Taming Technology

As the power of technology grows we face the same ethical dilemma again and again. Each new power that we harness is capable of enormously benefiting mankind. At the same time we are creating the means of our own potential destruction. Which side of the argument you favor depends on whether you believe that basic human nature is selfish or altruistic. It is said that all weapons that have ever been invented have eventually been used, and that there will always be people who will use whatever technologies we invent to harm others. Many are persuaded by these arguments into opposing the creation and use of new technologies. 

I do not agree with this point of view. I agree that there will always be bullies and greedy people in the world, and no doubt crime will continue to be a problem, and different groups will continue to have grudges against each other; these will continue to be challenges no matter how enlightened we become in our social structures. I do not agree that we need necessarily continue to be dominated by our most violent and greedy elements, but rather that by changing our social attitudes towards them we can reduce them to the nuisance they should be rather than the disaster they are. 

In any case the toothpaste is already out of the tube. We have these capabilities, and we are not realistically going to give them up, so we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage and consciously act to minimize their harm. We can examine our technologies and recognize the dangers in their misuse, and actively work to reduce the likelihood of such misuse. For example, with smart phones it is trivial to keep track of a person’s location at all times (and much more besides, but let us consider a simple case.) For the person in question this can be very useful information, and for society in general large aggregations of such information are of great benefit. As a small example traffic systems can be optimized using such location information on a large scale. The problem is that in the wrong hands this information can be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. I am sure I do not need to cite examples, and in fact it is this perception that makes people ask the question at the top of this piece. 

How, then, given what we know about human nature, can we benefit from this kind of technology without giving up our privacy? I do not believe that this is an insoluble problem, but solving it will require some of that growth we talked about. It is not the technical part that is difficult. Systems can certainly be designed to be very secure, but systems are designed and implemented by people, and these days we find it very hard to trust people. 

The developments in both computer hardware and software over recent years present social challenges that it is vital that we examine, identify and contain. The power we have achieved in these areas have created a two edged sword. On the one hand they are being used increasingly as a method of social control, while on the other hand they have the potential to be of enormous benefit to all of us. I sometimes think the NSA could be of tremendous public benefit if they would only make the information they have about us available to us. They probably have a copy of that email that went missing, and they could sell it back to you. 

There is nothing inherently evil about collecting and storing comprehensive information about people; in fact it is extremely useful. All social systems can be improved by the collection of information. Similarly some kind of electronic voting would be far simpler and more reliable and accurate than the old paper based method. The problem is to devise a workable system. There are a number of technological challenges we face of this nature, and the attribute they share is that they are social systems. We do not question the nature of the air traffic control system, yet one could see it as “the government controlling where and when you fly your plane.” We must accept that the nature of belonging to a group is that in return for the benefits of belonging to the group we agree to give up some of our personal freedom of action. We agree to conform to the rules of the group. A group with no rules has no meaning. Even anarchists do not favor a society without rules. Anarchy means without rulers, not without rules. We have certainly seen graphic demonstrations in recent years of the results of the contrary view. Starting with Reagan in the 1980s we have gone on a rampage of deregulation in banking, savings and loans, airlines and other areas, always with disastrous results. We have seen countries reduced to lawlessness with even more terrible consequences. Can we agree by now that this philosophy has been given a fair trial and has failed miserably?

The question is not should we have rules, it is who should make the rules and who should enforce them.