Technology is an Autocracy - and the Risk from Externalities is Growing

I suspect this is not an idea that many have considered. To date, as a society we really have not appreciated how technological change occurs and we certainly have rarely considered the governance of new change. When we have a discovery or an advancement of science, like all other inventions, it isn’t accomplished based upon the will of the majority. There is no vote, there is no consideration for society at-large (externalities). Rarely is the downside risk considered. One person sees a problem. Their own personal view of that problem and they aim to fix it. That is entreprenuerial, the foundation upon which much of Western Capitalism is built. It is also Authoritarian. One person, one rule and little or no accountability. Scary when you think about it. When you combine this “process” and lack of control with our species’ other great skill, “problem solving”, you create technological innovation and advancement which has a momentum that feels unstoppable. In fact, if you even “suggest” (which I am not) halting technological progress you get one of two response, “Luddite” or “You can’t”. That is how inexorable society views technological change.

So let me explain this in more detail, all technological advancement is about someone, somewhere seeing a problem, a weakness, a difficulty, a challenge and deciding to overcome that challenge. It’s admirable and impressive. It’s also creating problems. As a species we poorly weigh all aspects of a decision, all the pros and all the cons. Will we make money from this? Is this advancement, “cool”, Does this make my life “easier” are often the only inputs to our production/purchase decisions. There is a broad societal acceptance that “easier”, “freer” and “convenient” are universally beneficial. A simple counter-argument, of course, can be found in the gym. Your muscles would insist that “easier”, “freer” and”convenient” are not the best way for them to be strengthened or stamina to be built. They require “challenge”, “difficulty” and “strain” in order to grow and improve.

So when a new advance comes along, if it makes our life easier, even in the smallest way, we snatch it up instantly. Take, for example, Alexa and Google Home. Hugely successful products already, but was it really that difficult to type out our search query? Defenders will say things like, “now I can search while I am doing something else” or “this frees up my hands to be more productive”. And of course supporters point to the disabled for the obvious assistance to someone who is unable to type. But let’s examine the other side of the coin. What are the downside risks to such a product? Usually, not part of the sales process, I’m afraid, so you have to think carefully to compile a list. For example, our verbal search, has it caused us to lose a different skill, like the unchallenged muscle, whereby the finding of the solution was equally as important as the actual answer. But on top of that specific challenge, (the lost process and associated effort that may have strengthened the muscle, which in this case is the mind), what are some of the associated externalities to voice assistants? Let’s take a look at a few.

Is that search query worth having Amazon or Google record EVERY SINGLE WORD your family speaks within hearing distance? How about considering the fact that Amazon and Google now build personal profiles about your preferences based upon this information. Do you realize that this then limits your search results accordingly? Companies are taking CHOICE away from you and suprisingly, people don’t seem to care, in fact some like the idea. Other externalities exist as well. Recently, an Alexa recorded the conversation of a family and sent it to random contacts.

An Amazon Echo recorded a family's conversation, then sent it to a random person in their contacts…
A family in Portland, Ore., received a nightmarish phone call two weeks ago. "Unplug your Alexa devices right now," a…www.washingtonpost.com

Or this externality?

Alexa and Siri Can Hear This Hidden Command. You Can't.
BERKELEY, Calif. - Many people have grown accustomed to talking to their smart devices, asking them to read a text…www.nytimes.com

Without getting too paranoid, this last one is downright creepy and dystopian, but its potential ramifications are catastrophic if carried to the extreme. I am certain that when you decided to purchase your voice assistant, none of these externalities were factored into your buying decision.

I use this as a real life example, because our evaluation of new technology is based upon bad math. Is it cool? Is it easier? Is it profitable? and Can I afford it/afford to be without it? Nowhere in that equation are the following:

1) Does it further eliminate privacy?

2) Does it make me lazy or more dependent upon a machine?

3) Does to keep me from using all aspects of my brain as much?

4) Does it allow me to interact with actual humans less?

5) What new and different risks are associated with this product?

6) If someone wants to do me harm, does this enable them to do so in an unforseen way?

One of the chief arguments of technological advancement is that it frees us up from the mundane, routine tasks. To assume that those tasks do not have value is ludicrous on its face, but more importantly, if we are “freed” up, what are we freed up to do? Usually, we are told it is high-minded things… be entrepreneurial… be poetic… be deep thinkers… solve bigger problems… spend more time with loved ones. To be honest, I don’t see an explosion of those endeavors. A further example of our bad math…

We adopt these technological advancements often without thought about the impact it may have on our psyche, our self-worth, our ambitions, or our safety. We make these choices because they are cool, or they make something easier. With purchase decision processes that are this simple and “upside-only” considered, developers of technology have it easy to make products attractive.

This blog post has only lightly touched on malice, but all of society should be concerned about malicious intent and technology’s impact on our suceptibility. The more connected we are, the more dependent upon technology we are, the easier it is to cause mass harm. Perfect examples are recent virus attacks that spread to over 47 countries in a matter of a few hours. Sometimes the consequences are minor such as locked up computers or minor hassles we deal with like corrupted programs. Other times the hacker/criminal steals money or spies on you. Regardless of the magnitude of the impact, the ability of a criminal to “reach you” and “reach many” has been increased almost infinitely.

Here’s a final externality — how would you function without Internet? Not just for an hour or two, but permanenetly? How about without power? These are modern day conveniences that are assumed to be permenent, but how permanent are they? Do you need to consider how to operate when they are gone? Our connectivity and reliance on power make us deeply dependent and woefully unprepared for these alternatives, even if the odds of occurence are small. Hollywood frequently paints a grim picture of the dystopian existence when these conveniences are taken away, however, our ancestors existed quite nicely. Would you be prepared to survive or even thrive? The chances of these calamities are greater than zero…

Awareness of externalities is important, Consideration about downside risk is crucial and a willingness to realize that everything we do or even purchase has pros AND cons to them… The more awareness of the “cons” that you have, the better chance you have to mitigate those risks and reap a greater benefit from the upside of our technology choices. Most importantly, as a society, we will make better collective decisions on our technological progress and thwart the dangers of Technological Autocracy.