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A Society Drunk on Technology (or, A Luddite Commissioner Takes Stock)
By: Frank Work

August 2, 2005

Actually, I am not a Luddite . I do however, get to see a lot of technology and the human applications thereof and it makes me wonder. I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist either, so all of my observations are, well, purely my observations. And that is the whole point of a blog, is it not?

In fact, the point of this entry is “What are the rules?” although sometimes I think it is a case of “Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules.”

We human beings are amazing creatures: clever, inventive, resourceful, endlessly curious about our world and each other. We invent things, find lots of applications for them and then, at some point, say, “Darn, we never thought about that.” We had printing presses long before we had laws on slander and libel or inciting hatred. We had cars before we had traffic laws. We had atomic weapons long before we had disarmament treaties (and even that is still a work in progress). Industries before environmental protection laws. We will always chase technology in that sense.

This is true of the myriad of information technologies now available to us. I saw an article the other day about the City of Winnipeg considering banning cell phones from locker rooms in its facilities, for obvious reasons. And there was another article to the effect that people who drive and talk on cell phones (yes, even hands free) are four times more likely to have an accident. I was at a conference recently. The conference room had wireless access. I counted about one third of the audience had their laptops out during the presentations. Trying not to invade anybody’s privacy, a glance about from my perch at the back of the room told me that none of these laptop users were diligently taking notes on what was being said. My particular ethics are that this is just rude. For others, this is perfectly legitimate “multi-tasking”, that is, doing several things at once (and doing none of them well. Like talking on a cellphone while driving).

What are the rules respecting cell phones, cell phones with cameras, the web (downloading music, copyright), surveillance cameras, RFID chips, databases and so on? Why do we need rules anyway?

Rules (or laws) are ways of humanizing technology. Rules are a way of imposing human values on technology. I think, in the past, we were better able to deal with technical innovation without written rule (laws), because we had unwritten rules, call them customs, ethics, or mores, which we could adapt and apply to technology to make it human. Not only are we now a less homogeneous society in terms of customs and ethics, but the rate of technological change is such that, as a society, we don’t have time to adapt our customs to technology. The rate of take up of new technologies by individuals is much faster than the rate of adaptation by society, it seems.

Some of this technology has very serious implications. Consequently there are significant risks involved in waiting for custom and usage to catch up to and humanize the technology. For example, we have an amazing array of technologies which have surveillance applications: GPS, RFID, high resolution cameras, facial recognition software, keystroke logging software. What is it about these things that needs rules? What harm should we try to prevent through rules? Do these things pose a threat to other things which we value? We have relatively little research on how surveillance affects human behaviour. There were some 6 million surveillance cameras put up in the United Kingdom before the studies came out which said “Oh, these things occasionally help solve crimes, but they do not reduce crime.” Now we are hearing about the merits of biometric national identification cards, which will be absolutely foolproof and all the social ills they will cure. It all looks so good: your financial information online; your health information on an RFID chip implanted in your body; cameras in cellphones. What could possibly go wrong?

Canada has laws, privacy laws. But the limitations of these laws must be understood. It is difficult to legislate technology, whether it is information technology, reproductive technology or something like stem cell research . For one thing, it morphs too fast. For another thing, most technologies have useful applications as well as harmful ones, so outright bans of technologies are not usually an option. (Although, there have been attempts to ban technology, file sharing software like the “old” Napster being a current example). Third, as consumers, we just want these things and we want them now: they are new and sexy and there is a cachet to being the first to have it.

In order to be relevant, flexible and adaptable, privacy laws usually require either consent to collect, use or disclose personal information or the existence of circumstances which make it reasonable to assume that the collection, use or disclosure would be regarded as acceptable by the reasonable person. There is a lot of reasonableness required in these laws. Then a Commissioner or Commission is charged with deciding if something was reasonable.

Reasonableness is a difficult concept, particularly in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. What is a reasonable use of any technology to collect, use or disclose personal information will vary from person to person, depending on many factors, including use and understanding of the particular technology. (Are users of cell phone cameras more tolerant of the taking of pictures, wherever, whenever then non-users?) Then too, the world around us shapes our view of what is reasonable. Public surveillance by security agencies will more likely be seen as reasonable in the wake of terrorist activities, for example.

It is possible to regulate badly. It is possible to make rules based on immediate issues, rules which cause as many problems as they solve in the longer term. The internet is a good example. For at least a decade the internet was the ultimate free market for the exchange of information and ideas. It could be liberating and uniting. It was totally unregulated. Then the problems appeared: spam, viruses and worms; file sharing and breach of copyright; the dissemination of child pornography via the web; the use of the web to further crime, money laundering, terrorism. How should and much should the world wide web be regulated? The same law that prohibits using the web to plot terrorism may prevent me from dissenting against my oppressive government.

We sometimes lack the willingness to think and analyze before we act. In a world where we become impatient if it takes more than a second to download a two thousand page document, where we expect an immediate reply to our email, where we expect someone to answer their cellphone wherever, whenever we call, where we demand instant credit and immediate gratification of our wants, we tend to look for the immediate fix to problems. And, we usually adopt the techno-fix, so strongly do we believe in the power of technology. But the techno-fix, the quick-fix, is not always the best fix: there is, after all, the law of unintended consequences. There is an old Luddite saying: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.”

I believe that we will work our way through these issues, remembering that we are only in the infancy of the Information Age. I am confident that, while these things will change us, they will not destroy us. From what I have seen so far, the trip will be a bumpy one: full of potholes and diversions and detours and cul de sacs. But there will be achievements and success stories. Grand vistas will open up before us. The voyage may be as important as the destination.

To Ian Kerr, thanks for the opportunity to take these thoughts out for a walk.

Frank Work is the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.
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