The Future is Scary

I attended a local IXdA meeting that screened the Microsoft short film Connecting. The film was followed by a panel discussing themes brought up by the film. Here are my thoughts.

The video, as all Microsoft sponsored visions of the future, is optimistic and exciting. As I’ve talked about before, utopian dreams can mask problems. The video compared communications networks created by modern technology as a living organism that grows as it is utilized. One of the first comments from the panel was how the video had painted a rosy view of where we are going, and how the undiscussed counter-point is important as well. Peppered throughout the rest of the conversation were thoughts on privacy issues that are a constant problem in the tech world. The film used the Arab Spring uprisings as evidence of technology as a force for good. But there is another side to every story. That’s what I am going to discuss.

The Arab Spring is the culmination of decades of frustration in oppressed populations. These uprisings are seen by many in the tech world as validation of social networking’s potential to change the real world. It seems that much of the rebellious coordination in Egypt was facilitated through online communication tools. Despite these exciting developments it is important to remember that change-hungry citizens are not the only ones who can take advantage of Facebook, governments can too. Governments all over the Middle East used these same tools to entrap, trick, find and punish dissidents. In fact, Egypt was able to disconnect the internet during the uprisings. The whole internet, just turned off. It might seem that these are only problems in oppressive dictatorships, such as pre-revolution Egypt, Syria, Iran and China (with its Great Firewall). If anything, the Arab Spring woke up power-jealous governments the world over, and now everyone wants to get in on the game. There has been talk in the US congress of implementing the same internet killswitch that Egypt flipped and admiration of the Chinese firewall. As a growing and powerful economic engine and opinion influencer the internet is in the sights of government regulators.

The other major concern moving forward is privacy. The tech world is currently embroiled in constant debate over this issue, not because businesses like being voyeurs, but because they are convinced that requiring payment for their services is suicide. Actually, they do require payment from their real customers, advertisers. We are packaged and sold to advertisers the same way that our address is sold by any magazine we subscribe to. My concern with privacy is not necessarily with the current whipping boys, Facebook and Google, but with our apparent lack of concern over the issue. By signing away our privacy so easily it will be harder to get it back when it really does count. There was a recent article in Wired about the new complex that the NSA is building in Utah. Despite its unecessarily provocative intro involving 1850’s era Mormon polygamy (is there nothing else about my home state that interests people?), the article does a great job illucidating the purpose for this massive campus. Essentially, the complex will serve to capture the whole internet, with the ability to watch anything online that happens to pass through the United States. What they can do with that information will depend on the development of software to automate collection, tagging and analysis of that data. The fact that the NSA is notorious for stretching the law to fit their interests makes this a frightening proposition.

Despite this article’s title I am not a conspiracy theorist or pessimist. The future of technology will bring wondrous, life-improving optimizations to our lives, and I am eager to see them. It is, however, important to understand that consumers and citizens are not the only entities capable of using this technology to their own advantage. The worst Facebook may be able to do to you is stick more focused ads in front of you, but others could do worse. Be ever vigilant.