The notes/talking points below outline some of the central themes of the book…
- The scepticism deficit
It’s a cynical, distrustful world – well, not quite. In fact, where scepticism is concerned we’ve been living in a period of elongated drought. Very few people question the direction in which our digital world is heading or the motivations of the commercial technology companies that increasingly govern our lives (our ‘digital sovereigns’ as the US media theorist and activist Rebecca MacKinnon calls them). In a few short years we’ve given over vast amounts of personal information to profit-driven technology organisations, asking little by way of assurance in return. A big part of the problem is that we’ve confused technological change (upgrading and digital gadgets as fashion accessories) with technological advancement. We eulogise Steve Jobs as an agent of global change, rather than as a businessman with an incredible skill for marketing. And to top it all off, we’ve naively made Facebook the ‘town-square’ of the 21st century, despite the fact that the social media site is a marketing platform run by a man which Privacy International’s head, Simon Davies, declares ‘still doesn’t get privacy’.
In a world of spin and marketing we’ve been sold on the idea that technology represents the future and that to question the value of our new digital platforms represents a heresy.
We’re all to blame, of course, because many of us are fearful of asking questions the accepted wisdom surrounding our digital world for fear of being branded a Luddite. Make no mistake, modern technology can be great, but we as individuals and societies need to be far more questioning of its usage and more sceptical of the technology companies that make money out of feeding our digital addiction.
- The second great age of technology worship.
There is a weirdly religious aspect to our society’s relationship with modern technology – Apple product launches have long had the fervour and flavour of an evangelical gathering. But more than that, there are those in the technology and media spheres who believe in a time when technology and humans will meld into a form of eternal super-intelligent life. It’s a belief, and a highly influential movement, called ‘The Singularity’. Says computer scientist and early pioneer of virtual reality Jaron Lanier: ‘A lot of us have come to believe that the internet is coming alive and turning into a giant global being of some kind, a sort of collective intelligence that actually becomes almost godlike, and there’s a set of beliefs that recreate the beliefs of traditional religions around this perceived being. So for instance, there’s an afterlife because the collective super-being of the internet will become so capacious that it’ll scoop up the contents of all our brains and give us everlasting life in virtual reality. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. A great many very serious and very powerful and rich people in Silicon Valley buy in to this set of ideas, so there is kind of a religious sensibility driving some of these designs.’
Leaving the zealots aside, however, it has also become commonplace to view technology as the world’s potential saviour. Like the Victorians before us, we live in an age that worships technology. And just like the Victorians, many of us have come to believe that a technological solution is possible to all our problems, it’s just a matter of funding, time and adequate research.
Now, no one likes to jump all over optimism, but there are clear dangers to techno-worship and the most potentially disastrous scenario centres around a belief in what’s called geoengineering. Geoengineering involves using science and technology to deliberately alter the world’s climate. The most popular form of geoengineering entails literally pumping the atmosphere full of microscopic sulphur particles in order to form artificial clouds which will reflect the sunshine and cool the planet. It’s not science fiction – it’s real life, with thousands of scientists around the world already working on possible geo-engineering solutions to the world’s climate change dilemma. Needless to say, the risks are enormous and the chance of inadvertently producing a catastrophe even greater than that posed by global warming are considerable and can’t be discounted.
- Welcome to a time of heightened trust and an era of heightened vulnerability
Few people would feel comfortable trusting all of their highly personal effects, correspondence and sensitive business documents to a complete stranger. But with technology and social media companies pushing us toward ‘Cloud’ computing, that’s exactly what’s happening. Cloud computing is a grandiose name for a system that involves individuals, organisations and businesses storing their digital data in large commercial data servers, rather than on their own company server or home PC hard-drive. The selling points for such a system are cost-savings and security. Many large organisations and businesses, including whole US government departments, are now shutting down their own servers and giving over their data records to the likes of IBM and Google for storage. Technology companies have now even begun building computers with limited hard-drive storage capacity to meet the trend. Cloud-based storage is a multi-multi billion dollar business and it’s being hailed as the future for all of our digital data.
The move to the Cloud could prove humankind’s greatest leap of faith. It involves an act of monumental trust, because centralising the data for whole communities and whole nations in a small number of commercially-operated server facilities is anything but safe. Ask any computer security expert about online crime, hacking and cyber warfare and they’ll tell you they’re all on the rise. In 2011 after a massive security breach which closed down the entire Playstation network for more than a month, the head of Sony Corp, Howard Stringer, declared: ‘It’s not a brave new world; it’s a bad new world.’
It’s a curious thing about our modern attitudes toward technology – as more and more evidence emerges about the increasing vulnerability of our digital networks and devices, the more we move to embrace them. It used to be the case that the greater the level of vulnerability people felt, the more they sought security and avoided risk. But in the digital age that seems to have been reversed.
- The good news – change is in the air – we are at something of a turning point when it comes to our relationship with technology
Techno-worship and techno-optimism still reign, but in the past few years we’ve started to see a bit of a kick-back, a reassessment of the direction in which technology companies are taking us.
The central message of my book is that it’s okay to be sceptical. Healthy scepticism keeps the world on an even keel and is more needed than ever in today’s gadget and marketing-driven society. Be curious, be positive, but embrace your inner sceptic! That’s the tag line.
What’s been interesting to note in recent times has been a steady growth in the number of international figures (particularly within the fields of science and technology) who have begun to speak out publicly about the role of technology in our lives and the change that our unquestioning rush to embrace technology is having on society and individuals.
Neurologists are now expressing concerns about things like ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ where people report feeling a smart-phone buzzing in their pocket even when they’re not carrying one. And many others like Clay Johnson, the online entrepreneur who ran Barack Obama’s historic social and digital media campaign back in 2008, now publicly worry about digital addiction. Says Johnson: ‘We don’t know nearly enough about the science of information consumption, we don’t know about how information directly affects our brains. It’s very similar to how we were with food when the first Western diets were being invented. I think the same thing is going on with information. We’re not suffering from information overload, we’re suffering from information over-consumption.’
So the message is this: Technology is great. It can be an enormous benefit to our lives. But for more than a decade the techno-optimists in the technology sector, the media and academia have worked with the profit-driven technology companies to set the digital agenda. It’s time now for ordinary people to step back, take a breath and decide for themselves which technology works for them and which does not. People’s needs, not profits, should be the true drivers of our technological future.
Interestingly, we are starting to see a return to the DIY ethos of previous times. From science, to space technology to social activism, tinkering and a hands-on approach is starting to come to the fore again. In almost every field of endeavour there are now pockets of people kicking back against the pre-packaged, sealed off nature of technology. They want to be able to explore and modify for themselves and such people are likely to have a significant impact on the future, just as the backyard computer geeks of the sixties and seventies have had on ours. The great irony is that many of the tools they’re using are digital!
- As strange as it may seem, “efficiency” is the enemy of the future
Efficiency is the ultimate feel-good word for the 21st century. We like to think that pursuing efficiency will lead to energy savings and a better environment. But all the evidence suggests that from computer speeds to energy-efficient lighting, the pursuit of efficiency has actually led to greater, not lesser, levels of resource consumption and higher energy usage. It’s the paradox of the consumer age.
Another interesting paradox of our modern world is that while our technological know-how is continuing to increase, the technology we’re producing is becoming less and less robust and reliable. Nothing these days is built to last. The culprit is a US design principle called “product obsolescence” which first emerged last century and now forms the universal basis of all manufacturing. Bluntly-speaking, product obsolescence involves building long-term consumer markets by deliberately producing products that will quickly need to be superseded or replaced.
With China, India and many parts of the developing world increasing in prosperity and the size of their middle classes rapidly expanding, world consumption is on an exponential up curve. And consequently, the pursuit of energy efficiency coupled with product obsolescence is likely to put enormous demands on the world’s resources and hasten their depletion.
But changing our consumption habits in a world where economic security and prosperity are built on notions of ever-increasing growth is going to make averting disaster very difficult indeed.
- The world gets serious about science fiction – the not so secret driver of today’s innovation
Technology might be driving change, but increasingly science fiction is driving innovation. The line between science fiction and real world innovation is blurring. The Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA is filled with sci-fi memorabilia according to scientist, Dr Kevin Grazier and he says science fiction has been a major inspiration for him and his colleagues. Technology companies like Intel and research organisations like DARPA (the US Government’s major defence research organisation) now regularly employ and consult with sci-fi writers to get their ideas for future inventions and directions. Sci-fi writers now moonlight as technology predictors.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union has embraced the world of science fiction. ‘It’s an implicit part of how we think about things’, says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU’s Speech Privacy and Technology Program. And he says he’s been repeatedly surprised during his ten years with the ACLU at just how quickly technology has moved from science fiction to fact: ‘We’ve seen technologies emerge — such as body scanners, biometrics and radio frequency or RFID chips — and we’ve seen them go from being sexy media issues that really are very future-looking and theoretical, to very real civil liberties issues, to technologies that are being used by the authorities.’
Annalee Newitz, who runs a very popular and influential sci-fi blog out of San Francisco called i09, points out that references to science fiction regularly pop up in everything from the names of genes to the names of computer programs. Sure, it’s entertainment, she says, but the reason why real world companies and organisations are now turning to sc-fi for inspiration is that they see it as an effective means of refining product design. And as a ‘cultural test bed’. US writer Robert J Sawyer, who’s also an occasional advisor to NASA, describes it like this: ‘We’re not beholden to skittish funding bodies and so are free to speculate about the full range of impacts that new technologies might have — not just the upsides but the downsides, too. And we always look at human impact rather than couching research in vague, non-threatening terms.’