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The Oath
Ben Scarlato   Jan 31, 2009   Ethical Technology  

[Warning: Contains spoilers for the Battlestar Galactica episode The Oath] It can be easy when experiencing an engaging story to be wrapped up in a world where problems seem much bigger, much more exciting, and more a matter of life and death than real life. The fast-paced action seems to involve much more important issues than our trivial day to day problems. But that impression is a mistake, because even though the major problems we face aren’t as immediate, we all face problems just as big and important, and it is our responsibility to take action that affects them.

This week’s episode of Battlestar Galactica saw the fleet really start to come apart at its seams. The less than 40,000 surviving members of the human race have had to deal with limited food and fuel, no habitable planets in sight, and the threat of Cavil’s baseships. Now fear of upgrading the FTL jump technology needed to survive and escape the baseships has torn the fleet itself asunder, and it seems likely that before it is all over the dwindling human race will be have lost a substantial number to their own infighting. As for the newly mortal Cylons, the future of their race rests in the hands of the mutineers who keep Hera and the pregnant Six in the brig.

While commanding Galactica Adama has sent a lot of men and women to die in battle, so it must have been particularly painful to have his own soldiers turn on him. After all the atrocities that have been forgiven throughout the series, Adama tells his usurpers “if you do this, there will be no forgiveness, no amnesty!” It is one thing to have to band together to fight Cylons intent on annihilating your species, it is another to have friends who have fought together for years betray each other. Even so, Adama still wants to let one of his marine captors live, but it seems Starbuck coldly understands the reality of the situation: these are no longer Adama’s men, and as such she unflinchingly seeks their deaths.

After the previous episode’s relatively slow pace, this seemed like one of the most action-packed episodes of Battlestar Galactica ever. The way the current time was given every few scenes reinforced the fast pace, almost like an episode of 24 but not as contrived. For many of us this fast pace is a stark departure from our mundane day to day lives in the early twenty first century, for few of us ever have to deal with so many life or death situations. It seems hard to genuinely put ourselves in the Colonials’ shoes and imagine having to deal with the decisions provoked by shifting loyalties amidst an ever-present fight for survival. Indeed, their actions will determine whether the human race, and for that matter the Cylon race, will survive or perish. But is our own predicament in the twenty first century really that different? Or is it merely that our problems are not so exciting, and that they are partitioned from us by the future and therefore less salient?

The truth is, we all face problems and ethical issues that are at least as important as those faced by the Colonials, but the key difference is the disastrous results of not attending to them are removed by time. We face environmental degradation and existential risks that threaten to destroy us and yet are largely ignored. At the same time the stakes are even higher because of what we stand to gain, as we are on the verge of developing technologies that will greatly improve our lives as well as put the immortality that the Cylons have lost within our grasp.

Unfortunately, the fact that these problems don’t feel particularly pressing and that they are difficult to imagine means most people don’t realize just how much we stand to lose. I was saddened to come across a poll recently that found that climate change ranked dead last among public priorities, but perhaps even more disturbing was that existential risks weren’t even an issue deemed worthy of consideration.

In the case of environmental degradation swift action is essential to prevent scenarios reminiscent of what is played out in the Colonial fleet, where the fight for life is so pressing that people are willing to turn to anything just to survive, be it betrayal, revolution, terrorism, or torture. In the case of existential risks, it isn’t so much that we will turn to unspeakable measures to survive them once the threat is realized, but that it is likely we will no longer exist at all.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.

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