Dante’s Infinite Monkeys: a chat with author Mike Dover

Several months ago, I wrote about how 3D printers and the law intersect. (Two articles came out of that research. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.)

During that research, a friend told me about Dante’s Infinite Monkeys: Technology Meets The Seven Deadly Sins, a book by technophile, author and Humber College business professor Mike Dover. He covers 3D-printed guns, among many other examples of how technology enables people to sin more.

I stole the graphic of Mike’s book from his website, dantesmonkeys.ca, without asking permission. Mike can now include me in the chapter on Sloth.

Dover devotes a chapter to each sin. Each chapter uses specific anecdotes and situations to ponder the ways people can engage in, well, sin.

I asked Dover a few questions about the technology-fueler sinfulness he covers in the book. He sent me these answers. Enjoy.

So Michael Phelps recently raced a computer-generated shark. Are such stunts the future of click-bait? Did any good come of this?

I think that Phelps did a disservice to himself and his legacy by undertaking such a stunt – especially since the producers of the show originally misled viewers to believe that the shark would be real. I’m not sure what was proven here – Phelps is probably the greatest swimmer (among humans) of all time; why would we expect him to beat a fish? My dog can run faster than Usain Bolt.

Click-bait still works to get attention, but if it annoys the reader, it will not effectively maintain traffic.

BTW, the best joke I saw on Twitter related to the Phelps stunt was “if the shark finishes with Phelps in his stomach, is it a tie?”

Have you run across anecdotes since the book was published that you might include in a future edition of the book? What are your favourites?

Yes – that is one of the disadvantages to publishing a book in dead-tree format; pretty much every day there is a new story that I would like to include. I comment on some of them on my Twitter account (dantesmonkeys).

The most compelling story, though, would be Gluttony, in a meta sense about how polarized political thought has become especially as it manifests on social media and Reddit. No matter what side you are on, there are thousands of memes, threads, and posts that will reinforce your point of view.

Nicholas Carr shares quite a few opinions in his book The Shallows on how media technology shapes our brains. What are your favourite anecdotes about how it incites people to indulge in the seven deadly sins?

I think The Shallows is a great book; Carr writes about how the brain becomes less focused and relies on short cuts to help with cognition. I discuss this phenomenon mostly in the Sloth chapter. Students don’t want to learn how to spell because the red squiggly line in Microsoft Word will take care of that task – same deal with memorizing facts that Google can answer and learning how to navigate via a map or written instructions when voice-enabled navigation will handle that.

In the book, I discuss people from South Pacific Islands that for thousands of years have been navigating over open ocean via clouds, wave formations, birds, and stars. Reliance on GPS technology will dull (and probably eliminate) these skills.

Much of the book turns on a pessimistic view of technology and its effects on us. Can you share any reasons for optimism owing to technology evolving according to our better angels?

Absolutely – there is much reason for optimism. I am in no way a Luddite or an anti-technologist. Most of my career has been studying the positive effects of technology on business models and society – this project was meant to balance that out.

Medicine will continue to improve leading to longer, healthier lives especially when nanotechnology comes into play. Efficient, inexpensive 3-D printing will massively reduce homelessness, hunger, and disease in the developing world and free, accessible Internet will improve education and entertainment in the same regions.

Which sin, or sins, power uncritical acceptance of fake news?

I reject the premise of the question. I think the term fake news is overused and often deployed to diminish an alternative point of view. On the contrary, technology has made it easier for keyboard detectives to investigate truth and correct errors in the media or call out falsehoods delivered by politicians and organizations (with the exception of meta-level Gluttony that I discussed earlier).

Is trolling and other forms of wrath driving people away from social media?

It is definitely turning some people off, although social media use still continues to increase.

When “civilians” become unwilling Internet celebrities (I describe a few examples in the Wrath chapter), typically the first thing that they do is delete their social media accounts. Bullied or overwhelmed celebrities also often quit (or take a break from social media).

Do we need something like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to govern interactions with new technologies? Has anybody made progress on something like this beyond lengthy philosophical treatises?

Yes, but it is a tricky set of questions (see answer below on the limits of laws whether they are in the form of legislation or just philosophical guidelines).

Some of the best thinking in this area is being led by the Lifeboat Foundation who publish a lot of their material on their website.

Legislation helps to prevent certain technology-enabled sins, like revenge porn. What else can governments do to prevent people from indulging in the seven deadly sins?

The problem with legislation is that it takes a long time to be put into place and it is hard to keep up with changing technology. In many cases, existing legislation against harassment can be used to fight revenge porn so it may be the role of prosecutors and judges to combat the threat rather than legislators.

Societal norms will adjust to technology-fueled Sins. Some will require an “official”  government response, others will become less concerning, and still others will be addressed by online shaming.

Artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a replacement for people, while many developers value it only as a tool dependent upon people. Which do you think it will be?

AI will replace any job that is repitieve. I am not as pessimistic as many people who believe that AI and robotics will make most people unemployable – there will be new jobs that we have not yet conceived that will develop in the AI-led economy. Also, the concept of work and career may change – if a 3-D printer can make you a brand new “Armani” suit everyday from the same set of fine Italian silk and you have unlimited luxury food created from crickets and spices (but tastes like Michelin starred steaks) as well as VR-created “front row seats” to the best concerts in history for almost no money, will you really need to slave away at a day job?

Has the research you did for this book sparked ideas for other books? Can you share the topics you’re considering?

Yes. No. 😉

You can buy Dante’s Infinite Monkeys at humberpress.com and amazon.com. Visit the book’s website: dantesmonkeys.ca.

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