Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Balancing the voices of good and evil

There's a shift afoot. Those who question the power of technology for good are starting to make themselves heard as nuanced contributors to an overall conversation, not just as polemics. This must come as a bit of a relief to some, a headshaker to others, and just more of the "same old, same old" to others. But I think it's worth noting. Perhaps we've passed through the inevitable phase that accompanies each technological shift in history, that in which the tech is either all good or all bad. Now we can begin to really consider the good, the bad, and the need-to-change parts.

We've had a steady drumbeat of "tech is good" for a long time. We (collectively) have been enamored of the ways global digital connectivity lower costs, ease connections, and enable us to express ourselves.

The "tech is good" side has its cheerleaders - some who see only good and some of whom have become more sanguine over time. And the skeptics have their eeyores, those who look into their mobile retina screens and see little more than the death of democracy or the shadow of Big Brother.

And that's how the conversation has gone - cheerleaders versus curmudgeons.Table dancers versus doomsayers.

We're hearing a little more nuance now - George Packer's The Unwinding, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future, even Susan Crawford's Captive Audience - they all tell stories of tech's influence on our lives that are not unidirectional. There is good and there is evil. There is generosity and there is greed. there is "unfettered disruption" and either "overzealous" or "toothless" regulation, depending on your point of view.

Research and investigative journalism is beginning to inform a discussion previously shaped largely by press releases. Rebecca Skloot introduced us to the new world of medical research and the role of data, personal privacy, and public goods in her heart-wrenching Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Here's a new report on violence and mobile phones, which  shows another side to the story of how useful these tools are in developing economies. Bioethicists and humanitarians are raising big questions about the frameworks which will guide our use of these tools. Big companies are slowly responding to user concerns about free speech and hate speech. Drones and wearable technology seem to touch nerves that allow us to re-open discussions of privacy and technology.

Our last charrette at Stanford looked at data in the fields of medical research. Ethical questions were at the fore. This is also becoming true in humanitarian aid. Let's hope the ethics of tech use and data can get the attention they need in the rest of civil society.


Kevin Johnson said...

Dear Lucy,

You raise an interesting question. I am reading the book Railroaded - please keep reading because it ties in. One of the lessons that the author suggests we as a nation pay attention to is how and when we build new infrastructure. In the case of railroads, they fundamentally re-shaped our conunty but ultimately inflicted great econmoic and social costs. Had they been built later, they could have been built more efficiently, at less cost, and without throwing the nation into finanancial turmoil (more than once). There may be much to be learned from that national experience to apply to our choices in regard to technology.

Kevin Johnson

Victor said...

This is cool!