One of the most surpising things I've recently become aware of is how we as technologists are viewed by the non-technology public. We are assumed to be able to do the most remarkable things, which often lead to panic on the part of the general public and, worse yet, policy makers. We should do something about this, but I'm not quite sure what.
I just got back from a fairly interesting workshop, held by the National
Academies, on RFID technology. The workshop brought together people who
were actively working on the technology, people who work on related
technology (since most of the RFID readers will be connected to a network,
they decided to ask me), and a lot of people who are excited about the
technology, either positively or negatively.
One of the more spirited of the discussions at the workshop had to do with
privacy and RFID tags. This was a hot topic, and it was all the workshop
organizers could do to hold it to the one sessions for which it was
scheduled (they did a pretty good job, but it kept leaking out). This is
an important topic (along with privacy in a world of interconnected
computers, databases, and sensors) which will be treated in this report
and others from the National Academies, but not here.
Instead, I'm going to talk about the realization I had in the midst of the
discussion, which was that there is a huge gap between what technology
can do and what people who aren't technologists think it can
do. This can lead to a real disconnect when technologists try to talk to
non-technologists, and often means that there is far more heat than
light in discussions about the directions of technology. And I think
that it is a gap that we, as technologists, need to actively begin to
My favorite example of this is the "RFID Sniper Rifle." An ad for this
appeared recently; supposedly this can shoot an RFID tag with great
accuracy for the distance of a thousand yards, injecting the
tag under the skin of the target with no more pain than that caused by a
mosquito bite. After insertion, the target person can be tracked from
hundreds of yards away so that you will always know where they are. The
ad comes complete with a very slick looking picture of the rifle.
What is depressing is the number of people who take this seriously. The
amount of basic science that this violates is pretty high (insertion
without pain at that distance would take a lot of force, which at
shorter distances would cause a considerable hole to be formed; RFID
tags either have a short range or a battery, etc., etc.). But even when
I've pointed these things out to people, they either answer
Well, you can't do it today, but how about in five/ten/twenty
You may now do it, but I bet they can.
They, it turns out, varies from the federal government to the
local police to MicroSoft/General Motors/favorite-evil-corporation,
depending on the paranoid tendencies of the speaker.
At one level, it is amusing to see what we as technologist are thought
of as being able to do by those who are not familiar with the limits of
technology. Often this is because we are asked the wrong questions when
such discussions come up-- rather than asking us what is now possible,
we are often asked whether or not something might be possible in 10 or
20 years. I can't look into the future that far, but given the kinds of
changes that have occurred over the past 20 years, I'd be hard pressed
to say that something couldn't happen other than,
perhaps, faster than light-speed travel. But that is a very different
question to what I think can be done now, or in the next five years.
All of this would be harmlessly amusing if it weren't for the fact that
there are laws that are being passed based on misunderstandings of the
capabilities of technology. Some of these have to do with digital
rights, others with privacy, and others with spam, viruses, and
worms. Many of these are based on at best incorrect and at worst bizarre
notions of what technology can do. And they will determine what we as
technologists can and can't do in the future.
I'm not sure I know what the solution to this problem is. The usual
thing to call for at this point is more education, but in a country
where it is still controversial to teach the
theory of evolution, I'm
not at all sure that education is going to do much good. Perhaps it is
time for those of us who do understand the technology to be more active
in the formation of policy, although with few exceptions technologists
make really bad politicians. At the least, we should try to correct
those who believe that technology is capable of every and anything, and
make sure that we don't confuse the sorts of things we believe might be
possible some day with the kinds of things that can be done now.
Problem is it's not just outsiders who view us as magicians who are focussed on taking away their privacy and turning them all into mindless automatons doing our every wish without thinking or protesting.
Many people in IT seem to think exactly the same thing, especially where it pertains to large companies like Microsoft or the US government (those seem the favourite boogeymen).
Once a journalist finds out about slashdot he'll therefore have an eternal source of scaremongering right there, and not being one of us (rather than one of the childish slashdotkiddos (c)(tm)(r) patent pending) he may well believe what he reads in the comments there...
> This can lead to a real disconnect when > t when technologists try to talk to > non-technologists, and often means that there is far > is far more heat than > light in discussions about the directions of > ons of technology. And I think > that it is a gap that we, as technologists, need to > eed to actively begin to > start narrowing. ... > At one level, it is amusing to see what we as > we as technologist are thought > of as being able to do by those who are not familiar > miliar with the limits of > technology. Often this is because we are asked the > ed the wrong questions when > such discussions come up-- rather than asking us > ing us what is now possible, > we are often asked whether or not something might be > ght be possible in 10 or > 20 years. I can't look into the future that far, but > r, but given the kinds of > changes that have occurred over the past 20 years, > years, I'd be hard pressed > to say that something <em>couldn't</em> happen other > other than, > perhaps, faster than light-speed travel. But that is > hat is a very different > question to what I think can be done now, or in the > in the next five years.<p>
I'm not too concerned about the gap because, looking back, it seems that legislation and public policy are shaped by two forces that are out of our control: 1) incremental adaptation, and 2) watershed events. In the face of those, I don't think the gap matters.
Incremental adaptation is the acclimation that people make towards new technology. I think that if you pulled someone from the 1970s into the present they would be shocked by the survelliance society we've created for ourselves, but it happened slowly and at each point there was a "pay-off" that led people to think that each little loss of privacy was okay.
The thing that isn't really noticed about incremental adaptation is that it literally changes us. The type of people we are, what we think and what we expect are all subtly affected by technology, whether its the advent of the internet, test-tube babies or the invention of the automobile.
Because incremental adaptation is a force, frankly I think that it is entirely appropriate to pose questions about technology in twenty years because the smaller steps that we take now change us. We don't have the benefit later of seeing things the way that we would today. It's tough to do, but I suspect the scrutiny would be useful.
Watershed events happen when there is some sort of a disaster and new technology is implicated. I don't think there is much that can be done to guard against it. An example of a watershed event is: Three Mile Island. It along with the movie 'China Syndrome' pretty much killed nuclear power. I don't know that closing the gap would've helped with that.
9/11 was another watershed event, and we are dealing with longer term fallout from it now. For instance, look at camera cellphones. To me, that technology seems to be in play right now. Governments are cracking down on photography for security reasons, and companies are cracking down on photography for IP reasons. Taken together, it is hard to see whether camera cellphones will survive as a product. The gap doesn't make much difference for this one either.
It seem that public policy changes runs against a technology only when the downside is disproportionate to its upside or when some big event happens. It seems like the whole process is very organic, and very large. It is hard to see where the gap you mention figures into it.
How could omit the infamous New York Times editorial of Jan. 13, 1920 that excoriated and ridiculed rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard for suggesting the idea that a rocket could not only travel in space, but could even go to the moon?
I encountered something very similar to what Jim is talking about when I wondered out loud what if it would be a good thing for firearms to have their own IPv6 address, and log when and where they were fired. I was roundly criticized by gun ownership advocates as violating multiple amendments to the Constitution.
What I learned from the experience is that some people are pessimistic about technology, but in a specific way. They believe an improvement of technology will by co-opted by a tyrannical government.
Others are pessimistic about technology in another specific way. They believe that the way a criminal might defeat a certain technology is too easy, and that a new technology might only serve to constrain law-abiding citizens. Many objections to more intelligent or talkative firearms are in this category.
So I seemed to have learned that before I shoot my mouth off about some new technology, I should wonder silently, "What am I going to say when someone raises a concern about the technology being used by a tyrannical government?"
I could not agree with you more. There is no denying the gap "between what technology can do and what people who aren't technologists think it can do." I certainly think the gap is a byproduct of Hollywood and the imagination of the non-technologists. My solution to most of the worlds problem also can apply here--Education, (Which you have already proposed). I also believe in the urgency for a solution, on the fact that misunderstood laws are restraining today's technologists without proper reason. The truth of your comment on the immobility of our nation's education system is what disturbs me the most, while its change will take longer than steps towards technologists involving themselves in politics, I still believe it is vital for our education system to evolve to help counter our own destruction. I am aware that it is foolish and naïve to point out problems without means of how to implement a solution, but I come to the rational that simply stating the problem might spark motivation in a greater mind, and that he or she might take it to the next level.