It was a scenario that would give even the most ardent supporter of technology pause, especially since the scenario was being offered by one of America's leading technological wizards to a group that included many of America's most important digerati.
"The reality of these new technologies is that it's like giving everyone unlimited power - power that could lead to our extinction as a species," said Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and author of a controversial and much-read Wired Magazine article (www.wired.com/ wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html), "Why the future won't need us."
"It will be like giving everyone on a plane a button that could crash it at any time. Now, how many people would be willing to get on this plane if they knew that anyone could crash it. Yet that is the situation that we face in the future."
Mr. Joy's view was just one of many aired this past weekend in a small opera house in Camden, Maine, at a conference called "Pop! Tech 2000: Being Human in the Digital Age" (www.camcon.org).
Organized by the Camden Technology Conference, it attracted 500 of the country's leading technological thinkers, and focused on how current digital technology and information will affect humanity.
After three-days of rigorous but friendly debate, the participants seemed to fall into two groups: those who believe this technological revolution is "the most important thing that has ever happened to humanity" and will lead to inevitable and profound changes that we must learn to adapt to; and those who believe that view is scientific fatalism, and we need to make hard choices now about these technologies and how - or even if - we should use them.
It was between these two viewpoints that topics like robotics, privacy, security, genetics, ethics and spirituality, and the arts were discussed.
One of the most interesting exchanges illustrating this split occurred on the panel about "Privacy/Big Brotherism/Censorship."
The group featured Ira Glasser, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, Gov. Angus King of Maine, and Whit Diffie, distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems, best known for his 1975 discovery of the concept of public key cryptography (the art of protecting information by encrypting it into an unreadable format. "Public key" is a way to decode it, which uses two keys, a public key known to everyone and a private key that only the recipient of messages uses).
Mr. Diffie defined privacy as "having control of the power to control the spread and propagation of information about yourself." The real problem with privacy on the Internet, he said, was not that we have no privacy, but that we have no power to stop this spread of information.
"If you're going to have autonomous individuals, you're going to have to build a structure to protect those individuals," Diffie said. Some of these protections might include regulating the way that companies share information gathered on the Net about individuals.
Everywhere and nowhere
But Governor King strongly disagreed, saying that regulating technology is "impossible."
An outspoken opponent of Internet taxation, King argued that you "can't make a law against the Internet because it's everywhere and it's nowhere. In fact, I'm not sure how many discussions we can really have about this because the technology makes it irrelevant."
Diffie responded by pointing out that we give corporations "lots of copyright protections" to control their information, but we don't give any control to individuals over their own information.
The theme of control over information was also raised by James Adams, head of iDefense, a leading online security firm. "Everything that we have seen in the terrestrial world - vandalism, terrorism, warfare, etc. - is being replicated in the virtual space," Mr. Adams told the audience.
In fact, he says, the United States is engaged in a form of warfare at this moment with other nations, groups, and individuals that are constantly trying to hack into or disrupt key services in the US.
"Thirty nations are known to have information warfare programs under development," Adams said. He added that his company would not buy any software or hardware manufactured in India, Israel, France, Russia, or China, because of the potential security risks.
Adams wants the US to prepare for possible cyberattack, because in the future, one individual using only a laptop computer and programs freely available on the Web could cause as much damage as an entire army in the past.
It was this notion of the effect of unlimited technological power in the hands of every individual that Joy came back to again and again during his speech on human and electronic spirituality.
"If open access to information puts us in danger of extinction, perhaps we need to rethink some of our positions," he said. "We need to know and measure the consequences of truth-seeking. We want the benefits of technology, but we need to use our common institutions to reduce the risk of destruction."
One possible step, Joy suggested, would be to ask scientists to take a type of Hippocratic oath where they would swear not to work on any project that would harm humanity.
Joy ended his remarks by pointing out that the current rate of technological evolution is coming into conflict with our view of the last 250 years that the individual should be able to do what ever he or she wants.
"Our world view has been greatly influenced by Darwinism. We talk about processes but seldom about outcomes. But these new revolutions mean we need to care about outcomes. I see a collision between our world view, with this Darwinistic approach, and the power of our technology. Only, I don't believe we should be fatalistic. I believe we can affect the outcome."
In the midst of these opposing views, common ground solutions were explored. "Although technology is morally neutral, the human beings involved with the technology must make moral decisions," said Rush Kidder, president of the Global Institute for Ethics, in Camden.
Mr. Kidder pointed to the creation of the human genome project, where a portion of the funding and profit from the project has been set aside to look at the ethical issues. "We need to create practical frameworks to include ethics in the building of all these new technologies," he said.
While most of the conference was spent discussing broad issues, there were a few comments made about one piece of software that has dominated headlines - Napster, the software that allows users to own, via the Web, copyrighted music for free.
John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, songwriter for The Grateful Dead, and Wyoming cattle-rancher, is a Napster advocate. "There shouldn't be property in cyberspace," he said. "I think that future generations will recognize that."
The next evening, however, that view was challenged by Thomas Dolby Robertson (best known for his '80s hit song, "She Blinded Me With Science"). In his presentation on creativity in the digital age, Mr. Robertson told the story of California musician David Elias, who has seen his music reach new audiences because of the Internet.
He then added, however, that Elias had chosen to promote his music this way, and that this choice was the key element. "I have the right to choose to give my music away, via something like Napster, or I have the right to sell it."
Then, in a direct reference to Barlow, Robertson said that this right to sell the product of one's artistic efforts was "as old as the cattle hills of Wyoming."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society