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Spreading Concern
Volume 19, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2001

Spreading Concern -

Summer 1983 (Volume 1, Number 1)

by Severo Ornstein

During the first part of this century, technology was seen by most people as essentially beneficial to mankind. Although the destructive power of military tools grew during those years, it was primarily the military who were at risk as a result. The rest of us sat complacently at home, enjoying the advent of the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, etc. Then, approximately coincident with the development of the atomic bomb, there commenced a period of increasing disenchantment in which thoughtful people began to express concern that technology was getting out of control.

Within a brief thirty years we have reached the frightening point where a small number of powerful men now have the power to destroy hundreds of millions of lives more or less "at the push of a button". The problem is no longer one for future generations: it has arrived on our doorstep and there is no longer any place to which one can escape in safety.

It is unfortunate that until recently, we the public have made little effort to inform ourselves about nuclear problems and policies. The difficulties involved and the dimensions of the horror are so great that we feel impotent and therefore retreat to hoping that our leaders will somehow find a way to avoid killing us all. This plays directly into the hands of a government often confused over what to do and not wanting to have to deal with public participation in debate over policy. The issues, we are told, are too complex for the lay person. But that sort of rhetoric is dangerous and should be challenged. Although those in charge have no doubt been trying to do what they think best, they seem to have failed badly since it is clear that today we are in substantially great peril than ever before. The fundamental strategy whereby each side constantly tries to threaten the other with ever more and bigger weapons has long since revealed itself as not only ineffective but counter productive; for every bigger weapon one side produces, the other will produce a still bigger one.

It is almost certain that if a new approach is going to be forthcoming, it will have to be pressed upon a reluctant government through continued expressions of public concern. We have already seen some effect, but far more is needed if anything other than token actions are to occur. So the problem resolves itself to finding effective ways of getting people involved in the debate and of trying to guide debate into thoughtful and constructive channels.

Unfortunately simple concern isn’t enough. It is likely to be uninformed and naïve and so to have considerable potential for making matters worse rather than better. This is where our profession enters the picture. With modest effort at informing ourselves, we can help not only to arouse but also to inform others. We deal daily with complexity and our trade is one in which a premium is placed on novel approaches and careful strategy. The general public tends to view us as "wizards" of a sort, generally naïve about, or disinterested in, social problems. On the other hand, we have technical knowledge and skills that many people do not have, and that makes us a potential resource, and provides us the credibility we need to be heard. People will listen if we use the same care in formulating and voicing our concerns that we use in our day-to-day work. Those who are genuinely worried and take even a little trouble to educate themselves and to formulate their concern, will communicate that concern to others — even if it is to only a few.

We all have friends and associates and one of the most important things that we can do is to take it upon ourselves to express our concerns openly and compellingly to those around us — in groups of all sizes — starting simply with friends and neighbors. People will listen and share concerns that speak straight from the heart. Getting people to admit that there is a problem, that it threatens and worries them, and to discuss practical alternatives to the escalating arms race are vital fist steps. I believe very much in the "each one teach on" philosophy and that, to my mind, is what we must practice if we are going to survive.

Severo Ornstein

National Chairman - 1983


Severo Ornstein

September 2001

Around 400 BC, if you'll cast your mind back, Plato expressed his view concerning the responsibility of inventors. He did so by postulating a mythical figure, Theuth, the "inventor of letters" who tries to sell the idea of writing to King Thamus of Thebes. Theuth claims that writing will be a great boon to mankind, but Thamus replies that being the inventor of an art is different from evaluating its impact. He also gives voice to Plato's belief that writing is actually a bad idea: It will make people forgetful because they will rely on writing and hence will no longer be forced to remember things. Plato thus not only failed to foresee the overwhelming benefits of writing, but also lifted the mantle of responsibility from the shoulders of inventors for prejudging the impact of their inventions.

A little over two thousand years later, in 1980, I circulated an email message within Xerox-PARC expressing concern about the threat of nuclear war. I sent it with some trepidation because in those days computer scientists did not embroil themselves publicly in serious and controversial "political" matters, especially within their work environment. Not surprisingly a firestorm of controversy ensued that grew into a series of discussions from which CPSR ultimately emerged. In the process we agreed that as technical innovators, we did, after all, have a responsibility to assure that our inventions were used to benefit and not to harm society - thus setting ourselves at odds with Plato.

Many years have passed since that watershed, and although my own direct involvement with CPSR eventually waned, my concerns have deepened. I've become more convinced than ever that our species is ultimately on trial: Will our vaunted intelligence allow us to make the adjustments in our attitudes and behavior necessary for long-term survival, or will we prove to be merely a momentary and unsuccessful blip in the long process of species evolution? The evidence so far is not terribly encouraging.

CPSR arose under what seemed to be the imminent threat of nuclear war. To my mind, that threat - although it appears to have subsided - remains the ultimate catastrophe toward which we are all still inexorably lurching. Much evidence suggests that the United States is increasingly bent on world domination, and that this is the real reason underlying our government's determination to pursue so-called "missile defense." Our standard of living and our level of consumption, although equaled and even exceeded in a few other places on the planet, set us apart from the vast majority of mankind, and our political leaders understand that over time this imbalance is increasingly placing us at risk.

There are two ways to deal with this situation. One is to reduce the threat by gradually reducing the inequalities. The other is to adopt the reflex reaction, familiar since the Stone-Age - look for a bigger stick and prepare to defend your own. In attempting to take over the "high ground" in space, to put us in a position to annihilate anyone anywhere on earth, we are following the latter course and our most primitive instincts. Aside from moral issues, I myself do not believe that technological "superiority" can guarantee long term survival; sooner or later a suicide bomber, or some more modern equivalent, will render our "superiority" meaningless.

I believe that if we are to survive as a species, each of us is going to have to shoulder a larger share of responsibility for the tribe - as well as for the environment upon which it depends. And I continue to believe that those who have the capacity for invention in areas that affect society as a whole incur a special responsibility - the responsibility to attempt, in so far as possible, to assure that the uses to which their inventions are put are not malignant but benign.

Since the inception of CPSR, the Internet has dramatically raised public awareness of computers and computer scientists. This has enhanced the potential power of our professional voice. Given the increasing concentration of control of the traditional media in fewer and fewer hands, the continued use of the Internet for providing a democratic exchange of opinions and information is absolutely vital. CPSR's involvement in efforts to keep the Internet open and available to all seems critically important. More generally, the significance of CPSR's role in society seems vastly enlarged over what it was in the days of its humble origins. I am therefore extremely pleased that CPSR continues to attract people within the computer community who understand how important it is that society utilize their discoveries and inventions in a constructive manner. I sincerely hope and expect that if I'm still around in another twenty years I'll be able to look back with as much satisfaction as I do today. CPSR has an immense amount to be proud of.


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