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We Have to Start to Choose Our Technologies February 19, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m not a Luddite. I grew up with The Jetsons (which is now the brand of tire on my ancient Subaru), Lost in Space, and Star Trek. I want a flying car, tricorder, and the ability to give commands to my personal robot. I have most of the toys most of us have these days, although rarely the latest models, because I have better things to spend my money on, and less an emotional need to be first on the block.

But what these optimistic visions of the future never showed were the tradeoffs inherent in these wonders. If I have a flying car, the airspace become crowded as more people try to get to farther places. Giving commands to a robot means that those commands will be stored somewhere, and have the potential for misinterpretation. The late great Isaac Asimov had a great run with his Three Laws of Robotics.

What this means is that no new technology is a clean win; there are always tradeoffs. It’s only going to accelerate in the future. We’ll have smart homes, with connected utilities, refrigerators, microwaves, and cars. We have apps that record our heart rate and other essential bodily functions, tell us precisely where we are in the world, and have shops text us with deals as we walk by them. We post on social media for the world to see, little, some, or all.

Mostly these are good things, or at least innocuous things. But as we increasingly tie ourselves to technology, we need to constantly consider the tradeoffs. What passes for news these days tells us about people losing jobs because of party photos on their Facebook page, or people scammed or worse by Craigslist ads.

But it’s more insidious than that. As our identities can be stolen for nefarious purposes, and our Web movements tracked for commercial ones, we have to understand those tradeoffs and make the right decisions for us as individuals. Your decisions are likely to be different than mine, but if you don’t understand the implications of your online actions, others will make them for you.

And the standard changes over time, often short periods of time. For years I didn’t mind online photos of me; there are several on my website. And most of the conferences I speak at require photos for their own websites. I was copasetic with that, until I realized that Google (or other) face recognition software would be able to identify me on the street in about three seconds. That genie can’t be put back into the bottle, but I would still like to have some control over my life.

So we shouldn’t consume technology without thought. Circa the 1980s, there was on TV an acclaimed police drama called Hill Street Blues. In every episode, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus concluded the morning briefing by saying, “Let’s be careful out there.”

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