I often get asked whether I support or oppose the intrusion of technology into every nook and cranny of our working and personal lives. The best way I can express how I feel is by drawing an analogy with the alcohol prohibition debate in the United States during the twentieth century.
Over many decades, the US struggled with public policy to manage the production and consumption of alcohol. My favourite speech of the long debate was by Noah S. Sweat in 1952:
You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
This is exactly how I feel about the threat of Big Brother (see Living as far from 1984 as Orwell). Technology is the monster that undermines the innocence of children through exposure to horrific material. It is the informer that allows governments to track our every movement. It is the temptation that distracts families from spending time with each other.
But, technology also means access to information that simplifies our every day. It is the source of entertainment that our families can share. It has opened up new shared resources like holiday houses that were never previously available to rent. On a good day, I am grateful for the public safety benefits of the monitoring of our city streets, convenience of digital maps and learning support of electronic tutoring. With so much to gain, how could I possible not be in favour?
Either way, it is the reality of the world we live in (see Living without a trace of Big Data). While I’ve argued in the past for greater regulation (see The internet was a mistake, now let’s fix it), it is too late to debate whether we accept or reject technology. Rather, we need to navigate the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personas of the machines that we’ve created.
The analogy with alcohol gives us some reason for optimism. While prohibition didn’t work in the US, and we are yet to solve the scourge of alcoholism, consumption is dropping in many countries, particularly amongst younger people. It’s possible to conclude that society does learn over time from the mistakes of the past.
Like the trends in alcohol, will we start to see greater moderation in the use of technology in society? If so, rather than try to come-up with permanent solutions we should try to minimise harm to the current generation and have more confidence in the future. This suggests more regulation, oversight and education is needed and some members of society will always need support to use technology for their own benefit.
The issue today is that smartphones and tablets have suddenly exploded into the market with no context and with users having little to help them manage the new temptations. This is similar to the worries our parents and grandparents had about the introduction of television and the influence of advertising. It seems ridiculous today, when we worry about social media’s influence on elections, that only a few decades ago many of the same concerns were being raised about political advertising on television.
I remain in favour of technology. I know that too many controls on data privacy will diminish its power. However, I worry that not every ill will get sorted out through the market over time and much damage could be done in the meantime. We need a deliberate approach to minimise the harm of technology and allow society time to adapt and adopt approaches for everyone’s benefit.