Monday, September 5, 2011

What Technology Demands of Our Society

We like to think of technology as providing tools for us to use. While humans do control technology, the growth also creates technological demands and institutional challenges. The most striking example is information technology. The demands and challenges are becoming more apparent daily.

Information is becoming democratized. Transparency is becoming a technological imperative. The complexity of the networks involved and the vast numbers of people with access to those networks are only part of the story. Many of the people who worked to create those networks have an ethos that believes strongly in transparency and free access. It’s what has helped keep so much of the internet free. Open source software and wikis are examples of how this philosophy has helped to drive the nature of our modern information technology.

People are using communication technology to band together in new ways, outside of the usual institutions of governments, religion and media. In Egypt it helped to fuel a revolution. The transparency that technology creates is becoming harder and harder for traditional institutions to squelch. The Chinese government had another reminder of the power of social media recently. People posted more than 26 million messages to a Chinese Twitter-like microblog called Sina Weibo, full of information about a high-speed train accident that the authorities had tried to prevent from being released.

Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube are just the latest trends. Wikileaks is an example of where things might be headed. The release of millions of pages of top-secret government documents from many nations was aided by a sophisticated system of servers, protected networks and technically savvy activists. It showed that the technology we have come to rely on can be used in ways that many people might disagree with. 

Transparency, no matter how much it is given lip-service by politicians, flies directly in the face of bureaucracy as we have known it for hundreds of years. Usually bureaucracy is controlled by a few and access is tightly restricted. When it protects our social security numbers and medical records we seem to appreciate such restriction. Transparency creates a disruption in the fundamental protective and restrictive nature of institutions. We may applaud the use of technology when it creates revolution in a dictatorship. When it jeopardizes the lives of soldiers, or threatens our collective interest, transparency takes on a dangerous tone.

Technology is proving more powerful than censorship and governments will need to realize this to stay relevant, and in power, in the next 50 years. The human race tends to move in fits and starts culturally. Our technology, however, is skyrocketing with new developments and new possibilities. Governments and other organizations will have to work hard to keep up and stay in control.

The demands of technology will only grow. The transparency movement may continue in ways far beyond our current imagining. If a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization was watching this unfold they would probably view such developments with great interest. They may have already experienced where we are ultimately headed and have an understanding of the dangers along the way.

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