Almost every day we learn about new scientific discoveries and technological innovations. In fact, there are so many, it's hard to keep track of them. While very few of us make a regular habit of tracking new science and technology, some people specialize in that. It's a very good thing!
One group that does this is the Reilly Center at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN. Besides staying on top of new developments, the people at Reilly focus attention on the ethical and moral implications of new technology. Where most of us focus on the "wow factor" of new technology, the Reilly people make a point to dig into the unintended consequences of all those shiny new objects. In fact, they put out an annual list of the top 10 ethical dilemmas in science and technology.
Here's what's on the 2018 list:
Hopefully, you haven't been a victim. If you have, you've got plenty of company!
The Chinese system will rate people in four areas: a) shopping habits; b) credit rating; c) online behavior; and d) friend connections.
The list makes for interesting reading, but like the people at the Reilly Center, it should also point out the downside of shiny new technology. Let me share seven important things to keep in mind.
#1: Every technological "good" seems to have unintended consequences
When you see new technology, what's the first thing that comes to your mind? For most people it's one of two things: a) Wow, I could do a lot of amazing things with this!; or b) what would I ever do with this? Even if your reaction is the latter, that often changes as the technology is put into practice. You've probably heard that when the original Xerox photocopy machine came out, it wasn't expected to be successful because no one really appreciated what it could do at the time. Likewise, "experts" at the time said the total market for computers would be about 100 or so machines! Guess they got that one wrong!
However, the last thing you're likely to consider about the new technology is its unintended consequences. Sometimes those are positive, as in the long term success of the Xerox photocopier and the computer. Too often, however, the unintended consequences of the new technology are negative. That's what the Reilly Center people do. What most of us fail to consider is that all these new gadgets and software seem to have unintended negative consequences.
Consider #10 on this year's list. It's an app that ordinary citizens can use to do live reporting of crime. Users can film crime scenes in progress and help speed up the response of the police. Your first thought probably is, that's likely to be very helpful to the police. After all, citizen-generated video has brought cases of police brutality out of the shadows.
True, but the New York Police Department is concerned that apps such as this will lead to "vigilante justice". When crimes occur, who do you want to respond? Is it the police, or a vigilante mob?
#2: There are way more issues than you ever imagined
Now you think, the "citizen app" is just one piece of technology, maybe it's just an "outlier"? Unfortunately, most everything seems to have unintended consequences. It's just a question of when those unintended things become apparent.
Computer networking technology, as well as the emergence of "apps" that can easily be downloaded onto your mobile phone, has been hugely beneficial to nearly everyone. However, those very technologies have permitted the emergence of "ransomware", where instead of kidnapping you, criminals "kidnap" your computer and/or phone and demand a ransom, often to be paid using Bitcoin or other alternative "currency" that's hard to trace. Did you see that one coming?
#3: You probably won't anticipate the harm until it happens
As with the case of the "citizen app", or the software technology that makes "ransomeware" possible, you probably won't think about the negative, unintended consequences until after a situation arises. That's not surprising. After all, most of us have way better things on which to spend our time than focus on the unintended consequences of new technology. The good news is, somebody does spend time on this sort of thing. So what the people at places such as the Reilly Center are doing is largely unheralded, but very important.
#4: Expect the unexpected, and the unintended
What this points out is the need to "expect the unexpected". When we first encounter the shiny new object - the new phone that will do all kinds of amazing things - we should approach it with an attitude of caution and skepticism, or at least with the expectation that there are very likely going to be unintended consequences, so be cautious.
But how often do we do that? Unfortunately, not very often. Not only that, but when you visit that sleek Apple retail store, do you see warning signs posted to maintain vigilance when using Apple's computers, phones, and software? Of course not! And we shouldn't expect Apple, or other vendors, to put up prominent warnings.
#5: Maintain a level of healthy skepticism
Instead of prominently displayed warning signs, an important thing is to approach new technology with a good dose of skepticism. I'm not saying you should be a latter day Luddite – the people in 19th century England who smashed the new machines they feared would take aware their jobs. Instead, approach each new gadget/software device with the attitude that while it could potentially be very beneficial, it will most likely have unintended consequences.
Before you adopt the new technology, you need to focus at least a little bit of attention on those unintended consequences. If you are the parent of children who aren't yet adults, you need to be paying attention to the technology the kids have.
But like most everyone else, you don't have a lot of time, so what can you do? My suggestion is simply to get in the mindset of expecting unintended consequences. The most basic one is, if I adopt the new device/gadget/software, it's going to take at least some of my time. What am I prepared to give up? Alternatively, you ask, if I wanted to create mischief, how might I misuse the new technology?
#6: You can only focus your attention on a few issues, so pick carefully
Of course, unless you're one of those unusual persons who want to make a career of studying the unintended consequences of technology – and maybe go to work for an organization such as the Reilly Center at Notre Dame – you don't have much time to devote to this sort of thing. What do you do?
#7: Find a trusted source to provide guidance, and maybe some wisdom
Very likely, you can only pay attention to one or two issues at a time, so pick those very carefully. Absent that, find a good place to turn when you have questions about a new technology. Lot's of people rely on third party experts such as Snopes to help ferret out questionable news stories. What is your "reliable source" to help identify the unintended consequences of technology?
Or, if like me, you belong to a Christian church, or some other faith community, look for guidance and wisdom there. As an example, just because the Christian Bible says absolutely nothing about the modern technology at your fingertips, it offers profound wisdom when dealing subjects such as this.
In the meantime, get in the habit of expecting the unexpected, and not being surprised when people come to realize that there are unintended consequences to pretty much every new technology.
No need to be a Luddite. Just maintain a healthy skepticism … and find a group such as the Reilly Center, or the experts in a faith community, to help you stay on top of the ethical issues and unintended consequences associated with technology.