Saturday, February 10, 2007

Technological determinism

There was an article in Wired News on the Seeds of Surveillance. It reported on a symposium on the Fourth Amendment held by the Stanford Technology Law Review. At the symposium, participants asked whether traditional conceptions of constitutional privacy are adequate when modern technology tracks personal information in entirely new ways. You may wish to have a look at the article.

The issue stemmed from the much increased surveillance on members of the public on grounds of prevention of terrorism, and the way that intensive surveillance by closed circuit television cameras infringed on personal privacy. The good-intentioned surveillance has exceeded its original purpose. It even changed the behaviour of the police in that less discretions were exercised. Police were more strict in intervening small civil disturbance owing to the fact that their performance was also being recorded.

The two-edged sword of surveillance is nothing new. Privacy activists have been crying out loud for a long time that uncontrolled surveillance would lead to the 1984 syndrome, unnecessarily infringe too much on privacy, and might lead to a police state. The discussion has now been upgraded to a higher level of the legislative ground. When people were still under the terror of the 911 attack, it would be easy to persuade them to accept a higher level of surveillance on grounds of security. I think the recent London bombing case and its subsequent investigation process gave people a wake up call that the movement of everyone in public places were recorded.

A point in the article that interests me is the notion of technological determinism. It reads: In 1964, Jacques Ellul developed the idea of technological determinism in his book, The Technological Society. Ellul argued that technique, or process, overtakes and dominates human values, and that the logic of technology is such that humans will continually choose to expand its scope, regardless of the effects. Ellul's bleak theory is that once a machine exists, humans will use it, even if that use is not part of the original justification for the machine. In her book Close to the Machine, author Ellen Ullman tells stories of technological determinism in action. Ullman wrote of building a system to improve client care for people with AIDS. The project manager decided to hook it up to other databases to cross-check compliance, funding and other information. She warned that the machine could not keep rounded edges; that its dumb, declarative nature could not comprehend the small, chaotic accommodations to reality which kept human systems running.

If it is deterministic, then all technologies built for surveillance will eventually evolve into a process of surveillance on everything. We may have to pause and consider the consequence. Another view on technological determinism is that it is deterministic for technology to improve and its uses to expand in every possible ways, but that would also mean innovative and creative uses of existing and developing technologies, which is actually the basis of scientific and technological development. On the other hand, privacy is a moral concept which is subject to self reflection and change. With the ever accelerating scientific development, it is possible that technology in advanced form will let everyone know the mind of everyone else, which is the ultimate transparency of all information. By that time, the question of surveillance and privacy will not exist.

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