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In my latest Locus column, “Demon-Haunted World,” I propose that the Internet of Cheating Things — gadgets that try to trick us into arranging our affairs to the benefit of corporate shareholders, to our own detriment — is bringing us back to the Dark Ages, when alchemists believed that the universe rearranged itself to prevent them from knowing the divine secrets of its workings.


From Dieselgate to Wannacry to HP’s sleazy printer ink chicanery, we are increasingly colonized by demon-haunted things controlled by nonhuman life-forms (corporations) that try to trick, coerce or scare us into acting against our own best interests.

Alchemists – like all humans – are mediocre lab-technicians. Without peer reviewers around to point out the flaws in their experiments, alchemists compounded their human frailty with bad experi­mental design. As a result, an alchemist might find that the same experiment would produce a ‘‘differ­ent outcome’’ every time.

In reality, the experiments lacked sufficient con­trols. But again, in the absence of a peer reviewer, alchemists were doomed to think up their own explanations for this mysterious variability in the natural world, and doomed again to have the self-serving logic of hubris infect these explanations.

That’s how alchemists came to believe that the world was haunted, that God, or the Devil, didn’t want them to understand the world. That the world actually rearranged itself when they weren’t looking to hide its workings from them. Angels punished them for trying to fly to the Sun. Devils tricked them when they tried to know the glory of God – indeed, Marcelo Rinesi from The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies called modern computer science ‘‘applied demonology.’’

In the 21st century, we have come full circle. Non-human life forms – limited liability corpo­rations – are infecting the underpinnings of our ‘‘smart’’ homes and cities with devices that obey a different physics depending on who is using them and what they believe to be true about their surroundings.

Demon-Haunted World [Cory Doctorow/Locus]

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