Resisting Technology, Lacking Trust And Fighting For The Future

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Humans don’t handle change well, and nothing illustrates that more than a technological breakthrough. Of course, it’s nothing new. The same debates about media attend most every advancement. Socrates, the architect of Western philosophy, was wary that writing would make people more forgetful.

It’s human to fear change, but it’s also tragic, especially when it causes us to resist innovations that drastically improve our quality of life, productivity and connectivity.

Maybe technologies are scarier now than they used to be. Past mechanical breakthroughs — the printing press, the steam engine, the assembly line — were relatively transparent in their operations. Even if these technologies alienated human labor from the means of production, they were far less alien than the black box of deep learning, right?

Probably not. To imagine that 19th-century Americans were less anxious about the steam engine than their counterparts are about artificial intelligence (AI) is to engage in the fallacy of historical relativism.

Like the Luddites of yesteryear, today’s technophobes lack trust. The difference is, right now Americans really don’t trust each other, we really don’t trust our corporations or our public institutions. And the rest of the world doesn’t really trust us either.

Unfortunately, trust between technologists and end users is simultaneously becoming both more crucial and harder to come by. Isolationists are running rampant, and the human virtue of exploration and discovery is on an IV-drip dutifully propped up by beleaguered scientists.

So how do we fix it?

Embracing The Responsibility To Inform And Be Informed

Once trust is gone, you can’t begin to repair the damage until everyone has the information that is essential to building trust back up.

There are important debates about technologies to be had, for instance, the issue of net neutrality. We rant and rave on Facebook, but few of us can be bothered to read or understand a data policy.

Users of technology have an undeniable responsibility to get informed. But trust is a two-way street, and so is accountability. If users have a responsibility to get informed, the tech sector has a responsibility to help inform them.

Fortunately, technology companies specialize in information. Google’s original mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They might want to double down on that idea. Technology companies, researchers and scientists of all types need to get better at informing the public about their work. If you read the terms of service or the privacy policy for any Google app or service, the language seems incomprehensible to even the most well-educated among us. Hiding behind legalese or academic jargon and only putting out marketing hype predictably causes the narrative to get out of control.

We need to re-embrace the mentality of change to evolve as a society, and the first step is making sure we’re an informed society. That responsibility falls on all of us as individuals, companies and institutions, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work. I’m not sure how long it will take, but it’s essential we get started now.

As informed people, we shouldn’t waste time arguing whether we should pursue technological and scientific advancement. We should be focused on how we should go about making those changes. Anything else is just a distraction.

It was another philosopher, Heraclitus, who said, “The only thing constant is change.” He actually died before Socrates. Perhaps if the latter had been a bigger fan of writing, he would’ve gotten the memo.

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