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The purpose of technology is to make things possible that, without that technology, were previously impossible- or at least more difficult. By itself, the development of new technologies and the improvement of old ones is a morally neutral process. Technologies may solve problems and address wants that previously were unsolved and unaddressed, just as easily as they may cause harms that could not have been caused without their presence. It is simple to say that technological research is good. Since the Industrial Revolution, or earlier, many developed countries have operated under a technocratic ideal of “progress,” where new knowledge is continually developed through scientific research and then applied to better people’s lives through new technologies.
Better medical techniques, faster and wider avenues of communication, increased ease with which goods and people move across the nation- this is progress, and it is good.
Technological progress has been accelerating at an exponential rate for decades, if not longer. In the 21st century, the ability of governments to amend their own laws and regulatory institutions now works noticeably slower than the speed at which new technologies are introduced.
The effects of progress and the social disruptions introduced by new technology appear before they can be constrained by laws, at least for a time.
Employers are violating the law if they question an interviewee about their religious or political beliefs, but the same employer can easily use social media to examine a job applicant and decide in advance to not grant an interview because of those same beliefs.
It would be ruled discriminatory to deny a loan on the basis of the applicant’s race or gender, but that loan might be withheld if a computer algorithm tallies their Facebook friends and determines that the applicant’s connections to less fiscally stable individuals also marks them as unreliable. It simply comes to pass that the algorithm uses the race of those Facebook friends as one of the factors comprising their fiscal stability.
The law has not been able to keep pace with technology’s impacts on society, and the gap between the two will only grow wider as the pace of progress increases. The legal traditions of most Western countries have evolved over centuries, and have done so mostly by responding to legal disputes and problems after the fact. Today, technology is accelerating exponentially, and changes of an enormity that once might have taken centuries can now happen in decades. In the 1400s, the printing press enabled written information to be distributed faster than ever before, increasing literacy and threatening to disrupt political and social hegemonies- but the period known as the Scientific Revolution still wouldn’t occur until at least the mid-1500s.
Compare that to today. Less than twenty years ago, Facebook was a networking and dating site only available to Ivy League students. In 1983, the DynaTAC 8000X cell phone had a battery life of thirty minutes and was easy for people with the technical knowledge to listen in on. The Cray 2 supercomputer, created in 1985, cost 17.5 million dollars, weighed over 5,000 pounds and demanded 200 kilowatts of electricity. Today, over two billion people use Facebook, and the majority do so through smartphones- each of which has more computing power than the Cray 2. Everywhere, technology rushes forward faster and faster- and problems arise faster than the law can evolve.
When Edward Snowden released information on NSA surveillance in 2013 there was a corresponding public outcry, but the extent of that surveillance is, for most American citizens, far less intrusive than the breadth of the data that Google, Apple, and other developers continue to collect. Smartphones actively track movements and daily habits, while internet searches and online communication allow insight into individuals’ thoughts- and this information is freely bought and sold by advertising companies. As wearable devices and medical sensors increase in frequency, health information will become similarly available to advertisers and third parties.
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