Technology: Cyberethics

“The wicked have told me of things that delight them, but not such things as your law has to tell.”

— Saint Augustine, “Confessions”, Datalinks

Cyberethics is considered a fourth-tier economic technology that requires Intellectual Integrity and Planetary Networks to research.  When discovered, it unlocks the Planetary Datalinks secret project and the ability to dedicate a faction to Knowledge through the social engineering screen.

Taking this information together with the name, the attentive player can figure out what this technology is meant to model.  It’s the application of the rigors of Intellectual Integrity to the Planetary Networks.  As before, this isn’t merely applied in a theoretical sense.  Cyberethics represents the thoroughgoing changes in the patterns of life surrounding the use of the ever-more-crucial networks.

This certainly embraces the disputes over intellectual property and cryptography that were already extant in the late ’90s and would likely be familiar to the player.  But it certainly goes further than that.  Modern society is still struggling to find the balance between ease of information transfer and privacy, as seen in the current regulations around disclosure of medical and financial records.  Or the desire for individuals to communicate privately and the desire of the government to prevent terrorist attacks.  Or, even, the proper way to deal with attention-seeking trolls in virtual public fora.  Presumably, Cyberethics represents the widely-accepted correct framework to use for all of these related debates.

To select the social engineering choice to value Knowledge, then, is to take a strong position on these issues.  In doing so, the faction gains a bonus to research and a small increase in energy efficiency, in exchange for a large penalty to spy operations.  So, therefore, we presume that there is a dominant solution in the Cyberethics framework that looks something like what ’90s technologically-savvy libertarians would appreciate: freedom over security.  And, hence, the University will tend to smile upon factions that make this choice.

However, as before, we know that all the factions can research Cyberethics and gain some benefit from it.  So we know that mere knowledge of the technology cannot philosophically disprove the opponents of the University.  But, intriguingly, unlike the techs that unlock the other values, Cyberethics doesn’t do a whole lot else.  If the player is not interested in building a massive database or restructuring his society to advance the ideal of the free exchange of ideas, then this tech does about as much good as Optical Computers.  Which isn’t nothing, it’s worth noting.  Serving as a prerequisite to advances down the line has significant value.

When I was first playing this game and encountered this quote, I presumed that St. Augustine was referring to a curious feature of explicit codes of law: that they must contain a comprehensive list of bad action to go along with the punishment.  Seen from this perspective, the body of law for a society is the repository of all the wicked acts that anybody has ever been caught doing (or even contemplated).  Any particular person’s imagination or experience can’t possibly compete, no matter how depraved.

So I spiraled off into considering just what sorts of futuristic crimes must be listed as unethical by a code of Cyberethics.  What’s considered right and wrong in such a world?  And what crazy things can you possibly get up to with a network that would require a vast extension of law to properly describe?  Whatever the particular answers could possibly be to those questions, it quickly becomes clear that even the fourth-tier of the technology tree is describing a world rather different from our own.

A helpful passerby with a deeper knowledge of the original source material corrected my misapprehension of St. Augustine’s original intention. It turns out that, alas, St. Augustine was not originally making a wry argument about the successors of the Pharisees and unnecessary legalism in religion. Instead, he was addressing God directly and praising the delights that are found in righteousness as greater than those found in wickedness. In retrospect, I think a capital-Y on “your law” in the translation would have helped me a lot.

With this context, it appears that Reynolds must have chosen this selection to give the player some sense of how awesome it must be to live in a place that actually has a functioning society on the Internet. I imagine the overall effect is to bring back something resembling the culture of old academic Usenet, before AOL flooded the system with millions of people who had not been properly acculturated and washed away all the old norms. In the Cyberethical future, you might not be able to get the same low enjoyment out of trolling a community for an outsized reaction. But Reynolds postulates that you’re more than compensated for this by the existence of fora where people actually spend their time talking about interesting topics without converging to a mere echo chamber or being trolled into oblivion.

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3 thoughts on “Technology: Cyberethics

  1. Bren

    I don’t think that interpretation of the St. Augustine quote is correct. Look at the context here: https://books.google.com/books?id=cffhm3jIMRoC&pg=PA255&lpg=PA255&dq=the+wicked+have+told+me+of+such+things+as+delight+them,+but+not+such+things+as+your+law+has+to+tell&source=bl&ots=KpkFVeMWe5&sig=LqAWyoj_sYzbYQM5CqLB3hwoWOY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiF_IDI_KzKAhXCdz4KHdvWBmgQ6AEIMDAD#v=onepage&q=the%20wicked%20have%20told%20me%20of%20such%20things%20as%20delight%20them%2C%20but%20not%20such%20things%20as%20your%20law%20has%20to%20tell&f=false

    Augustine is praising god’s law (and perhaps kingdom) here, not being creeped out by the catalogue of things that it forbids. For Cyberethics, I think it means imagining the joys of a world where people did mostly good things on the internet, rather than the mix of good and icky things that the internet consisted of even in the 1990s.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      First off, thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment! I really appreciate the constructive criticism.

      As for the meat of your comment, I’m obviously no St. Augustine scholar, myself. Given the context you’ve provided, your reading is clearly what he intended. Which I can’t help but be a little disappointed by. I’d always assumed that the context was St. Augustine railing against the heirs of the Pharisees in a clever, sarcastic sort way. The actual meaning’s a little bit of a letdown.

      Oh well. Thanks again for the sharp-eyed correction. It’s always nice to learn something new!

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      1. Bren

        Thanks for writing such an insightful blog! There needs to be more thoughtful criticism like this about video games.

        Like

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