Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Jan 9, 2011 MetaIssues

Technology and Society

In the previous column I suggested the following four categories to help explore the relationships between Technology and Society:

Personal Freedom vs Societal Security
Intellectual Property Rights vs Freedom of Expression
Dehumanization/ReHumanization and Loss of Autonomy
Artificial Intelligence and the Limits of Technology

As I indicated then, these categories are somewhat oversimplified because they cannot capture all of the complex and changing relationships between computers and society, and so we would expect some problems that do not neatly fit into our four categories.
 Here is an example, in the form of a joke, that I received from a friend via email:
“A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 40 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So,the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida and his wife was going to fly down on the next day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an Email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her Email address and without realizing his error, sent the Email. Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her Email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

>To: My Loving Wife
> Subject: I've Arrived
I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you’re allowed to send Emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!  Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here.

Even though this joke is only a few years old, it feels older --- most modern email systems have short cuts or address books that automatically complete our contact’s addresses and so this situation would hardly arise. In fact, statistics gathered by Media Metrix show that email use is declining in favor of texting, twittering and other forms of chat within social networks --- especially in the the 55+ age group. But the joke does raise an important meta-issue beyond the four proposed categories: Has the advent of the Internet caused any real new problems that require new solutions or are the problems not of a different kind, but only of a different degree and thus can be handled quite nicely by existing ethics and laws?  In the case of this joke, mistyping an address or misdialing a phone number is an old problem we had well before the Internet appeared. What makes this a problem (albeit a funny one) is the ease and the speed with which we can communicate that is made possible by the existence of the Internet and how it can magnify seemingly small errors.

Cyber-Bullying is another concrete situation when considering how to handle ethical issues raised by technology. Is the problem soluble by existing moral and ethical rules or do we need new ones to adapt to the changing times? All societies must deal with the bullying problem, cyber or not, if they are to be cohesive and fruitful --- so in that sense we can just apply the existing laws and rules. However, it is also true that technology has made bullying easier and more pervasive, so that must also be taken into consideration. In other words, is this meta-issue a difference in degree or a difference in kind?  Perhaps it is both, but I tend to side with Thomas Jefferson who wrote over 200 years ago, “New circumstances call for new words, new phrases, and transfer of old words to new objects.”  Computer technology which is the foundation of the Internet certainly qualifies as “new circumstances” and, as such, has expanded and accelerated all of our communication networks. As a result, the Internet has both enriched and complicated our lives --- truly a double-edged sword. And there’s no turning back.

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