Technology’s Impact Depends on Values

North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear bomb has made Silicon Valley, Calif., leaders even more eager to offer their expertise to help spread freedom and peace. Technology can jumpstart this quest at home and abroad, but not alone. A human element has to be present as well.

Technology is often viewed as an empowering force, and most people in the United States use it to become more productive and efficient. The Internet caused an explosion in communications, creating all sorts of positive effects in open societies like America. In closed societies, however, technology can have a more sinister side.

Vigilante Justice

Just as individuals use technology to reach their goals, so can freedom-hating governments. If a government body wishes to suppress rights like freedom of speech or movement, the evildoers can deploy databases and Internet monitoring software. Recall how China uses software to censor Web postings, discussion boards, and Internet searches. Recall also how American companies have become collaborators in the Chinese crackdown.

If the North Korean nuke created a new urge among tech entrepreneurs to do something in the name of liberty, perhaps they can start with non-compliance to the demands of freedom-stifling regimes. Failing that, backdoors to hack freedom-stifling software could be useful. That type of vigilante justice might be condemned, but the same spirit is currently being put to the test here in America.

In Texas, Republican governor Rick Perry announced a plan to let anyone with Internet access report crime along the Texas-Mexico border by watching feeds from surveillance cameras. The service has yet to be deployed as officials are worried that the system will be vulnerable to crashing due to high demand, but during tests it has already found a stolen pickup truck.

Doing the Right Thing

Another example is a group called American Border Patrol (ABP) located in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The non-profit, non-government organization is backed by businessman Glenn Spencer, who owns three unmanned spy planes ranging in cost from US$12,000 to $21,000. In August this year, ABP helped apprehend a group of offenders trying to illegally cross the border.

“It is a shame that American citizens are forced to do the job that our government refuses to do,” said Spencer. But not everyone who helps fix government failure expresses such pessimism.

Former hacker Kevin Poulsen recently wrote some computer code that helped catch a sex offender on MySpace, leading many to wonder why the police or MySpace officials don’t make the network safer for kids. Poulsen was clearly happy to help catch a bad guy and perhaps stir up a national discussion on better ways to police online communities full of impressionable teens.

“It’s clear that MySpace could do more. It should more diligently employ its technical resources to look for the signs of predation, perhaps automatically scanning the contents of private and public messages between adults and children for sexual content, backed up by a manual inspection,” he wrote.

Technology Only Goes So Far

In a country where free speech is cherished and community action valued, Poulsen and Spencer’s actions invoke respect. If they lived in North Korea or some other such regime, the story would be different. Only in an open society where individuals are free to speak and use their minds to promote basic values is technology empowering.

Technology leaders should use all the tools they can to promote freedom and prosperity throughout the world, but they should remember that the values they help foster may be more important in changing the world than the gadgets they make. In the renewed quest to fight the world’s bullies and secure America, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should consider helping organizations that promote free minds and free markets. They should also practice what they preach.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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