There are times when it is fair to feel somewhat ambivalent about the benefits of technology.
As Benjamin Franklin once said (and he’s been misquoted by so many): “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
You will hear this quote come up from time to time in debates around technology, privacy and surveillance, and occasionally when large-scale breaches of private information have occurred.
It may not matter that, in the context in which Franklin was writing, the quote means almost, but not quite, the opposite of what people generally think it means. Franklin was arguing that a community’s ability to defend itself, and to tax its citizens, was an essential liberty that would be contemptible to trade. The quote so neatly describes that tension between convenience and privacy that it is still useful re-contextualised, even when it is actually arguing for government intervention and defence spending.
I found myself thinking of those words again recently as I contemplated the mad skills of our friends at Equifax, the US credit bureau that was hacked. Incompetence is not new in business, but technology has provided a capacity for scale that also renders it completely unable to cope when it has to deal with actual humans. Who can answer the urgent phone calls of 143 million customers?
Thankfully, they didn’t have to: reports suggest fewer than 15 million have tried to access the Equifax site since the breach was announced. These days there seems to be a resignation to signing away our rights in order to access products and services. The agreements around smartphones, internet, email, financial services, all require a level of agreement to give up your details without having any real say, at a personal level, in how the relevant companies store or guard your information.
In the end, when any organisation – be it government, business or otherwise – has access to that much information there exists the potential for it to be misused or mishandled.
In August, legendary US musician David Byrne wrote an article for the MIT Technology Review, titled ‘Eliminating the Human’.
As he observes, whether deliberate or not, there are a slew of services – online ordering, home delivery, digital music, ride-hailing apps, driverless cars, automated checkouts, robotic workforce, gaming and so on – where the trend to eliminating or reducing human interaction is prominent.
It can be tempting to avoid interaction and the attendant potential discomforts, but the risk is that increasingly we become siloed into tribal bubbles and echo chambers. Recent evidence of the effects of that is hardly encouraging.
Byrne also notes that social networks can be a source of unhappiness. A study earlier this year by two social scientists, Holly Shakya at UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis at Yale University, showed that the more people use Facebook, the worse they feel about their lives.
Facetiousness compels the observation that this effect may, in fact, be the most successful simulation of real human contact that the virtual world has achieved, but the point remains that we are social creatures whose networks of relationships are what allow us to thrive.
Facebook recently passed two billion users, so that’s roughly a quarter of the world feeling worse about themselves than they might be otherwise. Given the access to technology required to participate, it’s also presumably the wealthiest quarter of the world. So, maybe it’s just the universe balancing itself.
And maybe I’m just old and grumpy.