Technology and the Great Transition — to What?

Douglas Schuler has been thinking, writing, teaching, and agitating about — and developing — civic tech since the mid-1980s, as author of New Community Networks (1996) and Liberating Voices (2008), co-founder of the Seattle Community Network, and current chair of SIGCAS. 

This essay is adapted from “Fighting on All Fronts” a commentary in response to the “The Question of Technology” prompt as part of the Great Transition project. 

Emerging—and existing—technologies are bringing us closer to the brink. And even if they turn out to be more benign, envisioning some technological advance as our salvation will waste precious time as the ecosystems upon which we rely move closer to collapse and the violent forces of authoritarianism gain power. 

All technology, from hammers and hummers to routers and killer robots, is intended to increase power: to do something cheaper, easier, faster, with more entertainment value, with stronger impact, at greater distances, in more places, or with greater stealth. Technological power, like economic, political, cultural, institutional, or physical power, is distributed unevenly. It tends to be accumulated by people and organizations who already have too much. Algorithmic power has accelerated those differences; the computer has helped create today’s staggering economic divide. Many of the world’s richest people gained their fortunes through such algorithms, and it is their ideologies as well as the computer systems themselves that are taking us in dangerous directions. 

Read More »

Does Tech Hasten an Environmental Apocalypse?

Recent increases in hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, fires, and drought are signs that the world is coming closer to irreversible damage. For example, scientists recently predicted that an Antarctic ice shelf holding up the huge Thwaites Glacier could collapse within 3 to 10 years, leading to the glacier sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels worldwide by more than 2 feet. 

What is digital technology’s contribution to the environmental apocalypse? Energy is used in three ways: (1) to manufacture digital technologies; (2) to operate them; and (3) to dispose of and replace them with newer versions. 

Read More »

Facebook Was Soon to Be Held to Account: Will Meta Escape the Consequences?

In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg built an app to connect Harvard undergrads to one another. By 2006, it was available to anyone over the age of 13. Soon thereafter, his Facebook (FB) social media firm was animated by the concept that connectivity was a human right for the world’s billions. FB is now visited by almost 3 billion distinct users each month. The firm has become a monopoly, counting Instagram and WhatsApp among its divisions. (Further details appear in Chapters 11 and 17 of Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.) 

FB’s dominance has led to serious problems which are well known. Its news feed widely shares toxic material — misinformation, hate speech, and fake news. People post private information which FB exploits commercially through surveillance capitalism. Fake social media participants constructed by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election and other elections has skewed the results. Children’s addiction to social media harms their sense of self-worth and their physical and mental health and well-being.

Read More »

Technology and lifestyle in the COVID 4th wave and beyond

My blog post of May 18 suggested that some of the COVID-forced changes in work will survive past-COVID: “Large companies will shrink their office space footprint. Landlords will suffer economically, spaces will be vacant, and prices will drop. Many employees will work at home far more frequently than they did pre-pandemic. Many employees will no longer have a permanent desk; rather, they will grab a free desk when they are in the office. There will be less business travel, with more business conducted via teleconference. Progressive conferences will allow for both on-site and virtual attendance. Reductions in travel by [land and air will help] the environment.” 

Read More »

Chilling New Technologies for Surveillance

Technologists are creating increasingly more sophisticated digital technologies capable of monitoring us. 

The most mature technology is that of RFID tags. Now as small as grains of rice, RFID tags typically track the location and movement of items through an assembly line, warehouse, store, or library. The tags can also be attached to personal possessions such as clothing, passports, or cash.  RFID tags can be and are implanted in animals in order to track them in the wild. This is not now done to humans, although people may be carrying items with RFIDs and be tracked without realizing it. 

Other location tracking uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites. It allows mobile devices to know where on earth they are located, and also allows location tracking on those devices, and hence to monitor the whereabouts of a person carrying the phone. A chilling example of this occurred in a political protest in Ukraine in January 2014, when individuals who were in the barricaded city centre of Kiev received text messages saying ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. 

Read More »

Working at home during and after COVID

My blog post of February 11 shared the account of four people who, despite COVID, have preserved and in some cases enhanced family connections and communication through the use of teleconferencing technologies. This essay will look at the present and future of distance collaboration for work. 

It has not been easy, especially for couples who both have jobs and who have school-age children at home. There have been severe stresses in maintaining concentration and balancing work time; periods helping children with schoolwork; and time for chores, exercise, play, and being alone. 

Read More »

Physically separated, socially connected

Contributed by Ron Baecker, an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

My family is widely separated. I live in Canada. My brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and their families are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; my cousins, their children, and their families are in Argentina, Spain, England, and on both coasts of the USA. Typically, I visit my niece and nephew once or twice a year; I manage a trip to Buenos Aires or Bilbao, Spain, about every 3 years. But not recently. I therefore Facetime with either my nephew or my niece almost every week. We also are about to have our fourth global family Zoom. This started out to celebrate individual birthdays, with great spirit and feeling of bringing the family closer together. The next event will celebrate 3 birthdays — ages 78, 41, and 9 — and a recent birth in the family in London. The 9-year-old birthday event will see us participating in a day-long scavenger hunt. What fun!

Read More »

COVID-19: Computer scientists and CS students can act proactively for good

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Readers of my blog will recall what I describe as digital dreams and digital nightmares.

Our world has been enriched by digital technologies used for collaboration, learning, health, politics, and commerce. Digital pioneers imagined giving humanity greater control over the universe; augmenting knowledge and creativity; replacing difficult and dangerous physical labour with robot efforts; improving our life span with computationally supported medicine; supporting free speech with enhanced internet reason and dialogue; and developing innovative, convenient, and ideally safe products and services.  Online apps and resources are proving very valuable, even essential, in the era of COVID-19.

Read More »

Social credit

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

Read More »

Intelligent tutors

In this column, in my textbook, and in a speech “What Society Must Require from AI” I am currently giving around the world, I document some of the hype, exaggerated claims, and unrealistic predictions that workers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have been making for over 50 years.  Here are some examples.  Herb Simon, an AI pioneer at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), who later won a Novel Prize in Economics, predicted in 1958 that a program would be the world’s best champion by 1967.   Marvin Minsky of MIT, and Ray Kurzweil, both AI pioneers, made absurd predictions (in 1967 and 2005) that AI would achieve general human intelligence by 1980 and by 2045.  John Anderson, discussed below, made the absurd prediction in 1985 that it was already feasible to build computer systems “as effective as intelligent human tutors”.   IBM has recently made numerous false claims about the effectiveness of its Watson technology for domains as diverse as customer support, tax filing, and oncology.

Read More »