Technology’s alignment

If I were to create a Dungeons and Dragons character, one of the first and most important choices I’d have to make concerns alignment. I would have to choose where my character falls on two separate axis: law-versus-chaos and good-versus-evil. The law-versus-chaos spectrum is defined by the third edition of the D&D rules as follows:

Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.

Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.

Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel. They are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him/her.”

The good-versus-evil spectrum is defined as follows:

Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.

Evil implies harming, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.

People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Neutral people are committed to others by personal relationships.”

The three points on these two axis leave us with nine possible “alignments” to choose from:

– Lawful Good
– Lawful Neutral
– Lawful Evil
– Chaotic Good
– Chaotic Neutral
– Chaotic Evil
– Neutral Good
– Neutral Evil
– True Neutral

But what if instead of plotting an imaginary role-playing character on that axis we sought to align an entity? Where would the abstract thing that is technology fall on the good-versus-evil axis? 

Technologists would posit technology as undeniably good, as the harbinger of increased wealth, autonomy,  agency, innovation and freedom for the whole of humankind. Conversely, tech critics would argue that humanity is harmed by the advent of new technologies, that certain innovations increase inequality, manufacture division and bring a whole host of maladies down upon collective and individual humanity. The arguments of both camps have merit. What about the law-versus-chaos axis? Most, I believe, would agree that technology occupies “neutral” status on the law-versus-chaos axis, that it can be used for and against institutions, organisations and society. As such, most people give technology one of three alignments:

Neutral Good: “A neutral good character typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A neutral good character has no problems with cooperating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a lawful good character would.”

Neutral Evil: “A neutral evil character is typically selfish and has no qualms about turning on allies-of-the-moment, and usually makes allies primarily to further their own goals. A neutral evil character has no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit for themselves. Another valid interpretation of neutral evil holds up evil as an ideal, doing evil for evil’s sake and trying to spread its influence. Examples of the first type are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind their superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer. An example of the second type would be a masked killer who strikes only for the sake of causing fear and distrust in the community.”

True Neutral: “A neutral character (a.k.a. true neutral) is neutral on both axes and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment, or actively seeks their balance. Druids frequently follow this dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.”

I don’t think any of these alignments suit technology. I would argue that technology falls into the “neutral” camp on the good-versus-evil axis, but I would also argue that, on the law-versus-chaos axis, technology is a firmly chaotic force. And my reasoning is dependent upon one word: “asymmetry”.

The history of technology is a history of asymmetry. It is a sprawling tale of people being able to do more with less because of advancing technological means. The latest technological craze is evidence of this. Used to be that the global financial system was unchallengeable. One couldn’t take down—”disrupt”—the infrastructure of traditional finance. It had too much wealth, too much power, too much influence and was too entrenched in the mind of every citizen around the globe. But now? Not so much. People around the world are waking up to the idea that there could be an alternative to our current financial system. The veil of sacredness that cloaked the mechanisms of the dominant financial system has been torn away and now we’re all asking the previously forbidden question, “Is there a better way?” This transition from protecting the sacred to questioning it’s utility and examining the foundations it rests upon—what is “money” anyway?—is only possible because developments in certain technologies have given us a means to explore and experiment with possible alternatives. 

A character with chaotic neutral alignment is described as follows: “…an individualist who follows their own heart and generally shirks rules and traditions. Although chaotic neutral characters promote the ideals of freedom, it is their own freedom that comes first; good and evil come second to their need to be free.” Does the shirking of rules and traditions not embody the capabilities that technology puts into our hands? The agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the advent of the internet, the cloud, machine learning, mobile technologies; with these things came the messy, sometimes violent, deconstruction—”creative destruction”—of old traditions and methodologies. It wasn’t smooth, graceful, or even fun. Which is why, in my eyes, technology is a chaotic neutral force.