Taking back control over technology

We are living in the most advanced period of human technological development, at least in recorded history. 

Yet why is it, at a time when there is so much technology, that people are still working harder than ever before? Why is it that the environment is in such terrible shape? Why is it that there is so much fanaticism and hatred? 

A never ending stream of new, shiny objects distracts us from a very deep truth: technology, by itself, is not inherently good.

It’s how that technology gets used that makes a world of difference.

And the sad reality is that as citizens, we have basically ceded control over technological development to powerful corporate interests who have used that power to dictate national policy, and to ultimately control us.

The recent end of net neutrality is a symptom of a larger problem: citizens are not in control of how technology gets used. Rather, citizens have become controlled by it.

We have all become enslaved by it.

Here are three things to think about when it comes to taking back control over technology:

(i) We have to wake up to the fact that technological development is now routinely co-opted by powerful interests and used to control, not to liberate.

A great example of this is social media, which has become a highly controlling form of technology.

It is a truism at this point that the amount of personal information all of us put on the internet — including our locations, who we are with, and our inner most thoughts and desires — would have been the stuff of fantasy to secret service agencies in the 20th century. The SS, the Stasi, the KGB and the CIA would have thought it unthinkable that people would willingly produce this type of information to the world.

Yet here we are, not only doing this, but addicted to such disclosure. 

It does not have to be this way. It is conceivable to think of social media as a tool of liberation and freedom.

Decoupling decentralized message networks from surveillance would be a great first step towards that goal. 

Providing meaningful ownership over private information to prevent the use of haywire artificial intelligence would be another thing we should implement.

We don’t have to permit social media companies to control us, or to manipulate us with the very information we give to them.

Yet for some reason, we do.

(ii) This same principle is not just true of social media technologies. It is true for all forms of futuristic technology. Artificial intelligence, space faring, 3D printing, robotics, genetic engineering: there are going to be terribly sophisticated developments in all these technologies within the next 20 years.

What will be the effect of those inventions? Are they going to empower individuals to take control of their lives and permit the flowering of individual freedom?

Or will they be utilized by powerful interests to entrench the status quo?

Who will own resources in outer space? Who will own improvements to your genetic code? Who will own the IP you generate after you die? Those things have yet to be determined and decided. We can make choices that liberate the species, or ones that lead to continued slavery. Which will it be?

(iii) We should not glorify technology for technology’s sake. As citizens, we have to be constantly asking what a certain technology is going to be used for. 

There is a race now to develop powerful forms of artificial intelligence by large defense companies. There shouldn’t be any doubt what those intelligences will be used for — they will be used to kill. 

Why are we so focused on creating technologies that kill, but not ones that preserve?

And to the extent we are developing preservation technologies (such as in medicine) why do we insist on controlling access to those technologies to just a privileged few?  

It is time for all us to ask deeper questions about technology. Technology is the chief way we get distracted. We have to end these distractions, if we are to build peace and sustainability. And we have to start using technology as a weapon in the service of the good -- and not as a tool of exploitation, indifference, and control.