Does Technology Threaten the Future of Society?

Remember the July 2008 Atlantic Article by Nicolas Carr titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Turns out that article was very prescient in its observations that we are relying more and more on Google for our research and less on gained or retained knowledge. As a kid, I used to have dozens of phone numbers memorized, but today I couldn’t tell you the phone numbers of my closet colleagues because I rely on my mobile phone to be an extension of my memory.

Does extending this knowledge into external devices provide extra capacity for other knowledge or does it establish a dangerous precedent or retaining less knowledge and relying on what the machines tell us is the truth? Imagine the impact now of technology embedded everywhere making life just a little bit easier by reducing the simple tasks to the point where we don’t have to think about them anymore. This means we will not learn as much through the experience of doing these tasks. Meanwhile more surveillance and tech designed to make us comply with the desires of big companies, states and schools are making us more compliant in ways we have not thought through enough.

What if the result of this trend is to make us more like the robots we once feared in our science fiction? Sounds dystopian doesn’t it? What if the real threat to our jobs is not that artificial intelligence displaces workers, but that future workers are not smart or creative enough to do the higher order work humans are required for?

Now more than ever we need a dose of quality tech philosophy that can help us shape a better future. We need more and deeper explanations of what is going on around us and what may come to pass. We need more detailed and focused thoughts on the ethics of the choices we make with how we use technology. We also need a more in depth understanding of precisely how technology is threatening our humanity, and we need that insight before we blindly accept this evolution to augmentation.

These issues were highlighted for me in the book Re-Engineering Humanity: How Technology Threatens The Future Of Society by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, which provides focused thought into the creeping dangers of the ubiquitous technology we have surrounded ourselves with, specifically focusing on the social technologies that pose the greatest threats to our ability to think critically.

Frischmann and Selinger are the perfect duo to examine these many trends and help us all think through the nature of the tech world we are building. Frischimann is a law professor who teaches courses in intellectual property, internet law, privacy and technology policy and is a prolific author. Selinger is a professor of philosophy with a deep background in technology, law, science and public engagement. He is also a prolific researcher and writer.

Frischmann and Selinger capture many of the biggest drivers of our future technology environment in their articulation of the concept of “techno-social engineering.” The techno-social part of this term embodies the many critical social elements at play here, including those being designed and fielded by small tech startups and big tech giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, Twitter. The engineering element of this term implies design. “Techno-social engineering” has many components we need to examine, including surveillance, data protection, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence.

The book attacks the topic of techno-social engineering with a deep scholarly depth and fantastic writing style. As they paint a picture of the current status of technology in humanity and examine tradeoffs inherent in passing off so many little tasks to our computer and cloud assistants.

This book has shaped my views and will most certainly help steer my personal relationship with technology, including steering my future writing on the subject of technology. I have always believed that we technologists should accept a special responsibility for helping others examine the ethics of technology, and this book helps make that point more than ever. To do less is to cede arguments of wrong and right to either the big tech and entertainment companies or to governments. This imperils our freedom. Adding to this, hostile governments, criminal groups, terrorists and many other bad actors are learning tech as fast as it is being fielded and are using it to wage cyberwar against the more civil elements of humanity. This category of bad actors is hardly examined in the book and I hope will be the topic of future examination by Frischmann and Selinger, we certainly need their focused technology philosophy on this element of our future.

The book Re-Engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger will help us all gain better understanding of techno-social engineering and help us think through what we want and don’t want in our future. This is an incredible work that should be studied by every thinking human. It captures details on threats, documenting the many warnings we are already seeing. More importantly it provides tips on how we can all think through the issues in ways to mitigate challenges and optimize our tech enabled future.

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm. He is the publisher of CTOvision.com and ThreatBrief.com and is also a co-founder and partner of Cognitio.