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.

Unintended Consequences: A Study Guide

©CREATIVE COMMONS/XYAN BHATNAGAR

©CREATIVE COMMONS/XYAN BHATNAGAR

Now that you've immersed yourself in some of the challenges and paradoxes we face as a society (as our cities, businesses, governments, and personal lives become more digitized), it is time to reflect on everything you've read.

As much as we hope you've enjoyed this collection of articles, we really want you to find value in the discussions and debates that come from it. We have included some questions to get you started. Remember, there often isn't one right answer. These issues are complex. Sometimes the best answer to a challenging question is simply to ask more questions; to interrogate the issues at hand, using a multidisciplinary lens. So consider these questions a launch pad that will inspire you to ask your own questions, too. Share your questions with your peers in small groups and seek to brainstorm together on what possible future directions you can take to ensure these matters are integrated into development frameworks.

We thank the authors in this issue for assistance in drawing out these major themes.

“Valuations and Human Values (A.K.A. the Irony of Granola Bar Economics)”

  1. Why did people throw rocks at the Google bus? Were the people on the buses really the targets of their animosity?
  2. According to Rushkoff, growth is the prevalent feature of the digital economy. What impact does that have on companies? What impact does that have on workers? What impact does that have on neighborhoods and communities?
  3. Is there a way to keep the possibilities that digital tools afford, without the commensurate detrimental effects? What solutions are there?

“Let's Protest: Surprises in Communicating against Repression”

  1. Select a social networking application (e.g., Snapchat). What are its strengths and weaknesses for serving ordinary users and nonviolent campaigners?
  2. Suppose you are put in charge of a country's technology policy today. What communication technology would you promote to ensure that a dictator could never come to power? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Imagine that you want to assist some foreign friends who live under an authoritarian government. You can mainly help by using the Internet. What skills do you think are most important for you to learn? You might reflect on the possibilities of learning foreign languages' encryption, Web design, data collection, data verification, organizing denial-of-service attacks, and hacking. How will these skills help your friends specifically?

“Predictive Policing and Civilian Oversight”

  1. Would you trust software more than you would a law enforcement officer?

  2. Who should be held responsible when the software described in the article by Hirsh makes a mistake or is in error?

  3. Should there be limits to how police use technology?

  4. What do you think is required to balance the needs of policing and the needs of privacy?

“The Converging Veillances: Border Crossings in an Interconnected World”

  1. List the consequences of the converging veillances. What are additional sociocultural consequences of these risks not addressed by the authors?
  2. What existing controls are in place to address the risks you have identified? How effective are these controls in the design and operation phases of development?
  3. What are responsible, reasonable, and appropriate strategies to reduce the prevalence of the risks you have identified?

“Privacy in Public”

  1. Describe the concept of “über-veillance” or omnipresent surveillance. How does it differ from “regular” surveillance?
  2. What is the “mosaic” theory of privacy? Explain why such a theory is necessary today.
  3. Taking one of your regular school or work days as an example, list in chronological order all of your encounters with cameras as you go about your day. Are you surprised by how many you can count? Why or why not?
  4. Thinking about the example of the interface created by Google to allow people to request the removal of their personal information, list similar privacy-protective technological measures that are avail-able on social media, such as Facebook.
  5. Do you agree that people in a public space should have a right to privacy and anonymity, or do they give up such rights once they enter the public sphere?

“Privacy in the Age of the Smartphone”

  1. What do you share with others online? Do you have a Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, or other account?
  2. What parts of the information that you share with others is beyond your control? For example, who has access to your Facebook page—just your friends on Facebook, or is it public? What other sharing do you engage in that can be accessed by people you don't know?
  3. Smartphones have become much more powerful in the last few years. How has your data footprint grown over the last two to three years?
  4. What new services are you using today that you were not using in your first year of university? Has the volume of data and content that you share increased significantly? Do you feel you can still keep track of and manage that data?

“Paradoxes in Information Security”

  1. Think of your everyday life. In what ways do information security procedures interrupt you on a daily basis?
  2. In terms of information systems that you use, who and what define what security is?
  3. Any incremental additional function, including information security, to an information system increases its complexity but also adds new ways of using and exploiting it. Can complexities that are constantly changing be controlled in any way?

“International Council on Global Privacy and Security”

  1. Why is it important that we abandon zero-sum paradigms if we intend to preserve our privacy and freedom?
  2. Beyond privacy concerns, what impact does state surveillance have on innovation and prosperity, at a societal level?
  3. Why is it important that artificial intelligence and machine learning have privacy embedded into the algorithms used, by design?

“Problems with Moral Intuitions Regarding Technologies”

  1. How often do you stop and think about the moral implications of the technologies you use?
  2. Have you ever experienced a technology feeling wrong or right?
  3. Are for-profit corporations the ideal developers and suppliers of technology?
  4. Should the ones who know how it does work think more about how it should or should not work?
  5. Is technology neutral? Can it be moral or immoral?

IEEE Keywords: Technological innovation, Technology forecasting, Social implications of technology, Social factors, Human factors, Ethics, Privacy

INSPEC: social sciences, human values, unintended consequences, study guide, repression, civilian oversight

Citation: Ramona Pringle, Katina Michael, M.G. Michael, 2015, IEEE Potentials, Volume: 35, Issue: 5, Sept.-Oct. 2016, pp. 47 - 48, Date of Publication: 08 September 2016, DOI: 10.1109/MPOT.2016.2569758