Not So Fast (book review)

41+lBfFtyxL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology. By Doug Hill. Univ. of Georgia Press, Oct. 15, 2016, 240 pp.

In 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Doug Hill in the flesh at the first IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (http://21stcenturywiener.org/). It was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I was attracted to Doug because of his outward simplicity but at the same time deep inner profundity. It did not take long for us to get talking of our mutual interests. For instance, we've both been influenced greatly by the French philosopher, sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul [1], popularly known for The Technological Society (1964) [2], [3]. Hill is an investigative journalist by training, an award winning writer [4], with a specialization on the philosophy of technology.

In Not So Fast, Hill wastes no time in getting his point across. Chapter 1 opens: “Let me begin by stating the obvious: We live in an era of technological enthusiasm.” In his book, Hill attempts the impossible and pulls it off. He hits us with the hard facts, one after the other. And we can either take his word for it, or refute him page after page, until we realize, that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against us. In effect, Hill tells us “where we are at” with all this techno-deluge, even if we don't wish to admit it. He makes a point of highlighting the technological utopianism we have begun to believe and dream about, only to bring us down crashing the very next moment with the startling realities.

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining,’Not So Fas’ offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”

—Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought; Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The book contains quotes from people we all look up to in the tech and business world, representing thousands of hours of research to craftily support the central thesis: “not so fast.” Hill proclaims in no uncertain words, that we have lost control over the very creations we have built to make life better for us. Somewhere along the way we have become emotionally attached to our technologies; rather than being extensions of us, it seems we have become extensions of them.

But for Hill. it's not all about the bling, and high-tech gadgetry. For Hill, it is more than being enslaved into a life of upgrades, although he does question the practices of Silicon Valley - the preoccupation of building the ultimate immortal man who can live forever through AI and some sort of fantastical Singularity [5], [6]. Hill doesn't just stop there. He looks for the underlying causes to why our climate has changed so detrimentally, the very processes that didn't begin with the introduction of smartphones or social media, but of events from hundreds of years ago. Indirectly, Hill entices the reader to scratch beneath the surface and think about the “how” and “why.”

In a somewhat prophetic voice, Hill arrives at the conclusion that if we are going to reverse things that we might as well begin now. What he's really talking about is the mystery of technology. Hill doesn't shun its value but he declares that we have to put it in its place, before it puts us in a place of no return. His is a voice of one crying in the wilderness, but he is not alone. The reader, no sooner reads a few more of Hill's chapters, and finds herself admitting what she's always known: “Technology doesn't always mean progress. In fact, sometimes it has some very ugly intended and unintended consequences.” In short, we gotta be alert and awake. But even more than that!

Hill digs deep and unravels the inherent qualities of technology, and proceeds to make us aware of the happenings around us [7]. Readers will be all the more enlightened to learn about some of Hill's conclusions, through practical examples in everyday life:

  1. The technological imperative. “Our entire way of life - the social fabric in which we live - is utterly, completely dependent on technology,” says Hill. “To free ourselves of that dependence would be so disruptive that economic and social chaos would result.”

  2. Technological momentum. “There's a simpler reason technologies become intractable: it's too hard to change them. We're stuck with the infrastructure we have,” Hill says. “For example, it's not easy to replace a city's sewer system from scratch.”

  3. Convergence and diffusion. “Technologies are communicable; they spread like viruses. They converge with other technologies and diffuse into unexpected areas,” says Hill. “Bronze casting methods first used to make church bells were soon used to make canons, for example. Today automation techniques - robots - are diffusing daily into ever-more industries and applications, from assembly of everything from cars and smartphones to the handling of banking transactions.”

  4. Speed. “Regulation is slow; technologies are fast,” says Hill. “So it is that governments are frequently unable to effectively control technological development. Hundreds of companies today are feverishly working to exploit the commercial potential of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, for example, despite the fact that no one is certain either technology is safe.”

 

“This is the technology criticism I’ve been waiting for - aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all - nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike.”

—Howard Rheingold, Internet pioneer and author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and “Net Smart”

In his conclusion, Hill isn't very optimistic about where we are at and he certainly doesn't give us any tangible or pragmatic ways to combat the predicament that society finds itself in. And yet, perhaps that has left the door open to a sequel, possibly about a resurgence in technology assessment, about the importance of resistance, and breaking with the belief that technology can do no evil.

Is the path we are on, really that irreversible? Are we headed down a road of inevitabilities, locked-in on auto-pilot? Or are there strategies we might be able to employ right now, as interlinked local communities that make up a collective global consciousness? We have the power, are we willing participants? How much do we care about the future to get involved?

Hill warns: “There's more to turning off machines than hitting a switch… We are deeply, intimately tied to our technologies, in all sorts of practical and emotional ways. To give them up would be literally life-threatening. That's why many experts believe our technologies have become'autonomous.’”

I give this book 5 stars not only because it is masterfully written - the reader feels like they have known Hill for years, a faint voice in the back of their head reaffirming truisms - but because it reveals socio-technical patterns and trends happening all round us. Hill also makes observations about things that others would at best say to leave alone.

“Doug Hill’s insights into technology are both original and profound. I’ve travelled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years, and I still learned much from this book. He will be recognized as a leading thinker on technology and its impact on our world. In an industry that too seldom stops to think through the implications of the products we produce, his is a voice we need to hear.”

—Allen Noren, vice president of online, O’Reilly Media

It's time for those brave conversations, about technology in our homes and our schools, about technology in our industrial and military sectors, about what we should be pooling our resources into to ensure environmental sustainability, and about what should be better left alone. Whether hype or hope, we've embraced a pseudo-truth, that our human salvation will come from technology, abandoning myths 2000 years old.

And while Hill does not make reference to this specifically, I think we are unashamedly worshipping at the foot of technology, believing this will be our ultimate destiny, our chance to live forever on earth. And yet, our sensibilities should tell us that eternal life on earth, would be not unlike living in an endless loop, and as spiritual beings, get us nowhere. I return back to those fundamental human principles, are we bettering ourselves, our nature, because we are surrounded by so much technology, or are we just becoming less able to discern the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. And who or what is behind that wheel driving us to our destinies? It's time to get back in control.

Citation: Katina Michael, 2017, Book Review on Doug Hill's "Not So Fast", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 36(2), pp. 24-26.

Can Good Standards Propel Unethical Technologies?

Between 2010 and 2016 I accepted a voluntary post representing the Consumers Federation of Australia (CFA) on the standardization of the forensic analysis process [1]. The CFA represents most major Australian national consumer organizations that work together to represent consumer rights.

The committee I was on was Standards Australia's “CH041 — Forensic Analysis” focused on the collection, analysis, and storage of materials as well as interpretation and reporting of results for forensic purposes (Figure 1). The Committee's scope included digital forensics, DNA, soil examination, toxicology, document examination, audio and video analysis, drug analysis, blood alcohol examination, chemical trace evidence, clandestine laboratory investigations, fire and explosion investigation, ballistics, forensic biology, forensic botany, crime scene investigation, fingerprint identification, vehicle examination, shoe and tire impressions, toolmarks, evidence recovery, exhibit storage, bloodstain pattern interpretation, forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, forensic odontology, and forensic pathology. Over a period of six years, six standards were created in the Australia and New Zealand landscape [2] (Table 1).

Figure 1. Bus drivers across the West Midlands were equipped with mini DNA kits in 2012 to help police track anyone who spit at them or fellow passengers.“Spit kits”—which feature swabs, gloves and hermetically sealed bags—allow staff to take saliva samples and protect them from contamination before being sent for forensic analysis. Samples are stored in a refrigerator before being sent for forensics analysis, with arrest plans put in place should returning DNA results point to a suspect already known to police.Date: Nov. 23, 2012, 16:03. Courtesy of Palnatoke, West Midlands Police.

Figure 1. Bus drivers across the West Midlands were equipped with mini DNA kits in 2012 to help police track anyone who spit at them or fellow passengers.“Spit kits”—which feature swabs, gloves and hermetically sealed bags—allow staff to take saliva samples and protect them from contamination before being sent for forensic analysis. Samples are stored in a refrigerator before being sent for forensics analysis, with arrest plans put in place should returning DNA results point to a suspect already known to police.Date: Nov. 23, 2012, 16:03. Courtesy of Palnatoke, West Midlands Police.

All of the meetings I attended were very well organized, and provided adequate materials with enough time to digest documentation. Queries were dealt with in a very professional manner both via email and in person. The location of these standards meetings happened at the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (ANZPAA) in Melbourne Victoria — perhaps a non-neutral location, but regardless important as a hub for our gatherings. There was adequate funding provided to allow people to come together several times a year to discuss the development of the standards and the rest was achieved via email correspondence. Of course, there were a number of eminent leaders in the group with a discernible agenda that dominated discussions, but for all intents and purposes, these folks were well-meaning, fair, and willing to listen. It was obvious that the standardization process was paramount to those using forensic data on a day-to-day basis.

Representatives who served on that committee had diverse backgrounds: police officers, analysts from forensic laboratories, lawyers, statisticians, consumer representatives, and academics in the broad area. I never felt like I was ever asking a redundant question, people spent time explaining things no matter how technical or scientific the content. Members of the committee were willing to hear about consumer perspectives when key points had to be raised, but for some the importance of the topic was circumvented by the need to get the forensics right in order for criminals to be brought to justice.

In March of 2010, I graduated with my Masters of Transnational Crime Prevention degree in the Faculty of Law at the University of Wollongong. My major project was a study of the European Court of Human Rights ruling S. and Marper v. The United Kingdom [3], under the supervision of former British law enforcement officer, Associate Professor Clive Harfield. The European Court of Human Rights sitting as a Grand Chamber was led by President Jean-Paul Costa. S. and Marper complained under Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights [4] that the authorities had continued to retain their fingerprints and cellular samples and DNA profiles after the criminal proceedings against them had ended with an acquittal or had been discontinued. Both applicants had asked for their fingerprints and DNA samples to be destroyed, but in both cases the police refused [5]. My involvement in the enactment of forensic standards in the Australian landscape was to ensure that Australia did not end up with blanket coverage surveillance of the populace, as has happened in the United Kingdom where about 6 million people (1 in 11) have their DNA stored on the national DNA database (NDNA), and over 37% of black ethnic minorities (BEM) are registered on the database with indefinite DNA retention of samples or profiles [6].

I learned a lot about standards setting through the Forensic Analysis project. Although I had studied the theoretical importance of standards in the process of innovation, and I had spent some time in an engineering organization during a peak period of telecommunications standards and protocol developments, I never quite realized that a standard could propel a particular product or process further than was ever intended. Of course the outcome of the BETAMAX versus VHS war has gone down in engineering folklore [7], but when standards have human rights implications, they take on a far greater importance.

Although international standards usually take a long time to bring into existence (at least 2 years), at the national level if there is monetary backing, and a large enough number of the right kind of people in a room with significant commercial or government drivers, a standard can be defined in a fairly straightforward manner within about 1 year. No matter the query, issues can usually be addressed or abated by industry representatives if you can spend the time necessary on problem solving and troubleshooting. Consumer representatives on standards panels, however, unlike paid professionals, have very limited resources and bandwidth when it comes to innovation. They usually have competing interests; a life outside the standards environment that they are contributing to, and thus fall short from the full impact they could make in any committee that they serve if there was financial support. In the commercial world, the greater the opportunity cost of forgoing the development of a standard, the greater the driver to fulfil the original intent.

And thus, I was asked at the completion of my CFA role by the convenor Regina Godfredson, Standards Co-ordinator of the CFA Standards Projects, whether or not I had any thoughts about future standards because “standards” were one thing that the CFA received funding for, in terms of the voluntary contributions of its representatives and membership being seconded to standards committees.

Table 1. Forensic analysis — Australian standards.

Table 1. Forensic analysis — Australian standards.

As Regina and I brainstormed, I described a few projects pertaining to emerging technologies that required urgent attention from the consumer perspective. But the one that stuck out in my mind as requiring standardization was non-medical implants in humans (Figure 2). I kept thinking about the event report I cited in 2007 published on the MAUDE database of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) web site, for the “removal of an implant” that acted as a personal health record (PHR) unique ID [8]. In 2004, the company VeriChip had an implant device approved by the FDA for use in humans [9]. The device was to be inserted in the right tricep, but as applications for access control and electronic payment were trialled, the device soon found itself in people's wrists and hands for usability [10]. Still that event report had got me thinking. How could a company (or for that matter a government administration) be so inept in creating a device for implantation with no removal process? Of course, had the VeriChip device not been related to any health application, it would not have required any FDA approval whatsoever, which is equally problematic when ethical questions are considered.

7563959-fig-2-small.gif

Figure 2.

A surgeon implants British scientist Dr. Mark Gasson in his left hand with an RFID microchip (Mar. 16, 2009). Mark's Ph.D. scholarship with Prof. Kevin Warwick was sponsored by the author's former employer Nortel Networks. Photo taken: March 16, 2009, 14:44:22. Photo courtesy of Paul Hughes.

The questions that stem from this mini case are numerous. But perhaps the most important one is: does a standard set by a standards or regulatory body open the floodgates to propelling a given innovation forward, even if that innovation is controversial or even viewed as risky or unethical by the community at large? I had to ask myself the pros and cons of spearheading such a standard into Australia and New Zealand. Standards at the local level begin to gather momentum when they are recognized by the Australian Standards organization, but more so when they are picked up and highlighted by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). There are also no commensurate “ethics applications” accompanying the submission of human augmentation devices, as noted by Joe Carvalko, a U.S.-based patent attorney and implant recipient [11].

Did I really wish to be involved in such a process when I believe deeply, for anything other than therapeutics and prosthesis, there should not be a standard? Do I think this is the future of e-payments being sold to us? There have been countless campaigns by VISA to show us the “mini-Visa” [12] or the contactless VISA “tap and go” system or the VISA embedded in our phone or e-wallet or even smartwatch. Do I think we should believe the companies pushing this next phase? No, I do not. As consumers we do have a choice of whether or not to adopt. As a technology professional do I wish to be the one to propel this forward? Absolutely not. Does it mean it will never happen? No, it doesn't.

As I continued my conversation with Regina Godfredson, I realized deeply, that while CFA would get some major attention in funding for being leaders in this space, the negative would be that we would also be heavily responsible and accountable for what would come out of the group as we would be the driving force behind it. The consumer side of me says “get in there quick to contribute to the discussion and push the importance of ethics within an information technology implant scenario.” The academic side of me says sit back and let someone else do it, but make sure to be ready for when this may take place (and it is taking place right now). Just yesterday, I received a telephone call from one of Japan's leading games suppliers who wants to integrate the human augmentation scenario into Deus Ex's, “Mankind Divided” game, to be launched in Australia in the last week of August with an implants shopfront.

The conversation with the publicist went something like this: “Hello Katina. I note you are one of the leading researchers on the topic of the socio-legal-ethical implications of implants. Look, I want to know, if there are any legal issues with us launching a campaign for our new game that includes an implantation shop. I've rung everyone I can think of, and everyone keeps passing me on to someone else and cannot give me a direct answer. I've tried the Therapeutic Goods Administration here, but they say they don't care because it is not a medical device. I've looked up laws, and I can't seem to find anything on implants for non-medical applications. I've spoken to police, and ditto they don't seem to care. So what do you think?” It goes without saying that that 50 minute conversation ended up being one of the most stimulating non-academic discussions I've had on the topic. But also, I finished by saying read Katherine Albrecht's Bodily Integrity Act in draft since 2007. The publicist kept stating: “I hope from this engagement to put forward a framework allowing for human implants.”

My concern with going forward has naught to do with my ability to answer very complex biomedical ethical questions as I've thought about them for over 20 years. My concern has much to do with whether or not we should even be dabbling with all of this, knowing what we know of the probable uberveillance trajectory. I am sure I could create some very good standards to some very unethical value-laden technologies.

I will not say much about what is an ethical or unethical technology. I will simply say that pervasive technologies have an intentionality, and they have inherent qualities that can be used positively or negatively. Talking to social shaping of technology experts, I would be labeled as a follower of the technological determinist school of thought. But clearly here, when we investigate the piercing of the skin, we have a complexity that we've never before faced in the non-medical commercial space. It crosses the boundaries of negligence, consent, and human rights, which we cannot ignore or treat as just another run-of-the-mill technological innovation.

References

1. Consumers Federation of Australia, [online] Available: http://consumersfederation.org.au/.

2. CH-041 - Forensic Analysis, [online] Available: http://www.sdpp.standards.org.au/ActiveProjects.aspx?CommitteeNumber=CH-041&CommitteeName=forensic%20Analysis.

3. Case of S. and Marper v. The United Kingdom, 2008, [online] Available: https://www.coe.int/t/dghl/standardsetting/dataprotection/Judgrnents/S.%20AND%20MARPER%20v.%20THE%20UNITED%20KING-DOM%20EN.pdf.

4. Article 8 ECHR, 2016, [online] Available: http//echr-online.into/article-8-echr/.

5. K. Michael, , "The road from S and Marper to the Prum Treaty and the implications on human rights" in Cross-Border Law Enforcement: Regional Law Enforcement Cooperation - European Australian and Asia-Pacific Perspectives, Routledge, pp. 243-258, 2012.

6. K. Michael, "The legal social and ethical controversy of the collection and storage of fingerprint profiles and DNA samples in forensic science", pp. 48-60, 2010.

7. A.R. Dennis, B.A. Reinicke, "Beta versus VHS and the acceptance of electronic brainstorming technology", MIS Quart, vol. 28, pp. 1-20, 2004.

8. MAUDE Adverse Event Report VeriChip Corporation - VeriMed Patient Identificator - VeriChip Implant, July 2007, [online] Available: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfMAUDE/Detail.CfM?MDRFOI_ID=962453.

9. 21 CFR Part 880 [Docket No. 2004N-0477] Medical Devices; General Hospital and Personal Use Devices; Classification of Implantable Radiofrequency Transponder System for Patient Identification and Health Information, [online] Available: http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/98fr/04-27077.htm.

10. A. Masters, K. Michael, "Lend me your arms: The use and implications of humancentric RFID", Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, vol. 6, pp. 29-39, 2007.

11. J. Carvalko, K. Michael, "Crossing The Evolutionary Gap", Joseph Carvalko Speaks With Katina MichaelOn His Fiction Piece, July 2016, [online] Available: https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4JyVCba6VM.

12. "Visa introduces contactless mini card making payments faster and more convenient than ever", Business Wire, Aug. 2006, [online] Available: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20060316005263/en/Visa-Introduces-Contactless-Mini-Card-Making-Payments.

Citation: Katina Michael, Can Good Standards Propel Unethical Technologies? IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 35, Issue: 3, Sept. 2016, pp. 6 - 9.

Predicting the socioethical implications of implanting people with microchips

Privacy, security, trust, control and human rights are all concerns that need to be addressed before widespread diffusion of advanced identification technologies. Implants for humans are not new... Today we have even realised the potential for microchip implants to be embedded inside the human body for the purpose of acting as unique lifetime identifiers (ULIs).

Read More