What do you hear when someone says "Anything goes"?

This post concerns a theme that has been threading through my various social circles and fields-of-activity, and it comes down to this question:

What do you hear when someone says "Anything goes"?

Many conflicts I've come across in several areas - such as privacy and civil rights activism, or the advent of citizen biotech and its biosafety issues - can be framed as a conflict between parties who perceive "Anything goes" as a threat, and those who perceive it as a promise. Note that neither of these answers is universally right or wrong - but which answer a person chooses will tell you something about how they see the world and which side they're likely to be on in the above mentioned conflicts.

Example? The discussion between old-school privacy activists and their post-privacy counterparts. Let me give a polemic summarization of the rationale that underpins the arguments each side tends to put forward:

Old-school privacy activists: "Oh my god, there are so many possibilities with all this new technology! Our highest priority should be to guard and fight against its misuse by authorities, companies and other powerful entities!"

Post-privacy activists: "Oh my god, there are so many possibilities with all this new technology! Our highest priority should be to do amazing things with it that change the world for the better!"

This doesn't mean that the old-schoolers don't see the possible benefits, or that the post-privacy people are completely oblivious to the dangers of all our shiny technology toys; it's more of a difference in priorities.

Personally, I'm a bit on the fence. I've been surrounded by adherents to the threat-centered narrative of new technology for what feels like forever, and I've lately been asking myself whether they may not have gotten stuck in this mindset to the point of becoming irrational about it. Put differently, I'm wondering whether it's a mistake to put so much energy and time into reactively fighting threats (that may or may not turn out to be real) that there's hardly any left for proactively building awesome shit. On the other hand, I am very much aware that the proactive stance has its risk, and they're no small ones. This proactive, or (literally) constructive, approach requires a lot of trust in the way things will play out and our ability to cope with it - a bit of a happy-go-lucky attitude, if you will. This may also explain why the old-schoolers like to accuse the post-privacy people of being naive and starry-eyed.

Another example for the gap between "Anything goes" as threat or promise is the biosafety and bioethics debate around the fledgling DIYBio movement. There's the faction of people calling for tight regulation, control and oversight of any and all genetic manipulation, and for limiting this activity to thoroughly vetted and controlled institutions by all means possible. The more extreme cases even call for forbidding this kind of research altogether, invoking possible risks of bioterrorism, grey goo and just general atrocities. This is the faction that hears "Anything goes" and interprets it as a threat. And then there's another faction that basically says "Look, the solution, clearly, is to use the immense potential of this technology, and put a lot more weight behind understanding it and learning how to use it safely, to the point where we're capable enough to outrun any upcoming threats." For this particular issue, I'm firmly with the people who perceive "Anything goes" as a promise, but I've certainly met people who've called this position reckless.

Closing remark: These rambling ruminations have been sparked by the article "Cognitive Biases in Times of Uncertainty". It brings up the issue of threat-based narratives and their harmful side-effects:
"Threat based narratives take root – enemies are gathering force and intent on destroying or appropriating what we have.  We need to be vigilant and band together to protect our interests. [...] Threat based narratives lead to polarization – if you're not with us, then you must be against us.

Threat based narratives again have a pernicious effect – they reinforce our tendency to focus on the short-term.  They lead us to further magnify risk and discount potential rewards. The threat is imminent – we must focus on protecting ourselves now from the enemies gathering force.  We can't afford to be diverted by longer-term issues – the battle is here and now. If we don’t win today, we will have no tomorrow."
In short, I've become somewhat wary of threat-based narratives - sure, they can alert us to potential danger, but they also tend to be self-reinforcing and endless, they're an excellent way of driving ourselves crazy, they leave us in a mindset where we have neither the time nor the energy to develop positive long-term visions for the future, and if we let them run away with us, they make us an easy target for manipulation.

Bonus points to any reader who noticed that the last paragraph - the one complaining about threat-based narratives - was itself outlining yet another threat-based narrative :)


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