12.1. Blown To Bits

The book Blown to Bits does a wonderful job of laying out many of the effects of computing technology. These paragraphs from the book lay out its thesis and also elegantly describe our the concerns we should all have:

12.1.1. Good and Ill, Promise and Peril

The digital explosion has thrown a lot of things up for grabs, and we all have a stake in who does the grabbing. The way the technology is offered to us, the way we use it, and the consequences of the vast dissemination of digital information are matters not in the hands of technology experts alone. Governments and corporations and universities and other social institutions have a say. And ordinary citizens, to whom these institutions are accountable, can influence their decisions. Important choices are made every year, in government offices and legislatures, in town meetings and police stations, in the corporate offices of banks and insurance companies, in the purchasing departments of chain stores and pharmacies. We can all help raise the level of discourse and understanding. We can all help ensure that technical decisions are made in a context of ethical standards.

We offer two basic morals. First, information technology is inherently neither good nor bad; it can be used for good or ill, to free us or to shackle us. Second, new technologies bring social change, and change comes with both risks and opportunities. All of us, and all of our public agencies and private institutions, have a say in whether technology will be used for good or ill and whether we will fall prey to its risks or prosper from the opportunities it creates. Technology Is Neither Good nor Bad

Any technology can be used for good or ill; digital technologies, in particular, can be simultaneously good and bad. Nuclear reactions create electric power and weapons of mass destruction. These two uses share a common core but are otherwise quite distinct. Not so in the world after the digital explosion.

The same encryption technology that makes it possible for you to email your friends with confidence that no eavesdropper will be able to decipher your message also makes it possible for terrorists to plan their attacks undiscovered. The same Internet technology that facilitates the widespread distribution of educational works to impoverished students in remote locations also enables massive copyright infringement. The photomanipulation tools that enhance your snapshots are used by child pornographers to escape prosecution.

The same technologies can be used to monitor individuals, to track their behaviors, and to control what information they receive. Search engines need not return unbiased results. Many users of web browsers do not realize that the sites they visit archive their actions. There is probably a record of exactly what you have been accessing and when, as you browse a clothing or book store catalog, a site selling pharmaceuticals, or a service offering advice on contraception or drug overdose. There are vast opportunities to use this information for invasive but relatively benign purposes, such as marketing, and also for more questionable purposes, such as blacklisting and blackmail.

The key to managing the ethical and moral consequences of technology while nourishing economic growth is to regulate the use of technology without banning or restricting its creation.

Few regulations mandate disclosure that the information is being collected or restrict the use to which the data can be put. The USA PATRIOT Act and other federal laws give government agencies sweeping authority to sift through mostly innocent data looking for signs of “suspicious activity” by potential terrorists—and to notice lesser transgressions in the process. Although the World Wide Web reaches into millions of households, the rules and regulations governing it are not much better than those of a lawless frontier town of the Old West. New Technologies Bring Both Risks and Opportunities

The same large storage media that enable anyone to analyze millions of baseball statistics also allow anyone with access to confidential information to jeopardize its security. Access to aerial maps via the Internet makes it possible for criminals to plan burglaries of upscale houses, but technologically sophisticated police know that records of such queries can also be used to solve crimes.

Social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter have made their founders quite wealthy and have given birth to many thousands of new friendships, marriages, and other ventures. But interconnectivity has unexpected side effects, too. A woman in England discovered that her fiancé was married when Facebook suggested his wife as someone she might want as a friend. And in 2019 a Massachusetts college student committed suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of a parking garage, having received some 47,000 text messages, many allegedly abusive, from his girlfriend in the previous two months. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter—the same crime she might have been charged with had she instead struck him with her car while driving and texting. In a nation deeply committed to free expression as a legal right, which Internet evils should be crimes, and which are just wrong?

Vast data networks have made it possible to move work to where the people are, not people to the work. The results are enormous business opportunities for entrepreneurs who take advantage of these technologies and new enterprises around the globe, and also the other side of the coin: jobs lost to outsourcing. The difference every one of us can make, to our workplace or to another institution, can be to ask a question at the right time about the risks of some new technological innovation—or to point out the possibility of doing something in the near future that a few years ago would have been utterly impossible.

Materials on this page adapted with permission from:
Blown To Bits by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, Wendy Seltzer
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