Lisa Rein: Thank you very much. This will be the last talk of the evening, and I real­ly appre­ci­ate every­body com­ing out and if my heart beats any faster it’s going to take this build­ing down.

First a few words about Chelsea. Things that I cer­tain­ly did­n’t know until a few weeks ago. And now a few words from a very brave per­son who unfor­tu­nate­ly can’t be here in per­son or even remote­ly tonight. That per­son is Chelsea E. Manning, who is serv­ing thirty-five years at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Technically, she’s eli­gi­ble for parole in 2020.

Like Aaron, Chelsea is a mem­ber of a gen­er­a­tion of pro­gram­mers that grew up using com­put­ers. Chelsea was born just about a year after Aaron, and she was pro­gram­ming at age 7, although she is quick to clar­i­fy that she real­ly did­n’t know what she was doing until she was 9 or 10. She remem­bers the day she cre­at­ed her first web page in 1997, when she was 10, using HTML 3.0. She also remem­bers the launch of Creative Commons in 2002 when she was almost 15, and she was great­ly influ­enced by Richard Stallman’s book Free as in Freedom.

Chelsea Manning would be here tonight if she could, but hope­ful­ly some­day she will be here in per­son with all of us in a huge cel­e­bra­tion of jus­tice that hope­ful­ly she will one day be the recip­i­ent of. I will now read her statement.

The Human Element

This is a state­ment for Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon 2015, enti­tled The Human Element.”

Hello, every­one. First I’d like to apol­o­gize for the awk­ward­ness of this writ­ten medi­um. I would love to speak in per­son as well as attend and con­tribute to events like these, but cer­tain cir­cum­stances are com­pli­cat­ing my abil­i­ty to trav­el and com­mu­ni­cate in any fash­ion rec­og­niz­able to most of us in the 21st cen­tu­ry. In fact, see­ing that this is a tech­nol­o­gy event, I’d like to talk about the incred­i­ble ubiq­ui­ty and access that soci­ety now has to highly-connected infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy devices.

It seems to me at least that as we enter the era of ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing, the so-called Internet of Things, with cell phones hug­ging against our hips, lap­tops and tablets in every­one’s bag, and toast­ers that have the uncan­ny abil­i­ty to sort our music libraries in the wrong way, and hav­ing com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions with our grumpy selves in the morn­ing, we have begun to blur the lines with­in our human soci­ety in unex­pect­ed and even excit­ing ways.

Looking at the rapid advances in our social and polit­i­cal sphere in the infor­ma­tion era such as cul­tur­al progress, queer and trans move­ments have start­ed to make, the rela­tion­ships between such things as gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, between art and work, between gen­der and work, and between sex­u­al­i­ty and art, have blurred in incred­i­ble ways. 

Now there are ele­ments and ideas which seem to imple­ment the con­cept of tran­shu­man­ism, and it’s becom­ing nor­mal for more and more peo­ple who antic­i­pate as well as fear the eco­nom­ic, infor­ma­tion, and tech­no­log­i­cal sin­gu­lar­i­ty at the sup­posed end of our expo­nen­tial graphs in our own lifetimes.

But con­sid­er the para­dox that tech­nol­o­gy has pro­vid­ed for us. We seem more diverse and open as a soci­ety, but isn’t it also the case that we are more homo­ge­neous and inse­cure than we ever have been in the last cen­tu­ry or so? You might try and tell me some­thing like, Well, today’s tools pro­vide us with the abil­i­ty to be more inde­pen­dent from the con­trol of our gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions than ever before.” But I ask, do they really?

I don’t think very many peo­ple in here are con­vinced that tech­nol­o­gy is a pure­ly lib­er­at­ing tool. As we are now see­ing that it can also be used to cen­sor, to con­trol, to mon­i­tor, to antic­i­pate, to imprison, and some­times even kill. I am argu­ing that we can be inde­pen­dent and lib­er­at­ed as a soci­ety even with­out advanced tech­nol­o­gy. It seems that some peo­ple today even find their inde­pen­dence by embrac­ing the Luddite phi­los­o­phy, ditch­ing their cell phones for the week­ends, or avoid­ing the Internet at cer­tain times of the day or week.

But I hope you don’t think that you have to run to the hills of Montana and live in a cab­in for years on end. That seems a lit­tle dis­pro­por­tion­ate, ha ha. Today, as is obvi­ous in some of the head­lines that we see online, we are in a con­stant tech­no­log­i­cal arms race, and I think that it’s impor­tant to real­ize that we are always only a sin­gle break­through away from mak­ing the meth­ods of net­work obfus­ca­tion and encryp­tion point­less or unus­able. While I agree that it is unlike­ly, it cer­tain­ly is with­in the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might wake up tomor­row morn­ing, or, if we’re real­ly hon­est tomor­row after­noon for some of us, and find out that some tru­ly bril­liant or devi­ous math­e­mati­cian or math­e­mati­cians have solved the Riemann Hypothesis, throw­ing entire regions of our encryp­tion arse­nal into tur­moil. Or, we might wake up and find out that a six, eight, or even ten qubit quan­tum com­put­er with near per­fect error-correction has been built, effec­tive­ly accom­plish­ing the same thing. 

The point I’m try­ing to make here (and it is some­times hard for those of us in the tech com­mu­ni­ty to accept) is that our tech­nol­o­gy can only take us so far on its own. Rather, it is the human ele­ment that is so impor­tant, and unfor­tu­nate­ly very easy to forget.

As most of us are acute­ly aware, our soft­ware can be writ­ten to accom­plish a task that, in the right hands, solves incred­i­ble prob­lems, cre­ates mir­a­cles, elim­i­nates bound­aries, and saves lives. Think about, for instance, the enter­tain­ment pro­vid­ed by stream­ing videos and video games, the real-time arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence appli­ca­tions that are used in auto­mat­ed cars, man­u­fac­tur­ing plants, and med­ical equip­ment, or the so called Big Data” plat­forms being applied for Internet search, mar­ket­ing, polit­i­cal cam­paign­ing, and healthcare.

Yet, that very same soft­ware, with a few minor tweaks can, in the wrong hands, cause immense prob­lems, cre­ate night­mares, raise insur­mount­able bound­aries, and destroy and even end lives. Think about how the same tech­nol­o­gy used in stream­ing video, video games, real-time com­mand and con­trols, and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, can also be used in unmanned air­craft armed with mis­siles to wreak hav­oc on bare­ly dis­cernible peo­ple hun­dreds or thou­sands of miles away. Think about the sta­tis­ti­cal nudges in big data algo­rithms that cre­ate gen­der, racial, eth­nic, gen­der iden­ti­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and oth­er bias­es across large swaths of the online pop­u­la­tion. Also, think about the inten­si­fy­ing polar­iza­tion and heavy focus on pre­ci­sion tar­get­ing on swing vot­ers in the polit­i­cal realm. Real peo­ple in real places in real time are affect­ed, some­times on an immense scale.

Software is only a tool. Technology is only a tool­box. It’s what we cre­ate our soft­ware for, and what we intend to use it for, and who we allow to use it, and how much, that real­ly count.

I now believe that today’s coders and engi­neers have an extra hat” that we have to wear on top of the col­or­ful spec­trum of hats we already have, name­ly the tech­nol­o­gy ethi­cist and moral­ist hat. Whether we’re ama­teurs or pro­fes­sion­als, and despite whether we want to or not, it has now become anoth­er duty that we have. I only hope that the major­i­ty of us can fig­ure out and ful­ly under­stand what that is going to entail as we approach the edge of our graphs. In fact, human lives and the future of human­i­ty may depend on it.

Thank you for your time every­one, and good luck in your endeav­ors. I would espe­cial­ly like to thank Lisa Rein for her love­ly let­ter last month invit­ing me to speak before you all. It was an incred­i­bly warm and heart­felt let­ter that made my day a lit­tle brighter.

Good night, everyone.

—Chelsea E. Manning

Lisa: I want to thank every­one at the Internet Archive. Like every year, they made this the best thing that it pos­si­bly could be, and thank you very much for com­ing. [record­ing skips]

Further Reference

The Aaron Swartz Day web site.