The Unintended Consequences of Transparent Lives

James Heim
by James Heim 27 Feb, 2017
:: Information and communication technologies affect diversity and freedom ::

The astounding gains in information access and processing that have been achieved through information and communications technologies (ICTs) - and by consequence gains in quality of life and productivity - are common knowledge, but many fail to consider the unintended consequences of these technologies and the need to more vigorously address these issues.

Unintended consequences

All technologies create unintended consequences. Those connected to our gains in mobility are well known and serve as a reminder that we cannot create only those effects we intend. We apply our technologies in the highly complex realms of individual and social circumstances, as well as in those of natural and technological environments. And so it's not surprising that our inventions create unintended effects, some of which we come to see as undesirable or negative.

By increasingly submitting human life to technologically defined processes and systems, our ICTs reach deeper into our lives, systematically channeling them, and thus making them become more standard. Standardization leads to fewer options, and so to less choice and independence. Our ICTs also make our lives more transparent and accessible; not only for family and friends, but also for governments and corporations. This subjects us to diminished privacy and more control. Developments like these are affecting our degree of freedom.

Appropriate complacency?

Currently, we seem not too concerned with corporations and governments channeling our lives and gaining access to our thoughts (e.g., social posts, searches) and activities (e.g., searches, posts, purchases). This is understandable, as for now, most of us are not exposed to the potential harm that can come out of undue corporate and government reach. When we can reap the wonderful benefits of a tool, we tend to have a hard time concerning ourselves with the potential dangers of that tool.

However, one of the main lessons of history is that power corrupts. This isn't primarily a question of morality. This is primarily a reality of human behavior. Great power would need qualities like a deep sense of responsibility and modesty, as well as much self-awareness and self-restraint to be counterbalanced. It's an age-old realization that almost no humans, if any at all, have what it takes to use great power in non-selfish, responsible ways.

Technology has always been equivalent with power. As modern technologies become increasingly powerful they, by consequence, grant increasingly powerful means to fulfill economic and political interests. Ideally these interests are more or less aligned with those of broader society. But, as we all know - and to put it mildly - that is not always the case.

How can we move away from the kind of technological value creation that brings with it further deterioration of privacy and further standardizing? Some companies like DuckDuckGo try to address problematic aspects of ICTs with alternative approaches, but much more is needed.  

Our species' greatest challenge

The challenge we face is huge and goes far beyond the vagaries of ICTs or technology in general. What we are faced with has at least as much to do with ourselves: what do we want the human experience to be? As Einstein once put it: "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind."

This grand challenge - arguably the greatest in our human history - has been building ever since our species came into existence. It is inherent in humanity's relationship with technology and is in our times coming to a head: how do we change the ways in which we invent and apply technology so that we can sustain a human experience in diversity and freedom?

Before we can find specific answers we must be able to formulate the relevant questions. Before we seek a willingness for change we must first seek a willingness to face all parts of the realities we are creating, not just the positive, beneficial ones. Only through a deeper understanding of what we are facing will we find a willingness to go beyond our current handling of symptoms and create the cultural effort it will take to make meaningful changes.

Why is privacy so important? How does it help shape opinions and the exchange of them? Why is the shaping of opinions and the free exchange of them so important for a free and democratic society? What are the benefits of a free and democratic society? How has humanity benefited from the diversity it has brought about over the course of its history? And apart from tangible benefits, do we see beauty in that variety? To what degree are we willing to stand up for freedom and diversity?

Of course the questions addressed here go well beyond ICTs. The developments taking place in genetic manipulation for instance are bound to create similar questions and challenges. There are so many angels to our bond with technology. But lastly it's one phenomenon: humanity's relationship with technology.

The issues with technology we notice the most, and are the most familiar with, are often those that are particular to our professional circumstances. In simply talking about these issues with our colleagues and friends we make a contribution to this grand transition toward a new technology culture; that is, if we see the need for one.

James Heim graduated with a masters in economics and worked with various technology companies, which informed the research for his book Voluntary Enslavement: Technology's Fast Development Reduces Diversity and Freedom.