Saturday, April 10, 2010

Technology, Privacy and Choice

I've been thinking much in recent years about the state of communications technology, as it has advanced so rapidly that I sometimes find it overwhelming. Years ago, Alvin Toffler, in the book Future Shock, imagined how societal changes could be so rapid that people would find it hard to keep up. As a scientist, who was always ahead of the game in terms of computers, I never imagined a time when technological change would just fly by.

In some ways recent changes in technology are miraculous and amazingly useful. Hear a few lyrics of a song, do a Google search, and find out the title. Within a few minutes, it can be purchased and downloaded. Amazing. Or it is remarkable to be able to find certain research articles electronically instead of having to make day-long ventures to libraries (although that was fun too).

However, modern communications technology brings many privacy concerns. I'm not sure how many people realize the growing ability of government agencies (or businesses if they were ever allowed access to such information) to track where people carrying phones or other electronic devices are at anytime, and to link together the electronic trails people leave whenever they use an ATM (automatic teller machine), supermarket discount cards, and so forth. Separately, that information seems pretty harmless. But it is truly scary to think of records that include a list of someone's eating habits, everywhere they like to take walks, and (thanks to Facebook) a list of many of their friends and relatives, with similar information about those people too. Now imagine an agency having a complete record of all this for everyone. What seemed inconceivable years ago, is well within technological abilities right now.

The other aspect of technology I've been ruminating about is choice. I think that no one should be forced to use any given technology. I know people, who for various reasons, don't own televisions, or never use the internet. I think that is fine -- it offers more time to read books. Personally, I treasure handwritten letters and notes. Some people nowadays don't have home phones but just use mobile phones, while others prefer only home phones and avoid the use of mobile phones. Those sound like reasonable choices to me. However, I do hear some people reacting in a state of veritable shock if some individual doesn't use a certain technology. I really think it should be up to individuals to decide how much technology feels comfortable for them.

Finally, communications technology can erode the boundary between home and work. Once again, that is fine for some, but it should be a matter of choice. People have the right to draw a line between the two, and enjoy unfettered relaxation or family time, unless their profession requires an immediate response to emergency situations, such as doctors on call.

A visionary writer who anticipated many of the issues of technology and privacy was Ray Bradbury. In "The Pedestrian" he imagined people being arrested for taking walks instead of driving, and in "The Murderer" he pictured a world where no one can escape the noise of people chatting constantly on wrist phones, and there is no privacy or quiet left to be seen.

Anyway, just some thoughts on technology. I would be interested in hearing reactions.


String said...

Hey good to see you over here Paul! Great post - !

Paul said...

Thanks for your comment. Also, thanks for the reminder about Blogger. It is great to be back here.

Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

Yours is a voice of reason in the midst of what seems sometimes like a whole lot of tech. blather! I enjoyed reading this and agree with it all. I haven't come across those stories of Ray Bradbury's so it was interesting to read about that too. I think it's important to advance, but also not to let go of what worked perfectly fine in the past. We need the people who have no TV, still write letters and have a home phone.

Paul said...

Hi Kay,
Great to see you here and thanks! Yes, even though I enjoy certain aspects of technology, it bothers me when there is an assumption that any new gizmo is worth getting. Being a fan of science fiction, I shudder to imagine a future where everyone is using some device (a virtual reality helmet or such) and those who don't are considered old-fashioned. I do know people who never use computers and TVs and have ample time for reading actual books and newspapers. Yes, variety is a good thing.

String said...

I made a comment in a blog which I feel applies here to those who spend too much time with electric media; games, VR, computers.

'Hypnotized media addicts, attempting to interface authentically, reach out to create beyond computerized worlds with difficulty. Our logic is a circular-fabricated system instead of a living one; we have not learned how to think creatively, living most of our lives via computer or media aided self-absorbed fantasy.'

For some immersed in the gaming realm there is a feeling of actually 'doing' something, but it is all mental, very little is created but interaction.

Paul said...

Thanks for sharing your blog comments. Yes, I agree that there is a kind of barrier to real creativity when someone is fully absorbed in technology. Not that there aren't extremely creative people in the computer realm, but usually they also have experience reaching out beyond that.

Michael LaBossiere said...

Fortunately, I have resisted the lure of texting. Blogging...that is another story.

The blurring of private life and work is a serious concern. One aspect that has gotten attention recently is the use of work accounts and devices for private communication. One easy argument is that if people are expected to use their own devices for work (for example, I use my own PC, laptop and so on for my professor stuff), then it would seem that they should be allowed to do personal stuff at work. Then again, perhaps if people did less personal stuff at work, they would need to do less work stuff at home. :)

Paul said...


Interesting point about the blurring between work and home. Yes, certainly if we use our home computers to do work, using work e-mail accounts to occasionally send personal messages seems reasonable.

**This text message was sent via a Telepathy 2010 mind reading device**