Greater democratic oversight of the technology sector is needed: Professor Jameson Wetmore

Weigh the value of new tools before welcoming them into our lives 

There is mounting evidence of unintended harmful consequences in many sectors – including medicine, finance, engineering, pharmacology, agriculture, energy generation and transport.

Engineer Jameson Wetmore, turned to social research at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and now works in the fields of science and technology studies, ethics and public policy in order to understand the interconnected relationships between technology and society. In a Quartz article, he recalls:

“The motto of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.

“Governments and companies were saying that technology can lead us out of this. It may not always be comfortable, but we have to ride it out. That is the clear push coming into the 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s. Household technologies are all the rage. When you hit the 1960s and 1970s, there is this shift.

“I think the hallmarks of that shift are the dropping of the atomic bomb, and then of course you have Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, and you also have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring”.

Wetmore suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology—one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.

Michael Coren, who interviewed him, quotes two of the lessons that the Amish, a religious group of just 200,000 in the US, hold for the rest of the world:

“Whereas much of the contemporary world sees technological progress as inevitable, even a moral imperative, the Amish watch their neighbours and carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it . . . The Amish . . . watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.” After observing a given technology’s effect on outside society, Wetmore explains, each Amish community can vote on whether to accept or reject it. If a person is seriously ill, checking into a hospital is acceptable. So is accepting a ride in a Ford F-150. But the Amish refuse to own television or automobiles because they’ve decided those technologies would erode their community and neighbourliness.

Wetmore points out that we don’t think about the impact technology might have on our lives beyond the initial big idea:

He said that the automobile was sold to us with this idea of a freedom we never had before – and we note that in Britian, the 2017 toll of nearly 2000 road deaths, over 176,000 injured and the reported effects of air pollution on health, far exceeding any natural disaster or act of terrorism, goes largely un-noticed. Wetmore asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles: He simply smiled and turned to me and said, ‘Look what they did to your society.” 

The impact of television on our lives beyond the initial big idea

In Britain, BBC television was designed, in the 30s, to “inform, educate and entertain” – in that order. No longer. That ‘initial big idea’ of television has now been swamped by the search for profit – mainly by building the largest audience to attract advertisement revenue. Most members of the Church of England’s general synod, voted to record their concerns at the tendency to “exploit the humiliation of human beings for public entertainment”. They cited TV reality programmes such as Big Brother, pornographic films, violent computer games and sexually explicit magazines as being responsible for eroding moral standards.

BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys has described British reality television as “seedy, cynical and harmful” to society.  He told media executives at the 2004 Edinburgh Television Festival that “some of our worst television is indeed indefensible”. He called Channel 4’s hit show Big Brother “damaging” and said the most recent show had “bequeathed us a legacy; the way to get ratings is to get evil”. TV was now “a battle between people who are concerned about society and those whose overwhelming interest is simply to make programmes that make money”. He warned that such television could “coarsen” and “brutalise” and said the level of aggression he found in soaps “fits my definition of harmful.”

A decision that local people did not have the chance to make

In Phoenix, Arizona, Elaine Herzberg was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle. Wetmore comments: “If we were to sit back and think about the values of the society here, we might say that testing those vehicles at 10 PM at night outside of a concert hall where a huge amount of alcohol had been served was not the best place to be testing. Perhaps testing in a school zone when children are present is not the best place to test an autonomous vehicle. But those are decisions that local people did not have the chance to make”.

The idea that technology is an unmitigated good is beginning to be questioned

Wetmore thinks that today Americans have a much more nuanced view of things. The number of people who think technology is an unmitigated good is continuing to shrink, but most haven’t abandoned the idea that there are a lot of problems and technology will play a role in solving them.

As John Thornhill (right), the Innovation Editor at the Financial Times, founder of the FT125 forum and host of Tech Tonic, writes:

“(W)e contemplate how the latest technological advances in gene editing, social media, robotics and artificial intelligence are changing our societies and lives . . . Managed wisely, we can use these technological capabilities for enormous good . . . What should concern us far more are the concentration of immense technological power in a few corporate hands and the dangers of hyper-complexity. . . “No matter how fast the science progresses it remains a question of societal choice about how widely and quickly technology is deployed. . .

“The political drumbeat for greater democratic oversight of the technology sector is growing ever louder. The voice of civil society is increasingly being heard.

Can we, like the Amish, be more careful at making decisions about new technologies? To understand what’s going to happen with technology, we have to experiment. And, Wetmore reminds us, we are experimenting with real people.

Could we anticipate unintended consequences in all sectors – especially those of medicine, finance, engineering, pharmacology, agriculture, energy generation and transport?

Thornhill quotes the words of the West Coast tech observer who believes, “we have time to adapt before we adopt.” Though no reference to the identity of this person has been found, it seems that early warning systems recorded in The Digital Ape, how to live (in peace) with smart machines, by Nigel Shadbolt (Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford) extract here, could alert us to many of these unintended consequences.

And then a government with the political will to intervene, despite pressures from vested interests, would address them.





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