Stop everything … it’’s Techno-Horror!

From Silicon Valley via Aspen, Bill Joy wants to call the police. On science. On technology. On the industry that made him rich. The Left is OverJoyed. Published in The American Spectator
“They say he’s here.”
“Who’s here?”
“Bill, stupid.”
“Bill’s not stupid!”
“Hey, there he is. Amazing.”
“What do you mean? Where?”
“Over there. By the phones.”
“Wow. They say he flew coach.”
“Nah, he rode in on a donkey.”
“But they say Reno and the feds will string him up. Klein claims he’s a monotheist.”
"Monopolist, you idiot."
"Anyway, forget Reno and Gates, think Joy."
"Joy is coded for bear.”

For the last twenty years, whispering among the roseate wine glasses and murmuring amid the moist hors d’oeuvres at particularly palmy gatherings of the computer industry — mostly in palatial oases in the Southwest, sustained by sylvan waters from Colorado and silicon wafers from Taiwan — has soughed a high-voltage buzz of expectation. Would “he” really come?

In the past, “he” could mean only Bill Gates. But stultified by the PR and legal departments of Microsoft, Gates no longer says anything interesting, even in his emails where he was once a pithy master of all too litigenic prose. For the last few years, the name most avidly anticipated at industry conclaves has been a man most readily summed up as the anti-Gates. His name is Joy, William F., reared in rural Michigan, catechized in Berkeley computer science, ascendant in Silicon Valley, and now orbited in Aspen as an industry saint and global positioning satellite.

A radiant figure in many ways outshining any other in the industry, Joy should be an arresting experience for the media. With gilded curls, cerulean eyes, soulful lips, elegant carriage, high above the herd, he could readily pass for any me-minded Hollywood coif, easily qualify for billboard displays of fashionable jeans or pheromones. At the same time, his serious intellectual attainments far exceed those on the short lists of recently newsworthy brains such as Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, David Boies, or Warren Buffett. Yet PeopleVanity Fair, the New Yorker, and other keepers of the celebrity canon have almost entirely missed him. That is about to change.

The story of the Internet age is epitomized far less by any of the usual stars or dot.cons than by Bill Joy, the ripely rich co-founder of Sun Microsystems, now a $16 billion a year company that makes half of all Internet server computers. He was an architect of key Internet technologies, such as the Berkeley Unix operating system, its TCP-IP protocol stack, and the Java programming language. A curmudgeonly debating foil of Gates in the late 1980s, Joy was the most confident prophet and protagonist of the new software regime that in the form of Internet browsers and Java applets broke through desktop Windows in the mid-1990s.

Most remarkable for a man long immersed in the intricate arcana of computer software, Joy is a voluble and polymathic intellectual. Joy has a law — ”Most of the smartest people are never in your own company” — that inclines firms to create systems open to the smart contributions of people outside the corporate firewalls. But like logicians meeting the Cretan who declares all Cretans liars, few observers are inclined to take Joy’s Law seriously at Sun Microsystems, where everyone knows that Joy is the world’s most ingenious engineer, most incandescent talker, and architect of some of the most significant technologies of the Internet. Just perhaps, if you have Bill in your company, it is the other guys who have to worry about Joy’s Law.

Remarkably enough, Joy hangs out in Aspen, Colorado, 1,500 miles from the nearest major Sun facility. By some reports he scarcely works for Sun at all and sold most of his shares in the company during an unbecoming snit a decade ago. He moved much of his money into Microsoft. This might have seemed smart early in the 1990s, but Sun shares have appreciated roughly three times faster than Microsoft’s since the emergence of Joy’s own Internet technologies in 1995. So Joy escaped the multibillionaire status of his Sun cofounders such as Scott McNealy and Vinod Khosla. Still, by all normal standards, Joy is rich, and his insights have been fully vindicated by the emergence of the Web. Happily married with two engaging children, he has every reason to be deeply satisfied with his life. And yet between the glitter and the gloaming lies a shadow of Aspen Angst. 

On the wall of Joy’s office (he dubs it Aspen Smallworks) is a poster identifying him as a founder of Sun. He is apparently proud of his role in the technology boom. Yet I am in Aspen this afternoon because of a strange and in some ways inspiring event. Joy’s anxieties have blossomed into a mid-life metamorphosis. 

Like Albert Einstein before him gazing into the Stygian inferno of nuclear portent, Joy has contemplated a vision of harrowing peril for the human race. Like Einstein he longs to turn back the clock to more innocent Edenic days. But Joy’s fear focuses not chiefly on the nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC) that terrified previous generations. For all their danger, these technologies are accessible only to elites commanding costly and complex industrial powers and rare and unstable materials. Today the threat is far more insidious, elusive, and ominous. Through genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR), psychotic individuals, or merely negligent entrepreneurs, may have the power to devastate the globe with self-replicating plagues and “phages” that can devour the biosphere and end human life.

Joy published his alarm in the April 2000 issue of Wired as an eloquent and stirring ten-thousand word personal testament that evoked more mail and comment than any previous article in the magazine (or in any other magazine in recent memory). The article began by ascribing his new vision to a meeting with computer inventor and prophet Ray Kurzweil at the Telecosm conference that Gilder Publishing runs with Forbes at Lake Tahoe every September. About to publish a book entitled The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil had argued that computers exceeding human intelligence were no more than a few decades away. With the advent of such machines, he argued, human beings would be faced with the stark choice of either being out-competed and driven to extinction by their own creations, or merging with them to produce the next evolutionary phase, a race of sentient robots. 

Kurzweil is one of the great intellects of the industry, a pioneer of computer voice recognition and vision. Coming from Kurzweil, what had previously seemed science fiction now appeared to Joy as “a near-time possibility,” and evoked an epiphany.

Contemplating Hans Moravec’s observation that “biological species rarely survive encounters with superior competitors,” Joy began re-examining his life. He plunged into anguished rumination on his own role in this possible usurpation of his species by devices that he had done so much to advance. In almost three decades of being one of the world’s leading designers of software and microprocessors Joy had never had “the feeling I was designing an intelligent machine.” But now he felt obliged to consider that he might be “working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species.” He was transfixed by the grim assessment of George Dyson in Darwin Among the Machines: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” 

Kurzweil’s argument, and now Joy’s, drastically compressed and simplified, is that Moore’s Law, which for almost 40 years has predicted the doubling of computer power roughly every 18 months, is not going to expire later this decade as traditional chip manufacturing techniques hit the quantum barrier of near-atomic line-widths. Instead, Joy now believes that “because of the recent rapid and radical progress in molecular electronics — where individual atoms and molecules replace lithographically drawn transistors — and related nanoscale technologies, we should be able to meet or exceed the Moore’s Law rate of progress for another thirty years.” The result would be machines a million times as fast and capacious as today’s personal computers and thereby “sufficient to implement the dreams of Kurzweil and Moravec,” intelligent robots by 2030. And “once an intelligent robot exists it is only a small step to a robot species — to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of itself.”

Joy’s nightmares do not stop with sentient machines. Intimately related are the very “nanotechnologies” that may enable the extension of Moore’s Law and genetic engineering. Central to this GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics) trinity of techno-terror are two characteristics that could hardly be better calculated to inspire fear. The first is what Joy calls the “dematerialization” of the industrial power. In the past, you needed rare resources, large nuclear plants, and huge laboratories to launch a new holocaust. In the future you will need only a computer and a few widely available materials. 

The even more terrifying common thread is “self-replication.” As enormous computing power is combined with “the manipulative advances of the physical sciences” and the revealed mysteries of genetics, “The replicating and evolving processes that have been confined to the natural world are about to become realms of human endeavor.” New germs are self-replicating by definition. So too, Joy’s “robot species.” And then there is the gray goo.

Joy’s journey from his Silicon Valley throne to his current siege of Aspen Angst began in earnest when he encountered Eric Drexler’s bipolar vision of nanotechnology, with its manic-depressive alternative futures of utopia and dystopia. Nanotechnology envisages the ultimate creation of new machines and materials, proton by proton, electron by electron, atom by atom. Joy enthuses about molecular level “assemblers” that “could make possible incredibly low cost solar power, cures for cancer and the common cold…essentially complete cleanup of the environment…. Spaceflight more accessible than transoceanic travel today, and restoration of extinct species.”

The nightmare is that combined with genetic materials and thereby self-replicating, these nanobots would be able to multiply themselves into a “gray goo” that could outperform photosynthesis and usurp the entire biosphere, including all edible plants and animals. As Drexler writes:

“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop…. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies…. [R]eplicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable. [This] grey goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.

Contemplating this horrific prospect, Joy notes “it is most of all the destructive self-replication of…[GNR] that should give us pause. It may even be that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder or even impossible to control.”

As terrifying as all this is, Joy’s nightmare has one more twist, which makes the threat all the more real to him, and now makes Joy himself fascinating to a number of people who previously showed no interest in spending their evenings with one more centimillionaire computer nerd: “The nuclear, biological and chemical technologies used in 20th century weapons of mass destruction were…developed in government laboratories,” Joy notes. But GNR technologies have “clear commercial uses.” They are being developed by “corporate enterprises” which will render them “phenomenally” profitable. 

“In this age of triumphant commercialism…we are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures.” Quoting Green guru Amory Lovins, who has become a close advisor, Joy laments that commercialization of GNR “changes the goal of evolution from evolutionary success to economic profit — to survival not of the fittest but of the fattest.” 

Joy, whose decades of unfettered research and entrepreneurship have made him what he is today, has fingered the real culprits: capitalism and freedom. Fortunately he has the answer, which he delicately phrases as “relinquishment” of key GNR technologies. 

Relinquishment — for the hard of hearing — means what it seems to mean: to give up; forgo; abandon not only the use of such technologies but even the basic research that might enable them “to limit the development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain types of knowledge.” 

“Relinquishment” has a voluntary air. Joy offers a certain amount of mummery about “a new Hippocratic oath” placing merely self-imposed ethical limits on research. But he is not so gullible as to believe evil can be combated with pleasantries. Joy’s program of comprehensive government intervention goes beyond the negligent or criminal use of technology to embrace an avowedly massive regime of surveillance and regulation of businesses that have, might have, or might someday develop GNR capabilities. 

As Joy points out, punishing techno-crimes after the fact is not sufficient when the stakes are global destruction. The state must become concerned before the event occurs.

Because GNR technologies, in some form, will engage most leading-edge commercial enterprises, such prior restraint would entail government powers unprecedented in the U.S. Joy is undaunted: “Verifying relinquishment will be a difficult problem, but not an unsolvable one.” The major task, he explains, will be to learn how to apply the techniques for verifying arms treaties (i.e., massive intelligence, inspection, and policing efforts) “to technologies that are naturally more commercial than military. The substantial need here is for transparency, as difficulty of verification is directly proportional to the difficulty of distinguishing relinquished from legitimate activities.” 

Just so, since Joy’s fear arises in the first place from the belief that anyone — or any business — with access to a computer and a few “commonplace materials” can become a source of GNR terror. Assuming any citizen or company could be doing GNR in the basement implies “a verification regime…on an unprecedented scale. This, inevitably, will raise tensions between our individual privacy and desire for proprietary information and the need for verification to protect us all. We will undoubtedly encounter strong resistance….”

Returning home after the interview, I inadvertently press the erase button on my new Sony recorder, an elegant little shell-shaped device that uses silicon “flash memory” rather than tape. The interview indeed vanished in a “flash.” This awesome technology proceeds to erase hours of work trillions of times faster than it could have been removed from a normal tape cassette. Was this a symbol of the devastating power of new technologies? Joy seems to believe that some delusional maniac or evil enemy could press the erase button on his computer — perhaps even by mistake — and delete the American biosphere.

The spectacle of one of the world’s leading techno-entrepreneurs offering himself as the prime witness for the prosecution against his own class is transforming Joy into a celebrity intellectual and political force. He was chairman of President Clinton’s Science Advisory Committee and a friend and advisor of Al Gore, whom with his friend leading venture capitalist John Doerr, he endorsed for president during the campaign. He is being noticed outside the industry. The New Yorker should arrive soon. 

Glomming on to Joy’s tract as if hugging a redwood is the collective green goo of the gonzo reaches of environmental movement. The Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council — nearly the entire technophobic Green machine is poring through this document as a white paper flag of capitulation from the midst of the enemy camp. It has been mass distributed at tony wasp prep schools and earnest ivied campuses. It has been solemnly contemplated on both coasts of the media from Charlie Rose to CNN. Its author is coming to a screen near you.

Counseling the new Joy is Amory Lovins, the conservationist, whom Joy first got to know well at an Esalen workshop. Included in the Wired article was a Lovins sidebar issuing a grim warning on the dangers of bioengineered foods. Opposition to these foods is almost totally devoid of empirical scientific grounding; some 60 percent of the packaged food in America is bioengineered in one way or another. In order to feed the planet it will be necessary to exploit this technology aggressively. But Joy seems convinced. Biofoods will have to submit to what is termed the “cautionary principle,” where small risks of huge catastrophes dictate relinquishment of “reckless schemes.” 

Lovins is the reigning Tiger Woods of political correctness. A heterosexual white male, he somehow made it through the intensely competitive opening rounds of the PC tournament (a putative elimination event run by the New York Times) by joining a gaggle of Native American potters and mud sculptors, lesbian “breath” poets and performance artists, and other planetary dismal scientists as a MacArthur Genius (a feat as amazing as Brent Barry winning the NBA dunking contest in 1996). Lovins then showed his real PC mettle by taking the Heinz, Lindbergh, World Technology, and Heroes for the Planet awards, before capping it off with the Mitchell, Nissan, Onassis, and Alternative Nobel prizes. Only the wrong Pope kept him from beatification. 

Under the influence of such alliances, Joy’s concerns careen off to embrace the entire litany of environmental catastrophism, from global warming to Faustian biofoods, that animates the anti-capitalist media. But though his new allies may not yet realize it, Joy is leading them, resetting their agendas. For wittingly or not, Joy has unveiled what will be the 21st century’s leading rationale for anti-capitalist repression and the revival of statism, a tonic for beleaguered socialists, a program and raison d’etre for a new New Left. 

Like the industrial age socialist left, the Techno-Left targets a bourgeoisie of hackers and technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs, glorying in anarchic freedom, driven by the lust for profit, and threatening to destroy mankind. To thwart the self-indulgence of this techno aristocracy — successors of Marx’s commercial and industrial aristocracy — there must be a new dictatorship of a new proletariat, with the power to bind the entrepreneur hackers to the service of the common good.

Even as 19th-century socialists flirted with liberty, Joy wistfully avers his fondness for libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick and his concept of a limited state. But at crunch time Nozick, and liberty, are dismissed as indulgences. The real reason the Green left has adopted Joy with such enthusiasm is that Techno-Horror is about to become the trump card in a bid for power as dramatic and far reaching as the socialist claims on the wealth of the industrial revolution. 

If envy drove the socialist argument, the drive for power of the new Techno-Left is fueled by fear. As George Bush noted in accepting the GOP nomination last summer, the politics of the 21st century will be largely a struggle of fear vs. hope, cowering vs. creativity. 

The great insight of the Green left has been that in an era of almost universal prosperity — except in socialist countries — neither envy of the rich nor compassion for the poor would sustain the leftist cause. The Greens opted instead for fear induced by the phantasms of phony science. But the Greens by themselves are doomed to be a mere transitional movement between the industrial age socialist left and the 21st century Techno-Left.  

Green fears, on the whole, are too easily resolved. Real pollution, from smog to strip mines, can be and largely has been swiftly dealt with at surprisingly modest costs. Facing overwhelming evidence that technological progress and economic growth are favorable to the environment, the Greens have enlisted trial lawyers in the cause who have helped generate more junk science and phony fear than the Soviet Academy under Stalin. But the effort wears thin. The California energy crisis will make all too many people realize that “efficiency” and “alternative energy systems” translate as “turn off the lights.” Environmental good news could be as devastating to the Greens as growth was to the socialists. With the U.S. environment so manifestly cleaner and more robust today, Greens have had to put ever more far-fetched threats on stage to get a reaction. 

Especially apt for the politics of fear are threats deemed sudden in their onset, irreversible in their impact, and unverifiable in advance. Typical are exponential processes which, as eco-catastrophists often point out, are nearly undetectable until they virtually take over. Think of lily pads, doubling every week. Just a month before they take over the pond, they still cover only a cosmetic one-sixteenth of its surface. From this point of view, global warming is a perfect kind of threat, particularly in the form proposed by Joy, where it might be masked for years by the onset of a new ice age also precipitated by a global carbon-dioxide buildup. “It’s non-linear; it could tip either way.” Computer climate models trump all physical evidence that temperatures were two degrees higher a thousand years ago during the so-called Medieval Climate Optimum, and are now merely recovering from the throes of the little ice age of mid-millennium.

Yet even better than global warming is the Joy-Drexler-Lovins, GNR trinity of Techno-Horror. It will propel the Techno-Left into the vanguard, allowing it to absorb the Greens and become the main adversary of freedom and faith in this century.

Pervasive among both the proselytizers of GNR’s promise and its prophets of doom is a mindset now morphing into a nascent philosophy, a loose weave of assumptions and ideas that claim the authority of science without its rigor or depth. Call it the Virtual Philosophy or Virtualosophy. 

A combination of software regimes, chaos and complexity theories, evolutionary algorithms, self-organizing systems, nanotechnology visions, ecological idioms, and information theory, the Virtual Philosophy is seriously taught or even understood in no major university. Perhaps its leading source is an intellectual Esalen called the Santa Fe Institute, where Stuart Kauffman has recently expounded it in depth in a book called Investigations. Yet it powerfully shapes the conventional wisdom and ersatz worship of the emerging intelligentsia of the Web and hence of the ascendant new American culture. Al Gore has espoused many of these themes from time to time and invoked them in his book Earth in the Balance and in an interview in Wired. 

The Virtualosophy is driven by a curiously powerful and seductive faith. In their manic phase, Virtualosophers believe that the cyber world is capable of practically and predictively replicating the essential processes of the physical world, including creation and evolution. But this is a bipolar sect, and it also has a depressive phase in which its proponents are appalled at what they have persuaded themselves is their all-but infinite power over the world. Then they wake up screaming.

In ancient Greece, Idealist philosophers taught that the world of the senses was an illusion and that the highest realities were mathematical. Strange as this notion seems, the Idealists were not fools or charlatans. Pythagoras and Euclid, Zeno and Parmenides were on a natural high, enraptured by the discovery that so much of reality could indeed be described according to recurring mathematical rules. In a famous essay of the 1960s entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Eugene Wigner of Princeton expounds the same astonishment.

In a materialist era, the notion that a logical or mathematical idea of the world is more real than its physical manifestation seems so odd that most people who slip into idealism seem unaware of it. These same scientists often imagine themselves to be materialists. But idealism is pervasive in modern science. The Artificial Intelligence paradigm that set out to build a computer brain, not by modeling the brain but by presuming the brain must be a computer in a different medium, was at root an idealist notion. So is the complete takeover of theoretical physics by mathematics, a takeover that led quantum theory for decades into a surreal cul-de-sac occupied by multiple parallel universes. This pursuit rendered most theoretical physics incoherent and essentially useless for describing reality. 

Similarly, nanotechnology in Drexler’s sense is more science fiction, or cyber-fiction, than science. Nanobots abound in nanotech computer models. As in the venerable and still expanding computer game of “Life” — now reborn in sophisticated form as Tom Ray’s ingenious “Tierra” — evolution seems routine. Based on a few simple rules, computer enthusiasts create two dimensional cyber creatures that seem to evolve robustly. Nanotech computer models similarly make the construction of nanobots look feasible if not easy. But there are, to date, no nanobots. Indeed, the curious fact about nanotechnologists is that they are relatively uninterested in real technologies, such as microchips and micro-electronic machines (MEMS) that actually work. Instead they prefer the science fiction of a godlike assemblage of a new creation, with new elements and energy synthesizers. 

When you are a computer nerd, the world looks like a computer. At the heart of the Virtualosophy is a vision of evolution that only a computer scientist could believe. In a computer model evolution looks easy, and fast. In the canonical texts of the Virtualosophers, evolution is a universal solvent in the tides of life, proceeding raptorially, altruistically, collaboratively, individually, incrementally, saltantly, emergently, symbiotically, with collective effects that transcend intention or sum of parts. Not only living biotic entities, but cultural forms, languages, memes, models, algorithms, ideas, software, philosophy are swept into the evolutionary swell with bacteria, bears, and humans. 

Central to the belief that computer models may be better at evolution than the natural world are so-called cellular automata, conceived by John Von Neumann, that simulate evolution and neural networks, and software programs that prove their fitness by surviving a contest among “genetic algorithms” in a computer matrix. Effective for some specialized purposes (sorting algorithms, for example), genetic algorithms, cellular automata, and other self-organizing computer programs have spurred belief in a much swifter and surer form of evolution than is possible through a process of chance mutations. 

Over several decades, for example, the mathematician Stephen Wolfram, a father of chaos theory and titan of Virtualosophs, has worked out a set of simple rules which, set loose in a computer model, will replicate, he believes, all the basic patterns from which the physical world is constructed: Creation as computer game. To Wolfram, evolution is so easy it does not even require natural selection; any form of life that is physically possible will emerge. His great breakthrough in model building was to depart from two-dimensional computer models like “Life” and proceed, not to three dimensions as one might expect if the goal is to model the physical world, but back to one, because it made the models more coherent.

None of the stunning technological achievements of the computer age, however, have been the result of a retreat from the physical world. Though we may have overthrown matter in the economy, we did so by unlocking its mysteries in a process deeply empirical and profoundly physical. Moore’s Law prevails only because the silicon from which microchips are made is now the most profoundly studied manufacturing material in the history of the world, and most of what we know was gleaned from actual manufacturing experience.

Both the dreams and nightmares of nanotechnology — from cancer cures to gray goo — spring from the computer science vision of evolution-lite. Generating superior forms of pseudo life in hours not eons, cyber-Darwinian magic can overcome all the shortcomings of human designers. The nanobots will not be designed, they will evolve, in effect designing themselves through interactions based on a few simple rules. 

But this siren lure of bottom-up evolution contradicts all the experience of computer design. Looking for examples of mindless evolution, one would not readily adduce a computer, designed by industry demigods John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, and Bill Joy, executing programs authored by Tom Ray or Per Bak. A computer is one of the world’s most manifestly designed and intelligently architected instruments. Comprising many hundreds of layers of elaborately deposited and etched materials in amounts and patterns of exquisite precision, the microchip is necessarily a top-down design. The ideas that guide its architects are its essence. This is precisely the opposite of the evolutionary notion that well-ordered, functioning organisms arise spontaneously as a function of interactions of the underlying material substrates.

In the real world, Darwinian evolution is made plausible by the interaction of nearly infinite possibilities over nearly infinite time, entailing physical, chemical, and biological processes still little understood and vastly more challenging than anything in a nanotechie’s computer model. As Stuart Kauffman himself concedes in his book, “The strange thing about evolution is that everyone thinks he understands it. But we do not. A biosphere or econosphere, self-consistently co-constructs itself according to principles that we do not yet fathom.” Yet the nanotechies not only propose to match evolution, but actually fear exceeding it by accident and destroying the world. Nanotechnology wants to have it both ways. Joy and Drexler imagine that, through deep understanding of the underlying rules of natural selection, we can hasten evolution. Then when this strategy fails, as it does, they fall back on an almost mystical belief that understanding how evolution works is irrelevant because the models can evolve without our intervention. 

The fear of a scientific concoction that escapes the laboratory, perhaps through a porous computer screen, emerged in literature in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which evoked the pandemic menace of Ice-9. Contrived for the Pentagon by chemist Felix Hoenikker in order to save Marines from the indignity of marching in mud, Ice-9 stiffened at room temperature. Its molecules had somehow found a way to link up in a crystalline solid at temperatures where other water molecules were in liquid phase. Loosed from the lab, Ice-9 would spread rampantly until all rivers, lakes, oceans, and ultimately biological creatures froze up.

No real scientist, mad or malevolent, ever made any real Ice-9. But the concept of a new element that outperforms the real chemicals of the biosphere and chokes off all life has intoxicated scientists and pseudo-scientists for decades. In the late 1960s, a Soviet physicist named Yuri Deriabin wrote an article describing his success in creating a new form of polymerized water — polywater — that could suffocate the biosphere under a gray goo if it escaped from the lab. The canonical Science magazine published the alarm as a cover story and discussed it solemnly in several issues. Meanwhile at Caltech, a student of the eminent Carver Mead followed directions and created some of this doomsday gel. A few pertinent tests revealed that the strange element was merely a mixture of H2O with silica dissolved from the surface of the delicate quartz capillaries in which the substance was condensed. 

Last summer at Brookhaven National Labs, a similar panicky pother, also respectfully vented in Science, erupted over another projection of faulty physics. In this case the fear was that the bombardment of gold nuclei in an ultrarelativistic two-way, two-mile-long subterranean tunnel would create matter of a mass and density tantamount to a black hole that could suck up the planet in a nano-nonce. In due course, the alarmists were subdued, the experiment proceeded, and the universe yawned, having experienced innumerable events far more cataclysmic during its billions of happy years smashing things together.

Ice-9, polywater, black holes, gray goos, nano-replicants, pico piranha, and many concoctions to come all seem catastrophic in callow computer models. Although the schemes claim to be “genetic” or “evolutionary,” they fall short by many billion years of the pullulating astronomical ebullition and churn of real physical evolution. After eons of cosmic tempest and bombardment and tatonnement, the universe has seen and done it all: everything that chemistry and physics can offer. As Kaufmann argues, physical phenomena are not deterministic. Even well above the quantum level, the degrees of freedom in the universe are infinite, and it is impossible to shield our creations from the eternal bustle and commotion of numberless forces and energies. As a result, the ecosystem is neither fragile nor stable. It is both more robust and less predictable than the Virtualosophy can grasp in its preoccupation with our puny mathematical black holes and gray goos. If water molecules possessed a lower energy polymer form readily accessible to graduate students and a black hole could be concocted in galacticly feckless supercolliders, we would certainly not be here to tell the story.

The Virtualosophers babble about “complexity” and “chaos” and purport to believe in material evolution, but they in fact believe in virtual evolution. They show scarcely an inkling of the cosmic multidimensional dynamics of mazes on exponential mazes, beyond all ken of conventional time and space, that they pretend to master with their “simple rules,” state machines, and cellular automata.

Nanotech offers no rationale for surrendering the principles of a free society and burking scientific inquiry for fear of its yield. But the answer to Joy’s fears, and his totalitarian temptation, is not to deny their possibility. It is impossible to prove a negative and some of his fears, like the possibility of a genetically manufactured runaway plague, are not only plausible but present dangers.

Apparently eradicated by a global effort thirty years ago, smallpox is still extant as a result of a Soviet bioweapons campaign. In the face of the usual treaties, the Soviets produced reputed tons of the substance while the world was largely disposing of its vaccines. Richard Preston of the New Yorker last year wrote a harrowing and prizewinning article on the subject. In charge of the effort to defend us from such plagues for much of the last decade — it may not reassure you to learn — has been Donna Shalala of the Department of Health and Human Services in Joy’s favorite administration, which has kept its eye instead on the greater threat of sexism. Joy could perform a vital role in attacking the world’s curious insouciance toward the continuing bio-war preparation of Saddam Hussein. But instead of fostering a resolute response, targeted on real threats, he disperses his fear indiscriminately among the politically correct targets and thus spreads panic and confusion.

The ultimate answer is that if Joy’s policies prevail, his fears will reliably come true. 

In Joy’s mind government abuses of GNR are not the main threat. After all, as the Cold War itself showed — though Joy nowhere concedes the point — deterrence is a robust defense. Joy’s concern, the democratization of terror, is with terrorists, psychopaths, or more or less innocent accidents by perhaps negligent entrepreneurs. 

But in the event of such an unplanned bio-catastrophe, we would be far better off with a powerful and multifarious biotech industry with long and diverse experience in handling such perils, constraining them, and inventing remedies than if we had “relinquished” these technologies to a small elite of government scientists, their work closely classified and shrouded in secrecy.

Contemplating a similar scenario, nuclear physicist Edward Teller famously compared the contributions to U.S. security of the nuclear industry, long draped in nearly impenetrable secrecy, and the computer industry, open to the world. The computer industry has advanced literally thousands of times faster than the nuclear industry and the security of the U.S. is increasingly based on it. Desert Storm was devoid of nuclear technology but replete with computer advances. Joy would shroud advanced computers in the kind of secrecy currently afflicting nuclear weapons, or perhaps even forbid further research altogether, since every step forward would bring us closer to the sentient machine.

Socialism and secrecy do not outperform freedom, even in the military realm, even in otherwise capitalist countries. The Manhattan Project was a brilliant exception, but it succeeded chiefly because of wartime suspension of the normal immigration and security rules (without immigrants from Europe, many of them Communists or Communist sympathizers, the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and intercontinental missiles could not have been created in the U.S.). The key to the success of the project was Robert Oppenheimer’s rejection of the advice of General Leslie Groves that the venture proceed in uncommunicating modules with no one knowing what others were doing. 

The secret and essentially socialized U.S. nuclear and missile industries bogged down in bureaucracy and could not even keep pace with the Soviet Union. In the 1950s the Soviets launched Sputnik, a world-leading submarine fleet, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, while the U.S. fell pathetically behind. It was chiefly the free and open computer industry that allowed MIRVing and miniaturization of warheads for lower power rockets. It was the free and open electronics industry that gave ultimate superiority to the U.S. and enabled victory in the Cold War. The pullulating rivalry of technological enterprise, inimitable by any totalitarian state no matter how many secrets it steals, is the best guarantor of American security and safety in the face of the unique perils of the new century.

The answer to Joy’s dilemma comes in Joy’s Law. We will best meet the coming menace of demonic technology by opening it up to contributions from smart people everywhere rather than by relegating it to a small elite of government experts. We will be safest when as many people as possible understand the peril and address it with a wide range of approaches. If we outlaw encryption, encryption will be restricted to outlaws and a few scientists at the National Security Agency and FBI. If encryption is legal, the outlaw experts will be vastly outnumbered by scores of thousands of honest practitioners and code breakers. If we ban bioengineering, only outlaws and rogue states will command the capability. We can prevail over the danger when outnumbering the handful of psychotic or coerced and closeted hackers are hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurially organized scientists.

Joy now joins Lovins in lamenting that biotech and other 21st-century technologies are being driven by “economic profit.” But economic incentives, which Joy would amplify by insurance requirements, ensure that the technology will be understood by hundreds of thousands of people. By promoting diverse and prosperous biotechnology and MEMS industries rather than creating a government-run monoculture in the field, the U.S. will have a good chance of meeting any threat from the underground. 

Joy’s self-defeating scheme of creating a national security state to halt dangerous research would end up repressing the very efforts required to overcome the dangers. In a capitalist democracy the mob is ultimately on the side of good. It is the bias toward collective benefit on the part of millions that accounts for the success of the race in overcoming all the previous crises it has encountered and the crises that Joy rightly deems possible in the future. 

At any time in history, a projection of the dangers and impending scarcities would have shown the human enterprise untenable. It is an essentially religious faith that the world makes sense which underlies all scientific and technological progress. But Joy comes from a culture that is adamantly blind to the ethical and epistemological contributions of religion. 

The Virtualosophistic world view renders human life accidental, unlikely, and sure of a bad end. Scientists today are very confident that they can do without God. But without God they panic about the future and like Joy can find no answer but brutal exertions of power to terminate the uncertain bounties of human creativity. Seeing that history is a domain of chance, they wish to bring it to a halt. Seeing that science cannot prove a negative — guarantee that some invention will not cause a catastrophe — they insist on a “cautionary principle” for new technology that would not have allowed a caveman to build a fire. Seeing that science cannot assure safety, they believe that the endless restlessness and creativity of human beings is a threat rather than a solution.

To the religious person, however, chance is not the realm of the anarchic and haphazard, dominated by the depredations of the mob, but the arena of freedom and the crucial condition of creativity. Bottom-up freedom and emergence flourish in an environment of top-down law and transcendent order, a monotheism that removes the arbitrary from science and denies the dominance of evil in the Universe. 

Part of the “mysterious” realm that Einstein called “the cradle of all true art and true science,” chance is beyond the ken of inductive reason. When Albert Hirschman writes that “creativity always comes as a surprise to us,” he is acknowledging this essential property of invention. Any effort to reduce the world to the dimensions of our own present understanding will exclude novelty and progress. The domain of chance is our access to futurity and to providence. “Trusting to chance” seems terrifying, but it is the only way to be open to possibility.

As one of us wrote in Wealth and Poverty twenty years ago, “modern civilization is hopelessly contingent and problematical, subject to destruction any day by possible climatic reversals, astrophysical mishaps, genetic plagues, nuclear explosions, geological convulsions, and atmospheric transformations — all conceivable catastrophes originating beyond the ken of plausible remedy or control.” 

If we try to battle all these threats at once, and non-threats like global warming and PCBs as well, we will end up wasting all our wealth on windmills, strewing them across the California environment, or tilting with them like Don Quixote. We will resort to ever more stifling controls that will suppress the unexpected boons of creativity which have always been the source of our prosperity and success. We will invest in problems rather than in opportunities and end up without either wealth or freedom, facing the ultimate problem of demoralization and sclerosis.

The human race has prevailed against the plagues and scarcities of its past, not through regulation or “relinquishment” but through creativity and faith. It is chiefly when we give up on chance and providence, and attempt to calculate and control our destinies through a demiurgic state, that disaster occurs. It is chiefly when we regard the masses as a mob of mouths, accidentally evolved in a random universe, that evil seems inevitable, good incomprehensible, and tyranny indispensable. 

State planning killed close to a billion people in the 20th century. Led by the banning of DDT, the resurgence of malaria, the suppression of nuclear power, and the retardation of global growth, environmentalist excesses have already killed more people than environmental pollution ever did. From the ecological wastelands of the USSR to the continuing “tragedies of the commons” where property rights are denied, the kind of regulation and repression that the Virtual Philosophy fosters poses the gravest threat of all. State control and tyranny block off the myriad emergent initiatives and feedback loops and acts of faith that have always enabled human beings to prevail under conditions of freedom.

Now amid many assurances that he believes in market solutions, Joy is creating an atmosphere in which the environmental movement will be ceded the power to veto and regulate new technologies, in which small commissions of politicized scientists will govern the evolution of crucial inventions, in which advocates of government- mandated conservation will trump the pioneers of creativity and enterprise.

From Joy’s Aspen office I gaze at the silvery vista of mountains, skies, and skiers that has attracted some of the world’s richest and most illustrious hedonists to this once humble mining town in a remote valley of Colorado. When you live in Valhalla, the rest of the world — all those smart people who are not in your own company and who seethe with resentments and option envy, who have to inch their way to work down Route 101 in Silicon Valley or 90 in Boston or Seattle — may seem part of a potential mob. All those Berkeley brains and dissidents who did not come to work for Sun. What are they doing in their cramped garages and basement laboratories or remote rural cabins? Theodore Kaczynski was one of them — a graduate student at Berkeley before Joy, studying some form of mathematics so abstruse as to be of no commercial interest, stalking away from Silicon Valley with a migrainous grudge. Imagine the Unabomber as a biotech wizard, contriving deadly infectious potions. Joy has. As he points out, “We’re lucky Kaczynski was a mathematician rather than a molecular biologist.” 

Joy, perhaps the world’s leading technologist, would have been an obvious target for the Unabomber after the crippling and near murder of Joy’s friend, Yale writer, artist and computer pioneer David Gelernter. It is not easy for Joy to find any redeeming insight in the Unabomber’s screed. But in Wired, Joy quotes Kaczynski as if he were more than a demonic scrivener, and now Joy has become the inadvertent vessel of the Unabomber’s unexpected but sweeping triumph. For not only does Joy respectfully quote the Unabomber at length, in the end he adopts the Unabomber’s stance toward technology. Kaczynski could hardly have dreamt of a better outcome for his own campaign for relinquishment than its adoption by his most eminent Berkeley successor, who also left Technology Bay for a retreat in the mountains.

Toward the end of Joy’s article, however, he abandons the tactics of terror and the intimidation used by the Unabomber to secure support and he appeals for an ethical foundation. Groping for a religion without firm moral codes, he turns attentively toward the East and the Dalai Lama. The Buddhist leader taught him the futility of wealth and the need for a spirit of “altruism” alien to what he found in Silicon Valley.

Perhaps the story of Siddhartha resonates with Joy. The original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was an eminent rich man who discovered the vanity of riches and devoted his subsequent life to the things of the spirit. Joy experienced a similar midlife revelation which informed his new vision of the world. His Wired article led to a $1.5 million book deal with Viking and purchase of a luxury $15 million apartment high in the new Perry Towers in Manhattan from which to contemplate more comfortably the emptiness of his riches. Ready or not, looming large in Joy’s future one can imagine solemn meetings with Hillary, no doubt during which will be explored the most altruistic methods for preventing others from following his path.

Yet surely Joy’s example as one of the supreme inventors and entrepreneurs of our time is far more relevant and compelling than his current siege of ideas. By launching Sun as the enabling Internet enterprise, Joy created a company that has expanded the knowledge of millions — that has saved millions or even billions of people from their immemorial fate as members of a barbarian mob, plunged in ignorance, and empowered them as participants in the human adventure on the frontiers of creation. Joy may regard them as a potential threat. But surely, in accord with Joy’s Law, they are the solution. It is Joy’s policy that is the threat.

If Joy’s policy prevails, his fears will reliably come true. The atmosphere will be polluted, the environment despoiled, and good men will cower unarmed and helpless under their desks like the children of Columbine before the menace of a few madmen. When guns — or biotech and nanotechnology — are outlawed, they will be accessible only to outlaws and a few feckless agents of a police state. Joy and his new allies should learn that in a capitalist democracy the mob — and God — are on your side.

George Gilder

Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of Discovery Institute
George Gilder is Chairman of Gilder Publishing LLC, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A co-founder of Discovery Institute, Mr. Gilder is a Senior Fellow of the Center on Wealth & Poverty, and also directs Discovery's Technology and Democracy Project. His latest book, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy (2018), Gilder waves goodbye to today's Internet.  In a rocketing journey into the very near-future, he argues that Silicon Valley, long dominated by a few giants, faces a “great unbundling,” which will disperse computer power and commerce and transform the economy and the Internet.