Given the many life and death threats facing our species, an algorithm to help identify which challenges are imminent and which can wait five minutes sounds great. Unfortunately, technology is part of the problem. The more we rely on it, the more we are likely to find ourselves in a dystopian world.
We want Facebook to weed out political misinformation, for example, forgetting our freedom of speech is at risk. To invite censorship is to give up control of what we see and hear to an intermediary whose judgment, now and into the future, we can’t ascertain.
Some imagine Artificial Intelligence might be a good arbiter of what’s fit to print because it lacks emotional bias. On the surface that seems true, though giving up judgment to machines is hugely dystopian and forgets that these devices come with “back doors.” Amazon’s Alexa appears to do our bidding, but someone inside the company may be listening.
Which poses another threat. Do we want to live under constant surveillance? In the United States, we have more than 50 million devices observing us in our streets. That number will grow as companies like Nest and Ring convince us we should invite cameras into our homes. Peace of mind they call it, and in a way, it’s true. When the camera is pointed at someone else, we feel safer. But what if it isn’t pointed at someone else? What if it’s pointed at us?
China uses surveillance to control its citizens, denying them the right to gather in public places. Without a general marketplace for opinion, freedom suffocates.
I don’t for a moment believe Mark Zuckerberg foresaw the power of algorithms when he enabled Harvard students to gossip among themselves. Frankly, each time he testifies before Congress, he looks mystified.
To blame him and his ilk for the conundrums technology poses to our society is facile. If we are honest, responsibility for democracy lies with each of us. Neither Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, nor Musk can foresee the future. Ditto for the rest of us. Even so, each of us has an obligation to think about the future. Gobbling up the convenience technology brings us with no regard for consequences is a mistake.