Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dec 12, 2010 Introduction

When Henry David Thoreau was purportedly asked by a reporter for his opinion of the telephone, the new technology of the mid-nineteenth century, he replied, in a nutshell, “Not much”. “But why not?” prodded the reporter, “It would allow a man in Maine to be able to talk to a man in Texas!” Thoreau is reputed to have responded, “What would a man in Maine have to say to a man in Texas?” This story may be apocryphal as Alexander Graham Bell did not make a public demonstration of his invention until several years after Thoreau died but the idea of a telephone existed within his lifetime. Back then, Thoreau’s acerbic response might have made sense but today we are a much more connected nation and global society due in no small part to technological advances like radio, TV, and computers which make possible the Internet.

What I’d like to do in this column is explore the relationships between technology, especially computer technology, and society, specifically societal issues like culture, ethics, politics and economics. The other side of  the technology-society relationship is just as important: how does society influence technology?  This is a tall order and to address this problem, I’ve broken it down into four somewhat oversimplified areas:

            Personal Freedom vs Societal Security

Security and liberty were two of the major issues our founding fathers wrestled with during the creation of the Constitution in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unusual searches and seizures”, Privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution but most of us would consider our personal privacy an important part of our liberty or individual freedom. As Justice Brandeis in 1890, succinctly put it, “Privacy is the right to be let alone”. The cartoon cover of 2007 New Yorker magazine  graphically illustrates a privacy problem prompted by technology (That's a cell phone camera the kid is training on his startled parents). A mild example of the tradeoff  between personal freedom and the security of our society is the fact that we are required to remove our shoes during security checks at airports. A strong example was described in the Viewpoint Section of the Editorial page in the 9/28 Press Republican: At the Champlain border crossing, a citizen of the US had his laptop confiscated so that security could access his files. This action might seem reasonable to many but the Bill of Rights protects all citizens from “unreasonable search”. On the other hand, Homeland Security claims the right to “seize any electronic devices, including laptops, without reasonable suspicion that the possessor had done anything wrong.” A federal suit is in progress to determine whether societal security trumps personal freedom. An even stronger example is the number of surveillance cameras in public places linked to vast computer databases that can use “mining” programs to make inferences about what the camera sees. Currently the national “Stop Distracted Driving” campaign is focused on stopping drivers from texting while driving. On the one hand, society has the right to protect us from ourselves (texting while driving can cause accidents and thus raise health care costs that we all share indirectly). On the other hand, one could argue that this is too much infringement on my liberty, my personal freedom. After all, the same arguments were being made when radios were first introduced in automobiles (they were a distraction) but it does seem that we’ve managed to adapt so they no longer pose a hazard. On the other other hand, I am easily distracted and always have to turn off my radio when entering unknown territory that requires reading road signs--- especially at highway speeds.

Intellectual Property Rights vs Freedom of Expression
Most of us already know that Freedom of Expression is granted to all US citizens by the very first amendment to our Constitution in the Bill of Rights. . However, as we will see in more detail in subsequent columns, the oldest media  such as soapboxes, books and newspapers, have more protection than newer technologies like Radio, TV, and the Internet.  Property rights are an essential part of the functioning of  all societies and are protected by law in ours. But the conception of what constitutes property has evolved to include Intellectual Property, defined by Michael J. Quinn in “Ethics for the Information Age” as:  “any unique product of the human intellect that has commercial value. Examples of intellectual property are books, music, movies, plays, paintings, chemical formulas, and computer software.” So, not only is the software that I am using to type this article the intellectual property of Microsoft, the article itself, after being published will become the intellectual property of the Press Republican.  An example of the conflict between property rights and freedom of expression is called “music piracy ‘ by the recording industry (firms like Sony and Warner ) and is called “file sharing” by millions of Internet users. If I own a music file on my computer why can’t I share it with a friend? “Because it is intellectual property covered by copyright law and sharing it is theft.” is the response of the recording industry. As the speed and capacity of the Internet expands this problem has only grown worse. The resolution of this issue has important economic consequences and will be discussed in future columns.

            Dehumanization/ReHumanization and Loss of Autonomy
This category includes the effects of automation --- does it create or destroy more jobs and are the newly created jobs more dehumanizing that the old ones or do they simply require adaptations (rehumanization) on the part of the employees? Does more technology in the workplace lay more or fewer demands on employees? In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon published over 10 years ago, the first few frames show Calvin’s father at home working on his PC and grumbling about the fact that before computers when asked to produce a report he would have several days to prepare it.. Nowadays, he was expected to get it back the next day. More and more was expected from him due to the improved technology of the computer. In the last frame, Calvin is shown in front of a microwave oven reading the instructions for a bag of popcorn and exclaiming, “6 minutes for a bag of popcorn!! Who’s got that kind of time?” . It would seem that while technology provides us with the means to get jobs done more quickly, our expectations rise even  faster and this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction and not the good life promised by technology.  Globalization (homogenization of culture facilitated by the Internet) , and the Digital Divide (how the Internet divides us based on race, class and gender) are two more factors that contribute to this issue. Finally, will the Internet improve or degrade our democratic republic? In future columns we will explore the positive and the negative effects of technology on our democracy.

Artificial Intelligence and the Limits of Technology
There’s an old joke that goes: artificial intelligence is like artificial insemination --- it works pretty well but it’s not nearly as satisfying as the real thing. But is working “pretty well” good enough to trust a machine to do what used to be a human being’s job? Before we can answer that question, we have to examine some other questions first.
What is Intelligence? Is it centralized in the brain or could it be distributed throughout the body? (a pianist’s fingers can sometimes look as if they have their own intelligence) Can a computer exhibit intelligence? Can a network of computers?  From these questions it  would seem that intelligence requires some complex interaction between thinking, consciousness, creativity, learning, language and memory about which we have various degrees of incomplete knowledge. Less than 100 years ago, one measure of intelligence was to be able to add up  long lists of numbers accurately;  now that simple, cheap calculators can do the job, it is no longer considered a sign of intelligence. It seems that once a machine can be built to do something “intelligent” then we change the definition to not include that process. It’s very difficult to hit a moving target.

As you can see, even with breaking the issues and problems down into four categories, there is and will continue to be tensions in the relationship between Technology and Society. I will continue to explore them in future columns.

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