and so forth. However, their talks, while extremely serious, were much less important than the conversations taking place informally in quiet nooks of the conference hall---ironically, the place where the Kyoto Protocol was worked out: Should we ban cloning as a means of preventing abuse of human life? Should we ban bacterial research as a means of preventing the weaponization of disease? Should we ban free exchange of information on the internet as an anti-terror measure? Should we ban the writing of certain kinds of computer code to protect copyrights? Should we ban nuclear research to prevent proliferation? In each case the issue was not what kinds of behavior we should stop but what kinds of knowledge we should stop.

Unfortunately, these conversations were not just empty socializing---nor were they particularly unique to this conference. Instead they were symptomatic of the sad truth that our brave new "Information Age" is characteristically obsessed with preventing people from having information. We live, in this sense, not in a Renaissance but at the threshold of a Dark Age.

Koreans are fond of speaking of science and technology reverently, and almost never talk openly about the dark side. Deep down, however, they have the same misgivings as everyone else. How many young Koreans have a computer addiction? What fraction of Korean internet traffic is pornography? Where will Korea finally put its nuclear waste? When will Koreans begin cloning dead pets? It is clear that in Korea, as everywhere else, the truly important aspects of science and technology are not the exclusive purview of technical experts any more, for on the matters that count there are no experts.

I am a hopeless optimist, and routinely come down on the side of open access to knowledge. I believe most people have an excellent sense of right and wrong and can be trusted to use knowledge---even dangerous knowledge---wisely. I also think understanding is a fundamental human need, like eating and breathing, to which a person has a right.

But even my own liberal views are tempered with reality. For reasons having to do with my unusual career path, I am privy to nuclear weapons secrets. I can't talk about them, of course, but I can state that I don't favor publicizing them, even though I know for certain that there's an underground market for this information---one we understand to be accessible to terrorists. It is clear that some scientific knowledge is so dangerous it should not be widely known.

Thinking about the conundrum in nuclear terms clarifies things, even though recent biological threats, such as smallpox or the Marburg virus, are vastly scarier than atomic bombs. I routinely ask my smartest students to estimate, given what they know, the probability that a major city will not be annihilated by a terrorist nuclear weapon in the next 100 years. After a day or so, they always answer: zero.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]