The other side of tech

Throughout much of my career in high tech, I’ve experienced the promise of how high tech would make things better for the world. We’d having flying cars, robots doing our housework and more time to spend with our families. Well, it’s safe to say that it was a rosy prediction that never considered the downside of tech. The optimism has been perpetuated by the engineers, investors and the press, each for different reasons. Engineers rarely see the downside, investors were intent on making  money and the press took their cues from press releases usually without understanding what they were writing about.

Yes, we can point to great advances in tech by just looking around our homes. Huge flat panel TVs costing less than an old Sony Trinitron, electric cars, streaming video on demand, pocket computers packaged as a wireless phone, and face to face video calls.  Where we fell short was rarely giving consideration to how technology would be misused when it was being designed, and rarely making allowances for it. Few imagined the lack of morality or plain evil in the world that would find ways to take advantage. The  internet makes it as easy to exploit us from the other side of the world as from next door.

There has been probably as much innovation and development on the dark side of tech that’s been used to scheme, steal, spy, and find new ways to make money off of new technology and our own naivite. And it’s probably never been more evident than this year.

We have social media being used to manipulate reality, to perpetuate false science, convince some that up is down, and to damage societies and democracies around the world. It’s easy to see how it’s been responsible for thousands of deaths. While it’s people that are exploiting tech, it’s all facilitated by these networks and products that amplify and disseminate in an instant. We’ve learned that where there’s an opportunity to commit a crime, someone will do it.

Another example, fortunately more benign, but one we all experience, is robocalling and scams calls. This is a problem we’ve experienced for years, yet it continues to get worse. Everyday I get 5 to 20 calls from scammers telling me my computer needs fixing, I won a free vacation, or the IRS needs information.  No one, not our government, the phone providers, the hardware makers, or software companies have been able to stop it. It makes no sense.  You would think the cellular companies would, but most come up with half-baked solutions and want to charge you extra to use it. So if we can’t fix something everyone despises, how can we fix the bigger problems?

Sadly, what I’m concluding is we just don’t have the resources, the intelligence or the willpower to deal with these ever increasing problems.

Now, of course it’s not all gloom and doom. Technology has done wonders in medicine and new treatments for once incurable diseases. Technology has reduced our dependency on fossil fuels. And technology has made it easier for many to get through the pandemic. But we’d all be better off to consider technology, not as the dream we once thought, and look it with more critical eyes and realize that it brings us both the good and the awful.

by Phil Baker